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to put out today is that my 2016 seed list is now on the website as part of a redesign in which the old ‘shop’ page has been replaced by a new one which takes more of a gift-economy approach.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.
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.
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 (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.
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/
At this time of year, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are making a splash everywhere, in flower beds, in hanging baskets, in the forest garden – and in the wok and saucepan. Many people will know nasturtiums for their brightly coloured, peppery tasting flowers, but there is a lot more to their culinary use than that.
All parts of the nasturtium – leaves, flowers and seeds – contain the aromatic oil that makes them taste similar to watercress, and all parts can be used in recipes that exploit this flavour. The flowers look spectacular in a salad or as a garnish and the leaves give an interesting twist to pesto. For me though, the biggest attraction is that all this colour and spice mask a less showy but equally useful side to nasturtium, as a very well flavoured green vegetable.
If you cook nasturtium greens, you will be left in no doubt that the aromatic oils are being driven off, as the heady smell fills the kitchen. The surprise is what is left at the end: neither the cress flavour of the raw vegetable nor the bland taste that might be expected, but another taste entirely, distinctive and very pleasant. One way to enjoy this is as a pot herb or spinach. Fry a small onion and some garlic in a pan until soft, then throw in a good quantity of washed nasturtium leaves and a little extra water. Put the lid on and cook for a few minutes. You’ll smell the oil being driven off – once that is over the leaves are ready. The result not only has a nice flavour but also a good texture: soft and buttery. This is very nice as a side dish in its own right, or you could substitute nasturtium leaves for spinach in more complex dishes or mix them together with other leaves.
Another way to use nasturtium is to harvest the soft growing tips, nipping off about 10 centimetres of growth, and use them in a stir fry. I add them near the end: they don’t need a lot of cooking and the ideal is if they keep a little of their cress flavour but not too much.
Nasturtiums are prolific seeders, and this gives another great product: the pickled green seeds. These are often described as caper substitutes, but to my taste they are on a par with capers. Used in similar ways but with a different taste, I’m happy to have both available. There are great preparation instructions on Garden Betty’s blog.
Nasturtiums like a well-drained soil, preferably in full sun. Growing guides tend to say that they do best in poor soil, but it is more accurate to say that they flower best in poor soil. They will grow quite happily in a rich soil, with lots of leaf growth. They are quite rampant and may smother plants that are too close, so give them a bit of space or plant them next to a taller plant that they can scramble up without inconveniencing too much. In my forest garden I have them planted next to some raspberries and also able to cascade over a low wall. The space next to them has wild garlic, which is well over before the nasturtiums really get going. Nasturtiums are annual but they produce lots of seed and often self seed; however, it’s still a good idea to save some seed over the winter so you can plant them where you want them. They can vary in vigour, flavour and size and the tips of some plants are a bit woody, so seed saving gives you a chance to propagate from your best plants.
Every May there is a brief, overwhelmingly abundant forest harvest: the seeds of the wych elm or Ulmus glabra.An elm in seed is a wonderful sight. It begins with tiny, nondescript (but quite beautiful if you look closely) flowers. Being wind-pollinated, they dispense with showy petals and rely on sheer numbers of pollen grains blowing in the wind to find a partner. Over spring they develop into the mature seeds. The seeds are green, leafy and coin sized; they develop before the tree has produced leaves but they are so numerous that a seed-bearing elm looks like it has come into leaf already. This prolific production is the elm’s insurance policy. Where some trees pack their seeds with toxins to deter seed-eating animals, the elm’s strategy is to produce as many seeds as possible as quickly as possible so that no predator can have a hope of taking more than a fraction.
The maturing fruit goes through several stages. It starts very much like a leaf, but as it grows the seed in the centre begins to develop and the whole thing develops a succulent oiliness. Beyond this stage, they turn dry, brittle and brown and blow off the tree. Around seeding elms there is a premature autumn at the end of spring as little drifts of the seeds carpet the ground like fallen leaves.
A human wishing to eat elm seeds faces the same problem as any other seed-eater – the sheer overwhelming number and the far-too-brief period when they are in the sweet spot of oily edibility. It’s hard not to fall prey to foraging greed, but I’ve learned to be sanguine about the fact that most of this bounty will dry up and blow away and just to enjoy a fraction of it while it lasts. The best use of elm seeds is in a salad where, as one source puts it, they will leave ‘the mouth feeling fresh and the breath smelling pleasant’. Cooking them is harder: one of the best uses I have found so far is as a component, along with wild garlic, nettles, kale and other spring greens, of ‘leaf sauce curry’ (about which I’ll post soon). This is a dish that lends itself well to being cooked in huge vats and frozen in portions, which helps to preserve the bounty a little.
Of course, I am lucky to have elm seeds at all. Many elms worldwide have been wiped out by Dutch elm disease. In the north of Scotland we are quite fortunate. Our native wych elms are more diverse and resistant than the English elm (Ulmus procera) and the cold, windy climate makes it harder for the bark beetles that spread the fungus to get around. As a result the spread of the disease has been slower and we still have many fine trees.
In other areas, all is not necessarily lost for the elm. There are now various projects to breed or discover elms with some degree of resistance to the disease. Some are based on attempts to shuffle the genetic pack by hybridising different elm species. While this can be effective it does have the downside that the results cannot be called native in any area and, ironically, one of the leading cultivars has been suspected of increasing the spread of a different elm disease. The Conservation Foundation supplies clones of native (UK) elms that have shown some signs of resistance and I have planted several round my local area. Finally, there is a chance that resistance might emerge more organically from wild trees in areas like northern Scotland where transmission rates are lower and death rates less catastrophic. If you want to give the elm a helping hand by finding a home for some resistant varieties, I’m sure they would be happy to repay you by supplying some seeds to fill your stomach and freshen your breath.
Never mind the Lost Crops of the Incas, skirret (Sium sisarum) seems to be the Lost Crop of the Europeans. Based on my experience, it’s high time it was rediscovered.
Originally from China, skirret was clearly well established in Europe by Roman times. It was a favourite of the Emperor Tiberius, a man who, don’t forget, could have pretty much anything he wanted for his table. He liked it so much that he demanded it as tribute from the Germans. It remained widespread and popular into Tudor times and then… where is it now?
Two crops of European empires may have displaced skirret. The first was the potato. Skirret is a starchy root, a useful staple, but nothing like as productive as the potato (what is?). The second was sugar cane. One of the most striking characteristics of skirret is its sweetness: even the name comes from a Germanic origin meaning ‘sugar root’. Before ubiquitous sweeteners, this would have made it extremely attractive, even to greedy Roman emperors. Whatever the reasons, skirret faded away from gardens, tables and popular consciousness. I’d say that it has several characteristics that make it worth revisiting.
First up, skirret is delicious. It has a floury texture, a little like a potato, due to the high starch levels. Its taste is unique, but vaguely carroty, not surprisingly as it comes from the multi-talented carrot family (Apiaceae). It needs very little cooking. A minute or two’s boiling is enough, or you can briefly pan fry it. Being from Central Scotland, I have of course tried deep-frying it and can report that it makes a passable chip, but scoring higher in taste than texture when cooked this way. Wikipedia has an entertaining section on skirret recipes through the centuries. You might also like to try this recipe from the Backyard Larder Blog for skirret pasties – it also uses several other forest garden staples.
Secondly, skirret is quite easy to grow once you know how. Unlike most of its vegetable relatives it is not a biennial with a single taproot but a perennial that produces a whole shaggy bunch of roots. A dormant skirret plant can therefore be lifted, divided and replanted like any clump-forming perennial. Grown from seed, skirret produces a single ‘crown’: several shoot buds around the base of a stem, with a cluster of roots attached. Grown on, this crown will divide to form a clump made from several crowns. The clumps are easy to tease apart into individual crowns again. A cluster of roots will consist of several that are worth picking and a good number that aren’t, so my harvesting method is to dig up the clump, snip off the roots that are worth having, separate into crowns and replant. This leaves the plant with the maximum amount of resources for a good start the next year.
Thirdly, skirret ought to be an easy crop to improve. The combination of annual seed production and clonal propagation by the division of clumps means that new varieties are easy to produce and then maintain. The plants that I have grown from seed show considerable variation in root number, thickness, length and quality. I’d like to see skirret selected to produce fewer, fatter roots with smoother skin (cleaning skirret is something of a faff as the wrinkled skin tends to hold the dirt and require a good scrubbing).
One drawback to skirret is that the roots can have a woody core which cannot be softened by any amount of cooking and which is not particularly practical to remove. Guides suggest that this is a problem of young plants that goes away on older ones, or that it is caused by a lack of water while growing or that it is under genetic control and varies from one plant to another. My experience suggests that all three are true, which means that a combination of breeding and correct cultivation should be enough to solve the problem.
Starting skirret from crowns may be easy, but to get a crown in the first place you either have to shell out a fair bit of money or you have to start from seed. Skirret is not the easiest to grow from seed as like many of its relatives it needs a period of winter cold (stratification) to encourage it to germinate. If it is anything like most apiaceae the seed will lose viability quite quickly, so it is a good idea to source current-year seed in autumn and start stratifying straight away.
For cultivation, skirret seems to like moist, free-draining soil in full sun. It’s said not to like hot weather but this isn’t a problem that I experience much. I’d advise growing it in rich, well-fertilised soil as a poorly fed skirret will produce thin roots that aren’t worth harvesting. Mature crowns need to be spaced at 30cm or more. Giving it a mulch is a good idea to help keep moisture in and suppress early weed growth. I have mine planted in a bed with compost dug in and a mulch of leaves over the top. It will grow up through the mulch and require little to no weeding as its strong growth suppresses weeds later in the season. Unless you want to try your hand at seed production, remove the flower stems to divert more resources to the roots. Regular watering will help to avoid the dreaded woody core – I have mine planted right next to my water butt so that I have no excuse for forgetting. Skirret can be left in the ground until needed: towards the end of the season, you might want to mark where the plants are as there can be little sign once the leaves die down!
There are easier ways to grow starchy roots, but if you want a spectacular veg patch or an edible flower bed then Lilium lancifolium ‘Splendens’ (tiger lily) is a plant that erases the difference between the two. Its ornamental appeal lies mostly in its striking spotted orange flowers (which inevitably raise the question, why tiger rather than leopard lily?) the petals of which curve right back to the stem, exposing long stamens, giving an overall effect that always puts me in mind of a jellyfish when viewed from the side.
There are two edible parts. The flowers can be eaten, although an internet meme holds that the pollen causes vomiting. Eat the Weeds suggests that this arose from the fact that all parts of the plant are indeed poisonous to cats and quotes one author who has eaten the pollen with no ill effects. Next flowering season I’ll try some (tentatively) myself and let you know. The bulbs (which I have tried myself) can be either fried or boiled. They have a mild taste and a starchy texture similar to a floury potato. They are traditionally cultivated in Asia as a food crop.
Spectacular as the flowers are, they are completely sterile and this lily doesn’t produce fertile seed. Instead, it can be propagated by splitting the bulb or by potting up the handy little bulbils that grow along the length of the stem. These are best grown on in pots for the first year, then planted out and grown on for two or three more years until they are big enough for flowering and/or eating. If anyone would like to give it a go, I have a small number of the bulbils in my shop. Tiger lily likes a warm, sunny spot with freely draining soil.