Article: 70+ Favourite Plants for Edible Forest Gardens in Ontario & Québec (Hardiness Zones 4b & 5a)

This article has been updated from “55+ Favourite Plants.”  New plants and comments have been added based on observations from our site and other edible forest garden projects.

A colleague asked me about my top plants for perennial polycultures in our region (hardiness zones 4b/5a in Ontario and Québec).  This is also a popular question on our garden tours and in our classes!   Here's my list, roughly in order of preference...

You can download the plant list (in a spreadsheet format) as a pdf file.

If you're wondering how this comes together in practice, please check out: our Edible Forest Garden Course; A Community Food Forest for Sudbury video; and My Edible Forest Garden Year article.

 

Favourite plants for moderate site conditions (sun to part sun; sandy clay to sand clay loam):

  • apple (Malus domestica) – tree; edible fruit, good for winter storage (however, can be prone to fire blight)
  • plum “Toka” (Prunus salicina “Toka”) – tree; edible fruit (ours fruited in 3 years)
  • basswood (Tilia americana) – tree; edible young leaves for salads; flowers for tea; apparently coppices well
  • red and white currants (Ribes rubrum or R. sylvestre) – shrub; edible fruit (these were our fastest shrub to establish and are our most abundant fruit)
  • haskap (Lonicera caerulea) – shrub; edible fruit (use row-cover or net to protect fruit from birds)
  • elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – large shrub; edible flowers and fruit for cooking and medicine
  • perennial onions (Allium fistulosum), walking onions (A. proliferum), ramps (A. tricoccum), chives (A. schoenoprasum), garlic chives (A. tuberosum) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking, among first greens in spring; for beneficial insects
  • bee balm (Monarda didyma) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • oregano (Origanum vulgare) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; leaves for medicine
  • sea kale (Crambe maritima) – herbaceous; edible broccoli-like flowers (seems to prefer full sun)
  • perennial arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) – herbaceous; edible greens for salads (slow to appear in spring; possibly sensitive to extreme cold temperatures, below -25C, so mulch well in fall)
  • crosnes or Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis) – herbaceous; edible tuber (thrives in sandy soils)
  • echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) – herbaceous; roots for medicine; beautiful flowers for pollinators (apparently leaves and flowers are edible)
  • marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) – herbaceous; flowers, leaves and roots for medicine; edible leaves; for pollinators
  • lavender (Lavendula angustifolia?) - herbaceous; medicinal and edible flowers and leaves; beautiful flowers for pollinators
  • sedum (Sedum telephium or S. spectabile) – herbaceous; edible leaves (tolerates shade)
  • mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum?) - herbaceous; edible leaves; a favourite for diverse pollinators (does not spread like mentha spp.)
  • St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) – herbaceous; leaves and flowers for medicine; for pollinators (short-lived plant)
  • maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) – herbaceous; edible shoots; for pollinators; apparently good deer screen
  • groundnut (Apios americana) – herbaceous vine; edible tubers for cooking; fixes nitrogen (slow to appear in spring; possibly sensitive to extreme cold temperatures, below -25C, so mulch well in fall)
  • cinnamon yam (Dioscorea batatas) – herbaceous vine; edible tuber for cooking (slow to appear in spring; possibly sensitive to extreme cold temperatures, below -25C, so mulch well in fall)
  • skirret (Sium sisarum) – herbaceous; edible tuber; for pollinators
  • Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) – herbaceous; edible leaves (more palatable when cooked)
  • lovage (Levisticum officinale) – herbaceous; edible leaves and stems; for pollinators
  • hosta (Funkia spp.) - herbaceous; edible leaves cooked (H. montana and H. sieboldii are most popular for eating; very shade-tolerant)
  • calendula (Calendula officinalis) – herbaceous, reseeding annual; medicinal and edible flowers and leaves
  • purple top white globe turnip (Brassica rapa), red Russian kale (B. oleracea), Siberian kale (B. napus) and arugula (Eruca sativa) – herbaceous, hardy reseeding annuals; broadcast seeds grow well on wood chips in part sun
  • wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit (survives in drier and wetter conditions, thrives and fruits better in moderate conditions)
  • ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – herbaceous ground cover, spreads quickly, easy to remove; leaves for medicine (among first flowers in spring for pollinators)
  • perennial lupin (Lupinus perennis) – herbaceous; fixes nitrogen; beautiful flowers for pollinators; not edible (spreads easily by seed)

 

Honourable mentions for moderate site conditions:

  • Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) – tree; edible fruit, good for winter storage (however, can be prone to fire blight)

  • gojiberry (Lycium barbarum) – shrub/trailing vine; edible shoots, best in spring (however, other people have a hard time establishing it in the region; ours is in a warm sheltered microclimate and grow rampantly, so must be cut back twice a year or will take over; it took 3 or 4 years to start fruiting)
  • raspberries (Rubus spp.) – shrub; edible fruit (however, they'll spread, so are best for a simple polyculture; use row-cover or net to protect fruit from birds)
  • asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) – herbaceous; edible shoots (however, they'll take some space, so are best for a simple polyculture)
  • Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) – herbaceous; edible roots, best harvested in fall or spring (however, they'll take some space, so are best for a simple polyculture)
  • stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – herbaceous; edible greens for cooking and tea, dries well for winter storage (however, choose a good location – it stings!)
  • comfrey (Symphytum officinale) – herbaceous; chop and drop for potassium, compost activator; for medicine and pollinators (however, choose a good location – it's there to stay!)
  • beetberry (Chenopodium capitatum) – herbaceous, reseeding annual; edible greens and small fruits for salads (however, reseeds like crazy)
  • daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) – herbaceous; edible shoots for salad or cooking, edible flowers and tubers; among first greens in spring (however, spreads easily in moderate conditions)
  • silverweed (Potentilla anserina) – herbaceous; edible leaves and roots (however, spreads quickly by runners)
  • valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – herbaceous; medicinal roots, flowers for pollinators (however, spreads easily and far by seed)
  • catnip (Nepeta cataria) – herbaceous; edible leaves for teas; for pollinators (however, spreads easily in moderate conditions)
  • white clover (Trifolium repens) – herbaceous ground cover; fixes nitrogen (however, it can grow more quickly and cover other plants in herbaceous layer, so chop and drop it!)
  • Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescnes) – shrub; fixes nitrogen (however, does not grow rapidly in our cold humid climate, so not ideal for chop and drop)

 

Upcoming hopefuls for moderate site conditions:

  • Manchurian apricot (Prunus mandschurica) – tree; edible fruit (we planted on two different years and they're having a hard time getting established)
  • hazelbert (Corylus x hybrid) – tree; edible nuts (we planted on two different years and they're all having a hard time getting established)
  • false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) – shrub; fixes nitrogen
  • Korean celery (Dystaenia takesimana) – herbaceous; edible leaves; for pollinators
  • cultivated strawberry “Albion” (Fragaria × ananassa) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit (covers the ground less quickly than wood strawberry; everbearing, prefers moderate conditions)

 

Promising plants for drier site conditions (sandier soil and full sun):

  • sour cherry (Prunus cerasus?) – tree; edible fruit
  • pear (Pyrus communis?) – tree; edible fruit
  • alder (Alnus spp.) – tree; fixes nitrogen and fast-growing for wind-shelter
  • red currant (Ribes rubrum or R. sylvestre) – shrub; edible fruit
  • bee balm (Monarda didyma) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) – herbaceous; edible roots
  • gobo or cultivated burdock (Arctium lapa) – herbaceous; edible roots
  • oregano (Origanum vulgare) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; leaves for medicine
  • thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; leaves for medicine
  • Korean celery (Dystaenia takesimana) – herbaceous; edible leaves; for pollinators
  • silverweed (Potentilla anserina) – herbaceous; edible leaves and roots (spreads quickly by runners)
  • wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit (survives in drier and wetter conditions, thrives and fruits better in moderate conditions)
  • white clover (Trifolium repens) – herbaceous ground cover; in spring, can grow more quickly and cover other plants in herbaceous layer, so chop and drop it!
  • perennial lupin (Lupinus perennis) – herbaceous; fixes nitrogen, beautiful flowers for pollinators (spreads easily by seed)

 

Honourable mentions for drier site conditions:

  • Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) – herbaceous; edible roots, best harvested in fall or spring (however, they'll take some space, so are best for a simple polyculture)
  • stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – herbaceous; edible greens for cooking and tea, dries well for winter storage (however, choose a good location – it stings!)

 

Promising plants for wet site conditions (flood-plain):

  • high bush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) – shrub; edible fruit for cooking
  • elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – shrub; edible flowers and fruit for cooking and medicine
  • alder (Alnus spp.) – tree; fixes nitrogen, fast-growing for wind-shelter
  • river grape (Vitis riparia?) – vine; edible fruit
  • mint (Mentha spp.) – herbaceous; for tea and pollinators; makes a reasonable ground-cover (however, spreads easily in moderate conditions)
  • daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) – herbaceous; edible shoots for salad or cooking, edible flowers and tubers; among first greens in spring
  • lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – herbaceous; for tea and pollinators (however, spreads easily in moderate conditions)
  • bee balm (Monarda didyma) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • walking onions (Allium proliferum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; for beneficial insects
  • white clover (Trifolium repens) – herbaceous ground cover; in spring, can grow more quickly and cover other plants in herbaceous layer, so chop and drop it!
  • wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit (survives in drier and wetter conditions, thrives and fruits better in moderate conditions)
  • haskap (Lonicera caerulea) – shrub; edible fruit

 

Honourable mentions for wetter site conditions:

  • cattail (Typha latifolia, T. angustifolia) – herbaceous; edible shoots, flowers, pollen and roots for cooking; best to harvest from clean sites with no concerns of water pollution (however, in very wet conditions, they spread more quickly than other plants)

 

Favourites for juglone-tolerance:

  • black walnut (Juglans nigra) – big tree; edible nuts (though hard to crack); nut husks and leaves for medicine; beautiful wood (produces juglone, so the other plants below are centred around it in the polyculture)
  • mulberry (Morus alba) – tree; edible fruit
  • raspberries (Rubus spp.) – shrub; edible fruit (use row-cover or net to protect fruit from birds)
  • ramps (Allium tricoccum) and perennial onions (Allium fistulosum) – herbaceous; edible leaves for salads and cooking; for beneficial insects
  • Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum) – herbaceous; edible shoots for cooking (tolerates shade)
  • bee balm (Monarda didyma) – herbaceous; flowers and leaves for tea; for pollinators and hummingbirds (prefers part sun)
  • wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) – herbaceous ground cover; edible fruit (survives in drier and wetter conditions, thrives and fruits better in moderate conditions)

 

Promising for juglone-tolerance:

  • hosta (Funkia spp.) - herbaceous; edible leaves cooked (H. montana and H. sieboldii are most popular for eating; very shade-tolerant)
  • valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – herbaceous; medicinal roots, flowers for pollinators (however, spreads easily and far by seed)
  • groundnut (Apios americana) – herbaceous vine; edible tubers for cooking; fixes nitrogen (slow to appear in spring; possibly sensitive to extreme cold temperatures, below -25C, so mulch well in fall)
  • cinnamon yam (Dioscorea batatas) – herbaceous vine; edible tuber for cooking (slow to appear in spring; possibly sensitive to extreme cold temperatures, below -25C, so mulch well in fall)
  • crosnes or Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis) – herbaceous; edible tuber (thrives in sandy soils)
  • skirret (Sium sisarum) – herbaceous; edible tuber

 

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