growing and eating trees with edible leaves
Growing, eating, and developing my relationship with rare tropical fruits and vegetables has been my life's work since 2010. I have come close to eating deadly plants species three times. Once I almost bit into the fruit of the most poisonous plant in the world, the machineel, while collecting fruit in food forest in Homestead, Florida. I was saved by that internal voice that said, "don't eat it unless you are 100% sure you know what it is."
Once, I sat in an emergency room for five hours waiting for my blood to begin coagulating because I thought that I accidentally swallowed a rosary pea that ended up in a mulberry smoothie. On another occasion I learned about poison sumac by almost confusing it with elderberry. The key word here is ALMOST. Learning poisonous plants comes hand in hand with learning about edible plants because all plants exist on a beautiful spectrum of edibility, especially in the tropics. Recently, the memories of my poisonous plant encounters from years ago surfaced in a project that challenged me to confront my fears and employ due diligence so as to not once again come close to poisoning myself.
In June of 2021, the well-known researcher and author, Eric Toensmeier, contacted me about getting involved with his new project writing about trees with edible leaves that are nutritional superfoods. He asked if I would collect the subtropical and tropical plants that are included in the book that he was working on and taste them. I was thrilled to be invited to work on the project, and began researching the list that he sent me. I reached out to contacts at the Edison Ford Estates, the Naples Botanical Garden, and the Fruit and Spice Park, who compared the list to their plant inventories. I had access to about 20 of the species in book. Many of them I had heard of as ornamental plants, but had no idea that they were actually edible. There were six of them that I had known to be edible and had eaten before. I spent the next year collecting and growing out the trees with edible leaves that I had access to. Most of them came from cuttings from the botanical collections. Some of them I found in nurseries being sold as house plants, or from local plant dorks such as the legendary Andy Firk.
Matthew Herman, Tropical Fruit Specialist from the Naples Botanical Garden with Sesbania grandiflora
Debbie Hughes, Director of Horticulture at the Edison Ford Estates with ficus pseudopalma
After the cuttings had been growing for about a year, and the house plants that I had purchased had been in the ground for a while, I found myself hesitating to actually eat them. Instead, I was rereading the draft of the book that Toensmeier had sent me, and sifting through citations to convince myself that I would not, once again, end up in the emergency room awaiting my impending doom. It brought me to confront that primal fear of eating unknown and potentially poisonous plants. That feeling of panic and dread while repeatedly saying ARE YOU SURE I SHOULD EAT THIS????
Some of my trees with edible leaves collection were destroyed in hurricane Ian, which hit us directly in 2022. Some are definitely invasive and have begun taking over my garden. Some taste absolutely terrible. However, there are a small handful of trees with edible leaves from the book that I eat daily, and are absolutely delicious and extremely nutritious. I believe they will shift our understanding of what it means to grow edible greens at home. I can confidently say this project has expanded my understanding of what I thought of as food.
Follow me in these blog posts as I introduce the trees with edible leaves that I collected for this project. Subscribe and follow to learn about the delicious and nutritious species that I recommend for growing at home. Remember, I went through this so that you don't have to. lol
One of the primary designs goals expressed by the client was that it would be low-maintenance. They also explained how they were only living in the house for the winter months, and that it was a vacation house for their family. They were interested in winter flowering trees and plants that would make them feel at home in their tropical environment. As always with landscape designs on Sanibel Island, careful consideration of making sure that 80% of the plants used were native is always a primary goal of the design. This is done by following the City of Sanibel landscape ordinances.
While looking at photos of the house, I was immediately transported to warm walks throughout the beautiful city of Key West. I remembered wild chickens, bright colors at every corner, and friendly smiles from locals. I looked at this house on Sanibel and thought, this is different. This isn't your average Sanibel home. This special architecture needs to be enhanced with nuances that remind us of Key West. It only makes sense to go this route. Clean lines, symmetry, tightly planted near the house with the use of tropical palms and foliage with pops of color, these remind me of that style of landscape design. Lines in the leaves of the palms that mimic the patterns of the facia, the window shutters, and the wrap around porches. Tightly organized to conserve space, but still having a casual, funky feeling.
During the design process, while I was working on the back yard, I envisioned the family watching the sunset on the west-facing back porch. Maybe it was Christmas, or a brisk evening in January. I adjusted the setting on the software so that I would know exactly where the sun would be setting that time of year. This is possible because Structure Studios design software enables geolocation and GIS data, so that I can look at the different angles of the sun and its effect on the design throughout the year and in the specific location of the design. I began sculpting a view that I hoped they would treasure for years to come. Here is a screen shot of that view.
The design outcome was a non-complicated old Florida feel with the refinement of a modern aesthetic, complete with a sunset view over a luxurious private tropical botanical garden. Cheers to the homeowners, and their special times in this place for years to come. This landscape was installed by Ecovision, a sunstainable landscape design and installation company. I frequently collaborate with Ecovision on design projects, and I encourage anyone interested to learn more about their business.
Erica Lynn klopf
I'm one of those people that's an introvert until you bring up plants. I've been completely obsessed with learning about, growing, and tasting edible plants since 2010. This blog is about my journey to understand the tropical home garden and what my role is in it. Its new, so please stay tuned as I learn how to blog and share my experiences.