Mama always insisted I eat something green. I think a lot of moms are that way. Frankly, now, some thirty-odd years later, I’m quite thankful to her for teaching me to appreciate a variety of flavors and textures for making sure I stayed on the healthy straight and narrow. As an adult, I don’t find it difficult or disconcerting to try new foods, but in fact, it’s exciting. Eating leaves has certainly been that way for me.
Funny thing, moving from my mother on to my wife, a hardcore vegan (as am I), when frustrated with the state of the world, Emma used to often joke about just living in a tree and eating leaves.
Then, a few years ago, we were farming in the hot and humid tropics, where lettuces and cabbages don’t grow so readily, so we learned to make salads from other plants, namely perennial trees and shrubs. In other words, things were starting to move that direction for her. (Luckily, permaculture has provided us a great state to be in, so we can do more than just eat leaves.)
What the experience did for us is open the door to whole new assortment of salad greens. The great thing about eating the leaves of perennial trees and shrubs is that the supply is so great, a tree’s worth or whole hedge rather than a small herbaceous plant. What’s more is that perennial plants are the permaculture way. We may not all-out reject annual crops—I’ll be honest: I still love a tomato sandwich on potato bread—but we do acknowledge that they are not the way forward, not the focus needed on making more sustainable food systems.
Eating the leaves of trees and shrubs is a great option for transitioning food sources from high-energy annuals to high-yielding perennials.
1. Moringa (the Moringa genus)
This is just a top tree for me in general. It’s fast-growing, drought-resistant, and highly productive. The leaves are small and can be eaten raw, as salad greens or additions to omelets, stir-fries, soups and so on. I can hardly walk by a tree without grabbing a few leaves for snacking. They have a spice reminiscent of mustard greens or rocket, with a bit of nuttiness.
Plus, moringa is renowned for the health benefits it provides. In the garden, it has a deep-tapping root and can work as a chop-and-drop nutrient accumulator. It can be coppiced, grown as a hedge/living fence, or allowed to be a good understory tree. The seeds—as are the roots and stems—are also edible, and they can be used purify water.
2. Mulberry (the Morus family)
Mulberry is another permaculture favorite, mostly because it is also a quicker grower and a big producer, known for its berries rather than leaves. It’s drought-resistant, works in a multitude of climate zones, and can be regularly pruned as chop-and-drop mulch or animal fodder. It’s a great utility plant that has the potential of being a huge tree.
As for the leaves, they are edible but with some restriction. They need to be cooked, and the water can then be discarded for a side dish for greens. The leaves can also be stuffed with a rice and spice mixture in the same fashion as grape leaves. Mulberry leaves has also been used for centuries to make tea.
3. Katuk (Sauropus androgynus)
Katuk, also known as sweet leaf bush, is amongst my favorite greens from trees and shrubs. They have a really nutty/pea flavor and are produced in abundance by the plants. The leaves are also nutrition packed, especially with regards to protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C. Also, the tips of young branches are often eaten, and they are referred to as tropical asparagus.
Katuk is good for wet soils, tolerates a bit of shade (its an understory jungle shrub), and roots well in water. It likes the heat of the tropics but can work in a greenhouse. After being misused as a weight-loss supplement, the perfectly safe food got wrapped up in an unsafe to eat scandal. This was the result of eating katuk in exceedingly rare abundance.
4. Goji (Lycium barbarum)
Goji berries, or wolf berries, are native to China but have recently garnered a lot of attention in the international superfood circles. They have highly nutritious berries with a wallop of antioxidants to fight cancer, as well as high levels of amino acids. Generally, the berries are consumed dried. Goji leaves are also delicious and nutritious, and they can be eaten raw (on the bitter side) or cooked in a broth or a stir-fry.
Goji berries are easy to grow and can even work in containers. The plants prefer a more alkaline soil, and left to their own devices will readily spread, via roots, over an area. They can be trained on a trellis or grown as shrubs. Young plants like moist soil, but once established, they are drought-tolerant.
5. Chaya (the Cnidoscolus family)
This tree is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. I’m reproducing it in abundance by simply breaking off branches and shoving them into the soil to root. Just cut a short bit of branch off, allow the sap a day or two to dry, and stick it in the ground. It’ll take some time, but it will root. Then, the shrubs grow upwards of seven feet and require very little attention to be wildly productive.
This is another highly nutrition choice, reminiscent of spinach, and chaya must be cooked (not in aluminum, which we should be cautious with anyway) as it is toxic raw, not unlike kidney beans, chicken, and potatoes. (No need to be afraid!) They are great in eggs, stews, rice, pizzas, and any way spinach might come.
6. Hibiscus (specifically, Hibiscus acetosella)
There are several members of the hibiscus clan that have edible leaves. I love okra for the veggie, one that I grew up with in gumbos and as deep-fried side dish, but my favorite hibiscus for leaves is the cranberry hibiscus, which has dark red leaves that provide a mildly tart taste, a la cranberries, and provides amazing color to salads. The flowers can also be used to make fancy lemonade.
The plants are easy to grow, and I constantly root clippings in bottles of water to expand the number of plants in the garden. It also self-seeds readily and vigorously. They can reach up to about two meters and will get dense if pruned regularly. They like full sun but can deal with a little shade, prefer slightly acidic soil, and tolerate a little drought.
7. Linden (the Tilia family)
Also referred to as basswood, linden trees have species from the Americas, Europe and Asia. Outside the US, they are often called lime trees, despite not having a close relationship to citrus. They are one of the few large trees with leaves that are not toxic, disgusting, or ridiculously tough. Linden trees are another fast-grower, great for shade and full of flowers.
The leaves of linden trees, especially young ones, are viable substitutes for lettuce in sandwiches and salads. Plus, being a good-sized tree, the abundance of leaves is very encouraging for foragers. Linden flowers can also be used to make medicinal tea for colds, coughs and throat problems.
Feature Image: Mulberry Tree (Courtesy of Vivian Evans)