8 Shrubs With Nutritious Edible Leaves

Nov 14, 2021 | Natural World, Home & Garden, Nutrition, Vegan Living | 0 comments

Hibiscus Syriacus Has Edible Flowers

Shrubs With Leaves That You Can Eat

We recently had a look at some trees with edible leaves for some high altitude foraging. If you are seeking something a bit closer to the ground, then shrubs might be more to your liking!

Thankfully, there are a wide range of shrubs with edible leaves too, and in this article we will have a look at a few of them. Whether you are going foraging, creating an edible garden, or are interested in survival knowledge, these eight shrubs with edible leaves can provide you with some nutritious greens.

1. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

Also sometimes called Rose of Sharon , Hibiscus syriacus is a deciduous shrub native to Asia. The shrub has the taxonomical name ‘syriacus’ due to it’s collection from Syrian gardens, but it’s true native habitat is southern China. It also grows prolifically in South Korea, where it is the official national flower. It is featured in many South Korean national emblems including banknotes and the seal of the president, and it is even mentioned in the national anthem.

Hibiscus Syriacus Grows Quickly Into A Large Shrub
Hibiscus Syriacus Grows Quickly Into A Large Shrub

The leaves of the Hibiscus syriacus are edible raw, and work well in salads, sandwiches, soups, or even on it’s own for a quick snack. The younger leaves have a more tender texture, where as the mature leaves tend to be a bit tougher. The leaves have a pleasant, mild taste that is reminiscent of lettuce. The leaves are nutritious and a source of vitamin C and antioxidants called anthocyanins. [1] The anthocyanins isolated from Hibiscus leaves have been shown to reduce inflammation and reduce cellular oxidative stress. [2]

Hibiscus is also a good source of plant mucilage, which is a viscous, water-soluble slime-like substance produced by many plants and algae. [3] Plant mucilage is a good source for a thickening agent and can be used in soups and sauces. This mucilage is also the reason that texture of Hibiscus leaves can be a bit slimy when eaten raw.

Not only does Rose of Sharon provide edible leaves, but the flowers and root are also edible too. The flowers and leaves together can be mixed in boiling water to brew the popular drink Hibiscus tea. The unopened flower buds can be eaten and make a good a vegetable. Even the roots of Hibiscus syriacus can be eaten although they are very fibrious in texture and so aren’t tremendously appetising.

Hibiscus Syriacus Has Edible Leaves, Flowers And Roots
Hibiscus Syriacus Has Edible Leaves, Flowers And Roots

Edible leaves, flowers, and roots? The shrub sounds like a dream come true! Not so fast! Hibiscus syriacus has a dark secret that can turn this dream shrub in to a nightmare.

In certain growing conditions, Hibiscus syriacus can become extremely invasive. The standard shrub self-sows seed very freely, and gardeners across the world have put countless hours in to pulling up the seedlings Hibiscus syriacus produces.

Thankfully, cultivar selections have been bred to try and deal with this seedling menace. There are a few named cultivars that vastly reduce, if not eliminate the issue. The best Rose of Sharon cultivars that don’t self seed freely are:

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Aphrodite’ (Pink Flowers)

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diana’ (White Flowers)

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Helene’ (White & Purple Flowers)

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Minerva’ (Pink Flowers)

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Sugar Tip’ Gold (Double Purple Flowers & Variegated Leaves)

These options can provide a better way to grow Hibiscus syriacus, as these options are all either sterile or have vastly reduced seed production.

The shape of the double flowers on ‘Sugar Tip’ Gold help to prevent pollination, and therefore reduce seed production. Ordinarily, double flowers are considered a negative due to this trait, as insects and bees are unable to properly access the flowers. In the case of Hibiscus syriacus, it’s probably for the best!

Pick one of these cultivars, and you will have a reliable, easy-to-grow source of edible leaves.

Hardiness: -12°c

2. Goji (Lycium barbarum)

Lycium Barbarum is better known as Goji. Goji is a fast growing, thorny branched shrub that can grow up to 10ft tall. It is native to China, and grows well in warm climates. Depending on the climate and region, Lycium barbarum may lose it’s leaves in a cold winter, but can retain it’s leaves all winter in warm regions.

Goji has become a famous species in recent years for it’s berries. Goji berries are packed full of nutritional value, and have been hailed as a superfood in recent years.

Lycium Barbarum Has Edible Leaves And Berries
Goji Has Edible Leaves But Is More Famous For It’s Berries

Amazingly, this shrub has even more to give. Lycium barbarum also offers edible leaves as an addition to the fruit, and although they regarded by many to be bitter in taste, they have been widely used as a tea, vegetable, and herb in China and Southeast Asia for centuries. The leaves can be boiled up and added to a meal as seen in this video from Plant Abundance.

Goji leaves contain calcium, phosphorus, iron, beta-carotene, Vitamin B12, nicotinic acid Vitamin C, and many amino acids. [4]

Goji leaves have shown potential as a medicinal herb rather than simply being a mundane food source. Compounds in Goji leaves has been found to have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antimutagenic activity. [5] Extracts from Lycium barbarum leaves have also been shown to alleviate type 2 diabetes in rats. [6]

Goji Leaves Are Best Cooked Before Consumption
Goji Leaves Contain A Wide Variety Of Biologically Active Compounds

If you were thinking that all of this sounds too good to be true, you would be right! Goji has a much darker side you should be aware of before preparing the family a Goji themed dinner.

A member of the nightshade family, Goji leaves also contain low levels of Atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. These three chemicals are toxic to humans, and therefore it is advised to avoid consuming large amounts of Goji leaves. Eating large quantities of Goji leaves can cause “headaches, abdominal pain, dilated pupils, vomiting, diarrhoea, circulatory and respiratory depression, and loss of sensation.” [7]

These risks are more prominent when eating the raw leaves, as the cooking process acts to break down and neutralize these chemicals. It is good practice to cook Goji leaves for at least 15-20 minutes.

Another issue is that growing Lycium barbarum is not always plain sailing. The sharp spines combined with the sprawling nature of the plant mean it can be difficult to manage. In some regions, it thrives to the point that it spreads rapidly and becomes invasive. Be sure to check if this applies to your region before thinking about growing Goji.

Can you eat Goji leaves? Goji leaves are edible, and can be used in a variety of dishes once properly cooked. Nevertheless, it would be best practice to avoid eating large quantities in one sitting. Due to the nature some of the compounds in the leaves, individuals with any liver issues may be better to avoid eating these leaves.

Hardiness: -20°c

3. Mediterranean Saltbush (Atriplex halimus)

The name Saltbush corresponds to the genus ‘Atriplex’, of which there are over two hundred species. Many of these species have edible leaves, but here we will discuss The Mediterranean Saltbush.

The Mediterranean Saltbush Is A Sprawling Horizontal Species
The Mediterranean Saltbush Is A Sprawling Horizontal Species

The Mediterranean Saltbush is a sprawling, semi-evergreen shrub. It can grow to about 6ft tall, and is often found growing in by the sea and in salt marshes. Salt is can be damaging to many plant species, but the Saltbush is a halophyte, meaning it grows in conditions of high salinity.

As the name suggests, the Mediterranean Saltbush is native to the Mediterranean basin. In truth, it’s native range is very large, covering north eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula as well. Atriplex halimus is tolerant of drought, salt laden sea winds, and can grow in very poor soils. The ability for this shrub to repair damaged and poor soils has made it an often used option when redeveloping barren areas. [8]

The large native growing range and edible leaves of the saltbush has given it a spotlight in the human story, including a mention in the Hebrew bible. The shrub is considered to be the plant mentioned in Job 30:4, where the leaves were used as a food source for the builders of The Second Temple in Jerusalem, 352 BC.

There has been a long history of human consumption of the saltbush, and the leaves can be eaten raw, added in a mixed salad, or cooked in a similar way to spinach. The leaves are a source of proteins, carbohydrates, antioxidants. [9]

The taste of the leaves lives up to the name, and they have a pleasant salty taste. Interestingly, this salty taste is present regardless of whether or not the plant is grown near a saltwater source.

As a semi-evergreen, the Mediterranean Saltbush can still function as a food source even in winter. Hardy down to about -10c, the saltbush retains its’ leaves in mild winters, and both the young and mature leaves are edible. However, animals, birds and livestock also enjoy snacking on the edible leaves of this shrub. There are accounts online of people having the branches on their shrubs picked bare by hungry wildlife, so keep an eye out for that!

The Edible Leaves Of The Mediterranean Saltbush Have A Pleasant Salty Taste And Can Be Eaten Raw
The Leaves Of The Saltbush Taste Salty Regardless Of Where The Shrub Is Grown

The leaves of the saltbush are very safe to eat in most circumstances, but there is a potential issue to be aware of. Plants of the Atriplex genus are phytoextractors. This means that they are capable of taking substances from the soil and absorbing them in to the plant. One of the practical uses of growing this plant is to repair areas of soil contaminated by heavy metals. [10]

This means that Atriplex halimus can carry chemicals from the soil in to it’s leaves. Research conducted on Atriplex lentiformis in the USA found that leaf material of the shrub accumulates selenium from the soil it is growing in. [11]

This effect also applies to chemical fertilisers. If the surrounding ground around the plant has been treated with chemical nitrate fertilisers, these compounds can work their way through the roots and in to the leaves.

Therefore if you know that the area near the shrub has been fertilized or treated, do not risk eating the leaves. This would essentially be a way of eating a small amount of lawn fertilizer, which doesn’t sound like a great prospect.

If grown in soil that is free from contamination, then the Mediterranean Saltbush can provide a fantastic source of edible leaves throughout the year.

Hardiness: -10°c

4. Chaya (Cnidoscolus chayamansa)

Cnidoscolus chayamansa, also called Chaya, is an exotic looking shrub capable of growing up to around 8-10ft tall. It is a native of southern Mexico and Central America, and is believed to have been grown as a food source by the Mayans. This shrub has many different colloquial names, including Chaya, Tree Spinach, Tread Softly, Mayan Spinach, and Cabbage Star.

Cnidoscolus Aconitifolius Has Edible Leaves
The Deep-Lobed Variety Of Chaya: Cnidoscolus aconitifolius

Before we discuss further, there are a few important warnings about this plant:

Never eat Cnidoscolus leaves raw. The leaves contain toxic hydrocyanic glycosides (cyanide), and around 15-20 minutes of boiling is required to denature and neutralize these compounds. Boiling the leaves will break down the toxic compounds, which are released as a harmless gas during the boiling process. [12]

Do not cook or store Cnidoscolus leaves in aluminium containers, as this causes a toxic chemical reaction.

Chaya Leaves Can Have Small Stinging Hairs That Can Cause A Painful Reaction If Touched With Bare Skin

Cnidoscolus is a member of the Euphorbiaceae (Euphorbia) family. Members of this botanical family have a toxic milky white sap in the stems which can cause burns to skin and tissue irritation. Take care around this sap, and avoid direct contact with skin, eyes, or mouth.

If these precautions are followed, then Chaya leaves are safe to be eaten and enjoyed by humans. There are many food sources that are staple foods in our diets that require cooking before eating (such as potatoes), so don’t be too discouraged by this requirement! Take care handling the plant and wear good quality gloves when pruning.

Cnidoscolus Chayamansa Has Edible Leaves
The Maple Leaf Form Chaya: Cnidoscolus chayamansa

Once cooked, Chaya leaves are not only delicious, but also highly nutritious too! The cooked leaves are great source of protein, calcium, iron, potassium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C. [12]

The nutritional value of the cooked leaves is so high, that scientific analysis has shown them to have superior nutritive value to other leafy green vegetables such as spinach, amaranth, Chinese cabbage, and lettuce! [13]

Chaya leaves provide a great option for a cooked green. Both the new and old leaves can be eaten, with the young shoots having a softer texture. The name sometimes given to this shrub, ‘Tree Spinach’ gives a clue as to what the leaves taste like. Indeed, the leaves have a taste that is very similar to spinach, and the cooking process is also almost the same.

Clearly, Chaya is a fantastic food source for edible leaves. Let’s briefly discuss how to identify Chaya. When classifying Chaya plants, it can be easy to get a bit confused.

There are two distinct varieties of Chaya, with a distinctively different leaf shape. Currently, both are classified as Cnidoscolus aconitifolius, with a cultivar group for the maple leaf variety called Cnidoscolus chayamansa. The difference in leaf between the varieties is so large that some botanists have suggested that they may actually be two distinct species. Indeed, the naming convention behaves as if this were the case, even if it is not officially recognised as such yet.

If botanical classification isn’t your idea of a good Saturday night, fear not. The key difference you need to know is that there is:

Deep-Lobed Chaya: A wild, ornamental variety with more tendency for the stinging hairs on the leaves.

Maple-Leaf Chaya: A choice selection for vegetable growing, tends to have less of a tendency to develop the stinging hairs.

There Are Two Different Varieties Of Chaya But Both Have Edible Leaves
A Diagram Showing The Two Varieties Of Chaya From TheSurvivalGardener [14]

If you are designing an edible garden and are seeking to have the best cultivar for human consumption, it is generally accepted that the maple leaf variety is the more desirable option. This is the variety that is spoken of when we say ‘Cnidoscolus chayamansa’. You may sometimes see this variety offered as ‘Spineless Chaya’. The deep lobed variety also has edible leaves, but is seen as more of an ornamental option due to its’ dramatic foliage, and its’ tendency to produce stinging hairs.

Chaya is a relatively tender, sun loving shrub. It does not enjoy deep shade or cold winters. If you live in a warm climate, Chaya is a fast growing shrub that provides a fantastic option for the permaculture garden, or for foragers seeking edible leaves.

Hardiness: -4°c

5. Katuk (Sauropus androgynus)

Sauropus androgynus is a tropical evergreen shrub capable of growing up to 9ft tall. Katuk (pronounced Ka-took) is also sometimes also called Star Gooseberry, and Sweet Leaf. It is one of the most popular leafy vegetables in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Katuk Is A Tropical Evergreen Shrub With Edible Leaves
Katuk Is A Tropical Evergreen Shrub With Edible Leaves

Thought to be originally native to Borneo, Katuk is grown throughout Southeast Asia, including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines. It is also cultivated in Japan and China where its’ edible leaves are a valued vegetable crop. It also grows well in Florida, USA, where it is grown as a perennial vegetable in permaculture gardens.

As with Chaya, do not eat these leaves raw. Whilst many Asian communities traditionally do eat raw Katuk leaves, new research has indicated that it could be dangerous to do so. The leaves contain an alkaloid called Papaverine that is toxic in large doses. [15]

In both 1995 and 2005, a weight loss fad caused outbreaks of poisoning associated with this plant from overconsumption of Katuk in the form of uncooked, juiced leaf matter. Cases of Bronchiolitis Obliterans have been reported from ingesting raw Katuk leaf matter.

“Studies have firmly established the association between excessive consumption of the uncooked S. androgynus juice over a period of time and the occurrence of bronchiolitis obliterans.”

Journal of Ethnopharmacology – Volume 25715 July 2020, 112778 [16]

Laboratory analysis has shown that 100 grams of fresh Katuk leaves contains 580 milligrams of Papaverine. Papaverine is a bioactive compound that is prescribed as an antispasmodic drug in some countries, and prescribed doses usually start around 200mg. [17] This dose suggests that the 580mg of Papaverine per 100 grams of Katuk leaf matter is actually quite a high amount. Excessive consumption of Katuk can cause dizziness, drowsiness, and constipation.

Katuk Is Grown In Many Different Countries For Its' Nutritious Edible Leaves
Katuk Is Grown In Many Different Countries For Its’ Nutritious Edible Leaves

It is thought that excessive and regular consumption of Papaverine damages the small blood vessels in the lungs, leading to severe lung damage. Furthermore, the leaves may have other compounds in them that contribute to the reported adverse reactions, but a more thorough analysis is required to isolate the particular chemicals. This may sound frightening, but when you consider that plants don’t actually want to be eaten, and have to defend themselves from all manner of animals, it makes sense for plants to have compounds in them that are potentially dangerous to those seeking to eat them.

Thankfully, it is believed that 15-20 minutes of boiling the leaves breaks down the Papaverine, and potentially any other toxic compounds the leaves may contain. Food science professor Bradley Bolling of University of Wisconsin-Madison has stated that the toxicity of the leaves seems to be “inactivated by heat or cooking.” [17]

The boiled leaves of Katuk make a great and nutritious food source. The leaves are a source of protein, fibre, calcium and vitamin C. In some parts of Southeast Asia, Katuk is known as ‘Multigreen’ due to its high vitamin and nutrient content. It is often consumed stir-fried, used in curry, or cooked in soups. [18]

Harvested Katuk Leaves Should Be Cooked Before Consumption
Harvested Katuk Leaves Should Be Cooked Before Consumption

Katuk leaves have been used traditionally by some mothers to increase lactation, and indeed, compounds in the leaves of Katuk seem to encourage lactation. [19]

Katuk is tropical a shrub with edible leaves, but if you are going to snack on this shrub, be sure to cook the leaves, and keep the serving size sensible. It would also be wise to avoid eating Katuk leaves every single day. If you have a history of lung issues or have a predisposition to breathing difficulties, it would be safest to avoid eating Katuk until more research has been done on it’s bioactive profile.

Oh and of course, absolutely never consume juiced Katuk weight loss supplements. It’s incomprehensible how the fad has managed to caused a poisoning outbreak on two separate occasions, given the results of the first one. Let’s not let it happen ever again!

Hardiness: 5°c

6. Angelica Tree (Aralia spp.)

Aralia is a genus of small, fast growing, thorny shrubs/small trees. Some old Aralias can be found as a small, flat headed tree, but they have a tendency to sprout new shoots from the base, and so often grow as large shrubs.

Aralia Elata Has Leaves You Can Eat
Aralia Elata ‘Variegata’ Is Often Grown As An Ornamental

Sometimes called the Angelica tree, trees of this genus also has the rather disparaging nickname ‘Devils’ Walking Stick’ due to it’s aggressive and large thorns that grow on the branches. If you can look past this unwelcoming defence mechanism, Aralia is a source of edible leaves and it provides gorgeous pinnate foliage.

Aralia elata is an Asiatic species of Aralia native to Japan, China, Korea, and Eastern Russia. It is a small deciduous tree, and has been cultivated by botanists for it’s elegant appearance and ease of growth. It grows easily in a variety of soils, and has naturalised itself in the United States, where it is considered an invasive species in some states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire. [20]

The United States has a native Aralia species called Aralia spinosa, which is very similar in appearance to Aralia elata. The two are easily confused to the untrained eye. Fortunately, in terms of their edible leaves, the process for preparing the leaves for eating is much the same for both species.

The young shoots of Aralia eleta are the edible part, and it is important to pick the shoots when they are new, before the spines emerge. In the northern hemisphere the best time period to pick these these soft, fragrant shoots is from around April to early May. [21]

The Edible Leaves Of Aralia Elata
The New Growth Of Aralia Elata Is Best Taken Before The Sharp Spines Emerge

Aralia leaves have traditionally been eaten in Asia for hundreds of years, and the new leaf sprouts are high in nutritional value. Aralia leaves have been found to be a source of proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, calcium, magnesium, zinc and quercetin. [22] The shoots are also rich in vitamin C, E, and B6, as well as in folic acid and iron. [23]

In Korea, there is such a tradition of eating Aralia elata that there is a specific name for the young shoots, which are called ‘Dureup’. There are many dishes using the leaves, and a variety of ways to prepare them.

The shoots can be blanched (Dureup-sukhoe), pan-fried (Dureup-jeon), used as a seasoned vegetable (Namul), and is sometimes deep fried using a traditional Korean cooking technique called Bugak. In nearby Japan, the shoots are called ‘tara-no-me’ and are often served battered and deep fried in traditional Japanese tempura batter.

If you wanted to cook Aralia leaves in a way that best preserves the nutritional value, a study has been conducted on how the different methods of cooking effect Aralia leaves’ nutritional content. [24]

“Our results clearly show that boiling benefits the amino acid contents compared with the raw, steamed or stir-fried buds of Aralia elata. In addition, mineral contents can be increased by steaming. However, stir-frying can cause significant losses in amino acids and minerals. Therefore, stir-frying is not an appropriate cooking method for retaining the nutrients of Aralia elata buds compared with the other two cooking methods and is not recommended for cooking buds suitable for human consumption.”

Jixiang Lin, Mingming Qi, Xiaoyuan Peng, Na Guo & Xiufeng Yan (2018) [23]

Regardless of how you have your Aralia buds, these edible leaves provide a rich source of nutrients. The beneficial properties of Aralia leaves mean that they are not considered to simply be food in Asia. Aralia elata has also traditionally been used in “Chinese, Korean, and Japanese traditional medicine. [25]

However, the contemporary applications of Aralia in official medicine result primarily from a large number of pharmacological and clinical investigations carried out in the former USSR in the mid-20th century.”

Aralia leaves have a reported effect of lowering stress, and extracts of Aralia elata saponins have shown anti-inflammatory, cell protective action. [26]

Aralias Have Long Sharp Thorns For Defence
Aralias Have Long Sharp Thorns For Defence

There are a few safety considerations you should be aware of before experimenting with Aralia. Firstly, as we have mentioned, the branches of this tree are sharp and thorny. Wear protective clothing such as gloves, and take care when handling the tree and it’s branches.

Aralia trees contain a cytotoxic protein called Aralin. This compound can cause skin irritation when handling the bark and roots. This compound is also present in the unripe berries [27], which shouldn’t be eaten.

Birds and wildlife meanwhile, have no issues with the berries, and through eating them and spreading seeds, Aralia elata can be invasive in some settings. Those in the United States could try experimenting with the native Aralia spinosa if growing in a garden.

Hardiness: -15°c (Aralia elata)

7. African Bitter Leaf (Gymnanthemum amygdalinum)

Previously classified as Vernonia amygdalina, the African Bitter Leaf is a fast growing shrub that can reach up to 20ft tall. African Bitter Leaf is almost unheard of in the Western world, however it is a widely used food source in Western and Central Africa. It functions as a versatile and nutritious food source and has a long history of culinary use in African cultures. [28]

African Bitter Leaf Is A Fast Growing Shrub Native To Many African Countries
African Bitter Leaf Is A Fast Growing Shrub Native To Many African Countries

Gymnanthemum amygdalinum is a fast, strong growing shrub that has a wide variety of practical uses for African communities. It has edible leaves, it is sometimes grown as a fast growing hedge, the dry branches are used as wood-fuel. The wood is termite resistant (a good quality for wood to have in Africa), and so branches are sometimes found staked in to the ground as a fence to line fields. Locals even use the young twigs as toothpicks, and these twigs have been shown to contain compounds that fight bacteria strains that can cause gum disease. [29]

Goats and livestock also enjoy browsing the leaves, providing a good fodder source.

As the name suggests, the leaves of Gymnanthemum amygdalinum do have a bitter taste. Whilst this may be an undesirable trait to some European or American tastebuds, in West Africa and especially in Benin, bitter taste is more tolerated and even appreciated. [30] Despite this, there are cultivars that have been selectively bred to produce forms with leaves that are less bitter, and many find these more palatable than the standard form. [31]

There are also a vast number of different ways that the leaves can be prepared and eaten, and the leaves can be eaten raw, used in stews, or used in a soup such as Ofe Onugbu. The leaves can even be used to brew a tea, or juiced to provide a healthy and nutritious drink.

Gymnanthemum Amygdalinum Has Many Uses Including Making An Effective Hedge
Gymnanthemum Amygdalinum Can Be Grown As A Hedge

In Cameroon, raw leaves are mixed with salt and palm oil to create a quick and nutritious snack. Cameroon is also home to a traditional meal called ‘Ndole’, which uses processed leaves mixed with peanuts, which is then served with meat or prawns.

In Nigeria, it is common to see African Bitter Leaf processed for markets by parboiling shredded leaves. The result is a small ball of processed leaf matter that is ready for use in cooking.

The leaves are nutritious and are a source of fats, proteins, fibre, minerals, amino acids, carbohydrates, and vitamins [32]. The leaves are also a good source of antioxidants, and could even provide an anti-inflammatory action. [33] [34]

Traditional and folk medicine practices in Africa have used the plant for a wide variety of ailments over the years. The plant merits further study to decipher if the plant could offer uses in Western medicine, especially as studies of the chemical composition of the plant have found it to be safe to consume and non toxic. [35]

The bitterness in the leaves is caused by sesquiterpene lactones and steroid glucosides. Some of these compounds have significant antiparasitic activity, especially vernodalin and vernonioside B1. This is backed up by the fact that Chimpanzees seek out and ingest the bitter pith of the plant to fight intestinal nematode infections. [29]

Bitter Leaf Has Been Used In African Traditional Medicine For Many Years
Bitter Leaf Has Been Used In African Traditional Medicine For Many Years

One issue that may stop African Bitter Leaf reaching your plate is that the shrub requires a warm climate to survive. It does not tolerate freezing, and requires a nice sunny position to grow to it’s full potential. It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range 20 – 26°c, but can also grow in regions with a wider range of around 16 – 35°c. [36]

Soups, stews, raw edible leaves, fence posts, toothpicks, hedges, and even medicinal value. Truly, Gymnanthemum amygdalinum, is an amazing one-stop-shop for all your foraging and permaculture needs. There is a reason it’s loved by humans, goats, and chimpanzees alike!

Hardiness: 7°c

8. Yellowhorn (Xanthoceras sorbifolium)

Last but certainly not least, Yellowhorn is a large, graceful deciduous shrub native to Northern China and Mongolia. This plant is also sometimes called Bunge, named after a German botanist of the same name in 1833. The genus name looks a mouthful but is pronounced ‘Zan-tho-ker-as‘, which directly translates to ‘Yellowhorn’ in Enlgish.

In taxonomy, ‘Xantho’ is a prefix meaning ‘yellow’, whilst ‘Keras’ means horn. The plant is named this due to the yellow, horn like structures found inbetween the petals. Xanthoceras sorbifolium is the only plant in the Xanthoceras genus, and has somewhat of a limited range in it’s natural habitat.

Yellowhorn Is A Graceful Shrub With A Huge Variety Of Uses
Yellowhorn Is A Graceful Shrub With A Huge Variety Of Uses

Yellowhorn is a foragers dream, and offers edible leaves, flowers, and seeds, all from the same shrub! Thanks to its’ extensive root system, Yellowhorn is also drought tolerant once established. The plant does not like strong winds or highly exposed sites, but can withstand freezing cold temperatures down to around -30°c.

The leaves are usually cooked before being eaten, and have high protein content. The leaves can also be used to brew a tea that lowers blood pressure. It is thought to protect cardiovascular and cerebrovascular vessels. [37]

Yellowhorn has been used for many years in traditional Chinese and Mongolian medicine. Around 48 flavanoids have been isolated from Yellowhorn, with quercetin and myricetin being two of the main aglycons. [38]

The Centre Colour Of Yellowhorn Flowers Changes To Communicate The Pressence Of Nectar To Insects
The Colour Of Yellowhorn Flowers Communicates Nectar Presence To Pollinators

In the Spring, around May to June, Yellowhorn will produce a dramatic flower display. These flowers can also be cooked and eaten. Amazingly, these flowers seem to communicate visually with pollinators. The central part of the flower will change from yellow to red after visitation from insects, and have consumed the nectar within. Pollinators show a preference for yellow flowers over the red ones, and the colour seems to reveal which flowers are still unvisited and full of nectar.

In Autumn, from September to October, the seeds of Yellowhorn will ripen, and produce another food source. The fruits can be opened up to reveal dark brown, pea sized seeds. Once boiled, these seeds have a sweet flavour resembling Macadamia nuts. Indeed, one of the nicknames given to this plant is Northern Macadamia.

The seeds are a source of essential omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids in the form of linoleic acid and oleic acid. [39], and in vitro studies have even reported that saponins from the nutshell have a higher free radical scavenging capacity than vitamin C! [40] Furthermore, the seed husks are a source of phenolic acids, which have an antioxidant effect.

The Edible Seeds Of Yellowhorn Are About The Size Of Peas
The Edible Seeds Of Yellowhorn Are About The Size Of Peas

The seeds are a delicious snack when fried, and are sometimes juiced to create a nutritous and tasty drink. [41]

Yellowhorn is a slow grower, but will eventually reach a maximum height of around 20ft. It seeds freely, and the seeds germinate easily, and some specimens provide suckers from the base of the plant. This shrub is therefore a good option to impress your gardening friends with, and show everyone how green your thumbs are.

With all these amazing attributes, may be surprised to learn that this shrub is still relatively rare in cultivation. Perhaps due to it’s limited natural range, or perhaps due to it’s name, for some reason this shrub hasn’t yet caught the attention of the average gardener. This is strange, as the plant has even received the RHS Award Of Golden Merit.

Yellowhorn may begin to become more popular in years to come, when the numerous benefits of this shrub become more widely known. There is also growing excitement about Yellowhorn as a great source of biofuel, [42] which could see this shrub catapulted in to the spotlight as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

Yellowhorn is a great source of edible leaves, nuts, and flowers, and is a great option for the forager or permaculture garden. Give this plant a place in your garden and it can reward you with visual beauty, food, numerous saplings, and even biofuel if you need it. It’s a shrub we hope and expect to see a lot more of in the future.

Hardiness: -34°c


If you are planning a permaculture garden, or are out foraging, be sure to keep an eye out on these species. Many of the species listed here can be easily grown, and depending on your region, they may grow naturally in your area already.

If you are out foraging for some edible leaves, make sure you are not on someones’ private land, as they may not be best impressed seeing a human eating their trees! Many landowners agree to allow foraging if you get in contact with them beforehand, or offer them a portion of your finds.

It’s also a good idea to start with a small portion when trying new food source that you haven’t eaten before. This is to be safe, and to minimise any potential allergic reaction. Similarly, make sure you have correctly identified the species before consuming. It’s always a good idea to be sure of what you are eating!

Although some of the leaves on display here have reported medicinal properties, it is always advised that you speak to your healthcare professional to discuss if it would be right for you. Using plants medicinally should always be done under the care of a clinician, and not as a result of self-diagnosis.

Finally, make sure you always wash any leaves well with clean water before consuming!

See Also: If you enjoyed this article and want to learn about even more plants with edible leaves, you may want to click here to view our article about trees with edible leaves.


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Written by Keymer Health

November 14, 2021

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