Edible Vegetable Parts: What Are Some Secondary Edible Parts Of Vegetables
By: Amy Grant
Have you ever heard of secondary edible veggie plants? The name may be of newer origin, but the idea is definitely not. What does secondary edible veggie plants mean and is it an idea that can be useful to you? Read on to learn more.
Info on Edible Parts of Vegetable Plants
Most vegetable plants are cultivated for one, sometimes two major purposes, but they actually have a multitude of useful, edible parts.
An example of secondary edible parts of a vegetable is celery. We’ve all probably bought the trimmed, smooth sheath of celery at the local grocers, but if you are a home gardener and grow your own, you know celery doesn’t look quite like that. Not until the veggie is trimmed and all those secondary edible parts of the vegetable are removed does it look anything like what we purchase at the supermarket. In fact, those tender young leaves are delicious chopped into salads, soups, or anything you use celery in. They taste like celery but a bit more delicate; the flavor is muted somewhat.
That’s just one example of an edible vegetable part that is often discarded needlessly. In fact, each of us discards more than 200 pounds (90 kg.) of edible food per year! Some of these are edible vegetable parts or parts of plants that the food industry tosses out because someone deemed them unfit or unappetizing for the dinner table. Some of this is a direct result of throwing out food we have been conditioned to think is inedible. Whatever the case, it’s time to change our thinking.
The idea of utilizing secondary edible parts of plants and veggies is a common practice in Africa and Asia; food waste is much higher in Europe and North America. This practice is referred to as “stem to root” and has actually been a Western philosophy, but not recently. My grandmother reared her children during the depression when the philosophy of “waste not want not” was in vogue and everything was difficult to obtain. I can remember a delicious example of this ideology – watermelon pickles. Yep, absolutely out of this world and made from the soft discarded rind of the watermelon.
Edible Vegetable Parts
So what other edible veggie parts have we been discarding? There are many examples, including:
- Young ears of corn and the unfurled tassel
- Flower stem (not just the florets) of broccoli and cauliflower heads
- Parsley roots
- Pods of English peas
- Seeds and flowers of squash
- The aforementioned watermelon rind
Many plants have edible leaves too, although most of them are eaten cooked not raw. So what vegetable leaves are edible? Well, lots of veggie plants have edible leaves. In Asian and African cuisines, sweet potato leaves have long been popular ingredients in coconut sauces and peanut stews. A good source of vitamins and full of fiber, sweet potato leaves add a much needed nutrition boost.
The leaves of these plants are edible too:
- Green beans
- Lima beans
- English and Southern peas
And if you haven’t explored the delights of stuffed squash blossoms, I highly recommend you do! This blossom is delicious, as are numerous other edible flowers from calendula to nasturtium. Many of us snip off the blossoms of our basil plants to engender a bushier plant and allow all its energy to go into producing those delicious leaves, but don’t discard them! Use the basil blooms in tea or foods that you would normally flavor with basil. The flavor from the dainty buds is just a more delicate version of the leaves’ robust flavor and perfectly useful — as are the buds from many other herbs.
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Read more about General Vegetable Garden Care
A List of Edible Leaves
Gardens already abound with edible leaves, and if you become interested in upping the number available in your yard, it isn’t hard to find extra plants that will fit the bill. Although many people also swear by harvesting wild leaves, however, you must be careful when harvesting plants outside your garden to identify plants properly before eating them.
Edible Perennial Gardening: plant these 70+ edibles once and harvest for years
Edible perennial gardening is a way to grow delicious crops while saving time, money, and effort. Plant any of these 70+ perennial vegetables, fruit, or herbs once, and harvest from them for years. Also includes a video tour of perennial edibles at the end.
Most of us grow edible crops from seeds or plants that we start in the growing year, harvest, then have to regrow all over again. That’s because many of our common vegetables die when we pick them or eventually perish by the time that cold weather arrives. There’s an easier way to grow crops, though. An approach that that’s much less work, more reliable, and introduces you to a world of new and incredible edibles. Plant perennial crops once, and harvest from them for years.
Benefits of perennial crops
For anyone who has found themselves short of time, or who’d like to avoid backbreaking work, perennial crops and ornamentals are your answer. They faithfully regrow in spring and are often some of the first-flowering and producing plants in the garden. I know that I can count on garlic chives coming up in late winter, along with other members of the perennial onion family.
While I will always grow annual crops from seed, I also recognize the value in perennials. In fact, about half of my allotment garden is filled with them – everything from thornless blackberries to nine-star broccoli, oca, and welsh onions.
Welsh onions are like giant chives
Perennial crops are low-maintenance
Not only are perennial crops long-lived, but many are winter-hardy, long-lived, and pest-resistant. Because they live in the soil long-term, they also can have more extensive root systems, making them drought resistant. Think about the last dry spell your garden had – you were out watering the leafy green peas, lettuces, and spinach rather than the old apple tree. A smart gardener can understand the benefits of low-input and low-maintenance crops. Also, since perennials live in the soil for years, they help stop soil erosion and keep carbon locked in the ground. That proves that smart can also be eco-friendly.
Oca is a perennial vegetable that can produce up to three pounds of tubers per plant
Types of perennial crops
In my mind, there are four types of perennial crops, and you can use all of them to create your edible perennial garden. The edibles in these groups will give you yields year after year, usually without you having to do anything other than mulch and prune them. You’ll find perennial food crops that fall into:
- Perennial vegetables
- Roots, bulbs, and tubers
- Perennial fruit and berries
- Perennial herbs
Scarlet runner beans are perennial in zones 8-10
Annual and Biennial Crops
Many of our common garden vegetables are annuals or biennials, and though their life-cycles are different, you only get a good crop in the first year. Even if some of them do survive both harvesting and winter, they shoot straight into flower come spring. After that, their roots become woody and their leaves bitter as they direct all their energy into seed production. After seeding, they die, leaving the seeds to carry on the next generation. Carrots, beets, and chard are all biennials.
Others, like pumpkins, grow all year, produce fruit, and then wither and die as soon as the temperature drops. Again, their seeds are what the plant relies on to regrow the next year. Some crops can give you several harvests if you’re smart about the way you go about it, but eventually, they too will seed and die in that same year. Lettuce, for example, will run to seed within weeks or months even if you only harvest a few leaves at a time.
Asparagus can grow for at least twenty years
Edible perennial gardening
Perennial crops are different in that they are long-lived. To be a perennial crop, a plant must be able to survive the winter and to produce a sizable crop the next year, and the year after. Perennial crops also survive from year to year, either as evergreens or as herbaceous perennials. Short-lived perennials can live from three to five years before needing to be replaced and include perennial kale and nine-star broccoli.
Long-lived perennials can live five to twenty years, and sometimes a lot longer. Asparagus lives twenty or more years, and rhubarb can live half a century in the right spot. I’ve heard tell of rhubarb being the only thing that survives of long-abandoned villages.
Rhubarb can live decades but produces best if divided every five years
Harvesting Perennial Crops
Each perennial crop is different, and depending on which one you have, you harvest the flower heads, leaves, berries, fruit, or tubers. With leafy plants, hold yourself back and only take a maximum of thirty percent of the growth, before allowing it to regrow. This general rule helps perennials to survive to see another harvest.
With tubers, make sure to save some for replanting and the same goes for plants that grow from bulbs. Avoid harvesting the bulbs, or all of them, to allow the plants to survive. Conservative harvesting will keep your perennial crops alive as much as growing the right ones for your climate.
Globe artichokes produce edible flower heads for about eight years before needing to be replaced
The hardiness of Perennial Vegetables
Perennial vegetables are long-lived crops with edible stems, leaves, flower buds, seeds, roots, or tubers. Some are very well known to us, yet many others are obscure or only grown in certain regions around the world. Perennial crops will be different based on your climate since some won’t survive sub-zero winters. For example, scarlet runner beans grow as an annual crop in places that have cold winters. In its home of central America and even warmer temperate climates, it can grow as a perennial.
The below chart lists many perennial edibles that you can grow in the average temperate garden, along with growing tips and their USDA hardiness zones. I can also recommend these books as guides to growing a perennial vegetable garden.
Walking onions form edible bulbils at the tops of their stems
|Perennial vegetable||USDA Hardiness zones||Growing tips|
|3-8||Asparagus spears are immature shoots that you pick in spring before they have a chance to grow into tall stems and feathery leaves. Grown from two-year-old ‘crowns,’ you should only harvest asparagus after its third year in the ground. After your plants become established, they can keep producing for twenty or more years.|
|Babington’s leek (Wild leek) |
Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii
|5-9||This wild perennial leek grows in sandy soil all over the British isles but tolerates most soil types and pHs. It spreads through its bulb and bulblets and, when harvested, looks very much like a standard leek, though the flavor is a little more garlicky. The plant can grow up to six feet tall and needs full sun but is resilient to high winds and exposed locations. The entire plant is edible, including its top-set of bulbils.|
Jerusalem Artichokes are also called Sunchokes
Roots, bulbs, and tubers
There are so many edible perennial roots, bulbs, and tubers available that they deserve their own section. The types below have flavorful and sometimes energy-packed subterranean parts, and many can persist in the ground from year to year. If you have sub-zero winters, make sure to lift your tubers and replant them the next year to ensure they survive.
|Perennial vegetable||USDA Hardiness zones||Growing tips|
|Chinese artichoke (Crosnes) |
|5-9||Harvest the peculiar white tubers of this plant in early autumn and serve raw or lightly stir-fried. Each plant only produces about 6 ounces (170 g) of tubers, and they are small at only about one to two inches long. Still, they’re a delicacy and worth your effort if you have space to give them. They have a water chestnut texture and a nutty flavor. In mild regions, you can leave some of the tubers in the ground to regrow the next year. Prefers well-drained soil in full sun and does not like frost. Only plant when the soil warms up in spring.|
|Chicory (Radicchio) |
|3-9||Chicory is grown for its bitter leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked and for its deep taproot, that can be baked and ground into a coffee substitute. Growing chicory as a perennial can be challenging as plants grown from the same packet of seeds can all have different growth traits and can be annual, biennial, and perennial. Some cultivars such as Variegata di Castelfranco and Italiko Rosso may have more tendency to perennialize. Sow from seed in mid-summer in full sun and fertile soil. Thin to a foot apart (30 cm) and harvest the leaves after the first frost. If any plants survive the winter, leave them to grow on to see if they’ll perennialize.|
Dahlia x pinnata syn. Dahlia variabilis
|8-11||It’s possible that the tubers of all dahlias are edible but chances are, the one you have growing in your garden right now is. The long tubers from your plants can be harvested in autumn and eaten raw or cooked. The texture and flavor are said to be like yacon – crunchy and mildly sweet to bland. If you have had Jerusalem artichokes and had bad wind or cramps be wary though. Dahlia tubers contain the indigestible carbohydrate inulin and can have the same effect. Grow dahlias from seed or tubers in spring and lift the tubers in autumn if you have cold winters. Prefers free-draining fertile soil and full sun. Plants do best if given supports.|
|Earthnut pea |
|6-8||The nut-sized tubers of this perennial legume taste pea-like when raw and like sweet chestnuts when cooked (typically boiled or roasted). They’re a wild plant that was commonly cultivated in Europe in the past, and known in France as macusson. The plant grows 12-32” tall with alternate, oval leaves, deeply scented pink pea-like flowers, and a sweet-pea-like climbing stem. Often found growing wild on cultivated land, it can grow roots 16” deep and send its climbing stems up crops such as wheat. May be best to grow this crop in containers. Grow from seed in spring.|
Armoracia rusticana, syn. Cochlearia armoracia
|3-9||A little goes a long way when it comes to spicy hot horseradish roots. The plants can grow enormous tap roots though and become invasive if you plant them in an open situation. Even the smallest piece of root left in the ground can grow a new plant. Best to start your plants off from a crown, or pieces of root from a parent plant, and grow on in a large container – even an old rubbish bin will do. It has tall floppy dock-like leaves that love the sun but isn’t fussy about soil type.|
|Jerusalem artichoke (Sunchokes) |
|3-8||Jerusalem artichokes are an American root vegetable that grows from coarse-leafed stems over eight feet tall. Producing sunflower-like blooms, they’re also known as sunchokes and are unrelated to globe artichokes. Harvest the rich and nutty flavored tubers in early autumn, when the plant has died down, and save some to replant the next year. Over two dozen cultivars are available, including Fuseau, Bear Valley Purple, and Mammoth French White. Can spread easily so consider growing in large containers. Can also cause stomach bloating and gas in up to fifty percent of the population but the flavor is so delicious that many people deal with ‘Fartichokes’. Grow in USDA zones 2-8, though the tubers may not survive in the ground below zone three.|
|Oca (New Zealand Yam) |
|8-9||Oca tubers range in color from pink to white to magenta and only begin forming below the wood sorrel-esque foliage in the autumn. You harvest the tubers in late autumn to early winter, and the yield can be up to three pounds per plant. They have a unique flavor that’s citrusy and potato-like and the cooked texture is like a cooked turnip. You can also eat the tubers raw and they have a pleasant crunch. Grow from tubers in late spring, and if you have a mild winter climate you can leave some in the ground to grow the next year. I always miss some and they grow on their own as volunteers. More oca growing tips here.|
|8-12||Anyone who has mild winters and grows potatoes knows how they can regrow the next year if you miss harvesting them. Though it’s not recommended to save potatoes to replant the next year (due to potential pathogens) there is a plant breeder in the US who has developed ‘Perennial potatoes’ for cold winters/climates. Though ordinary potatoes will perish if the ground freezes, these can survive to produce a small crop the next year. Potatoes can grow in pretty much all hardiness zones, 3-12, if you grow them as an annual.|
|5-9||An old-fashioned European vegetable, skirrets are a true perennial and come back year after year with their masses of carrot-flavored roots. It can grow up to four feet tall in summer, and the clump-forming crowns are harvested in autumn after they’ve had a summer to fill out. Grow from seed or crowns in spring, and begin harvesting after the second year when the foliage has died down. Dig the crowns up, take the best roots as your harvest, and replant the crown to grow another year. If you want to increase your plants, you can separate individual crowns and plant them up separately. Prefers moist and fertile free-draining soil in full sun.|
Perennial Fruit and Berries
Perennial fruit is always a winner in the garden. Though the trees, vines, and bushes can take up a lot of space, the juicy rewards are worth the investment. With fruit trees and shrubs, you tend only to eat the fruit and berries, though there are exceptions. Grape leaves are edible and are used in Greek cuisine to make food parcels. Some perennial fruit flowers are edible too.
- Physalis (Cape Gooseberry)
- Thornless blackberry
Many garden herbs are evergreen or grow back every year
Many garden herbs are not only hardy but will thrive year after year. Even when not much is growing in the garden, you can still nip out and harvest a sprig of rosemary, or a handful of winter savory to add flavor to winter dishes. Many perennial herbs also thrive in poor soils, making them ideal for areas of the garden where other plants won’t grow.
Most perennial herbs prefer free-draining soil, and harvesting up to a third of their annual growth encourages bushier growth. Many can also be grown in pots and containers and taken undercover over the winter. Keep in mind that quite a few perennial herbs hail from the Mediterranean so may not survive winters below USDA hardiness zone 8.
- Basil (zone 10 and above)
- Bay laurel
- Garlic chives
- Lemon verbena
- Salad burnet
- Sweet cicely
- Winter savory
Companion planting with Borage
The pretty blue flowers of borage make a perfect strawberry companion plant. The blooms bring pollinators to improve fruit set on your strawberry plants. They’re also said to deter caterpillars on your tomatoes and cabbage plants.
Borage flowers have a taste similar to cucumbers so they make a natural addition to salads and sandwiches. You can also use them to flavor water. The young leaves are also edible but develop a prickly texture as they get older.
This old-fashioned companion planting herb is easy to grow and will take care of itself. Direct seed in your garden in the spring, and let the plant self-seed for next spring.
3. Kidney Beans
Many legumes can cause mild gastrointestinal distress when undercooked, but red kidney beans (the kind almost always used in chili) are special. Kidney beans contain phytohaemagglutinin, a chemical compound that I will always have to copy and paste because, are you kidding me with that word? Ingestion of even just a few undercooked kidney beans can cause serious diarrhea and vomiting. According to the FDA, it’s not fatal and rarely results in hospitalization, but it’s fairly common for people to end up sick after chomping down on some merely soaked beans.
Identifying the Most Common Vegetable Plants
While we always love when PlantSnap can help people identify photos (you just need your phone, an adult plant, and decent lighting to identify plants with PlantSnap ), there are always limitations. PlantSnap can’t identify seedlings or damaged plants, so it’s best to be able to identify vegetable plants without your phone.
Once you’ve identified the vegetable plants in your garden, it’s probably time to get them labeled!
Unfortunately, we probably won’t be able to guide you through exactly which variety of vegetable plant you have in your garden (there are just too many). If you’ve planted four different varieties of carrots, you’ll have to wait until the harvest to figure out which is which.
Seedling: The first two leaves of a seedling bean will look heart-shaped. When the plant is very young, you might be able to find the outer shells of the bean on the plant or very nearby.
General Structure: Climbing and vinelike or bushy, depending on the variety
Leaves: Come in trios, smooth edges. Two grow opposite each other with a third above. They generally are green or purple.
Flowers: Generally white, pink, or purple. They are shaped somewhat like an elephant’s head, with big upright petals and a “keel” protruding out and down.
Vegetables: Bean pods are generally visible from mid-summer onwards, helping make this plant easy to identify.
Notable Characteristics: Look for elephant head-like flowers or bean pods.
Lookalikes: Pea plants. Peas will have more tendrils and have slightly more hollow-ish stems.
Seedling: Beet seedlings have smooth, long leaves with pink or purple stems. Multiple seedlings may grow from a single seed.
General Structure: Beets grow underground, so the plant isn’t much to look at. Beet plants look a bunch of leaves growing in a bunch, somewhat like lettuce.
Leaves: Long and smooth with pronounced purple or pink veins.
Flowers: Beet flowers are long stalks with tiny greenish-white flowers. Beet flowers are undesirable because it means the plant is sending energy to flowers instead of growing beets. Learn all about preventing your beets from bolting here.
Vegetables: Beets grow underground, so you’re unlikely to see them unless you swipe away a bit of dirt. They vary in size from golf ball (or smaller) to nearly bowling ball sized. They are generally a deep purplish color.
Notable Characteristics: Look for the pink stems and the tops of a beet poking up.
Lookalikes: With its long leaves and pink stems, a beet plant can look like colorful swiss chard. Swiss chard tastes similar to beet greens, so there’s little to lose by mixing them up. You can generally see a bit of the top of a mature beet poking out if you really can’t figure out which you’re looking at!
Seedling: Cabbage seedlings have roundish leaves with very small teeth. As they grow, they get a thick center stem and the characteristic dusty green color (unless you’re growing purple cabbage).
General Structure: Cabbage is pretty consistent as it grows – it’s got a round structure with a ball-like clump of leaves in the center.
Leaves: Roundish with highly visible whiteish veins, slightly toothed. Cabbage leaves tend to curl back a bit from the center of the plant.
Flowers: Cabbage flowers late in the season. Essentially, the center of the plant opens into a flower. Ornamental varieties of cabbage ( yes, they’re a thing ) have a gorgeous pink hue.
Vegetables: The cabbage vegetable is that big ball of leaves right in the center.
Notable Characteristics: Simply look for the ball of leaves in the center, with prominent veins.
Lookalikes: Cabbage is relatively easy to identify. Cauliflower has similar leaves, but the big white florets in the center of cauliflower are a dead giveaway!
Seedling: Very young carrots have long, thin, grass-like leaves. As they get a bit older, they spread into a feathery, fern-like shape.
General Structure: Long, bright green and fern-like leaves with a long root (the carrot) below. Can be fluffy or quite tall.
Flowers: Flowers only appear during the second year of a carrot’s life. If you’re seeing flowers, the plant is two years old! The flowers are an umbrella-shaped spread of small, white flowers.
Vegetables: The carrot vegetable is unmistakable — long, narrow, and generally bright orange. Carrots can also be white or a deep purpleish color. The carrot itself won’t show above ground in most growing conditions.
Notable Characteristics: Look for fern-like, feathery leaves.
Lookalikes: Many other wild plants look similar to carrots, including Queen Anne’s Lace (also edible) and Hemlock (poisonous). Hemlock has purple or black spots on its smooth stem, while Queen Anne’s Lace has a hairy stem. Carrots generally don’t have much of a central stem at all!
Seedling: Teeny-tiny baby cauliflower looks quite a bit like a cabbage seedling. They’ve got rounded leaves with small teeth and prominent veins. Within just a few weeks, it should be easy to tell a cauliflower from a cabbage!
General Structure: As cauliflower grows, a big white floret appears in the center of the plant. This is pretty unmistakable and really helps differentiate the cauliflower from the cabbage. Cauliflowers grow very low to the ground, with the “head” sitting just off the dirt.
Leaves: Cauliflower leaves are roundish with thick white stems. They are slightly toothed and have a faintly dusty hue. They encircle the white cauliflower floret.
Flowers: The white floret in the center of a cauliflower (the edible part) is actually compacted, undeveloped flowers.
Vegetables: The flowers and the “vegetable” are the same part of this plant.
Notable Characteristics: Large, white floret in the center of the plant.
Lookalikes: Young cauliflower may resemble cabbage.
Seedling: The seedling cucumber has leaves that are toothed and wrinkled with visible veins.
General Structure: Cucumber plants are crawling, climbing, or vine-like plants that quickly take over many gardens. They have large leaves, yellow flowers, and produce many cucumbers per plant.
Leaves: Cucumber leaves are large (often bigger than your hand) with five rough points. The leaves are slightly toothed, but this is difficult to notice from a distance.
Flowers: Cucumber flowers are pale to bright yellow, with fused petals that split into points further from the stem.
Vegetables: Cucumbers are long, cylindrical, and green. They can range in size to finger-sized to nearly the size of your forearm. They look quite similar to zucchini.
Notable Characteristics: Look for a climbing, crawling, vine-like plant that produces long, cylindrical, green veggies.
Lookalikes: Cucumbers and zucchini are easily confused at the supermarket, but not in the garden!. The zucchini plant doesn’t grow into a climbing, vine-like behemoth as cucumber plants do — instead, it’s more of a bushy collection of leaves and vegetables. Zucchini also has thick yet hollow stems that can be crunched between your fingers.
Seedling: The eggplant seedling has smooth, bright green leaves with a rounded tip.
General Structure: A relatively tall plant with purplish stems, eggplant grows with the eggplants hanging rather than on the ground (as many people would suspect).
Leaves: Adult eggplant leaves are large with purplish stems and veins. They are heavily toothed and much longer than they are wide.
Flowers: Eggplant flowers are beautiful, with five or six fused bright purple petals and a bright yellow stamen.
Vegetables: The eggplant itself is hard to miss – it hangs from the plant and is a deep, rich purple. They often grow to the size of a water bottle or larger.
Notable Characteristics: Look for a purple stem that is much less red than the stem of okra.
Lookalikes: Eggplant doesn’t have any close lookalikes that you’re likely to find in your garden.
Seedling: Kale seedlings come in a variety of shapes and colors, depending on the variety of kale in your garden. It’s best to hold off identification until they’re a bit older for most amateurs.
General Structure: Kale is generally a bushy plant with wildly curled leaves. It doesn’t have much beyond leaves and the stems are short, keeping the plant low to the ground.
Leaves: Kale ranges in color from deep green to dusty purple. They are generally tough, curly-edged, and bushy. That said, certain varieties are much more (or much less) curly than others.
Flowers: Kale varieties grown for eating rarely have traditional flowers.
Vegetables: You eat the curled leaves of kale and it does not produce any traditional “vegetables.”
Notable Characteristics: The curliest and toughest of the leafy plants.
Lookalikes: While spinach and many lettuce varieties are also quite leafy, they’re nowhere near as curly-leaved and bushy as kale.
Seedling: Kohlrabi seedlings look similar to cabbage or cauliflower seedlings, with rounded leaves and pronounced veins. Wait a few weeks to see how the plant matures, and remember that kohlrabi is much less common than cabbage or cauliflower in most gardens.
General Structure: At a distance, the leaves of kohlrabi resemble those of some lettuces. As you get closer, you realize that the stalks are too long and the leaves are too big. The edible part of kohlrabi grows as a above-ground, bulb-like circle. It’s hard to miss, and pretty weird when fully grown!
Leaves: Kohlrabi leaves are large and long, with pronounced stems that differentiate them from cabbage or cauliflower stems. They have visible white veins and curly to toothed leaves.
Flowers: Flowers are small and yellow, growing on tall stalks above the rest of the plant.
Vegetables: Kohlrabi is a pretty strange vegetable that you won’t find in many supermarkets. It’s roundish and grows above ground with leaves growing from it. They can be as large as a softball and are pale green.
Notable Characteristics: The above-ground vegetable is hard to miss!
Lookalikes: None as the plant matures.
Seedling: Lettuce seedlings are generally a bright green. Depending on the variety, the leaves can take a variety of shapes. There is no clear central stem.
General Structure: There are many varieties of lettuce. In general, the plant grows close to the ground with a clump of leaves. There is no clear central stem.
Leaves: Leaves vary, but are generally at least hand-sized. They may have purple hues or stems or can be any shade of green. They can be smooth or toothed and may be curly as well.
Flowers: If left to grow for too long, lettuce “bolts,” where a single stalk grows up from the center, often at least a foot or two long. The flowers are unremarkable, small and white.
Vegetables: The leaves are the edible part of lettuce plants.
Notable Characteristics: Lettuce is a varied group of plants, which can make it confusing to identify at first.
Lookalikes: Spinach and kale may be similar. Spinach is a dark, glossy green with longer stems. Kale is tough and very curly-leaved.
Seedling: Much like onion, leek seedlings look quite a bit like grass. They just have a few long, narrow leaves and no central stalk.
General Structure: Leek plants quickly grow into something quite different from an onion. They have a central stalk make up of the stems of all of the leaves. The “stalk” area is quite short, so the plant never gets very talll.
Leaves: The leaves are thick and curled slightly, but otherwise are similar to a grass or corn leaf. They grow bilaterally, not all the way around the stalk.
Flowers: It’s unusual to see leek flowers in your garden until very late in the season. Then, you will see a long stalk with a ball of tiny white or purple flowers on top.
Vegetables: You eat the whitish root of leeks, below ground.
Notable Characteristics: Look for the bilateral growth of leek leaves to separate them from other root veggies with long, grass-like leaves.
Lookalikes: Young leeks may closely resemble onions or chives, but quickly grow into a more robust plant with thicker leaves. Leek plants may also closely resemble some lilies, but they won’t have the pretty flowers!
Seedling: Okra seedlings have roughly heart-shaped leaves, rounded with toothed edges. Some varieties may have pink or purple stems.
General Structure: This is a very tall plant, easily growing to taller than a person. It has large leaves and a slender stalk. The stalk is generally green but may be purplish red in some varieties.
Leaves: Large, heart-shaped leaves with slightly toothed edges.
Flowers: White flowers with a purple center that resemble the Hawaiian Hibiscus flower.
Vegetables: Okra grows from where the flowers were, all up and down the plant. They are slightly sticky, with little hairs. They are roughly shaped like a Jalapeno. They are generally green but may be purplish red in some varieties.
Notable Characteristics: Okra plants are very sticky, especially if stems are broken. The okra itself grows upwards rather than hanging down.
Lookalikes: It’s hard to mistake this sticky plant for any other vegetable! There are several common weeds that resemble okra, so be sure to be vigilant with identification and removal of imposters.
Seedling: Baby onion plants look a bit like grass, with just a few stalk-like leaves poking up.
General Structure: Above the onion itself, onion plants look a lot like leeks. They have a bundle of long, grass-like leaves that tend to flop over as they lengthen. Below the bundle of leaves, though, there’s an unmistakable top of an onion. This may be harder to see in young plants.
Leaves: Long and grasslike, growing out from a central bundle and tending to fold over as they grow.
Flowers: Quite similar to leeks, onion flowers are a rounded ball of tiny white flowers on a tall stalk.
Vegetables: The onion grows partially underground, but roughly ⅓ to ¼ of the onion generally will show above the dirt.
Notable Characteristics: Look for the top of an onion protruding above the soil.
Lookalikes: Onions can look quite a bit like leeks, shallots, or even chives at various stages of their lives. They are the only with a large onion bulb, though! They also may look like lilies, but again, lilies will lack the onion bulb.
Seedling: Parsnip seedlings are bright green, with leaves that range from rounded hearts to three-lobed. They are slightly toothed, growing bushier as they age.
General Structure: Parsnip is a short plant with many stems originating from the ground and no central stalk. The parsnip itself is a root, much like carrots.
Leaves: Parsnip leaves are roughly three-lobed with toothed edges. They’re about palm sized and look somewhat like cilantro leaves.
Flowers: Parsnip flowers are very small and bright yellow, growing in in a loose umbrella shape.
Vegetables: Parsnip is a root vegetable, much like carrot. The veggie itself is long and white, generally a bit thicker and longer than your average carrot.
Notable Characteristics: Look for large, somewhat cilantro-like leaves on a short plant.
Lookalikes: Luckily, this plant doesn’t look much like its toxic relatives, cow parsnip and wild parsnip.
Seedling: Look for thin, long leaves that closely resemble grass, onions, or leeks.
General Structure: Shallots, like their relatives, look like a bunch of grass-like leaves poking from a bundle in the ground. The shallot itself is below ground and may look like a very small onion.
Leaves: Long, grass-like leaves that roll in on themselves. Shallot leaves are often dead at the tip.
Flowers: Like onions and leeks, shallots have a flower that is a burst of tiny white flowers on a single long stalk.
Vegetables: The shallot itself grows below ground. It looks much like a small onion, but won’t poke up above ground as much as an onion.
Notable Characteristics: Look for the rolled leaves to help distinguish from its relatives.
Lookalikes: Shallots broadly resemble onions and leeks. Leeks are larger, more robust plants while onions will have a much larger bulb.
Seedling: Distinguishable by their arrow-shaped leaves with prominent points near the stem, often have slightly purple undersides.
General Structure: A short, bushy plant with arrow-shaped leaves. Sweet potato often grows quite dense and low to the ground.
Leaves: Arrow-shaped and slightly glossy, with a slightly purplish underside.
Flowers: Sweet potato flowers look a lot like morning glory flowers, with a white trumpet-shaped flower. The interior of the flower is often purple.
Vegetables: Sweet potatoes are large reddish tubers that protrude slightly above the ground.
Notable Characteristics: Look for low, bushy plants with arrow-shaped leaves.
Lookalikes: There aren’t many common lookalikes for sweet potatoes that you’re likely to find in your garden.
Seedling: Young tomato plants quickly develop the characteristic toothed, lobed leaves of tomato plants.
General Structure: Tomato plants grow to be quite bushy, and often need to be staked or caged to keep them upright.
Leaves: Tomato leaves are complicated, with toothed edges and a roughly arrowhead shape. They can also be quite large, up to palm sized.
Flowers: Small and yellow
Vegetables: Tomato fruit grow out of where the flowers were. They start green and then may mature to yellow, purple, or red. Tomato fruit vary greatly based on the variety of plant in your garden.
Notable Characteristics: The leaves of tomato plants are quite distinct.
Lookalikes: None that are commonly found in gardens.
Seedling: Almost immediately, pea plants will grow little tendrils that reach out, looking for something to climb on. Look for tendrils to identify peas.
General Structure: Peas are climbing plants with odd leaves that encircle the stem of the plant.
Leaves: One type of leaf encircles the stem of the plant, similar to a lion’s mane. Pea plants also sport oval shaped leaves that grow opposite each other on the outer branches.
Flowers: Pea flowers are usually white, though they may be pink or purple. They look almost like elephants, with a big petal behind the others and then a keel below.
Vegetables: Peas hang from the plant where the flowers once were. Peas are long, thin, and green. The pea pod may be quite plump or rather flat, depending on the variety in your garden.
Notable Characteristics: The tendrils of peas are a dead giveaway.
Lookalikes: Pea plants broadly resemble beans, but have quite different leaves. Pea plants are also much more prone to climb than beans.
Seedling: Pepper seedlings still sport the smooth-edged, shiny leaf of adult plants.
General Structure: Pepper plants are relatively tall, growing up to roughly knee or hip height in some cases. They are quite bushy with simple, smooth leaves.
Leaves: Simple and smooth, pepper leaves tend to have a shine to them. Veins are visible but not overly prominent.
Flowers: White, with 5-9 pointed petals around a prominent center.
Vegetables: Peppers are a widely varied bunch. The pepper itself may be small and green (Serrano or Jalapeno) or large and almost any color (bell peppers). There are plenty of rarer pepper types to keep you guessing. All peppers are slightly waxy, and if cut are hollow inside.
Notable Characteristics: Look for simple, smooth, shiny leaves.
Lookalikes: Basil has similar leaves, but they tend to curl back while pepper leaves are pointed. Basil will also stay much smaller than most pepper plants.
Seedling: Potato seedlings have rounded leaves with a textured surface, with rough leaf surfaces and indented veins.
General Structure: Potatoes grow as a low, bushy plant with multiple potato tubers growing underground.
Leaves: Potato leaves are simple, with smooth edges and pointed tips. Their veins are slightly indented, giving the leaves a puckered look.
Flowers: Potato flowers are white, with fused petals and a prominent central stigma that is generally yellow.
Vegetables: Potatoes grow below ground, with multiple tubers per plant.
Notable Characteristics: Look for the simple, slightly wrinkled leaves on a low-growing bushy plant. You might also find the true fruit of a potato plant at times, which looks slightly like a tomato.
Lookalikes: There are no common look-alikes that are likely to show up in your garden.
Seedling: Once they have more than two leaves (they have the typical smooth, rounded baby leaves at first), pumpkin seedlings have rounded leaves prominent teeth.
General Structure: A long, trailing vine that quickly takes over the garden if not planted carefully. Leaves are large and rough, stems have slight spines or hairs.
Leaves: Large, circular, and lobed with hairs and an overall rough texture.
Flowers: Large, floppy orange flowers that look soft.
Vegetables: Pumpkins start out green, growing on the ground from the vine. They quickly mature into the large jack-o-lantern-like gourds we’re used to seeing in October.
Notable Characteristics: The plant is so rough and spiny, most people work with it wearing gloves.
Lookalikes: Since pumpkins are a type of squash, they look a lot like them! Some varieties of pumpkin, therefore, are nearly impossible to tell apart from squash. For amateurs, it’s often best to wait to see what the gourds mature into.
Seedling: Seedling radishes have roughly heart-shaped leaves, with the point of the heart being the stem. The leaves are smooth and the veins are very small. They are almost identical to turnip seedlings.
General Structure: Radishes look like little more than a bundle of leaves from above-ground. The radish itself grows below ground.
Leaves: The leaves are long and slightly toothed and lobed, somewhat similar to dandelion leaves from a distance. The stems are longer with a whitish hue.
Flowers: Flowers have four petals with pinkish purple on the tips.
Vegetables: The radish itself grows under the dirt, though its reddish top may poke up above ground as it matures.
Notable Characteristics: The radish is significantly smaller than most other underground vegetables.
Lookalikes: Some lettuce varieties may be similar, but they won’t have the red radish below!
Seedling: Young rutabaga are relatively unremarkable. They have roundish leaves with slight teeth but are relatively similar to many other seedling plants.
General Structure: With kale-like curly leaves and an underground vegetable, rutabaga isn’t much to look at. Keep an eye out for the top of the vegetable itself poking through the soil.
Leaves: With long whitish stems and large, curly leaves, the top of a rutabaga can look similar to lettuce or kale. There generally will be far fewer leaves in a mature rutabaga than a plan that’s cultivated for its leaves. They closely resemble turnip as well but are larger and waxier.
Flowers: Bright yellow and small, on tall stalks.
Vegetables: The rutabaga itself grows below ground, but may protrude slightly above the dirt. Look for its purplish reddish hue. The bottom of the vegetable will be whitish.
Lookalikes: The leaves resemble kale leaves or lettuce leaves, but are much less bushy and curly. They closely resemble turnips as well but are larger and waxier.
Seedling: The initial pair of leaves from a spinach plant is thin and grass-like, but quickly the seedling produces rounded leaves that look just like the baby spinach you purchase in a grocery store!
General Structure: Spinach plants look like a bunch of spinach leaves, very short and quite thick. You harvest them as soon as the leaves are big enough to eat, so there’s not much time to lose track of the plant.
Leaves: Spinach leaves are dark green, slightly rounded, and a bit glossy. The central vein is often a bit indented, giving the tips of the leaf a slightly backward curl.
Flowers: Spinach only flowers if you neglect to harvest the leaves on time. Then, it produces a tall stalk with small greenish-white flowers on it.
Vegetables: The leaves are the product when it comes to spinach!
Notable Characteristics: Look for rounded, dark green, very smooth leaves.
Lookalikes: Spinach is relatively familiar and easy to identify since it looks exactly like what you’d buy at the store! It’s much smaller than other leafy vegetables.
Seedling: Young squash quickly start to produce the puckered, toothed leaves characteristic of the adult plant.
General Structure: Squash is notorious for “taking over” gardens. It’s got huge leaves and tends to grow as a long, wandering vine.
Leaves: Large and rough, squash leaves have toothed edges and pucker or wrinkle slightly around the veins. They are often hairy.
Flowers: Yellow or orange, fused near the base. Squash leaves are often large and soft or even floppy.
Vegetables: Squash is a variable group of plants. The gourd that’s produced can range from long and yellow to small and green. Identifying squash by its gourd is probably your best bet if you’ve forgotten which variety you planted where.
Notable Characteristics: Squash is nearly unmistakeable thanks to its huge, hairy leaves and tendency to dominate a corner of the garden patch.
Lookalikes: Since pumpkin is a type of squash, it can be a bit tricky to tell it apart. Look at the fruit the vine is producing to narrow down which type of squash you have!
Seedling: Seedling turnips have long stems with heart-shaped leaves. They are a pale green and closely resemble radish seedlings.
General Structure: Turnip plants have long, slightly curly leaves that closely resemble rutabaga. Rutabaga grows larger and has less bright leaves, but otherwise, it can be a bit tricky to tell these plants apart.
Leaves: Large, bright green, and curly. Turnip leaves are toothed and significantly longer than they are wide, with prominent stems.
Flowers: Bright yellow, somewhat resembling a buttercup.
Vegetables: The turnip itself grows underground, but you might see its purplish top poking out. The bottom of the turnip is white. They closely resemble rutabaga but are smaller.
Notable Characteristics: The flowers are unique, but you don’t want to see them! That means your plant has “bolted.”
Lookalikes: Very similar to rutabaga, but a bit smaller and brighter colored with less waxy leaves.
Seedling: Young zucchini quickly starts to produce the puckered, toothed leaves characteristic of the adult plant.
General Structure: Zucchini grows as a large-leaved bushy plant that quickly takes over parts of your garden. It has slightly hairy stems and leaves.
Leaves: Large, lobed, and pointy, zucchini leaves look like monstrous maple leaves. They are quite hairy!
Flowers: Like most squash flowers, zucchini flowers are yellowish orange and soft or even floppy.
Vegetables: Zucchini looks much like cucumbers. They’re long, green, rounded, and a bit wax.
Notable Characteristics: Look for the long, narrow, green zucchini. Luckily, cucumber (a close look-alike vegetable) looks nothing like zucchini as a plant!
Lookalikes: As another member of the squash family, zucchini resembles squash in most ways. It’s best to identify based on the vegetable produced.
So, are you feeling inspired now that you know these everyday vegetables have edible leaves?
You’ll find lots of modern, approachable recipes for all of these plants in my newest book, The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook: Recipes and Techniques for Whole Plant Cooking.
Buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Indigo, Book Depository (free shipping worldwide), or your local independent bookseller. (Tip: You can ask any bookseller to place an order for you. Support local!)
I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is. Read more »