It hasn’t been until recently that I concerned myself all that much with flowers. It wasn’t that I had any ill feelings toward them. In fact, I always saw them in a positive light, a signal that fruit or vegetables were soon to follow. Sometimes I thought of unproductive species as a piece of the pollination puzzle, something to keep the bees, butterflies, and birds around while the squash blossoms were coming. What I never really worried all that much about was growing flowers, first and foremost, for flowers’ sake.
I have often celebrated certain flowering plants for their other attributes. Hosta, for example, is great because it grows in shade and has edible leaves. Daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) are entirely edible, from tubers to shoots to flowers. Comfrey is a great accumulator, as well as a pollinator and mulch plant. Borage has edible leaves and flowers. Bee balm attracts bees and works in teas. Nasturtium has delicious leaves, seeds, and flowers, and it functions as a great companion plant for the vegetable garden. Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) produce early blooms, have edible flowers, and provide medicinal bark.
To cut a much longer story short, I’ve been a true fan of the edible ornamentals and ornamental edibles, particularly those with flowers. In fact, there are so many out there I scarcely saw the point of growing any other kind of flowers, but I’m starting to change my tune. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been picking up a variety of bulb flowers when I run across a free source. For the most part, these have been clustered in spaces around our place that don’t make much sense for growing food, but the blooms have become something wonderful to watch, something I monitor almost as closely as food-producing plants.
Flower Appreciation 101
I’ve collected several types of non-edible lilies, irises, and daffodils, as well as naked ladies (Amaryllis belladonna) and jack in the pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum). I’ve picked up other stuff, too: asters, snow on the mountain, columbine, daisies, and so on. Watching them each pop up and do their thing has been a daily delight all spring, one that is still continuing. The daffodils have come and gone. Lily of the Valley has paid a visit. The irises and columbine are shining at the moment. Daisies are starting to pop, and asters won’t be blooming until late summer.
There are flowers in the trees as well. Native redbuds and dogwoods this year exploded in blooms along the roadsides and provided over a month’s worth of splendour. Our property is replete with rhododendron and mountain laurel, both poisonous but famed for showy springtime flower displays. The flame azalea is native here, and they’ve just burst out into blooms. A stand of large umbrella magnolias (Magnolia triptela) grow in the middle of our little forest.
Redbud has edibility on its side, daffodils repel burrowing rodents from the roots of fruit trees, and rhododendron and mountain laurel make good firewood. However, to my knowledge, most of this list is fairly toxic and offers little more than flowers in terms of gardening. At least that’s how I used to look at it. Consequently, I’d not have given them much thought beyond crossing them off the list as unnecessary in my little designed ecosystem. Of course, that was beyond foolish.
A Budding Realization
The question is rarely if ever whether a plant can perform multiple functions; rather, it’s whether or not the humans around it can realise those functions. For example, for the last three years, I’ve helped to chop away a forsythia plant that continually encroaches on a historical building. Those of us involved in the fate of this plant have rued the day it ever came to be, noting its lovely early spring blooms and then seemingly drab existence and annual expansion afterwards. This year, my wife Emma finally did a little research, and we learned the flowers and leaves are both edible. That suddenly gave the plant new stature.
All that time, I’d been assuming it was a stupid ornamental, but I was just annoyed that it was so unwieldy from being left to run wild for so long. Now, I see all sorts of attributes. Animals love the habitat it provides. It has great potential as deer-proof living fence (hedge). It’s a highly regarded medicinal plant in traditional Chinese medicine. It provides very early spring blooms to help out the pollinators and, frankly, to brighten up the landscape coming out of the winter. This is to say that it wasn’t until forsythia had the magical trait of edibility that I started viewing it through a new lens, one looking for function rather than begrudging its presumed lack thereof.
In this way, I’m starting to revisit flowers altogether, and I’ve become particularly fond of bulbs and perennials, those usually cultivated for the simple fact of being beautiful flowers. Where I once saw nothing more than a misguided ornamental landscaping folly, I now see real potential. Just like many edible ornamentals are never realised for more than their beauty, so too is there a convincing case for a run-of-the-mill, none-of-this-is-food flower garden, at least when it is pieced into an otherwise productive design.
A Rose Is Still a Rose
When in the right situation, say discussing the invasive horror brought on by multiflora rose, I often like to point out to people that all types of roses actually have edible parts, and that it, in fact, is one of the few species that can make that claim. Rose hips appear regularly in tea, and enterprising gardeners might even include them in jam. Turkish delight, a ridiculously tasty treat, is commonly flavoured with rosewater. Nevertheless, a rose is still a rose, and what most of us use them for is the flower bouquet.
In the US alone, the flower industry produces nearly 35 billion dollars in revenue a year, with the rose accounting for about a third of that. (Unfortunately, only about 1% of those roses are grown in the US.) Just like food, most of the flowers sold in the United States come from other countries, in this case especially Colombia, which provides about 70% of all the flowers sold stateside. In other words, there are a lot of small local growers and farmers market vendors missing out on a quality niche crop: cut flowers.
Shouldn’t we be considering flower miles just as we are food miles? Shouldn’t we be supplying locally, organically grown flowers just as we do specialty crops like asparagus, gourmet mushrooms, bamboo, and culinary herbs? If we can grow a food surplus for income, is there any reason we wouldn’t do the same with flowers? If we can celebrate the diverse market garden for the cash crops it produces, is there any reason those cash crops shouldn’t include inedible flowers?
What I’ve noticed in growing all of these daffodils, irises, lilies, asters, alliums, and so on is that they are virtually maintenance-free perennials, they multiply themselves, and many seem largely resistant to pests, including deer. I’ve literally dug them up from the sides of roads, removed them from gardens so people could plant something new, and transplanted them from areas where they were often mown or weed whacked. Then, I just shoved them in the ground to see if they’d take. Most did. Most have thrived.
Next year, dozens of daffodils and alliums will pop up throughout the newly planted food forest. They are there for pest control, but now there might be another function. Along the roads edge, at the foot of the fedge, oodles of flowers will start popping up in early spring and provide colourful shows all the way into fall, but they could be more than just something to admire as we drive by the property. Irises are planted around the electrical pole, where leached chemicals would ruin food-producing plants. Daylilies are growing at the side of sediment pond.
Our permaculture homestead doesn’t yet include producing food beyond fulfilling our own needs. But, that’s not to say we haven’t thought it might one day include marketable aspects, such as medicinal loose-leaf tea blends, culinary herbs (also cultivated to be “wild” and abundant throughout the property), gourmet mushrooms, and live plants. Now, with perennial flowers on the go, cut flowers might just be another avenue into inadvertently making our property profitable. It would take little-to-no added work for us at this point. That seems like permaculture to me.