Winter woes and wonders

It’s been a while since we’ve had a really testing winter in Aberdeen, so in an odd way I am rather enjoying the difficult one we’re having this year – as an opportunity to find out whether more recently acquired plants really are suited to growing in a forest garden in the north. We haven’t had any really deep freezes, but the continual back-and-forth over freezing point that we’ve experienced can be tougher for many plants than straightforward cold.

To start with those that definitely aren’t going to make it, I think I can firmly rule out milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for my garden. It was looking good after December’s frost and snow, but the extended cold seems to have been too much and all four of my plants are now withered husks. I’m also sad to report my mauka (Mirabilis expansa) as missing in action. This Andean root crop is widely described as growing in ‘cold, windy’ conditions at high altitude so it sounded perfect. My plants put on impressive aerial growth in 2016 but produced only small roots. I planted them in various positions around the garden to test out different conditions, but not one of them showed leaf again in 2017.

20180206_155825

Pan breid

Some other plants have been putting on growth but are now looking like they are regretting it. Prime among these is alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), a surprisingly hardy plant given its southerly distribution in the wild in Britain. It always starts into growth very early in its second year and never seems to suffer for it. What has been fascinating this year has been the differing trajectories of two different two-year-old plants that flowered and seeded copiously in 2017. One followed this by dropping dead in standard biennial fashion. The other not only clung on to life but sent up a mass of new flowering growth in November and December. This is now being progressively cut back by repeated frosts, but if I had to take a guess I would put my money on it making it through to spring. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this plant to see how far its ambitions for perenniality go.

20180206_154538

alexanders

Another surprisingly hardy plant is globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus Scolymus Group). When I started growing, received wisdom was that cardoon (Cynara cardunculus Cardoon Group), a variety of artichoke selected for stems rather than flowers, was hardier. That’s all very well, but I’ve never found cardoon worth growing and I’ve never met anyone who actually uses it. Fortunately it seems that globe artichoke is just as hardy after all and mine regularly puts on significant growth in the winter, seemingly unworried by getting cut down by frost every now and again.

Of my newer experiments, I’m glad to see that the Chinese mahogany (Toona sinensis) is looking unaffected by the cold. Not that I’m expecting a mahogany crop any time soon, but the tree’s young leaves have a spicy, oniony flavour that I’m looking forward to experimenting with more. My Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) has not only been surviving but growing throughout the winter. I’m very keen to try it once spring comes and I’m not worried about weakening it. Creeping dogwood (Cornus canadensis) is not an entirely new experiment. I’ve lost several that I acquired as plants in past winters. This time I grew one from seed. It survived last year’s mild winter and seems to be looking good for this year’s harsher one, so perhaps I’ll get to try its fruit eventually.

20180206_155336

creeping dogwood

The jury is still out on saltbush (Atriplex halimus). I had given up on this species after losing several plants over winter but decided to try again after finding a variety called ‘Cascais’ with larger leaves and shorter internodes – perfect for food production. Winter wet seems to be saltbush’s biggest enemy, so I gave this one a raised position on freely-draining sandy soil and crossed my fingers. So far it has suffered leaf scorch on a number of shoots but there is still a good bit of life in it, so I guess it will depend on what February and March throw at us. One advantage with saltbush is that it roots very easily from cuttings, so I have a backup copy on the kitchen windowsill.

Then we come to the real winter survivors. Land cress is the far easier relative of water cress. It grows throughout the winter and goes perfectly in land cress and potato soup, with the land cress leaves blended into a potato base at the last minute. Leaf celery (Apium graveolens) can be used similarly, and in many other ways besides. I’ll write a separate post about this under-rated vegetable soon. Kale (Brassica oleracea) is another great winter survivor, but I do find that the older perennial kales get the more susceptible they seem to winter cold. This is not only true of Daubenton’s kale but of Pentland Brig, an heirloom variety that has always shown a little bit of a tendency to survive an extra year or two. I’m told that in Florida this variety is genuinely perennial, but some of my three-year-olds are looking a bit touch-and-go this winter.

Salsify (Tragopogon porrofilius) and scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica), two related root crops that can also be used for leaves and flower shoots, are both lasting well. Salsify is a biennial but it often germinates in autumn and then stands the winter. Perhaps the most unexpected winter survivor is wasabi (Wasabia japonica). Wasabi is possibly a little confused in this climate as it dies down and reappears at odd times, but it never seems too troubled by the cold.

20180206_154833

Variegated Daubenton’s – not a happy plant

I’m not entirely sure whether winters are getting milder or some plants are simply adapting to my garden. When I first grew leaf beet (Beta vulgaris) it generally died back over winter and only re-emerged come spring. This year many plants have been putting on significant winter growth. I must be on something like my eighth generation of self-seeded plants by now so it wouldn’t surprise me if there had been some selection for the conditions in my garden. I was also absolutely astonished to see a living rocket (Eruca sativa) plant. Rocket usually dies back at the first sign of frost. I’d be utterly delighted if it was getting hardier.

While some plants try to tough out the winter, others sensibly die back and wait it out undergound. While some of these won’t be seen again until May or June, others are more adventurous and quite a number are appearing already. Leading the charge is the onion family, including the chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Siberian chives (A. nutans), prairie onion (A. cernuum), German garlic (A. senescens), welsh onion (A. fistulosum), Sikkim onion (A. sikkimense), wild garlic (A. ursinum) and tree onion (A. x proliferum). They looked like they were regretting their rashness a little last week as blizzards swirled around them, but this is pretty normal behaviour for onions and I don’t think any of them will come to any harm from it. Only the three-cornered leek (A. triquetrum), which grew all through last year’s very mild winter, is looking decidedly unwell – perhaps not surprising for a plant more at home in the Canary Islands.

Then there’s the allium that laughs at winters, the queen of the Scottish vegetable garden, the leek (A. ampeloprasum). I have a range of perennial leeks, including elephant garlic, Babington leek and wild leek ‘Chesil Beach’ (which puts the song ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha and the Muffins into my head each and every time I see it), but perenniality is never far from the surface with leeks and many lines of cultivated, biennial leek occasionally form overwintering bulbs. This seems to me to be a promising route to new perennial varieties. For biennial leeks, I’ve tried many new varieties but nothing seems to beat the traditional ‘Musselburgh’ for winter hardiness and growth.

20180206_155704

Wild leek ‘Chesil Beach’. Far away in time.

Other plants already showing a bit of growth include the sour-leaved garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and a very handsome bronze lesser celandine (Ficaria verna). There are even some mushrooms! Jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) and oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) both seem to be unconcerned by winter cold.

With some other plants there’s nothing I can do but wait a little longer to see if they re-emerge from underground hiding this year. One of those that I’ll be most interested in is myoga or Japanese ginger (Zingiber mioga). This survived last winter but failed to produce any of the flowers which are its only edible part. If it makes it this time I’ve promised it a move to a sunnier position.

Finally, I’ll share with you the ingredients of last night’s curry, sourced almost entirely from the forest garden, to show that there’s never a time when you can’t get some sort of meal from it. Harvested that day: leek, potatoes, yacon, celery, salsify, hopniss (Apios americana), sweet cicely roots and leaves, jelly ears, leaf beet, kale, wasabi and alexanders. From stores: oca, beans, neep and apple.

20180206_155305

lesser celandine

Advertisements

Eating daylilies (Hemerocallis)

I’ve written a few times already about using daylilies but I thought it would be helpful to have one post to tie it all together.

Daylilies have been described as ‘the perfect perennial’, due to their brilliant colours and all round ease of growing. They tolerate both drought and frost and thrive in many different climate zones and soil conditions. They are vigorous perennials that last for many years in a garden and see off most weeds. As if all that wasn’t enough, they are really nice to eat too.

Daylily is not one species but a whole bag of them, all in the genus Hemerocallis. Plants for a Future list over 20 species and only one, H. forrestii, gets anything less than a four-star rating for edibility. Many daylilies that you might encounter do not fit strictly into any one species as they have been hybridised widely and many are listed only as Hemerocallis and their cultivar name.

I should add a few words of caution before I go any further. Daylilies are listed by some sources as poisonous to either humans or pets. Largely this seems to come from confusion with other plants with ‘lily’ in their common name, some of which are not a good idea to eat at all. Many of these plants also look superficially similar to the daylily so obviously you need to be certain that what you are eating is what you think it is (always a good idea in any case). There is a good article by Delishably on the some of the confusion that has arisen here.

All I can say personally is that I have experienced no ill effects from eating moderate amounts of the cooked flowers of Hemerocallis altissima, citrina, dumortieri, exaltata, fulva, lilioasphodelus, middendorfii and minor and a range of hybrids. Bear in mind that any individual can have an adverse reaction to even common food plants and any new food should be taken with some care. Each new species and hybrid is best treated as new rather than assuming that if you are fine with one Hemerocallis you are fine with them all. The only hazard for the genus listed on Plants for a Future is from a single source and states that large quantities of the leaves are said to be hallucinogenic, so you might want to avoid that (or you might want to try it – I don’t want to make any assumptions about my readers).

Daylily flowers are often recommended for salads, which is a bit of a mystery to me as I find them rather unpleasant raw but delicious cooked. The cooked flavour is rich, sweet and complex. The key to bringing out the best in them seems to be frying, which imparts a little bit of a caramelised taste. Perhaps the simplest method is to pan-fry them for about 5 minutes in olive oil. They might have been purposefully designed for stir-frying as their elongated shape is perfect for it. I cut up the largest H. fulva flowers for stir fries but all other kinds just go in whole. One useful property of the flowers is that they will thicken a soup or sauce and I sometimes use them like onion, chopped and lightly fried before adding any other ingredients. There’s a recipe for a miso soup using yellow day lilies (H. lilioasphodelus) here.

The flowers can be used at all stages of their development. Many people consider them to be at their best for frying as flower buds, just on the point of opening. I also enjoy the opened flowers this way and the open flowers of large-flowered species and cultivars are great for cooking as fritters or tempura. If left on the plant in dry weather the flowers will dry up and will then last indefinitely in storage. The bags of ‘golden needles’ or ‘lily flowers’ than you can find in Chinese supermarkets are dried daylilies. They seem to keep their ability to thicken a soup even when dried.

The young leaves of daylilies are edible (but see the cautions above) and I use them in a mixture with others as a pot herb or in leaf sauce. However, they are no better than many more productive plants and harvesting the leaves presumably leads to fewer flowers so I don’t make heavy use of them. They also quite quickly become tougher and more fibrous.

Another part that I don’t use for fear of weakening the plant is the roots, despite one source describing them as ‘quite possibly the best tubers I’ve ever eaten’. I’m sure, however, that if I lived in one of the parts of the world where daylilies really thrive and have become a foragable weed I would be digging them up with enthusiasm.

Growing daylilies is easy. They do best in a moist, fertile soil in sun or semi shade. There is apparently a daylily gall midge (Contarinia quinquenotata) which can lead to distorted flowers. Fortunately I have never seen it in my garden. Slugs are fond of the young growth. This isn’t a problem with established plants but new plants are worth protecting when first planted out.

Choosing a daylily is harder as they have almost become a victim of their own success. Many new varieties are becoming hard to recognise even as daylilies. The trend in breeding seems to be for ever more open flowers, with petals curved back hard – pretty much the opposite of what you want for cooking. Smaller flowers and delicate, divided petals are two more qualities prized by breeders but not by chefs. On the whole, this means that older, more traditional varieties are better for cooking. Varieties I use include Whichford, Burning Daylight, Franz Hals, Yellow Moonlight, Pink Damask and Cream Drop. You can also find double varieties of daylily which have the culinary advantage of being chunkier: H. fulva ‘Kwanso’ is one that I grow. Two common varieties that I have found rather disappointing in terms of size and yield are ‘Stella de Oro’ and ‘Corky’.

In countries where daylilies self-seed I expect there is a tendency to revert to type. If you are lucky enough to live in one of these countries and you find a particularly nice wild specimen I’d encourage you to take it into cultivation and pass it around. It’s a pity that no-one seems to be actively breeding daylilies for their culinary rather than their ornamental properties. I would certainly buy them.

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.

20170418_123557

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.

Ranunculus_ficaria_Roots

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.

Ficaria verna

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

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.

dscf1165

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/

dscf1160

Eating nasturtiums

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.

dscf1133

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.

dscf1142

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.

20160912_181828