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.

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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.

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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.

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Eating elm seeds

Every May there is a brief, overwhelmingly abundant forest harvest: the seeds of the wych elm or Ulmus glabra.

Elm flower, By Hermann Schachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elm flower, By Hermann Schachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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a curtain of elm seeds

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.

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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.

too late

too late