If you were designing a new crop for forest gardening, you might decide you wanted a starchy bulb rather than yet another leaf or fruit producer. Ideally it would be ready early in the season, before all the other roots. It would be nice if the bulbs tasted good, stored well, were a decent size and weren’t fiddly to prepare. Needless to say, it would have to grow in shade. It would also be handy if it was simple to propagate, maybe by dividing and self seeding modestly. While we’re at it, why not give it beautiful early spring flowers too?
As is so often the case, nature has got there ahead of us, in the form of the dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium). The common name is a bit misleading as erythroniums are no relation whatsoever to true violets (Viola species), but the ‘dog’s tooth’ part is clear: the tapered white bulbs look like the canines of some monstrous prehistoric hound – not one I’d want to meet on a dark night. There are a number of species you can grow, such as E. americanum, the trout lily, E. japonicum, katakuri, or E. dens-canis, the European dog’s tooth, but the best one to grow for eating, due to its larger bulbs, is the hybrid cultivar ‘Pagoda’. (All the above species are edible, plus many more, but I can’t guarantee that the whole genus is: see Plants for a Future for a list of species.)
Erythroniums have an unusual growth habit: they only ever produce two leaves, which die down in June or July having produced one or hopefully more bulbs. A bulb is a wrapped-up plant, safely packaged and ready to go for the next year. The multiple layers of an onion bulb are the future leaves, while the little dense bit at the base is the stem. The tough outer layers are more leaves, modified to seal in moisture and keep out pests. With only two leaves, erythronium bulbs are noticeably different from this standard. They are long and narrow and have no outer skin, making them ivory-white, easy to prepare and a little prone to drying out if you aren’t careful with storage.
The leaves and flowers are said to be edible, but if you eat the leaves you’ll be missing out on the main course, which is the bulb. They don’t have a strong taste, which makes them useful as a staple. My favourite way of cooking them is to slice them thinly across and fry the discs. They go chewy and sweet, a bit like plantain chips. Another way of frying them is to make chips (in the British sense). The smaller bulbs are just the right size already; the larger ones can be sliced in half or quarter. They are also good boiled and excellent in stews. It’s not something I’ve tried myself, but according to Plants for a Future the European dog’s tooth is dried to make flour and used in making cakes and pasta. (Another useful piece of information from PFaF is that large quantities of dog’s tooths have been known to be emetic. I haven’t experienced this but, as ever, it is a reminder that you should only introduce yourself to a new food gradually.)
It’s a good idea to harvest dog’s tooth bulbs before the foliage has completely died down as they are then easy to find and you don’t have to dig around for them. They dry out easily so if you are storing them for a long period of time they need to be kept cool and moist. I get round this by only eating them in season. They are usually ready by the start of June so they fill the gap in the potato season nicely. I dig them up, take a proportion for eating and replant the rest as they will keep quite happily in the ground for the rest of the year.
Such an early harvest gives an opportunity to use the ground for something else for the rest of the year. This could simply be weed control as you can hoe over the top of the dormant dog’s tooths so long as you have planted them deep enough. Alternatively you could sow a green manure or a quick crop like mustard greens or intercrop it with something like wild strawberry that uses the later part of the year and won’t interfere too much with the erythronium’s growth. Like most bulbs, dog’s tooths are adept at punching up through a thick layer of mulch, so I give mine a thick mulch of leaves in the autumn to both feed and protect them.