In some suburban communities, there is an unfortunate prejudice against any plant that steps out of its ordained place, and attempts to do any work. Neighbors will look askance, and homeowners associations will assess fees as soon as a garden is suspected of any agenda beyond looking pretty, and perhaps entertaining a few bee friends. I take exception to this backward notion, and can assure you that a plant can earn its keep without compromising its beauty in the least. Let me introduce you to the subtle art of edible landscaping.

Culinary pursuits are by no means the only careers in which plants can excel. I’ve grown plants for their medicinal properties, and for their usefulness in coloring fibers and making inks. Plants have attained goals as sinister as assassination by poison, and as lofty as teaching human beings how to talk with gods. If you have the interest, you can learn to use what you grow for literally any purpose you can imagine. For our little chat today, we will stay mostly in the realm of foodstuffs.

Verdant Bounty

It’s not hard to find highly ornamental culinary herbs. Many of them flower in a pretty spectacular fashion. Most sages produce beautiful flowers in blues and purples, or in the case of pineapple sage, brilliant, blood red. The basil family offers varieties in shades of near-black purple. Dark Opal is an excellent example with its ruffled, shiny leaves.

Credit: anneheathen, via Flickr.

Right next door to the herbs are the numerous types of greens that are both beautiful and edible. A favorite green of mine this season is Red Malabar spinach, which has an attractive, tall growing habit, and stems that are a deep, arterial red. Purple kales are hardy in most winters, and full of nutrition. They have an exotic, ruched leaf that would compliment many umbral-toned landscapes.

Beguiling Vines

Scarlet runner beans are vigorous growers, with showy, crimson flowers that attract humming birds to your garden. In most climates this bean will continue to send up shoots and feed you year after year as a perennial. In climates with brutal winters, just trim the above-ground growth, and mulch the plant well to overwinter.

Hyancinth beans are another leguminous choice. They offer sickle-shaped, purple beans and pea-like flowers. As a bonus for the darkling gardener, these delicious beans can also be moderately poisonous if not handled correctly. The toxin is only present in the mature bean and can be cooked out of it, but that little thrill of danger makes your bean curry all the sweeter.

Credit: Aaron Carlson, via Flickr

Fruits of Darkness

Black tomatoes are prized even in the most mainstream garden. There are many heirloom varieties that have broad appeal, such as Paul Robeson and Black Brandywine. However, most of these are only moderately violet in color, and are not suitable to a landscaping project meant to be decorative. For that, I would recommend something like Cosmic Eclipse. With its true black coloring, plus streaks of purple, pink, and green it is lovely enough for any garden. Another gorgeous, dark variety is Indigo Rose. It hangs prettily on the vine like berries, which indeed tomatoes are.

Credit: Blanka Luppová, via Wikimedia

If I could be said to be an evangelist for any fruiting plant, it would have to be for the Black Pearl Pepper. I can think of no blacker leaf. With glossy red and black peppers that bring an almost infernal heat to your cooking, this is the perfect, darkly ravishing resident for your gothy veggie patch.

Credit: Allen Sheffield, via Flickr

Flowers from Garden to Plate

It might be a little on the nose to mention edible flowers here, but I am going be just that audacious. There are so many to consider. Almost all flowers that come from culinary herbs can be eaten as well. Just about every part of the common daylily is delicious, from the stir-fried buds to the crunchy tubers. I personally favor the gorgeous nasturtium, which comes in shades from fiery red to darkest chocolate, and whose leaves add a peppery dose of vitamin C to salads. The flowers are a glorious garnish to any dish, and if you need a real stunner of an appetizer, can be filled with dips, spreads, or thinned soft cheese. You can find plenty of guidance about which flowers can be eaten. Do take care that you make sure you know which ones are safe, of course.

Credit: Recuerdos del arcoiris, via Flickr

I’ve offered just a few suggestions here for comestible additions to your plantings, and now I will leave it to you to consider how to arrange them. My only words of advice are to be bold, don’t fear the neighbors, and put these darkling knockouts front and center. In addition to beautifying your environment, growing your own food is one of the most satisfying and revolutionary things you can do with your time. Get out there and plant your dinner.

Rachel Goldsmith

Rachel Goldsmith

Rachel Goldsmith is a writer, artist, and avid gardener. She likes Victorian horror, has an unhealthy obsession with cats, and knows just enough about graphic design to be dangerous. Her personal motto is: “It's probably more complicated than that.”

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