Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

Udo (Aralia cordata) may be one of the largest vegetables you will ever grow in your garden. It is a herbaceous perennial, dying right down to the ground every year, then growing to over two metres in height in the summer, so the spring growth is truly spectacular. It is the young shoots that are eaten, so this means that it is also very productive.

Udo is one of the Japanese sansai (the WordPress spellchecker keeps trying to turn this into sensei  – it must have been watching too much Mutant Ninja Turtles) – or ‘mountain herbs’. These are usually foraged from the wild rather than being cultivated, but if you don’t happen to have them growing on a nearby mountain they are often quite simple to grow, especially in a forest garden.

Udo will tolerate quite deep shade, making it very useful for awkward shady spots in the garden. Mine has a privet hedge on two sides and a large bamboo on a third: the only relatively open side is the north – but still it seems quite happy. On the other hand, they don’t seem to mind more open conditions either: the one growing in the local Botanic Garden is on a south-facing wall and seems to be thriving. In fact, it was this plant that gave me a chance to try out a good range of udo recipes since my own plant is still establishing and I don’t want to eat too much of it until it is ready. Fortunately Mark Paterson, the curator of the garden, generously gave me permission to carry off part of their prize specimen in the name of research.

Udo - with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Udo – with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Here, the stems emerge in April and are good to eat for a couple of months after that. The skin has a bitter, resinous taste, so it is usually removed – peeled off when the stems are young or pared away as it gets increasingly woody later on. The remaining pith – about an inch in diameter on mature specimens – is juicy and crispy and has a taste that has been described as citrusy but really is very distinctive and like nothing else.

Western sources mostly only describe one way of using udo – slicing the pith thinly then soaking it to get rid of any remaining resiny flavour and using it in salads. This is indeed very nice but it seems a great waste to use such a productive plant in such a limited way. A Japanese blog post suggests using it for both kinpira and tempura. Kinpira involves sautéing thin strips then simmering for a short while with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Both ways use plenty of strong flavours so the skin can be left on and the resiny taste used instead of being disposed of. I have tried both these methods and can testify that they are delicious. I also find that udo makes a great stir fry ingredient and goes well in miso soup.

Aralia cordata shoot

As well as being a great vegetable, udo is a good ornamental plant, making it very useful for edible-ornamental plantings – just make sure that you plan for the enormous gap it leaves when it dies down in the autumn. It also means that it is a relatively easy plant to get hold of since it is widely sold as an ornamental. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and seems to have only two weak spots: the spring growth is a little frost sensitive, so it prefers a growing position that doesn’t get morning sun; and while it is establishing the new growth needs some protection from slugs and snails who like it just as much as I do.

Aralia cordata flower

Aralia cordata, flower 03” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100723103123j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63GLJ6OS9)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.

Aralia cordata fruit

Aralia cordata, fruit 01” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100817141615j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63EWlX3Nc)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.

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16 thoughts on “Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

  1. Do you know if you can eat the flower or fruit?
    Also I didn’t understand if it is frost sensitive why should it prefer a position that doesn’t get the morning sun. To stop it heating up too quickly after being affected by frost?
    Really interesting plant.

    • Hi Suzy. I haven’t found any suggestion that the flowers or fruit are edible, although Stephen Barstow, author of Around the World in 80 Plants, does mention eating the immature flower heads on his Facebook page. I haven’t tried them myself. The root is also said to be edible but again I haven’t tried it myself and I don’t know whether it is just the first year root that is worth eating or the mature one as well. Your guess about the morning sun is right – as well as direct frost damage, heating up too quickly can also be damaging.

  2. Japanese acquaintances tell me that “udo” is a term employed for tall people who are rather useless and ultimately a waste of space. I’m hoping I’m not one of those; I’m also hoping that my udo seedlings reach a similar size to the plant shown here. Another excellent post. Thanks.

  3. I’ve tried growing Udo from seed (I’ve not found anyone locally that has plants) with no success. Does anyone know how long the seeds stay viable? (I was using ones purchased at least 2-3 years before planting – though stored well.) Any tips on germination?

    I look forward to growing this plant.

    • I also haven’t ever managed to grow udo from seed, despite several tries. I suspect that seed viability is quite short. The Araliaceae are closely related to the Apiaceae (carrot family), which mostly have quite short periods of viability. Stored seed needs quite long stratification. If you possibly can, get fresh seed and sow immediately. I’m trying to get several strains of udo in the hope of producing my own seed with decent genetic variation.

  4. Thanks for this article – I’m going to get one of these for the dark and shady part of my plot.

    There are a few things that I wonder if you would know.

    With all that foliage put on each year this may be a great plant to grow as a mulch /compost plant. If you cut it back during the season does it regrow? Do you know how deep the roots go – would it work as a dynamic accumulator?

    Have you tried forcing the shoots with a bucket in a similar way to sea kale and rhubarb?
    Love the site and keep up the good work.

    • I haven’t tried cutting back or digging up my plants as they aren’t fully established and I don’t want to do anything (apart from eating them) to weaken them. However I suspect the same – that in the long term they will make green manure plants on top of their edible function.

      I’m sure you could blanch them with a bucket, although you would need a big one! In Japan they are often earthed up or forced in cellars. Personally I prefer them in their rather more natural state without blanching or forcing – more like wild sansai.

    • Its important not to give up on the seeds. They need 3-5 months cold stratification. Planting out in a cold-frame in the fall is probably your best bet. Then dont give up on them even if they dont sprout in the spring. Mine did not sprout before July last year and are looking great now. So the plants I finally planted out today, were sown in the fall of 2015.

  5. Re blanching with a bucket: Stephen Barstow, in “Around the World in 80 Plants”, says he uses (normal) 45 cm deep builders’ buckets to blanch, and it’s time to harvest when the plants lift the buckets.

    • I discussed blanching with Stephen when he visited my allotment. He uses it a lot, in the way you describe, but I find that just putting a bucket over a plant is a recipe for having it eaten by slugs. We wondered if the difference was due to the harsher winter climate in Norway which tends to kill the slugs.

    • I can’t give you any specific recommendations for seed as I got both my plants as root cuttings. Since you are in Norway I would suggest checking out the amazing Norwegian Seed Savers group.

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