Landscaping with Edible Natives

One day, early this September, I found myself sweating in the beating sun, attempting to shade the cabbage and broccoli transplants that had just made their way into the garden. These cool weather crops were struggling to adapt to their new home under the Austin sun, so keeping them wet and shaded was important to their success in the coming cooler months.

My mind then wandered to the towering pecan trees I passed under on the way to the garden - I had stared in wonder at their canopies, filled with light green pods, as my bicycle tire skipped over those which nature had wasted to the road below - The pecan trees did not need a shade cloth. They flourished under the Austin sun, and have done so long before European settlers brought their crops across the Atlantic. Although European crops like broccoli and cabbage can be grown in Central Texas, it takes a bit more care than the native edible plants, which have worked to adapt to this landscape for ages.

Season by season we work hard to produce crops with heritages that circumnavigate the globe. I personally believe in this effort, as it helps us refine varietals that work best in our climate, but also because I love the taste of broccoli and cabbage and all the other cultivated vegetables that farmers and gardeners work hard to produce. That being said, sustaining the use (and therefore knowledge) of native edibles is of high merit.

Native plants will inhabit your landscape, following the cycles they have accustomed themselves to, with a much sturdier resolve than many of the plants being introduced. They are also keying you in to a history of a place. Like an heirloom seed is said to tell a story, so does a foodstuff that has been used in this environment by people who needed it to survive. Although we may be eating produce from all over the world to sustain us, there is something memorable about those few treats gathered from the trees right in your own backyard or neighborhood. It is an event you will know to wait for every year, as you watch the seasons turn.

When planning a landscape or contemplating additions to an existing landscape, adding native edible plants is a possibility to ponder, and your options do not end with pecans.

The Mexican Plum is a common landscape plant for reasons which are obvious when you see a tree in full flower, as the tree becomes the support of ample amounts of delicate white flowers, followed by small tart plums, which are most palatable when fully ripened, and can be used to make preserves, which highlights the flavor while boosting the sweetness.

For those who enjoy the treat of a sloppy, golden Eastern persimmon in the fall, then why not try an even messier, and in my opinion, tastier option?

The Texas Persimmon produces a large black fruit, whose juices are used as a black dye. Like the Eastern Persimmon, the fruit should be eaten only when the fruit is overripe and soft. The Texas Persimmon is not as sweet as the Eastern, but still flavorful, as well as extremely drought-tolerant and disease-resistant.

Fruit and nut bearing trees are a treat to have outside your front door, but if you do not like the idea of climbing a tree to reach the ripest fruit, worry not. There are options for native edibles that do not require an orchard ladder or nimble tree-climbing skills.


The Prickly Pear has become the hippest guy in town when it comes to kombucha and downtown cocktail bars, and with good reason. The ripe fruit of this cactus is delicious, especially when sweetened in a beverage. Both the fruit and pads of the Plains Prickly Pear and Cactus apple are edible, nutritious and delicious; however, note that great caution must be taken when harvesting the plant for consumption. The fruit’s large spines must be removed, as well as roasted and peeled. To be safe, harvest with an experienced individual. Personally, I find the taste worth the work.

The final landscaping plant that I would like to highlight is used not for its fruit, but for its stimulating leaves. The Yaupon Holly is a small tree that has become very popular in landscaping around Austin and Central Texas. I was surprised to find out all the great uses of this plant especially since as it was growing throughout my neighborhood! The Yaupon Holly has a long history of use in the South and Southeast United States. The tree’s Latin name, “Ilex vomitoria,” came from its use in Native American ceremony where it was consumed to induce vomiting. Partaking of a cup of tea made from the roasted leaves of Yaupon Holly is comparable to the popular yerba mate, with the added benefit of it being a local product. This tree is the only native plant to North America that contains caffeine. As caffeine is an integral part of many people’s daily lives, it is worth giving a product a try that may quell such a craving without the negative effects of long distance shipping. Luckily, there are companies local to Austin producing Yaupon Holly teas so you can give this local elixir a try before diving into harvesting and roasting the leaves yourself.

Whether you are landscaping a home or foraging your local landscape, there is so much benefit in tasting the fruits of your locality. The research it takes to understand what is native and edible brings you closer to the seasons, the place you hold in the land around you, and historical food-ways. Harvesting your own edibles from the land is a multifaceted action. You are preserving knowledge, but also evolving it into your personal context, and hopefully passing that knowledge on.

Thinking ahead to whichever fall celebrations you may partake in, why not bake a native pecan pie to embellish the dinner? Or a persimmon bread pudding? Experiment, develop your story, and happy harvesting!