Edible Landscaping Series: Turk's Cap
In the Edible Landscaping series, we take a look at plants that marry form with function. All plants in this series have value as beautiful landscaping plants, while also being useful for food or medicine. You can find out more about these practical plants and how to use them by attending one of my Practical Gardening workshops.
Turk's cap is in full bloom right now in my home state of Texas. Bright red, unique-looking blooms grow prolifically from the upper foliage of this hardy perennial. Turk's cap, also called Mexican apples, wax mallow, or Scotchman's purse, is favored as a landscaping plant because of its beauty, hardiness, and reliable performance through a range of climate and soil conditions. Hummingbird and butterflies also love Turk's Cap. This garden beauty's usefulness doesn't end there though. Turk's Cap shines as an edible plant, making it one of my favorite plants to have in a functional garden.
Growing Turk's Cap
Turk's cap loves the temperate states, generally growing well in USDA growing zones 7 and up. It will grow as a shrub if it can, usually about 3-5 feet high and as wide. Turk's cap prefers part shade and well-draining soil; however, the reason why this is such a popular landscaping plant is its versatility.
Turk's cap will grow in a range of soils, including sandy or black clay soils. My soil here in North Texas is primarily black clay, known for unbelievable stickiness when it's wet, and poodle-swallowing cracks when it's dry. The Turk's cap that I planted into this native soil wasn't the least bit intimidated by it.
Sun exposure also doesn't pose a big problem for this tough yet pretty native plant. Turk's cap prefers part shade, but it will grow in full shade or full sun if planted there. You can find it thriving around tree trunks, along porches, and in sunny flowerbeds. It's a highly adaptable plant.
I've read that being planted in full burning Texas sun can cause the plant to grow in a more leggy fashion than a shrub. My personal experience is somewhat counter to this. You can see my 2 year old Turk's cap in all of the photos in this article. It's well on its way to becoming a shrub, though I do have stems that grow about 5 feet high, giving the plant a slightly leggy look. Mine is planted towards the back of my flowerbed, but in full, west-facing sun conditions.
Turk's cap is drought tolerant, and very heat tolerant. It will appreciate regular watering though. Remember that in order to create as gorgeous a plant as possible in your garden, you want to mimic its ideal growing conditions as much as you can.
Red is the most common color, and is the wild type for this plant. Pink and white variants do also exist.
Depending on how mild the winter is, you can start to see new growth at the base of the plant in late winter or early spring. Turk's cap typically flowers in summer and fall. It will generate masses of blooms that keep on coming often deep into November. Once the cold temperatures hit, Turk's cap will lose its leaves and go dormant.
Caring for Turk's Cap
As mentioned already, while Turk's cap can tolerate a bit of drought, regular watering is best if possible.
This plant reseeds readily and can start to take over your garden if you let it. The blooms turn into small red fruits. If you don't want Turk's cap dominating your flowerbeds, then harvest those fruits before they shrivel and drop off of the plant. I'll get to what you can do with them in just a bit.
Once the cold temperatures hit, Turk's cap will lose it leaves. No need to dig it up. It's a perennial, so it should come back in early spring. I tend to clip mine down in late autumn to within about 5 inches of the ground. I have found that it benefits from annual clipping, growing back fuller the next season.
As far as making more little Turk's caps goes, root division, growing from seed, and softwood propagation all work nicely. If your Turk's cap is spreading a little too far, dig up a portion of the plant with roots attached, and give it away to a friend. You can also grow more from seed, or propagate more from cuttings. Turk's cap propagates so well in fact that many have had great success without the need for rooting hormone.
Turk's cap attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
Harvesting & Wild Foraging for Turk's Cap
The leaves, flowers, and fruit of Turk's cap are edible. How great is that! As if this plant wasn't worthy of being in your garden just for its beauty and resilience, it's also food.
The mineral-rich leaves are edible raw or cooked. They have a surprisingly light taste. They can be tough as they get older and larger though. Harvest the younger leaves to minimize this, and gently steam them to further reduce their texture. As a rule, you can treat Turk's cap leaves much as you would grape leaves.
The flowers are edible, raw or cooked. I find them to be slightly sweet, and a little mucilaginous like its relative, okra. You can toss them into salads for gorgeous color, or add them to pancakes and stir fries (at the last moment before tossing and serving). You can also use the flowers fresh or dried to make an herbal tea. The blooms are known to be high in antioxidants.
The small fruit of Turk's cap, known as Mexican apples, are sweet and safe to eat, including the seeds within. The fruit is ripe when it's red-orange in color. Eat them quickly! Unlike the "apples" that they're named for, Turk's cap fruit doesn't last long after picking. They will also drop off and reseed happily if you let them. The fruit is high in Vitamin C. In addition to fresh eating, you can make herbal tea and preserves with Turk's cap fruit.
Turk's cap is native to the Americas, found growing wild from the southern states of the U.S.A., through Mexico and Central America. It tends to prefer dappled sun and well-draining soil, so if you are wild foraging for Turk's cap, look in woodlands, along stream beds, and at the forest edges.
Don't forget the Rules of Foraging!
Responsible foragers always adhere to a few rules when they go out to collect wild edibles or medicinals.
Putting all of this information together, it's clear that Turk's cap, an Americas original, is a functional garden winner. It's beautiful, highly adaptable, easy to care for, and a food source. Foragers aren't left out either, as you can easily find it growing wild in temperate regions of the Americas. If you're a practical gardener who favors plants that perform on multiple levels, then give Turk's cap a try.
Health Disclaimer: You own yourself. Always do your research when trying out new foods, especially if you have a health condition, and/or are on prescription medications. Wild edibles are nutrient dense. Most of us are not used to that. Go slowly, not only to test for reaction, but also to give your body a chance to accustom to the richness of wild edibles. No information on this website should be considered medical advice, nor should the information here be considered a complete listing of all possible plant components or dangers. Neither Prairie Hawk Botanica nor Jennifer Capestany will be responsible for injury.
Author: Jennifer Capestany
Jennifer is a clinical herbalist and health coach, specializing in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Her interest in plant medicine led Jennifer to spend years studying herbology, physiology, and nutrition. She works one-on-one with her clients via her herbalist and health coaching business, Prairie Hawk Botanica. Jennifer lives on a homestead in rural Texas with her husband, 2 children, and various animals. In her spare time she loves to be in her large herb and vegetable garden. Sharing herb knowledge and her love of natural healing with others is her calling.
I'm Jennifer Capestany, a clinical herbalist and freelance writer with a practice in North Texas. Helping people deal as naturally as possible with rheumatoid arthritis, chronic illness and other chronic conditions is my calling.