Trying to find garden greens you can grow in the summer in hot climates? Here’s a list of 14 greens that can grow all summer long no matter how hot it gets.
We live in the hot, humid southeast where daytime temperatures regularly stay in the mid-90s for weeks at a time. If you’re a cicada or a cactus, these are wonderful weather conditions.
However, our hot summers are not hospitable for any of the common greens we can grow in the cooler months: lettuce, spinach, kale… all quickly go to bolt (seed) and die out. The last of the standard greens to die off in our garden is kale, which is now flowering and near the end of its lifecycle in late June.
Kale florets are delicious, but the leaves take on a mustardy flavor due to heat stress and phytochemical changes the plant undergoes to defend its offspring against herbivores.
From July through early October, there’s virtually no chance of growing standard leafy greens outdoors in our climate. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of edible plant leaves/greens in our garden when it’s scorching hot outside…
14 greens you can grow in the summer in hot climates
If you live in a hot climate and are looking for greens you can grow in the summer, here are 14 plants for you to consider:
1. Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) leaves
Everyone knows what a sweet potato is and has probably eaten the tuberous roots of a sweet potato plant. However, not everyone realizes that sweet potato leaves are also edible.
In fact, some cultures grow sweet potato plants as much for the edible leaves as the tubers. Like many edible leaves, younger leaves are better-flavored and textured than more mature leaves.
Since sweet potato leaves have a relatively strong flavor, they’re better as a cooked green than eaten in salads. The stems are also edible. Unfortunately for us, the stems happen to be a favorite meal for one of our ducks when she manages to break into our sweet potato patch.
Warning: Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are a different species from actual potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). While sweet potato leaves are edible, potato leaves are NOT edible since they contain relatively high concentrations of solanine, a poisonous alkaloid.
2. Squash leaves (preferably winter squash)
Yes, summer and winter squash leaves are edible, and were likely a staple summer green for many Native American cultures. As we’ve written about elsewhere, all other parts of a squash plant are also edible — stems, flowers, fruit, and seed.
We’d recommend eating winter squash leaves rather than summer squash leaves, since they’re so much more prolific. And, yes, pumpkin is a type of winter squash.
Younger leaves offer the best flavor and texture. Older leaves are best cooked, especially since they tend to develop a spiny texture on the leaf stems. One good way to use them is to make cooked or pickled squash leaf wraps, similar to the Greek dish, Dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves).
3. Okra leaves
You no doubt know that okra pods (which are technically a fruit) are edible. In fact, you can’t claim to be from the south if you haven’t eaten fried okra. (Although we much prefer oven-baked okra.)
Two other neat things about okra:
- If you accidentally let the pods get too mature and tough to eat, you can still dry and grind up the seeds to make a very tasty tea.
- Okra leaves are edible too.
Like squash leaves, okra leaves have small spines on their stems so they’re best used as a cooked green.
We’ve previously written about how to use the wonderful native plant, Tradescantia virginiana, in the kitchen. All parts of the plant are edible: flowers, flower bud clusters (our favorite edible part), stems, and leaves.
Tradescantia is a perennial that grows throughout the warm months and dies back to the ground in winter. It doesn’t skip a beat in the summer months.
Do keep in mind that there are a lot of different plant species lumped under the name “spiderwort,” and we’re specifically referencing Tradescantia virginiana regarding edibility.
5. Amaranth & Quinoa
Amaranth is another plant native to the Americas. The most common ones you see in the wild are weeds, derisively referred to as pigweed, which are loathed by farmers.
Amaranth is primarily known for its edible “grain” (a pseudocereal) but the leaves are also edible. There has also been a lot of breeding work done to improve the flavor and texture of amaranth leaves in recent decades. Search for “leaf amaranth” if you want to get the best cultivars for colorful salad greens.
Amaranth tastes very similar to spinach, which is also in the Amaranthaceae plant family.
Everything we’ve written here about amaranth also applies to quinoa, its close relative. Organic plant breeder Frank Morton and his crew at Wild Garden Seed have some gorgeous quinoa varieties available for both greens and seed.
6. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Purslane, aka Portulaca, is an edible succulent that seems to have spread everywhere in the world humans have gone. One of the great things about purslane is it can grow in terrible soil and drought, so it’s incredibly low maintenance.
The stems, leaves, and flowers are all edible (raw or cooked) and are loaded with Vitamins E and C. The leaves are mild with a slight tangy, salty flavor.
The thick, meaty texture of purslane leaves makes them ideal as a pickling veggie as well.
7. Jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum)
Jewels of Opar is native to the Americas and another succulent — although the leaves aren’t quite as thick-textured as purslane.
It’s one of the most beautiful shrubby plants in our edible landscape, since the plant sends up long flower stalks dotted with multi-colored fruits (edible but tasteless) that look just like miniature jewels. Hence the plants common name, Jewels of Opar, which was borrowed from Tarzan.
Be warned that those “jewels” contain lots of seeds so this plant can spread quickly in your garden in subsequent years. They’re also perennial plants.
Jewel of Opar leaves are very mild, but somewhat mucilaginous. We eat them raw or cooked, like spinach.
8. Malabar spinach (Basella alba)
Nope, ‘Malabar spinach’ is not a true spinach. It’s actually a vining, tropical crop plant from Asia, but it grows vigorously in our South Carolina garden, coming back from seed each year.
Malabar spinach has thick, spinach-flavored leaves that are slightly mucilaginous. Young leaves can be eaten raw, but the older leaves are best added to soups and stews, where they also serve as a thickener.
See our delicious recipe: African groundnut stew (Maafe) with malabar spinach.
The most striking feature of this vining plant is its beautiful dark purple berries (drupes). They’re edible when young, but the mature berries are flavorless. Great for dying, not eating.
9. Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
Moringa is technically a perennial tropical tree. However, it’s so fast growing that it can be grown as an annual green (and “bean”) crop in warm US climates.
Start moringa seeds indoors in containers in winter then transplant out a few weeks after last frost in spring. You can begin harvesting the flavorful, mildly mustard-flavored leaves by ~July. Y
Moringa also produces edible flowers which develop into pods, which look like beans (although it’s not a legume). The pods are best eaten young. However, if you want to grow moringa as an annual, let some of the pods mature so you can start seeds again the following winter.
First year moringa flower/pod production is relatively low. We have a 2+ year old moringa tree growing in a container that we recently transplanted in-ground due to its unhappiness in a relatively small container.
Moringa has gained popularity in the west in recent years as a “superfood,” e.g. a food with exceptionally high nutrition/vitamin levels. Moringa leaves are a great addition to a vegetarian diet since they’re exceptionally high in protein (over 9 grams in a 3.5 ounce serving), plus Vitamins A, C, B2, and B6; Magnesium and Iron.
Moringa leaf tablets are often recommended to nursing moms as a galactagogue to increase milk production, which it’s commonly used for in Asia.
10. Lambs quarters (Chenopodium album)
A close relative of amaranth and quinoa (same plant family), lambs quarters are my personal favorite summer green on this list. That’s because I love the raw leaf flavor; it’s basically a 6′ tall vertical spinach plant that loves scorching hot weather. And we’ve never had to plant lambs quarters – they grow wild all around our property every summer.
Lambs quarter pesto is perhaps my favorite application for the leaves, but they’re also great made into raw salads. Like amaranth, lambs quarters also produces an edible high protein grain/pseudocereal, but we’ve never tried to gather enough for a meal, opting to let them seed out to make future plants.
This plant is also considered a weed in the US, and generally loathed by farmers. Like wild amaranth, it is also lumped into the “pigweed” category. Humorously, upscale restaurants have started featuring lambs quarters on their menus, driving the price of this weed up far beyond conventional crop plants on a per pound basis.
11. Sylvetta arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia)
Nope, this is not the same plant as annual arugula (Eruca vesicaria), the common cool-weather leafy green. In our climate, annual arugula goes to bolt and dies out by April, right around the time that Sylvetta arugula (a perennial) starts kicking into high gear.
Sylvetta arugula has other common names as well, such as ‘wild rocket’. Sylvetta has a similar taste to annual arugula, but more mustardy heat. The spicy-heat is actually caused by the cancer-fighting compounds ferulic acid and sinapic acid.
Sylvetta arugula has to have its heat tamed, but it’s wonderful in certain applications. Fats (round molecules that coat the heat receptors on your tongue) seem to be an essential ingredient to do just that. While bacon is rarely consumed in our house, The Tyrant demands a BLT with heirloom tomatoes, duck egg mayonnaise, 5-minute whole wheat artisanal bread, and Sylvetta arugula several times throughout the summer growing season.
Homemade honey mustard salad dressings with extra virgin olive oil also do a nice job of taming Sylvetta arugula’s heat.
A leafy green that tastes like lemons? Yep, meet sorrel.
Nope, we’re not referring to Oxalis species here, commonly called “wood sorrel,” which looks similar to clover (and is also edible and lemon-flavored). We’re referring to species in the Rumex genus.
The two sorrel species currently growing — and thriving — in our summer garden are:
- Wild sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), native to Europe and the Mediterranean, grows wild throughout the US where it’s considered an invasive weed. They grow wild in certain areas of our yard, and can take over a bed if you let them via underground runners or from seed.
- Common sorrel, aka garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), is a bred variety also originating from Europe and the Mediterranean. The plants are perennials that can live for decades. This is our favorite cultivated variety that’s growing in our garden.
We’d suggest you intentionally grow ‘garden sorrel’ (Rumex acetosa), not sheep’s sorrel. To learn more about growing and using these plants, read our article Sorrel: a plant that tastes like lemons but has more Vitamin C.
13. Leaf chicory (Cichorium intybus)
We often see leaf chicory sold in grocery stores as “dandelions.” Although these plants are both asters, they’re separate, distinct species.
Similar to lettuce, chicory has been bred into a wide variety of shapes and sizes for various uses. There are compact chicories (radicchio) that look like small cabbages, some that grow like Romaine lettuce, root chicories, and leaf chicories.
Chicory has the added benefit of being a short-lived perennial (3-5 years). It has long taproots so is able to endure poor soil and drought better than any other green we know of.
Chicory sends up tall 3-4 tall flower stalks with gorgeous blue flowers in the summer. You can leave these for pollinators or continue to cut them back as they emerge to boost summer leaf production.
Downside: leaf chicory is relatively bitter, and the bitter flavor increases in the summer (it’s less bitter and sweeter in the winter). Over time, we’ve cultivated our palates to enjoy bitter greens, especially in mixed green salads.
If bitter isn’t for you, cook chicory like the Italians do. Give it a quick 1-2 minute boiling/blanching, strain it, then saute it with olive oil, garlic, and salt. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice when plating.
Side note: our ducks absolutely love chicory and we make sure to grow it along with other plants we grow specifically to spoil our poultry. If you have backyard ducks, this is a plant you’ll want to have in your garden.
14. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Milkweed? Isn’t that poisonous? The stuff that Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat?
Yes, some milkweed species are highly poisonous. Yes, it’s the plant that Monarch butterflies depend on for their survival.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is not, but there are caveats to consider. We have a detailed guide all about how to grow, harvest, and eat Common milkweed – and how to do it while helping Monarchs.
Common milkweed is increasingly becoming one of our favorite veggies due to its many edible parts, delicious unique flavors, and length of harvest season. The tender young leaves are also edible when cooked, and the plants continue to produce them well into summer.
Help Monarchs while eating garden veggies? Yes, please! Also, here’s a favorite summer recipe that includes Common milkweed leaves: Orzo with chanterelle mushrooms and Common milkweed.
We hope this article helps you get more garden-fresh greens into your summer diet. Enjoy!
Other tasty articles you’ll love:
- The easiest fruit to grow organically in the southeast (30+ species!)
- 50+ plants you can grow in your SHADE garden
- 16 incredible edible wild flowers
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Christine from Friction FarmJune 15, 2021 at 3:19 pm
Day lilies are edible – leaves and flowers. Young sassafras leaves are also good
Aaron von FrankJune 16, 2021 at 12:04 pm
Thanks Christine! Day lily leaves are best when they’re young and tender; just emerging. For us, that’s in late winter through early spring, not summer. By summer, our day lily leaves are too mature and fibrous to be used as a green. The flowers are delicious though – we eat them nightly this time of year. As for sassafras: that is another wonderful edible, albeit from a perennial tree. If I’m not mistaken, sassafras leaves are better as a flavoring for things like tea and file (spice for gumbo) than as a fresh-eating or cooked green. Do you have experience eating sassafras leaves in the summer? If so, any eating tips?