Edible Plants and Their Benefits

Fewer than 20 species of plants provide us with 90% of our food, yet there are more than 40,000 species of edible plants. While the vast majority of those edible plants come up a little short on taste and nutrition, there are hundreds that are delicious, nutritious and medicinal.

“Not all plants are edible, and some are poisonous, even to the touch,” said Jacob Martin, Mercer Botanic Garden’s greenhouse manager. “But there are plenty of edibles you can eat right off the stem that offer benefits to your health too.”

The edible roselle is a species of hibiscus thought to be native to West Africa. The roselle is known to lower high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improve liver problems, and help fight bacteria. The sweet and tangy leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked on their own or with other leafy vegetables. The seed’s pods are commonly used to make hibiscus tea.

One of Texas’ favorite edible plants is Turk’s cap, a shrub with beautiful red, pink, or white flowers. The marble-size red fruit is edible, having a mealy taste, and is enjoyed by many birds and animals. The flowers provide a sweet nectar beloved by birds, bees, and butterflies.

“Turk’s cap is easy to grow in your own yard,” said Martin. “You can eat the leaves, petals, or entire flower, raw or cooked, and use the flowers to dress up your salad or dinner plate.”

Another underrated edible in our area is Gynura procumbens, sometimes called “longevity spinach.” Its leafy greens are known to have high nutritional and medicinal properties. High in protein,  it is used for the treatment of kidney diseases, hypertension, and more. Gynura can be used in salads, smoothies, stir fries, or made into tea.

“This edible plant is easy to grow as well,” Martin said. “It thrives in sun or shade and even does well in poor soil. The new shoots have the highest concentration of beneficial phytocompounds.”

With its pungent citrus taste, costus ‘tico sunrise,’ a tropical plant featuring a red-orange, cone-like bloom with splashes of pink and yellow, has been known to complement a cocktail. Costus plants can be eaten off the stem and offer health benefits for diabetics, especially costus pictus, commonly known as spiral ginger or insulin plant.

Some of the most common edible plants are herbs, like basil, thyme, rosemary, Mexican oregano, Cuban oregano and Vietnamese mint, used for cooking in kitchens around the world.

Perhaps one of the most popular herbs is the “herb of longevity.” Gotu kola is said to be a medicinal plant that boosts brainpower, heals skin, and improves liver and kidney problems. It is a great herb to grow in wet or moist environments.

“Gotu kola has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries and has been referred to as ‘the fountain of life’,” said Martin.

Other herbs, such as tea tree, lavender, and mint are used to make soaps and shampoos. Rubbing the leaves produces the fragrance.

There are plenty of other flavorful treats that can be incorporated into a variety of dishes for a quick burst of flavor or color. Cooking with edibles is a healthy way to take a salad, meal, sauce, or beverage to the next level.

Although edible plants can be a great addition to any meal, eating plants from the wild can be dangerous. Not all edible plants are leafy greens, and not all leafy greens are edible. Consult an expert before consuming anything from the wild.

 Tips to Growing Edible Plants at Home

  • Fresh greens grow easily in the winter in Texas.
  • Plant cilantro, lettuce, kale, and fresh, leafy greens.
  • Cut the flowers off herbs. If not, they will die.
  • Cover plants when temperatures drop below 30 degrees.
  • Water plants during the winter months.