Country and Gardens: The shrubbery that's good enough to eat

You may be surprised to find that fruits and berries are cropping up on some of your `ornamental' garden treasures. By Ursula Buchan
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The Independent Culture
AT THIS time of year, gardeners' thoughts cannot help but turn to fruit: picking it, storing it, freezing it, bottling it, even possibly eating it. But I wonder how many people realise that there are some `ornamental' shrubs and trees which also produce fruits that we could eat. The number is surprisingly high, running into dozens, and is even higher if `edible' does not necessarily have to mean `palatable'.

You only have to think for a moment of the fruits of Amelanchier (the `snowy mespilus' or `serviceberry'), Berberis (barberry), the Japanese rose, Rosa rugosa, Crataegus (hawthorn), ornamental varieties of Sambucus nigra (common elder), Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen), Arctostaphylos uva- ursi (common bearberry) and, of course, Vaccinium - which is a genus containing, among others, the blueberry, bilberry, whortleberry and cranberry.

It seems to me that we don't generally take enough advantage of this facility and that every garden needs an all-rounder or two, just as badly as the England cricket team does.

There is yet another important family of shrubs, the oleasters or Elaeagnus, some of whose members produce palatable fruits. But I am willing to bet that most people have never tried an Elaeagnus berry (technically, a one- seeded drupe), although these shrubs are common enough in gardens.

The genus consists of both deciduous and evergreen hardy, dense shrubs, which have small, tubular, sweetly-scented flowers (held in the leaf joints), alternate leaves (that is, held alternately on the stem) with distinctive, brownish pin points on the silvery undersides of the leaves, and scales on the young leaf stalks, and, usually, also small, oval fruits.

The best known oleasters are those evergreen sorts with variegated leaves which, it has to be said, seldom flower until quite large. But they have plenty of other virtues. It is possible that you grow one, or more, of the following: E. x ebbingei `Limelight' or `Gilt Edge', or E. pungens `Maculata', `Dicksonii', `Gold Rim', `Variegata' or `Frederici'.

These shrubs, with their large, oval, two-tone, leaves and dense habits, have proved invaluable to garden designers and flower arrangers alike, in particular because the variegation is at its brightest in the winter time. I used to think that this was imaginary, a kind of trick of the light, and just the result of these shrubs having so little other competition, but I do believe now that cold temperatures accentuate the colours, and thus also the differentiation between them. These leaves are either silver or plain green when they first unfold, acquiring variegation as the leaf matures. Because variegation tends to inhibit vigour, these shrubs are quite manageable in size, not rising above 3 metres, and the same in spread, except in the most favoured of gardens. The flowers are borne in autumn, which means that if you are lucky enough to get fruit, it will mature at the most unlikely time of early summer. The parent of `Gilt Edge', E. x ebbingei, has masses of creamy-white flowers in autumn; you may not see them, for they are easily hidden by the glossy-green leaves, but you will smell them from a distance, and wonder what the delicious scent can be. These are followed by orange berries in April which, when ripe, are really rather sweet.

As reliable a fruiter is Elaeagnus macrophylla, an evergreen with the largest leaves in the family, which are green when mature, but silver- white when young. The flowers in autumn are very fragrant, and red fruits appear the following April. It won't be everyone's choice because it can spread by suckers, and is also a little tender, but it has the inestimable virtue of withstanding harsh winds, even when salt-laden, so makes an excellent windbreak or spring-prunable large hedge by the seaside.

A hardier oleaster which is justly popular these days is `Quicksilver', a fast-growing, suckering, deciduous shrub, up to 4 metres tall and across when mature, which has intensely-silver, lance-shaped leaves, and yellow, scented flowers in summer. The expert plantsman and plant hunter, Roy Lancaster, has described `Quicksilver' as "just about the best hardy silver- leaved shrub or small tree for British gardens", which is praise indeed. I grow it in the windiest part of a very windy garden and it does not turn a hair.

All oleasters are tolerant of exposure and are happy in any soil, provided that it is not too thin and chalky. They are best in sun, although the evergreen species will tolerate some shade. Their willingness to be pruned means that their growth can be kept in check, or clipped into a hedge. I wonder how many other garden fruits you can say all that about.