As our approach to food becomes more and more centered on nutrition and sustainability, we are inevitably going to look into new (and old) ways for filling our dinner plates. When we think of greens, most likely, lettuce, cabbage, and kale come to mind. More adventurous diners might have delved into dandelion greens or stuffed grape leaves. However, very few of us have looked to the most abundant source of leaves: trees.
To be honest, most trees with edible leaves have dubious reputations. Tree leaves, like most wild sources of food, tend to be much more robust in flavor and often tougher in texture. On the positive side, those with leaves that aren’t particular brutal on the taste buds will provide a lot more food per square foot than will Swiss chard or mustard greens (not to say we shouldn’t be growing these, too).
In permaculture, and more so nature, trees are integral to healthy eco-systems. They are perennial plants that provide habitats for animals, supply mulch material for soil (and soil life), prevent erosion, help with moderating temperatures, increase moisture in the atmosphere, and clean the air. In other words, they have a lot of uses, with edible leaves being yet one more viable way to justify planting that forest garden in the backyard.
Many linden trees, those from the genus Tilia, are highly respected suppliers of edible leaves. They go by names like basswood and lime (but not the citrus), and we know them best as lining streets or acting as windbreaks. They have lots of leaves, perfect for providing shade and slowing down winter gusts, which is why they work well for those other tasks, but it’s also why we are talking about them today as a source of food.
The leaves of linden trees are said to taste good, along the lines of salad but with a bit more mucilage in the texture. Nevertheless, those abundant leaves can be eaten throughout the spring, summer, and fall. As with kale and other greens, young leaves are the most tender and pleasing to the pallet, but even mature leaves are edible. Not much is known about the nutritive value of linden leaves, but they are believed to be a good source of anti-oxidants.
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For super food fans, moringa is probably nothing new, but to catch others up on the situation, moringa is lovingly referred to as the “Tree of Life”. Also known as the drumstick tree (due to its shape), it is native to India but is now being used around the world to combat malnutrition. It’s superbly drought-tolerant, fast-growing, and diverse in its uses. Almost every part of the tree is edible, but most people stick to the leaves.
Moringa leaves are packed with nutrition, specifically high levels of iron, protein, calcium, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C, garnering it recognition as nature’s multivitamin. Eaten fresh, the leaves have a nutty spice and can be tossed into salads or soups. Moringa leaves, however, are often dehydrated and pulverized into powder form, and that provides a nutritional boost to just about anything: smoothies, soups, cookies, bread, etc.
Mulberries are very versatile, highly productive trees that grow in a wide-range of climates, and they provide a crazy amount of fruit to enjoy. We don’t find mulberries in stores very much because they don’t transport well, but they are delicious right of the tree, preserved in jams, or frozen/dehydrated for storage. The berries do have a somewhat bad reputation for staining driveways and such, so that’s worth noting.
Less heralded is the fact that mulberry leaves, when young, are also edible. However, the rub with this one is that older leaves have a bit of toxicity that can cause a stomachache. So, look for unrolled leaves. They should be boiled before eaten (to get rid of anything questionable) and they can be dried to add to salads or stuffed as if a grape leaf. Mulberry leaves are thought to help with type 2 diabetes.
Hawthorn trees, common in both the U.S. and Europe, are well-regarded for their medicinal value, particularly with cardiovascular issues. In addition to having leaves, hawthorns have some pretty impressive—you guessed it—thorns, as well as edible berries that are high in pectin, making them a good option for thickening up jams. Additionally, the flowers are used to make medicinal teas and tinctures.
As for the leaves, they are edible and reputed to hold many of the same health-promoting powers of the berries and flowers. By folksy old foragers in England, hawthorn leaves are referred to as “pepper and salt” and commonly tossed into salads. As with most leaves, the young, new leaves — found in spring — are the more agreeable.
By no means has this exhausted the list. Rather, we have just wetted the appetite. Other trees, like spruce and birch, have edible leaves. There are many shrubs to consider, such as katuk (common in Florida), different types of hibiscus, chaya (a superfood used by the Maya), and goji berries. Sassafras, once the oomph behind root beer, was discredited some years ago, save for the gumbo aficionados in Louisiana, but many foragers aren’t afraid of the flavorful leaves. The point is that we have a lot more leaves are our disposal, wherever we are, when we start looking to trees as the source.
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