Three of the edible dahlias in flower today.
A week ago, I received the most wonderful gift. Alison from The Backyard Larder sent me a collection of edible perennial plants to restart my garden – a transplant from her garden to mine :) Some of the species are replacements for plants that didn’t survive the garden move, others are new ones for me to try.
Alison told me they were on their way, so there were raised beds ready and waiting for them, and I planted them out the same day they arrived.
A week later, they all appear to have settled in well and be putting on new growth.
In this bed there’s good King Henry and Sea kale at the back, sea beet in the middle, and clove root and perennial leeks at the front. At the weekend I popped in some nasturtiums I grew from Unwins seeds – the variegated leaves belong to the ‘Alaska’ variety.
And the second perennial bed has skirret and non-flowering garden sorrel at the back, with Buckler-leaf sorrel in the centre and French tarragon and skirret at the front. The nasturtiums here are Princess of India.
Two of the plants found a home elsewhere. There’s a complete absence of shade in the garden at the moment, so I have potted up my new Hablitzia tamnoides, and it is sitting in the untidy area by the kitchen window (you know, the one that doesn’t appear in any photos), where it can benefit from partial shade until the garden is further along and it can find a permanent home.
And I tucked the Orpine (Sedum telephium) into another bed, which is currently home to a courgette, some tomatoes and some Mexican tree spinach (AKA magenta spreen, Chenopodium giganteum). It filled the gap where one of my hastily transplanted courgettes had failed to thrive.
Tidying my desk over the last few days, I came across two packets of Triteleia bulbs I bought in the pound shop in spring and then promptly forgot about. Having consulted the Oracle, I was advised that I may as well try planting them, as the worst that could happen was that they would feed the worms. So this morning I have added them to the two perennial beds. I scattered the bulbs to give me ‘naturalistic drifts’ ;), and then had to go hunting for the one that flew over the raised bed into the no man’s land that will eventually be a border. Then I dibbed them in rather randomly. Had I planted them in spring (although I had nowhere to plant them in spring) then they would be in flower now. As it is, we will have to wait and see whether they survive to flower next year.
All of you who said you prefer ‘proper’ books to ebooks can now vote with your feet – Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is out now in paperback :) All that bright pink should liven up your bookshelf a treat….
For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Jade Pearls (my latest book) is 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 begin your own journey into this intriguing world.
Beyond our familiar fruits, vegetables and herbs, edible plants can be exotic, old-fashioned, wild or just plain weird. Think of the things you consider to be unusual – things you’ve seen in the produce section, or the latest ‘superfruit’ to be mentioned in the media. Perhaps you encountered something new on holiday, and wished you could bring it home with you. A list of plants you consider to be unusual would be different from my list, which would be different from everyone else’s, because what counts as unusual depends on both your past experiences, where you live and when you live – there are trends and fashions in food and gardening, as in anything else.
An unusual plant may have been commonly grown in the past, or it may have been bred only recently and be something truly new. Or it may come from far away. It may be a plant that is very commonly grown and known in agriculture, but not often cultivated at home – or the reverse, a plant that is common in gardens and on allotments but rarely commercially available.
Writing and publishing Jade Pearls has been a real labour of love for me, and I still enjoy reading the stories it contains of people who are similarly obsessed with slightly offbeat plants. It’s a thoroughly good book, but you don’t need to take my word for it! When the ebook version was published last year I embarked on a virtual book tour, and you can find all kinds of goodies – interviews, reviews and guest blogs – about Jade Pearls here:
I published the paperback via Createspace, so it is available from Amazon (in all territories). Should you prefer the ebook version, head over to the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs homepage to find out more about stockists.
Get your copy now, and embark on an adventure where you meet the nicest people and fill your garden with truly wondrous plants!
I don’t tend of think of myself as a trendsetter, but I can honestly say that you heard it here first – you need to grow Camassia. Apparently it’s one of the ‘hero’ plants of Chelsea 2015, a real stunner that will add to your garden. There’s a number of species of Camassia, but the article mentions C. quamash, which is edible as well as ornamental – an edimental, as my friend Stephen Barstow would say.
It’s also known as Quamash, which came in very handy when I was writing The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z, as Q is otherwise a difficult letter to fill! Here’s what I wrote in the book, way back in 2008:
Q is for… Quamash
Quamash (Camassia quamash, also known commonly as Camassia) is an edible bulb, a staple food of native Americans. I can’t now remember why I decided to try and grow it, but I do remember seeing some growing at the RISC roof garden in Reading. They have pretty blue flowers, a bit like bluebells.
The seeds need a period of winter cold to germinate, so I sowed mine in a pot last autumn and put it in the cold frame. It sat outside all winter, and the seeds burst into life in spring. The seedlings were tiny, single-leaved things.
Unfortunately I got a bit engrossed in other things in spring, and when I checked on them one day the quamash seedlings were dead. It’s a shame when something like that happens, because it’s a whole year before you get the chance to try again.
However, I have since read that it takes rather a lot of cooking to make the bulbs edible. They would have been cooked in large fire pits by the native Americans, something which few of us would be able to replicate today – even if we had enough bulbs to make it worth the effort. If I grow quamash again next year, it may well become one of the plants in the garden that – although technically edible – is grown for its interest and ornamental value.
Clearly that entry in the book was about one of my failures, rather than my successes, but reviews suggested you all enjoyed reading about those ;)
If you do, and you have The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z on your wish list of books to read, then I suggest you get your hands on a copy now, because I believe it will shortly be out of print. If you’re in the UK then I can send you a signed copy for £10 inc. P&P, just drop me a line.
The Great British Garden Revival has been gracing our screens again this year. In each episode two famous TV gardeners champion a particular plant or style of garden, which they think is in danger of being forgotten. This year that has included lilies and knot gardens, lavender and woodland gardens. The idea is to “attempt to inspire the nation to to save Britain’s rich gardening heritage”. There’s obviously an interest in our gardening history, as people have been talking about the wonderful Tudor gardens that appear in Wolf Hall.
There’s not much edible amongst that lot, but we have a great tradition of kitchen gardens in this country, and I thought it would be interesting to champion some of the ignored or forgotten plants that once graced our kitchen gardens and our tables, but have fallen from favour.
I wrote a section on forgotten vegetables for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, noting that Britain isn’t the only nation to have let some varieties slide:
“While it is easy to see how vegetables from other countries may never have found their way onto our plates, and why heritage varieties may have fallen from modern commercial favour, there are vegetables and fruits that were once common but are now largely forgotten. These aren’t wild plants, languishing by the roadside waiting for their virtues to be rediscovered, but cultivated ones that for some reason are no longer popular.
Given their long history of vegetable gardening (including their beautiful pótagers and the famously intensive market gardens of Paris in the 19th century), it is perhaps not surprising that the topic of forgotten vegetables seems to resonate most strongly in the French. It is often easier to find relevant information (although harder to read the results!) if you search for ‘les légumes retrouvés’ or ‘les légumes oubliés’.”
In the book I mention salsify and scorzonera, skirret, cardoons and tiger nuts, among others. That’s just a small selection of the goodies on offer if we pop into our time machines and go back to the gardens of history. For some plants, we wouldn’t even have to go that far back.
And so I thought this might prove to be an interesting blog meme – have you got a favourite ‘forgotten’ edible plant that you’d like to champion? If so, then blog about it and let me know the link and I will start a list here. You may even have an existing blog post you’d like me to point to. If you don’t have a blog, but would like to champion a species, then I’m happy to host a guest post from you.
If you’re not a blogger, but you can think of a plant in need of a boost then post it in the comments! We’ll see if we can find it a champion :)
Let the Great British Kitchen Garden Revival begin!
Whilst I was munching my way through a particularly nice sandwich one lunch time, I began pondering the word succulent, and its various uses. In terms of food, succulent means tender and juicy. In my mind it has the same slightly indecent feel to it as moist, luscious, lush and pleasurable. But succulent food is definitely a good thing.
For a botanist, a succulent plant is one that has one of more fleshy parts that are used to store water in arid conditions. Sometimes the definition includes geophytes, whose storage organ is entirely underground, and sometimes it doesn’t.
And horticulturalists often make a distinction between succulents and cacti (for a botanist, cacti are succulents (but not all succulents are cacti)). For the sake of the following discussion, I’m going to stick to plants that are obviously succulent – those that have the characteristic swollen leaves and/ or stems.
Born and raised in a temperate climate (which is currently insisting on being very wet), I tend to think of succulent plants as unusual and ornamental. But, in fact, there are lots of edible succulents that we could include in our gardens. (And perhaps I should, since my inability to keep anything well watered is legendary!)
One that might be found in a British kitchen garden, if it’s a diverse one, is purslane. Portulaca oleracea is often considered to be more a herb than a vegetable, but it’s a very nutritious, annual succulent plant. Apparently it contains Omega-3 fatty acids, and you can enjoy its fleshy leaves raw or cooked. I think I’ve tried to grow it in the past; I don’t recall what happened to the plants – I don’t think any were ever eaten.
Samphire (Salicornia europea) is a salt marsh succulent, which it is possible to grow at home. Victoriana Nursery Gardens sell samphire plants. I tried it once, and it’s fun because it has to be watered with salt water (so you have to be careful where you grow it, as salt water kills most things). I didn’t realise at the time that it was an annual, so I forgot to eat any before it died back. A happy plant should self-seed, so I will have to try that one again at some point. Rock samphire is a perennial, but possibly more difficult to cultivate. I have at least had the opportunity to try eating samphire. On my recent trip to Kew Gardens I selected a potato salad for lunch. It was made with roast potatoes, samphire and preserved lemons, and oh my gosh it was delicious. I’ll have to work out how to make that at home. First, preserve your lemons….
Another halophyte (salt-loving) succulent plant is Salsola, or agretti, Salsola soda. It can be grown from seed (which you can source from Seeds of Italy and Real Seeds); if I remember correctly then it has a short shelf-life and has to be sown the year you buy it. I had some last year – my notes tell me I sowed some in May 2013. Since it was rather a turbulent year, I don’t remember getting very far with it! I’ll add it to the list of ‘do overs’.
If I were to mention the topic of ‘edible succulents’ to a savvy gardener, I would expect them to bring up the houseleek (also known as Hens and Chicks, Sempervivum tectorum). I’ve never (knowingly) grown it, but it’s a good one for green roofs and gravel gardens, and a reasonably common garden plant. I don’t think I know anyone who tucks in, however. Have you tried it?
I once tried (and failed) to add the Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis) to my greenhouse collection. It is a succulent grown for its fruit; amid dire warnings of its invasiveness (which is true, it’s a big problem on the south coast), mine simply failed to thrive.
And one I would like to grow (and once had seeds for, but they are long past their sow-by date) is the ice plant, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, which is rumoured to be a nice, perennial, succulent salad plant. If you’re going to grow it then make sure you have the right ice plant – this is one of those times when the common name is applied to several different species, and if you’re going to put something in your mouth you need to know exactly what you’ve got!
The ice plant and the Hottentot fig are related – they’re both in the same plant family.
I’ve grown one cactus for its edible fruit (my dragon fruit, a Hylocereus species), although it never produced any, and eventually succumbed to the winter weather when I couldn’t bring it indoors. I’d like to try and Optunia species, some of which are hardier. The prickly pear is O. ficus-indica, but the cactus pads are edible as well as the fruit. Some species are spinier than others, so the difficulty of harvesting your meal varies.
There are edible species amongst the Agave, including one famous for being made into tequila :) And Aloe vera has edible pulp, although I don’t know anyone who prepares their own from a houseplant. It’s a useful plant to have around, although according to Raw Edible Plants, the houseleek shares its skin-soothing properties, and is much easier to grow in a cool climate.
Then there’s the vanilla orchid, but it’s hard to grow a vanilla crop in cultivation because there’s a special technique for manual pollination you have to grasp (the job is done by an insect in its natural habitat). And Basella rubra or B. alba, Ceylon or Malabar spinach, which I keep meaning to grow. And Hibiscus sabdariffa (roselle, or sorrel) is on the list for next year already.
Have you got any edible succulents in your garden? I’m not sure a definitive list exists anywhere, but I thought it was an interesting topic.
It seems to be Cucurbitaceae week on the blog. Fresh from talking about Gynostemma pentaphyllum, today’s post is about some unusual, and ornamental, cucumber varieties.
Just before we moved house, Ryan and I had a much-needed weekend away on the south coast. We’d planned various visits, but whilst we were there I picked up a tourist information leaflet about West Dean Gardens. I’d heard of them, but hadn’t realised we were so close. Of course, we had to visit :) And after a wet day at Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens it was nice that the sun came out.
West Dean Gardens is a lovely place for a kitchen gardener to visit, and I’ll share some more photos in due course. There are lots of greenhouses, growing impressive crops of fruiting vegetables, and one of the things that caught my eye was a display of unusual cucumber varieties that had been grown in one.
Also known as the teasel gourd and Ekaleruk, the hedgehog gourd comes from Arabia, and although it is usually grown as an ornamental, the fruit, seeds and leaves are all edible.
This one doesn’t seem to have a common name, and opinion is divided on whether or not it is edible. According to PlantzAfrica, the fruits “have been pickled and preserved at the Cape since the late 17th century”. However, there are other references to them being extremely bitter and inedible. It sounds like this plant may not be domesticated, and that variation in the wild population makes some fruits tasty and some not.
The common names for these cucumbers are confused – they could all be called a ‘horned melon’ or ‘hedgehog gourd’, and at some point they probably all have :) Horizon Herbs call this ‘kiwano’, but it’s not the kiwano I know and have grown, which is Cucumis metuliferus (I got my seeds from the HSL, but they’re quite widely available now). In fact, it seems that Cucumis zambianus is a relatively new species, first officially described in 2008.
According to Trade Winds Fruit, these cucumbers are considered to be inedible, although it again notes that some plants will be more bitter than others.
This last one is, perhaps, less ornamental than the rest. That might explain why the literature on Bur gherkin seems to be mainly scholarly ;)
What’s the most exciting cucumber you’ve ever grown? Do you fancy growing any of these unusual ones next year?
The kitchen garden at Hampton Court Palace (which is in a part of the grounds that is free to visit, if you don’t want to see the Palace itself) is an impressive beast, growing some old-fashioned and unusual plants amongst the more familiar crops. These photos were taken on August 24th, which turned out to be a very hot and sunny day….
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):
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 :)