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These indoor-outdoor houseplants are edible

Kaffir lime leaves
Jpbrigand2, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Kaffir lime leaves

Things are finally starting to warm up on the Outer Cape, which for years for Roe Osborn of Orleans has meant it’s time to move his collection of food trees from the living room to the back yard.

"This is a seedless orange tree," Roe shows me.

Osborn inherited the tree from a friend, who in 2005 left him with a collection of unusual — and edible — houseplants that he’s been slowly getting to know ever since.

"I used to get oranges on it and they'd be about the size of, of somewhere between a baseball and a golf ball. And I would just let them fall off, and I never actually tried them. And then a couple of years ago, I ended up with a dozen oranges on this little tiny tree, pulled one off, peeled it open. It was the most flavorful orange I'd ever had in my life. It's super, super good."

Osborn doesn’t know for sure what variety the tree is, but it’s about 5 feet tall and it looks like a Dwarf Washington Navel — and they’re one of the most popular indoor citrus trees not only because of their amazingly good fruit, but also, because they’re pretty low maintenance.

"I transplant it every ten years, whether I need to or not. I do prune it back. It goes through periods, it gets black spot on on leaves and I'll and I'll and, sometimes a branch will die and I'll prune it back. But not not much. It actually looks it looks healthier now than it's looked in a while."

So does the plant next to it, but when I move toward it, Osborn warns me not to get too close — it’s covered in huge, spiky thorns.

"Steer clear of this guy, this is a kaffir lime, and it actually, you’re not supposed to be able to eat the fruit of a kaffir lime, but they’re delicious, and they’re huge limes, they’re actually bigger than the oranges. And the leaves."

I was impressed.

"Smell that, you smell the lime, yeah?" Roe asked.

"So that’s an Indian cooking thing?" I said.

"Indian and East Asian, yes."

A few decades ago my dad bought an Indian cookbook called 660 Curries that he’s still working his way through, and ever since he’s been constantly on the lookout for these aromatic kaffir lime leaves. Osborn says even a small tree like his makes plenty — and there’s another bush next to it that he also keeps around for its leaves — but instead of curries, these ones are good for tea.

"I've had this lemon verbena tree for probably 25 years. And every year I keep it in the office in the winter, every year, it just it looks longingly at the, at the outdoors. And as soon as it's warm enough, I bring it out. I pollard it, take it all the way back."

Pollarding is an ancient method of tree tending — you cut the branches each winter to a set spot to encourage them to sprout new growth. And many trees respond well to this sort of regular cutting — including the sweet bay laurel which though its native to the Mediterranean can thrive here as long as it comes inside for the coldest months.

"It’s pretty hardy, I’ve had it outside down in the mid 20s and it’s been fine, just protests a little bit."

The smell of the bay laurel leaves is kind of like a cross between oregano and thyme, they’re the famous ones so many cooks add to pasta dishes and soups. Last but not least, Osborn shows me a new addition to his collection — an avocado plant that he’s still trying to figure out, but that he thinks likes the heat and the steam of the outdoor shower.

"This particular plant has grown at least two feet since I put it out in the shower, so I don't know. And it's as you see, it's got an extremely undersized pot, my wife and I are like, okay, now we got to figure out what we need to do to try to take them to the next level."

I’ve had avocado pits sprout out of my compost pile, though I’ve never brought one inside. A little internet sleuthing indicates that it is possible to get indoor avocado plants to bear fruit, but to have the best chance you want to buy a grafted dwarf tree — that way, not only will you get a known variety of avocado, it’ll also be less likely to grow through your roof. Most of the plants Osborn showed me were about 5 feet tall, manageable — but recently, a few have gotten too big, which he says is part of fun — after all that’s how he got them and it’s nice to share with a friend.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.