Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

The Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs Tour

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On the fence

It’s only a month until the publication of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, and in true plant hunter style I am donning my pith helmet and setting off on an adventure, exploring the digital world oin my virtual book tour.

I don’t have to go too far today, as I’m hosting a special edition of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show, including a reading from the book. Here’s the tentative schedule for the rest of the tour, which will shape up as the month continues (shout if you’d like to fill an empty slot):

I’m also tweeting and updating the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs Facebook page with related content.

You can preview the book over at Smashwords, and it’s available to pre-order on NOOK.

If you’re writing about the book, you can find cover images and photos of me that you can link to or download on the book homepage.

Posted in Blog on Apr 1, 2014 ·

Last modified on Aug 31, 2014

Tags: books & unusual.

March Berry-go-round: Unusual edible plants

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Welcome to the March edition of the Berry-go-round, a blog carnival devoted to all that’s wonderful and intriguing about Earth’s flora. This month I set a theme of “Unusual Edible Plants”, and bloggers from far and wide duly rose to the challenge.

Tamarisk Tree
Tamarisk Tree, by Robert Wallace, on Flickr

Gravity’s Rainbow took the opportunity to bring our attention to a post from the archives. Invasive species – making the best of a bad situation raises an important issue. What do we do about introduced species that turn out to be invasive in their new environment? Control of these species is often a costly, and largely impossible, task. Perhaps putting them to good use would be a better use of our resources?

Licorice seedlings, from tangent ramblings

The licorice seedlings Jeanette from tangent ramblings is growing with Aspirations of a licorice harvest are unlikely to cause any weed problems – the roots will be far too tasty to leave in the ground. And what is Jeanette planning on doing with the resulting bounty? Brewing licorice beer!

Quercus agrifolia
Coast Live Oak, by Eric Hunt, on Flickr

If brewing your own licorice beer from scratch sounds like hard work, then you’re going to be exhausted just reading about how to make acorn atole, over at In the Company of Plants and Rocks. The title spells it out: Acorn atole – not a convenience food. But acorn flour was a staple food of Native Americans in California, when they had no option but to grind, leech and bake their acorn harvest by hand. The result was a highly nutritious, and long-storing food. These days it’s only made for special occasions, even though modern technology makes the process much easier.

Ackee fruit by Loren Sztajer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It’s the presence of tannins that makes the process of processing acorns so laborious. The ackee fruit brings food preparation to a whole new level – as Nature’s Poisons points out, ackee fruit are both deadly and delicious. A native of West Africa, ackee was brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century, and now forms one half of Jamaica’s famous ackee and saltfish dish.

Only the fleshy arilli are eaten, with the rest of the fruit discarded. Even then, you’re not entirely safe – the flesh is poisonous unless completely ripe, and the US bans importation of fresh ackee in the hope of avoiding poisoning cases.

Muskatnuss / nutmeg / noix de muscade /
Nutmeg, by Carmen Eisbär, on Flickr

You may be wondering why people go to such lengths to eat potentially poisonous foods, but in all likelihood you have one or two kicking around in your kitchen at home. Compound Interest has done a lovely article on the hallucinogen in your kitchen – the chemistry of nutmeg this month. Although nutmeg does get some attention as a possible “legal high”, ingesting more than a couple of muffin’s worth in one go is probably a bad idea, and Compound Interest tells us why.

Andean Roots, from Radix

As this month’s Berry-go-round has largely been a round-up of the time consuming and terrifying aspects of unusual plants, I’m going to end on a happier note :)

The wondrous Radix blog, home of the internet’s resident expert on all aspects of edible buried treasure, has recently celebrated its fifth birthday. As a special treat for us, Rhizowen wrote up a summary of everything his root crop research and ruminations have produced so far, in Radix: Alive at Five. Oca, mauka, ulluco and ahipa are just some of the unusual underground edibles he covers.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s round-up of planty goodness. Keep an eye on the Berry-go-round blog to find out where we’re headed next month :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 31, 2014 ·

Tags: ethnobotany & unusual.

Carl Legge's Oca pizza recipe

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As promised, an exclusive new oca pizza recipe from Carl Legge. I also have instructions on how to grow oca, if you’re giving it a go this year.

oca tubers

Oca is a very tasty and useful vegetable tuber. It grows well for me in North Wales. It’s good ground cover and polycrops well with taller partners such as tomatoes. Fresh picked and raw, many varieties have a lemony (oxalic acid) taste which goes after exposure to the sun. The cooked taste is sweet. The texture ranges from that of a slightly less crunchy water chestnut to a soft puree which depends on the variety and how much you’ve cooked them.

Cooked they can be steamed, boiled, roasted, fried or sauteed. They can be used in sweet or savoury dishes and preserved or frozen.

When we first started to grow them in 2011, I tried to find traditional recipes for them, without much success. Lost Crops of the Incas says that: “In Mexico, oca is commonly sprinkled with salt, lemon, and hot pepper, and eaten raw.” The other recipes for them I could find were for roasted oca, or oca used in meat stews.

So I thought I’d have a go at producing a set of new recipes for oca in its new home. I’ve already written about Oca Homity Pie and Warm Oca Salad.

Here I give you oca used as a pizza topping. I think this is a first on the internet, although I’m very happy to be proved wrong.

This is delicious! The oca are sweet and they have a little bite still. I think the oca look like jewels: the colour variation with fresh coriander garnish certainly makes a visually striking pizza.

oca pizza

Oca Pizza Recipe

This makes one pizza of about 23cm (9 inches) circumference.

Pizza is best cooked in an oven as hot as you can get it, with the oven shelf in the top half. So preheat your oven to at least 230°C, higher if you can. I cook my pizzas on baking paper on a granite baking stone. If you’re not lucky enough to have a baking stone or a pizza stone, make the pizza up on oiled greaseproof paper or tinfoil and then place on a pre-heated oven tray to cook. This will give you a nice crisp bottom.

This pizza is great at room temperature too.


For the topping

350g of oca, cleaned and any damage cut away
Some pesto (any of basil, wild garlic, rocket will do) or parsley persillade or similar (there are recipes in The Permaculture Kitchen for these)
200g mozzarella
1-2tsp ground coriander (best if freshly done with coriander seed)
1/3-1/2 nutmeg, finely grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olilve oil
Fresh coriander to garnish

For the pizza

This quantity of dough makes enough for two 23cm (9 inch) pizzas. It’s not really worth doing any less. So make a second pizza with another topping, or cover and pop in the fridge to make a pizza or garlic bread the next day.

500g of strong white bread flour (or Typo ’00 flour)
5g (1tsp) fast action yeast
5g (tsp) finely ground sea salt
30g (1tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
350g warm water (it’s best to weigh for accuracy)


Make the pizza dough first.

Pop all the ingredients together in a bowl. You can use your hands, a food processor, or a stand mixer with dough hook. Mix the ingredients together until all the flour is wet and the ingredients are well incorporated. The dough will be sticky, don’t worry. The wetter dough helps you get a thinner base. Cover and leave in a warm place for 10 minutes.

Then do a quick knead of the dough like this. Bring the top (North) of the dough to the middle. Then do the same with East, South and West parts. Then do North-East, South-East, South-West and North-West. I call this a ‘Compass Knead’. Cover again and leave in a warm place for 10 minutes.

Then do another Compass Knead and leave, covered in a warm place for 10 minutes. Do one final Compass Knead and leave in a warm place for 30-50 minutes until the dough has risen by 50-100%.

The dough is now ready to use. You can keep it in the fridge, covered until you need to use it.

While the dough is proving you can prepare the oca.

Steam the oca for 5 minutes and allow to cool. If you don’t have a steamer improvise with a sieve or colander over a saucepan, or just put 5mm of boiling water into a pan and pop the oca in there, cook covered and then drain & cool. The vibrance of the colours fades a little, so don’t worry.

Cut the oca lengthways in half.

Now assemble the pizza (your oven is preheated isn’t it? And if you need a heated oven tray, you’ve got that in too?).

Get your oiled greaseproof paper or tinfoil ready. You may find that it’s easier to handle the dough if you oil your hands.

Divide the dough in two. Make one of the parts of the dough into a rough flat disc with your hands and pop the other in the fridge, covered.

pizza dough

Place the dough disc in the middle of your paper or tinfoil and then gently press and the dough into the shape you want. Coax it, you want to gently stretch it into shape and size, not tear it. You can make a little border round the edge to keep everything in place.

Then take your pesto or similar (I used wild garlic pesto) and spread it thinly over the pizza base, but not the edges.

Arrange your oca halves prettily over the base with the cut side down. Press the oca in slightly to fix.

Tear the mozzarella into small walnut sized pieces and arrange these between the oca, overlapping them slightly.

Sprinkle the ground coriander and grate the nutmeg over the oca and mozzarella. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Drizzle a little extra virgin oilve oil over the pizza.

raw pizza

Pop the pizza onto your hot oven tray or baking stone and bake until the dough is brown and crisp and the mozzarella is nicely melted and has some colour.

oca pizza

Sprinkle over some fresh coriander leaves to garnish and lift the flavours and tuck in.

Simple and delicious, I hope you enjoy it.

There are recipes for delicious pizzas and much more in The Permaculture Kitchen.

Carl is launching his new book, The Permaculture Kitchen at the Edible Garden Show today, so if you’re going then make sure to seek him! If, like me, you can’t make it to the show this year then you can buy a signed copy direct from Carl, and there are details on his website.

Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation
Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation, Board on Science and Technology for
International Development, National Research Council
ISBN: 0-309-54691-5, 428 pages, 6 × 9, (1989)

Posted in Blog on Mar 29, 2014 ·

Tags: food & unusual.

How to grow oca

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Oca seed tubers

For my Masters dissertation last year I did some research into gardeners who choose to grow unusual edible crops. I settled on two species to investigate, achocha and oca. In the past I’ve written about how to grow achocha – it’s a nice, easy plant and in a temperate climate you should have no problems getting a significant yield. You may have more of a problem dealing with the glut….

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa ) isn’t quite as simple. It’s increasingly easy to get hold of tubers in the UK, with them being marketed as very similar to potatoes – but without the risk of your plants being devastated by blight. But my research showed that many of the people who do try oca find their yields to be very disappointing. So how do you grow oca for the best results?

In its homeland, the Andes, oca is known only as a cultivated plant; it’s closest wild relative is still a bit of a mystery. There are lots of different varieties planted there; they come in different colours, and they’re used for different purposes*. Some have been bred to be eaten raw, some are best when cooked and still others are bitter and have to be processed into a dried starch product before they can be consumed. Some varieties are used more like a fruit than a vegetable. Oca is quite popular in New Zealand, where it’s known as the ‘New Zealand Yam’. Here in the UK you’re likely to have a choice of perhaps three or four varieties, sold by their colour. Who knows what they might have been used for traditionally? We’re not off to a flying start.

The problem is that oca is sensitive to day length. In the UK they only begin to produce tubers when the days begin to get shorter, and they’re frost sensitive. Selecting varieties that might crop here at all is a problem, although there are some amateur breeding efforts underway (and I’m looking at Radix when I say that) to develop a day neutral variety that will find life here easier.

Oca tubers chitting

So, given that this isn’t currently a plant that’s ideally suited to life in the UK, how do you get the best out of it? Essentially, oca is grown in the same way as potatoes. You can store tubers in breathable bags until it’s time to plant them out in spring, and if they start to sprout too soon you can leave them on the windowsill to chit in the light. When the risk of frost has passed, plant them out about 30 cm apart, under the soil like potatoes.

Since the tubers on oca form in a similar way to those on potatoes, it’s thought that earthing them up (piling extra soil on top of the plant once the foliage starts breaking through) will help to increase yields. However, you don’t have to worry about sunlight causing inedible green patches on oca tubers – they don’t have the toxins you’d find in green potatoes.

You can also eat oca leaves; they’ll have a similar flavour to sorrel, due to the presence of oxalic acid. Removing too many will affect your tuber yield; you might want to set aside some plants for leaf production and some for tuber production, if you want good harvests of both.

In the event of a heat wave, or a drought, you will find your oca suffer. They don’t like hot weather, and will sulk. Provide some shade, and plenty of water, to keep them happy. If blight strikes down your potatoes, the oca will be just fine. Traditional cultivation systems intercrop oca with other plants. Other tubers are a common choice, including mashua, ulluco and even potatoes. Sweetcorn is another option (and would provide some shade). In the Andes, oca is often grown with alliums to ward off pests, but they’re not bothered by much in the UK. Oca should thrive in a cottage garden style arrangement, mixed in with both ornamentals and herbs.

Research has shown that there’s a positive correlation between leaf size and tuber harvest, so it’s worth feeding your oca to promote leafy growth (or ensuring they are planted in hearty soil). Feeding will also affect their nutritional value, mainly their protein content. Oca tubers are known to contain twice as much vitamin C and calcium as potatoes, with a similar carbohydrate content. Oxalic acid levels are lower in the tubers than in the leaves, and the highest levels found in tubers are 7 times lower than the lowest levels found in spinach – so they won’t cause any problems at all in a varied diet.

Frosty oca

The difference between oca and potatoes becomes apparent at harvest time. Whereas you can dig some varieties of potato early in the season, and maincrops from late summer into early autumn, oca tubers don’t start to form until the nights get longer. And so you wait until the first frosts have killed off the foliage. And then you wait another couple of weeks, and then you dig up your harvest. If early frosts are forecast you can protect your plants with fleece. If you grow them in containers (and, like potatoes, they are reasonably happy in containers if well-fed) you can move them indoors.

Oca container

Eat the best tubers from your harvest and keep the smaller ones for replanting. Some of the varieties in the Andes are left out in the sun for a few days after harvesting to make them sweeter. Will that work in the UK? We don’t know – there’s rarely enough sun at that time of year, and we don’t know which varieties we have ;) You could try it. Oca can be used in all the same ways as potatoes, and also eaten raw. Their oxalic acid content gives them a slightly sharp flavour, often referred to as ‘lemony’. Carl Legge has developed an exclusive oca recipe for us, to promote his new book (The Permaculture Kitchen), and that’s coming up in the next few days, so keep your eyes peeled.

Oca flowers

Breeding efforts rely on the production of seed, not tubers. Oca isn’t known for flowering and setting seed easily – in fact, you will need two or more compatible varieties for pollination to take place. If you do get seed then collecting it can be tricky – the pods tend to shatter and scatter seed on the ground. However, seedlings will grow from self-sown seed, and can be transplanted. If you collect seed then germination takes around 19 days. You can also root stems in water as another means of propagation. If you develop a variety you like, you can of course then propagate it via tubers from year to year.

So… growing oca is exactly like growing potatoes. Except, it’s not really. But they’re pretty plants, with lovely tubers and who doesn’t like trying new things? If you need oca tubers, the two main suppliers in the UK are Real Seeds (with several different varieties) and T&M. You may also find them via smaller suppliers, local seed swaps or your internet gardening pals. And if you’re interested in unusual edibles in general, have a look at my forthcoming book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, which will be right up your street.

If you’ve grown oca, and got a good crop, what’s your top tip for growing them?

*That’s also true of potatoes, by the way. The Andes are a very interesting place if you’re a fan of tubers and unusual root crops.

King, S. R. (1988). Economic botany of the Andean tuber crop complex Lepidium meyenii, Oxalis tuberosa, Tropaeolum tuberosum and Ullucus tuberosus (Doctoral dissertation, City University of New York).

Posted in Blog on Mar 25, 2014 ·

Tags: unusual & veg.

First day of spring

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Devil's claw

If you haven’t already seen it, check out Google’s doodle for today. To celebrate the spring equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, they’ve got a little cartoon human watering the plants. They grow pretty fast – must be weeds ;)

It’s a work day, so I won’t be celebrating the first day of spring by doing any gardening, but I did get out to the allotment at the weekend to make some progress there. Ryan helped me to set up my water butt in a new (but still temporary) location. It doesn’t have a downpipe feeding into it as I don’t have a shed, but it will collect some water when it rains. Ryan also helped me to dig out some unwanted rootballs; I inherited a thriving population of thornless blackberries when I took on the plot, and if I don’t thin them down I won’t have any room to grow anything else!

I brought home some potting compost in which to sow some seeds – three varieties of sweet pepper (F1 Sunshine, Tequila Sunrise and Corno di Toro Rosso) plus Garnet, which is bred for drying and grinding into paprika. The white sprouting broccoli and flower sprouts I sowed on Sunday have already germinated and are pushing up little seedlings on my office windowsill (brassicas being the speed freaks of the seed world). Like the peppers, my final sowing will take a little longer. Ibicella lutea syn Proboscidea lutea is a variety of Devil’s Claw or martynia. These plants grow hard, spiny seed pods that are shaped like caltrops and stick into the feet of animals. It’s their means of seed dispersal. That would be enough to make them interesting, but those same seed pods are edible when immature, and can be turned into pickles.

I don’t know of anyone who has tried growing Devil’s Claws, so if you have then do let me know in the comments. You can read more about my adventures in growing unusual edible plants (and the characters I’ve met along the way) in my new ebook, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs. The official release date is 1st May 2014 and you can preview the book at Smashwords. It’s also now available for pre-order from the NOOK book store!

Posted in Blog on Mar 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Mar 20, 2014

Tags: allotment & unusual.

Potatoes, tomatoes, pomatoes, tomtatoes

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If you get déjà-vu when reading this article, it’s because I recorded it for the latest edition of The Alternative Kitchen Garden Show :)

Tomato flowers

It looks as though spring might be on its way in the northern hemisphere, and gardeners’ thoughts are turning towards tomatoes and potatoes. You may have already sown your first tomato seeds; your seed potatoes may be chitting on the windowsill. But what if you could get both potatoes and tomatoes from the same plant?

Last autumn, the T&M seed company here in the UK announced, with great fanfare, a world exclusive. Their new “Tom Tato” plants grow both cherry tomatoes and white potatoes – happy in a large pot, the idea is that gardeners who are short on room can get two crops from the same space. It’s not even GM technology; Tom Tato plants are chimeras, two plants grafted together so that they grow as one. It’s no more high tech than than the grafting used to produce fruit tree varieties on different root stocks.

But it’s not a cheap option – a Tom Tato plant will set you back £15, although that does include a pack of tomato fertiliser. It sounds like an intriguing plant to grow, but before you open your wallets and splash the cash let me tell you that the Tom Tato is really nothing new, that similar plants are available at cheaper prices, and that if you’re handy you could splice one together yourself.

The pomato was first developed in the 1930s. Because potatoes and tomatoes are so closely related, it’s a simple matter to graft them together. They have been mostly thought of as novelties, although according to James Wong they are now being seriously considered as a way to increase the yields of subsistence farmers in developing nations like Kenya and Vietnam.

Stephen Shirley of Victoriana Nursery Gardens says that they have been growing and selling tomtato plants since 1975. You can order online from him with a single plant costing just £2.70 and delivery expected to start in mid April.

As a bona-fide expert on the subject, I asked Stephen to answer some questions I had on the subject of tomtatoes. His website description mentions planting the tomato in the pot in which it is supplied, and then lifting the whole pot at the end of the season. Stephen confirms that it’s a regular plastic pot, which easily splits as the potatoes develop, and allows them to break out into the surrounding soil. Planting the whole pot in this manner protects the potato roots, and makes life very easy for the gardener. You then just need to remove the remains of the pot when you dig up your potatoes at the end of the season, and recycle it.

If you grow a tomtato you can expect to see both tomato and potato foliage, but the tomato top growth will take over and the potato foliage won’t be as vigorous as it would be if it was on its own.

Stephen usually uses indeterminate tomato varieties, which means you’ll need to pinch out the side shoots to promote a good crop, as you would for a regular tomato plant.

If you remember that you’re expecting two crops from your tomtato, and keep feeding and watering it appropriately, then Stephen reckons your tomato crop should be of a good size. You can’t expect as large a potato harvest, though – perhaps 50% of what you’d get if it was solely a potato plant.

And there’s a big problem in that both tomatoes and potatoes are susceptible to a disease called late blight, which is caused by a fungus-like organism that tends to strike in warm, humid weather. If there’s blight around, a tomtato is going to catch it – you may be better off trying to grow them under cover.

Blighted potatoes

As Dr David Shaw of the Savari Trust points out, grafting tomatoes onto disease-resistant rootstocks (even aubergine roots) is a routine procedure, very common in South East Asia. He points out that a tomtato or a pomato is only likely to thrive and be productive if it’s made from two blight-resistant varieties. You can’t buy such a plant at the moment, but you could try making your own. Garden Organic have some instructions for making pomatoes on their website, which begin with sowing seeds and planting seed potatoes for blight resistant varieties. Once you have two plants at a similar stage of growth, the technique really only involves carefully wounding both stems and binding them together. Once the joined plant starts to grow, you can remove the tomato roots and the potato haulm. So if you really want to grow tomtatoes this year, you have the choice of buying a plant, or creating your own.

This neatly brings us round to an item of science news that has been much discussed in the media recently. Scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory, here in the UK, announced that they had successfully used GM techniques to insert a gene from a wild potato relative into a popular variety of potato (Desiree), which had given it blight resistance.

GM crops aren’t licensed for sale in the EU, and so these spuds won’t be appearing on supermarket shelves any time soon. GM is a hotly debated technology, and in this particular case some of the opposition stems from the fact that we already have blight-resistant potato varieties that have been conventionally bred. With Sárpo varieties on offer, do we need GM blight-resistant potatoes?

The scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory think we do, as Sárpo varieties aren’t a mainstream crop. They think it’s better to make the varieties we grow blight-resistant than to change the varieties we grow. The Savari Trust beg to differ; they are currently raising money via crowd-funding to bring Sárpo varieties to a wider audience. Their campaign is in its last few hours, and if you want to help you can donate, or lend them money (with interest payable in seed potatoes!). You can also make sure you buy their seed potatoes if you’re growing spuds this year, and let your local supermarket know you’d like to see these varieties on shelves. Thompson & Morgan are the main supplier via mail order; you may also find Sárpo seed potatoes on sale in your local garden centre or on offer at a potato day event.

Sárpo Mira potatoes

I grew Sárpo Mira on my allotment last year. Despite being horribly neglected as I finished my degree and moved out of my house, they thrived. It was fun to watch them stay healthy as the varieties my fellow allotmenteers had chosen to plant got cut down by blight. And we enjoyed eating the harvest! I will be growing Sárpo potatoes again this year – in fact, I have invested some money with them, so I will be planting my interest for the next few years.

As far as I’m aware, Sárpo varieties are currently only available in the UK. The Savari Trust would like to make them more globally available – it’s on their To Do list when they have the funding. If you’ve already bought your seed potatoes this year then you might be able to help the project in a different way. Last summer they were collecting samples of blight from all over the country. If you suspect your spuds have been hit, later in the year, you can send them a leaf or two for their collection. They are investigating which strains of blight are present in the UK, how they are evolving and, of course, whether the new Sárpo varieties under development are maintaining their resistance.

Posted in Blog on Mar 13, 2014 ·

Tags: veg & unusual.

Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is available for preview!

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It’s World Book Day, which seems an opportune moment to announce that my new book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs has been accepted by Smashwords, and is now available to preview! The official publication date is 1st May 2014.

Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs tells the story of some unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them. It’s a guide book to the world of unusual edible plants, whether they are old or new, rarely grown or from somewhere far flung. It looks at the history of plant hunters moving these plants around the world, and tells the stories of modern day enthusiasts, showcasing some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you being your own journey into this intriguing world.

It has been a long time in the making, and I’m thrilled to bits that it will soon be published and available for you to read.

Smashwords distribute the book in various formats, including ePub and Kindle. There’s a PDF version if you don’t have an e-reader, and you can also read online at the Smashwords site. They have a system they call the ‘Meatgrinder’ to transform Word files into ebooks, which has been an interesting experience. There were some quirks that only showed up in one format or another; hopefully now all the odd page breaks and badly-rendered accents have disappeared. Over the next few days it should make its way out on pre-order to Apple, Barnes and Nobel, Sony and other places I probably don’t know about yet! Keep an eye out for it in your favourite ebook store (which doesn’t yet include Amazon, but you can order a Kindle version via Smashwords). During the pre-order period you can get your hands on a copy for $2.99; once the book is published I will be raising the price to $3.99 (still a bargain!).

So hop on over to Smashwords to check the book out, and get your copy hot off the virtual presses on 1st May! In the meantime, I am adding related content to the book’s Facebook page and Twitter. If you’re not a fan of either than you can keep an eye on my linklog.

I’m planning on doing a proper press release in due course, but if you’re a member of the press and you’d like to talk to me about the book (or you’re a blogger and you’d like to host me during my virtual book tour then drop my PR monkey an email.

Posted in Blog on Mar 6, 2014 ·

Last modified on Mar 6, 2014

Tags: books & unusual.

March Berry-Go-Round

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This month I am hosting the Berry Go Round, a blog carnival devoted to showcasing blog posts about any aspect of planty goodness. The Berry Go Round…

“… covers all thing botanical. That is, featured articles should just be about plants, from cells & chemistry to plant ecology and communities. Pictures can also be submitted whenever a minimum amount of information is given (such as scientific name, family and the like), and recipes may also be featured if the main ingredient is a plant and provided a decent botanical account follows.”

Since I’m hosting I get to pick the theme :) and as the publication date for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs draws ever closer, I have chosen Unusual Edible Plants. So if you have a blog post on that topic that you’d like to submit to the carnival – or you have a new post forming in your brain as you read this – then bookmark the submission form now. The closing date for entries is 26th March 2014, and I’ll post a round-up by the end of the month.

If you’re new to the Berry Go Round then check out the February round-up, which is all about botanical warfare :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 4, 2014 ·

Tags: unusual & carnival.

Eden Project Christmas Gifts

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I’ve done some of my Christmas shopping at the Eden Project for the last few years. Sometimes (like this year) I am lucky enough to be able to go down and do it in person; other years I have to order via their online shop. There are two three reasons I shop with the Eden Project:

  1. They’re a charity and I heartily agree with their plant education remit. I think they get the ‘people need plants’ message across very well. It’s also a very nice place to visit, and one that I am happy to support.

  2. Everything they chose to sell is environmentally-friendly and sustainable and, where possible, locally sourced. You can shop there without feeling guilty.

  3. And they have some really cool stuff.

Websites at this time of year are crammed with articles telling you what to buy, or what not to buy for the gardener in your life this Christmas, so I’m not going to do that. Instead I am going to tell you what I would like for Christmas :)

One of the Eden Project planting kits, which cost £22.50 and include everything you need to grow Mediterranean wild flowers, sweet peas, or the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica). It comes neatly packaged in a branded crate, and I’m a sucker for a nice crate.

The Marmalade Gift Set, which includes a pot marmalade and a Meyer Lemon plant in a jute canvas bag for £19. You can choose whether you want a cute bird, chillies, or oranges on the bag.

A nepenthes pitcher plant in a cool little bio dome that should make it a doddle to take care of. I love carnivorous plants, they deal with fungus gnat infestations a treat, but they’re not the easiest things to keep alive.

And if I didn’t already own them, I would also be thrilled to receive a tea plant (£10), a coffee plant (£10) or an olive tree in a pot (£22.50). It’s not like I would refuse to give them house space if someone bought me another one :)

(The last order date for Christmas is 11am on 18th December.)

What are you wishing for this Chrismas?


Posted in Blog on Dec 11, 2013 ·

Last modified on Dec 11, 2013

Tag: unusual

Dissertation: Background

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When I was writing my dissertation I promised that I would tell you more about it in due course. Indeed, there’s an action on me written into my dissertation – I promised to share a written summary of the results, as well as anything else I thought you might find interesting. And to publish the entire thing as a PDF file for those of you intrepid enough to attempt to read it.

I waited until after the marking process was complete, just in case it was… well, rubbish. It isn’t – I got a Merit mark for it (for a UK Masters degree you get a Pass, Merit or Distinction, with a Distinction being the highest mark). It is, however, written in academic-speak and academic style, so it’s not as easily digested as anything else that I write.

If you would like to read it in all its academic glory, then you can – you can download it here. For the rest of you I will cherry pick the (more) interesting bits. At 15,000 words, blogging the whole thing would take in excess of a fortnight of lengthy posts anyway…. To make it more readable I shall remove the references and put them at the bottom of the blog post, so if you want to see exactly who said what and where, you will have to download the fully-referenced PDF version.

Oca tubers

The title, in all its glory, is “Co-production, transformation and transmission of knowledge regarding novel crops amongst digitally-literate homegardeners in the UK”, which means I was interested in how people find information about unusual vegetables online, and what they then do with it.

With the advent of social media, it is now possible to say that – for many people – there is no divide between the online world and the ‘real world’, and that there is nothing particularly unique about what happens in the online environment. Even as far back as 2001, it was becoming apparent that interacting with online communities was a daily occurrence for many internet users; these communities touch on any number of social and cultural interests.

The online community as a whole is divided into many hobby groups and lifestyle-oriented groups; the online gardening community has loose sub-divisions along horticultural lines – the group of gardeners who choose to grow fruit and vegetables, for example, overlaps with the group that concentrates on the cultivation of ornamental plants. Digitally-literate gardeners in the UK now have the option to share experiences, or find help and support, amongst like-minded individuals online.

By ‘gardener’ I am referring here to an individual who cultivates plants in a homegarden, defined by Cleveland and Solieri as a

“supplementary food production system which is under the management and control of household members. In addition to food it may provide herbs, fuel, medicine, fodder, building materials, shade, social or recreational space, and beautification. A household garden can be consumption or market oriented, but at least some of the produce will be consumed by the household.”

Homegardens are usually considered to be adjacent, or close, to the home. In the UK it is common for gardeners who lack a homegarden (or find its dimensions inadequate) to rent an allotment nearby, and indeed they have the legal right to do so. It is estimated that there are 330,000 allotments in the UK, and although demand is variable there is currently a waiting list in place at many allotment sites. Gardeners may therefore take on an allotment some distance from the home, but as its primary function is the same as that of a homegarden, an allotment can be considered to be part of a wider ‘homegarden’ category.

When gardeners choose the crops they wish to cultivate in their homegardens, they are clearly subject to ecological constraints – their choices depend, at least in part, on the species that thrive in the local soil and climatic conditions (although the environment can be manipulated by the use of technology, such as greenhouses, artificial lighting and the application of fertilizers). Autochthonous [local] plants would appear to be a logical choice, given their predisposition to grow successfully in a particular ecological niche, but gardeners aren’t limited to autochthonous plants, and may choose to plant species from further afield, whether they carry familiar species with them as they migrate, or import species from elsewhere.

Eyzaguirre and Linares refer to the trade in germplasm (defined by Ellen and Platten as any kind of propagative plant material) that allows the deliberate (and accidental) introduction of new species. Indeed, humans have moved plants from one area to another throughout history, whether accidentally or by design. As technological advances have allowed us to travel further, seeds have also made longer journeys.

Although there are around 2,500 edible plant species that could be grown in British homegardens, gardeners commonly stick to just twenty, the tried-and-tested favourites with which they are familiar and to which the majority of garden writing has been dedicated since the Second World War. The UK has a limited flora of around 1,500 native plants, those being the species that advanced on to the British Isles as the ice cover retreated at the end of the last ice age. This flora left a “limited palette” of edible plants, which has been added to over time due to contact with cultures from other biomes. Why have some edible species become popular worldwide, grown by farmers and homegardeners alike, while others are barely recognised? My interest here is in the subset of homegardeners who choose to plant species that are not currently grown on a large commercial scale in the UK.

Underutilized plant species are wild or cultivated plants “whose potential has not been fully realized”. The term can be used all-inclusively to cover “local varieties of major crops and agricultural commodities” that are in decline or have been abandoned, but is more useful when used to describe non-commodity crops that are “part of a larger biodiversity portfolio, once more popular and today neglected by users’ groups for a variety of agronomic, genetic, economic, social and cultural factors”. While there may be no prospect of an underutilized species becoming an agricultural commodity in the short-term, it is possible for homegardeners to learn about, source and grow them – I have done so myself. Gardeners with the finances and patience to do so can now source almost any plant they want to grow, and there has been a revival in the mail order market for seeds. Even though the networks for the exchange of germplasm are dominated by commercial producers, informal networks remain important.

There is considerable variation in the nomenclature used to refer to these underutilized crops, with ‘orphan’, ‘abandoned’, ‘new’, ‘neglected’, ‘lost’, ‘underused’, ‘local’, ‘minor’, ‘traditional’, ‘forgotten’, ‘alternative’, ‘niche’, ‘promising’ and ‘underdeveloped’ being some of the synonyms in the literature. These lexical choices carry with them subtle nuances of meaning – compare the implication of agency in ‘abandoned’, and the lack thereof in ‘lost’. Many of these terms would not resonate in the online gardening community; the descriptions I have seen in use on the internet include ‘unusual’, ‘exotic’ and ‘novel’.

Carruthers discussed alternative crops for the UK at a time when there was “overproduction of a number of major commodities” within the European Community, and an economic advantage to replacing those surpluses with commodities that could replace imports or open up new export markets. He describes ‘novelty’ in a crop as resulting from one of four attributes – a new use or byproduct of an existing crop, a reintroduction of a crop previously grown in the UK, an introduction of a crop grown outside the UK or domestication of a plant not previously grown as a crop. This definition seemed to me to be the most comprehensive, whilst making use of a term that was already in use in the online gardening community, and so it was the one I chose to use during the course of my research.

Two of the underutilized crops identified by the National Research Council as having the potential for worldwide cultivation are oca (Oxalis tuberosa Molina) and achocha (Cyclanthera spp). They noted that oca has a large potential appeal to consumers, with brightly-coloured tubers and a pleasant flavour. The plant’s attractive bushy habit, and clover-like leaves, would catch the eye of any gardener. Indeed, oca has been grown as an ornamental plant in Britain for over a hundred years. According to Weaver, oca was introduced as novelty to Europe and the UK, where it was known as ‘American Wood Sorrel’, and in the 1830s a number of devotees held oca-themed dinner parties. Oca was introduced to New Zealand as the ‘New Zealand Yam’, but remains largely unknown outside South America, Mexico and New Zealand. Seed tubers have been available from independent UK seed merchants for over a decade (I bought mine from Real Seeds in 2007), but only started appearing in the catalogues of the major seed companies in 2012.

Achocha is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family that fruits well in subtropical climates and seems to tolerate cold better than its cucurbit relatives. A vigorous climbing plant, achocha is also noted to have potential in the UK, for both its edible fruit and its ornamental qualities. The Heritage Seed Library is a UK-based organization dedicated to the conservation and dissemination of non-commercial crop varieties; it was from them that I sourced my achocha seeds in 2005. The Heritage Seed Library supplies seeds of ‘Lady’s Slipper’ achocha (Cyclanthera pedata Schrad.); it possible to buy seeds of ‘Fat Baby’ achocha (Cyclanthera brachystachya Cogn.) and the ‘Exploding Cucumber’ (Cyclanthera explodens Naudin) from Real Seeds.

I chose to target my research on these two species for a number of reasons. Firstly, the novel crop domain is large and multifaceted (as described above) and given the limited research time available it was necessary to narrow the area to be studied. Secondly, I know from personal experience that UK gardeners grow both of these species, and that although some have been doing so for a number of years, there are always new gardeners trying them for the first time, and some who have given up; the motivations for trying them once may be different from those for continuing to grow them. Lastly, these two species are propagated, grown and used in very different ways, which I hoped would make my research more representative of the novel crop domain as a whole.

I have been a part of the online gardening community for a number of years. Among its members there are people with whom I share common interests, and to whom I am connected via social media and other ‘virtual’ ties. I have pre-existing contacts within the community, and can consider myself to be an ‘insider’, in ethnographic terms. Whilst the origins of ethnobotany lie in examination of the ‘other’, the post-modernist view is that most communities contain enough heterogeneity to give an insider a sense of otherness and detachment whilst conducting research within them. Colic-Peisker offers the opinion that “research now requires us to be conscious of the ways we are involved and engaged with our research participants, and to find strategies for ethically managing that engagement”.

Carruthers, S. P. (ed.). (1986). Alternative Enterprises for Agriculture in the UK. Reading: Centre for Agricultural Strategy, University of Reading.

Cleveland, D.A. and Soleri, D. (1987). Household Gardens as a Development Strategy’. Human Organization, 46(3), 259-270.

Colic-Peisker, V. (2004). Doing ethnography on “one’s own ethnic community”: The experience of an awkward insider. In: L. Hume and J. Mulcock. eds. Anthropologists in the field: Cases in participant observation. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 82-94.

Ellen, R. and Komáromi, R. (2013). Social exchange and vegetative propagation: An untold story of British potted plants. Anthropology Today, 29(1), 3-7.

Ellen, R. and Platten, S.J. (2011). The social life of seeds: The role of networks of relationships in the dispersal and cultural selection of plant germplasm. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17, 563-584.

Eyzaguirre, P.B. and Linares, O.F. (2001). A New Approach to the Study and Promotion of Home Gardens. People and Plants Handbook, 7, 30-33. WWF-UNESCO-RBG Kew.

Fry, C. (2009). The Plant Hunters. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd.

Fry. C (2013). Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Recipes Using Edible Plants From Around the World. Richmond: Kew Publishing.

Heritage Seed Library. (2004). Seed Library Catalogue. Ryton: Garden Organic.

Kiehn, M. (2012). Plant Introductions: Historical Sketches 1. Pacific Science, 66(2), 119-125.

Kozinets, R.V. (2009). Netnography: Doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage Publications Limited.

National Research Council (US). Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation. (1989). Lost crops of the Incas: little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. Washington. D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners Ltd. (n.d.) Brief history of allotments [Online] Available from: [Accessed 23rd July 2013].

Padulosi, S. and Hoeschle-Zeledon, I. (2004). Underutilized plant species: what are they? LEISA-LEUSDEN-, 20, 5-6.

Platten, S. (2012). Plant Exchange and Social Performance: Implications for Knowledge Transfer in British Allotments. [Unpublished ms. supplied by Ellen, R. with the permission of the author: 13 March 2013].

Thompson & Morgan (2012). Novel new crop for KG Readers. Kitchen Garden, March 2012, 8.

Uglow, J. S. (2004). A little history of British gardening. London: Chatto & Windus.

Van Wyk, B. (2005). Food plants of the world: An illustrated guide. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.

Weaver, W.W. (2007). You Can Grow Oca! [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 7th March 2013].

Wong, J. (2012). James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Posted in Blog on Dec 2, 2013 ·

Last modified on Dec 1, 2013

Tags: ethnobotany & unusual.

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.