Plants for a Future appeal

In developing my forest garden, the Plants for a Future online database has been invaluable. It’s my first reference for the edibility, cultivation and propagation details on any new plant. They are now embarking on an ambitious project to extend their database to tropical plants as well as temperate, which I’m sure would make it a great resource for many more people. They aren’t very good at ‘making the ask’, so their appeal for this project currently stands at a fraction of what they need. I’ve just donated £50 and am taking the rare step of sharing their appeal on my blog and Facebook page. Perhaps together we can help them make it happen.

The appeal is at http://www.pfaf.org/user/cmspage.aspx?pageid=187

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Eating lesser celandine

At the very least I would suggest taking some care about introducing lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) to your garden. Its early growth, glossy leaves, cheery yellow flowers and edible uses all make it attractive, but it has a well-deserved reputation for being invasive in damp or shady areas. In North America, where it is introduced and where several states list it as a noxious invasive speces, the cons almost certainly outweigh the pros. In Europe and North Africa, where it is either native or a long established introduction, the situation is different.

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As its Latin name suggests, F. verna is a plant of the spring. It emerges early, flowers early and dies away again before some other plants have even got out of bed – a classic pattern for woodland floor species adapted to making use of spring sunshine before the trees leaf out and hog the lot. Most plants that do this are bulbs – think wild galic, snowdrops and wild hyacinths (bluebells) – and indeed it might be fair to include lesser celandine in the spring bulbs despite its place in the buttercup family, due to the fleshy little tubers that are the key to both its bulb-like lifestyle and its invasiveness.

Incidentally, the shape of these tubers explains lesser celandine’s other common name: pilewort. Their shape was considered to resemble that of haemorrhoids or piles. Under the ancient ‘doctrine of signatures’, God was held to have marked each species to indicate its use to humans, so this resemblance was considered a sure fire sign that celandine would cure piles.

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Lesser celandine roots. By Christian Hummert (Ixitixel) – Own work, CC BY 2.5

In truth, the doctrine of signatures should probably be placed in the same location as haemmorrhoid cream, but there is no denying the tubers’ use to the plant itself. A handy underground store of nutrients, chock full of toxins, is just the thing needed for an early start to the year. It is also the key to the plant’s persistence, as it is hard to remove all the tubers, and the ease with which it can be accidentally spread around the garden (or the wild). As a result, lesser celandine quickly forms a carpet of growth in favourable conditions.

All this said, there are also reasons why lesser celandine finds it difficult to become a serious pest in any well-managed garden. Despite the seeming ability of the tubers to get everywhere, it doesn’t actually ‘run’, either underground like couch grass or overground like its cousin, creeping buttercup. It’s also a very low growing plant. Its ambition is not to get into the full sun, so it rarely provides serious competition for other plants and it is really quite easy to weed out. It also has an Achilles’ heel, which is that it needs constant moisture to stop the tubers drying out, and it’s never going to be a problem in dry, sunny areas of the garden.

I now let lesser celandine grow in some areas of my garden, where it fills a useful niche as an early spring green – although some caution is required here too! All parts of the plant contain a toxin called protoanemonin, common to the buttercup family. You’ll know if you get protoanemonin in your mouth as it creates an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth and throat. Fortunately, protoanemonin is easily broken down by heat or drying so it is easy to get rid of.

fried lesser celandine

Fried lesser celandine

Different sources seem to have different ideas about the amount of protoanemonin in lesser celandine. Miles Irving, the author of ‘The Forager Handbook’ says “Leaves contain protoanemonin, but in minute quantities. Levels are said to increase as the plant comes into flower, but I have eaten plenty of leaves from flowering plants and come to no harm.” and “Leaves are attractive; the flavour quite mild; good bulking for wild salads containing other, stronger flavours.” Perhaps English celandine is different from Scottish, or perhaps Miles is just more tolerant than I am, but I can’t say that this matches my experience. I only use lesser celandine greens cooked, as a pot herb, an ingredient in leaf sauce, in a stir fry (where they keep their succulent texture) or fried in olive oil until they become crispy. Plants for a Future have an interesting note that the flower buds make a good substitute for capers, but I have yet to try this. Whether or not levels of protoanemonin increase with time, I make most use of it early in the season when there are fewer other leaves around. Miles also says that the tubers have a flavour and texture similar to potatoes and can be use boiled or roasted, but my opinion is that life is too short.

Some variations on the regular lesser celandine are available. There is are varieties that do not produce tubers and are therefore much easier to control. I’m not sure, however, how easy this strain is to get hold of and whether or not it will tend to revert to tuberising as it self-seeds – I suspect so. There is also a handsome bronze variety which looks very striking with the bright yellow flowers against dark purple leaves.

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Bronze Ficaria verna (R), Primula veris (L)

Leaf sauce

One of the challenges of cooking from the forest garden is using the large amount of leaves, some bland, some quite strongly flavoured, that it produces. Over the years I’ve experimented with various ways of cooking with them, always with the rule that the result must be actively attractive to eat, not merely a way of using up a glut. One of the best is one of the simplest, cooking them together as pot herbs, but I now have a new favourite, leaf sauce!

In short, leaf sauce is a mix of leaves and shoots: steamed, blended and seasoned. Its strength is the opportunity that it gives to blend together lots of different flavours into something very rich and complex. So far the two killer apps I have found for it are pasta and curry, but I’m sure creative chefs could find many more.

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The recipe… well, there is no exact recipe. The keys to making it are flexibility and diversity. It can be made at almost any time of year with whatever is at hand and available in the garden. The leaf sauce year begins in February or, in a cold year, March, with the emergence of the wild garlic and other leafy alliums and the start back into growth (in a mild year it hardly stops) of kale, sea beet and leaf celery. Not far behind these are two members of the dock family, herb patience and monk’s rhubarb.

Soon various spring shoots are starting to come up. Lovage, sweet cicely, alexanders, hogweed and ground elder are all excellent used this way. They are all strong-flavoured members of the carrot family that are somewhat milder when the new leaves are just emerging in spring and summer. Hogweed requires a little care in harvesting. Udo and its relatives are similar, and some members of the daisy family also produce tender leaves in spring, notably salsify and scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica). Young hosta shoots are better used as vegetables but once they unfurl into leaves they can be used in the sauce. Nettles are good to use any time between their emergence and when they start to flower.

The trees also get in on the act. Lime trees in general and small-leaved lime in particular have succulent spring leaves. I’m also trialling toon (Toona sinensis), said to have edible leaves and shoots tasting of onions! Elm leaves aren’t edible, but their seeds are and they are produced in incredible abundance. Climbing up the trees you might find Hablitzia tamnoides, Caucasian climbing spinach.

As we get into summer, the annuals come into play, with more familiar crops such as spinach and mustard. Some crops better known for other parts also have usable leaves, including beetroot, broad beans, peas and radishes, and I’m not even going to try to list all the herbs that can be included.

In autumn, some of the plants that ran to seed and became unpalatable in summer have a second flush of fresh growth, including celery, herb patience and sweet cicely. Nasturtium also starts serious production around this time.

Even in winter there are still abundant ingredients for this dish. The pictures below are from a leaf sauce curry I made in November, with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, apples, broad beans and a vast array of roots, with a sauce from leeks, kale, celery, walking onions, sweet cicely, wasabi (leaves), common mallow and leaf beet.

Recipe (sort of)

  1. Pick a lot of leaves and shoots. They will boil down a lot and leftover sauce is ideal for freezing, so it’s difficult to pick too many. I usually aim for a carrier bag full. Go for a good mix of types for depth of flavour, with a balance of bland and strongly flavoured ones. This is a bit trial and error and you will find out what you like best over time. For curries I usually go for a greater proportion of strongly flavoured ones and for pasta I add more Mediterranean herbs such as oregano.
  2. Wash and drain and coarsely chop the leaves.
  3. Chop and fry an onion. Once the onion goes clear, add garlic and any chopped or ground (not powdered) spices herbs that you like.
  4. Fry a few minutes more. Add powdered spices, stir and fry very briefly. Throw in the leaves and add a little water so that the bottom of the pan is just covered with water. Sprinkle a little salt over the top if desired and put the lid on.
  5. Steam the leaves for 15-20 min, topping up the water if the bottom of the pan ever looks like drying out.
  6. Remove from the heat and liquidise the leaves. I use a small hand-held blender for this.
  7. Now stir in any other flavourings you like, be it stock powder, curry paste, soy sauce, olive oil or whatever. When making curry I tend to get very eclectic as practically any flavour, if used at a level just below where you start to taste it individually, will add to the depth of flavour.

When it comes to combining the sauce with the rest of a dish, such as the chunky ingredients in a curry, I tend to cook them separately and combine them near the end as finished leaf sauce is thick enough to burn very easily on the hob if not stirred regularly. If you want to cook them together for longer it’s better to water it down a bit to avoid sticking.

 

2016 seed list now out

Apologies to website subscribers who received a post called ‘Donating’ earlier today. This was meant to go up as a new page rather than being published as a post. The news that I meant to put out today is that my 2016 seed list is now on the website as part of a redesign in which the old ‘shop’ page has been replaced by a new one which takes more of a gift-economy approach. You can read all about it at forest garden seeds.

Hop shoots

The hops are in flower, but I’m not making beer. Besides their better-known use, hops are also an excellent perennial vegetable. They have been described as the world’s most expensive vegetable, apparently fetching up to 1,000 euros per kilo. I find this rather astonishing as they are actually quite easy to grow.

The hop plant (Humulus lupulus) is a climber. Everything about it, from its twining stems to its roughened skin, is evolved to help it get into the sun by exploiting the woody structure of other plants. This means that if you are growing it in the garden you need to provide some sort of structure for it to climb up, as you do for runner beans. Hop plants are perennial, so the structure can be left in place for years. Traditional hops grow to several metres so for an ordinary garden it is a good idea to get one of the new dwarf varieties such as Prima Donna.

The peak time for picking hop shoots is in late spring when the young shoots start to emerge from the ground. The plants spread by underground rhizomes, so this can sometimes be in unexpected places. Harvesting is therefore combined with heading off a potential weed problem, cutting unwanted growing points down to the ground. I also find that the young growing tips are usable, if a little smaller and less productive, throughout the summer until the plant slows its growth, toughens up and turns its mind to flowering in the autumn. The constant nipping out of growing tips as you harvest them probably helps to keep the plant smaller, bushier and, by delaying flowering, tender for longer.

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I usually harvest tips of about 10cm – longer than this and they are already becoming woody. The raw shoots are quite astringent so I always cook them, upon which they develop a lovely nutty flavour. In their early growth they produce enough to cook as a standalone vegetable. The cooking options are quite like green asparagus, which they are often compared to.  They can be steamed or boiled, then served with butter or olive oil, or fried. They go very well blanched and then cooked in an omlette – if a little of the astringency is left for this dish it complements the egg well. Later in the year mine tend to go in stir-fries – my constant stand-by for using a large number of different vegetables harmoniously together. You don’t have to stop there: this post from Anne’s kitchen gives a wide range of gourmet hop recipes.

Once you have a hop plant established, propagation by digging up and transplanting the rhizomes is easy. They prefer to grow in sun or a little shade and do not require feeding.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are a relative of raspberries and brambles. They are as easy to grow as raspberries and it’s surprising that they aren’t more common in the UK. There are a number of reasons why you might want to grow them. One is that they fruit in early autumn, nicely filling the gap between summer and autumn raspberries, but they are also worthwhile in their own right, different from either rasps or blackberries.

They certainly look different. The stems of Japanese wineberries are covered in red glandular hairs which give them a red, furry look (and their Latin name – phoenico means red) and an odd, somewhat sticky, somewhat waxy feel. You sometimes see insects stuck to the glands, making the plant look a little carniverous, but apparently it gains nothing nutritionally from these catches: presumably the motivation is more to do with pest control. The hairs extend onto the calyces which enclose the young fruit; as the fruit ripens the calyces slowly peel open to reveal it. The ripe fruit is a design classic. About the size of a wild raspberry, the berries are wine red and share a little in the stickiness of the canes. The taste is sweet and pleasant.

photo by Eva-Maria Kintzel

photo by Eva-Maria Kintzel

The big drawback to growing wineberries at my latitude is that not all plants offered for sale in the UK seem to thrive here. I first came across Japanese wineberry myself at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall and it quickly made my list of plants to acquire. Unfortunately, a succession of plants bought from nurseries in the south of England either perished over winter or grimly clung to life but never produced any fruit. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t suitable for the north of Scotland. Then a friend told me about a self-seeding population at Crathes Castle in Deeside. She obtained a seedling for me and it quickly grew into a hearty, vigorous bush that has now seen off several winters. This underlines the importance of local varieties and trying to get hold of local provenances.

Japanese wineberries like to grow in full sun. They are mostly immune to raspberry diseases but mine has poor ventilation due to a tall fence built by a neighbour and the racemes or flower heads have a tendency to rot in wet weather. From what I have seen of other plants moving it should fix this. Like most Rubus plants the stems are biennial although the plant as a whole is perennial. The fruit is borne on the second-year canes (floricanes), which should be pruned out at the end of the season. In growth habit they are somewhere between raspberries and brambles. Like brambles, the canes form a dense clump from a single point, so they need to be trained along wires or tied loosely to a stake at the centre of the clump. Fortunately they don’t spread as aggressively as brambles, but they do share their ability to root at the tips if they touch the ground: a characteristic that can be used to propagate from a superior plant.

UPDATE: You can buy Scottish-grown wineberries at https://plantsandapples.co.uk/

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A forest garden on Facebook

There’s now a new way to follow the forest garden. I try to write posts on here only when I have enough material for a full, reasonably comprehensive article based on my own experience of a plant or a technique. That leaves a lot of pictures, experiments and observations which might be of interest to people but never get published. I think the best medium for sharing this sort of more ephemeral material is Facebook, so I’ve started a Facebook page: A Scottish Forest Garden. Don’t worry if you’re not a Facebooker, all the more important experience that I gain from the forest garden will eventually find its way into an article on the website, but if you use and enjoy Facebook you can now share the more day to day experience of having one of these wonderfully engaging and enriching edible ecosystems.

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