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.

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)

Eating dog’s tooth violet

If you were designing a new crop for forest gardening, you might decide you wanted a starchy bulb rather than yet another leaf or fruit producer. Ideally it would be ready early in the season, before all the other roots. It would be nice if the bulbs tasted good, stored well, were a decent size and weren’t fiddly to prepare. Needless to say, it would have to grow in shade. It would also be handy if it was simple to propagate, maybe by dividing and self seeding modestly. While we’re at it, why not give it beautiful early spring flowers too?

Erythronium 'Pagoda'

Erythronium ‘Pagoda’

As is so often the case, nature has got there ahead of us, in the form of the dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium). The common name is a bit misleading as erythroniums are no relation whatsoever to true violets (Viola species), but the ‘dog’s tooth’ part is clear: the tapered white bulbs look like the canines of some monstrous prehistoric hound – not one I’d want to meet on a dark night. There are a number of species you can grow, such as E. americanum, the trout lily, E. japonicum, katakuri, or E. dens-canis, the European dog’s tooth, but the best one to grow for eating, due to its larger bulbs, is the hybrid cultivar ‘Pagoda’. (All the above species are edible, plus many more, but I can’t guarantee that the whole genus is: see Plants for a Future for a list of species.)

Erythroniums have an unusual growth habit: they only ever produce two leaves, which die down in June or July having produced one or hopefully more bulbs. A bulb is a wrapped-up plant, safely packaged and ready to go for the next year. The multiple layers of an onion bulb are the future leaves, while the little dense bit at the base is the stem. The tough outer layers are more leaves, modified to seal in moisture and keep out pests. With only two leaves, erythronium bulbs are noticeably different from this standard. They are long and narrow and have no outer skin, making them ivory-white, easy to prepare and a little prone to drying out if you aren’t careful with storage.

Erythronium bulbs

The leaves and flowers are said to be edible, but if you eat the leaves you’ll be missing out on the main course, which is the bulb. They don’t have a strong taste, which makes them useful as a staple. My favourite way of cooking them is to slice them thinly across and fry the discs. They go chewy and sweet, a bit like plantain chips. Another way of frying them is to make chips (in the British sense). The smaller bulbs are just the right size already; the larger ones can be sliced in half or quarter. They are also good boiled and excellent in stews. It’s not something I’ve tried myself, but according to Plants for a Future the European dog’s tooth is dried to make flour and used in making cakes and pasta. (Another useful piece of information from PFaF is that large quantities of dog’s tooths have been known to be emetic. I haven’t experienced this but, as ever, it is a reminder that you should only introduce yourself to a new food gradually.)

It’s a good idea to harvest dog’s tooth bulbs before the foliage has completely died down as they are then easy to find and you don’t have to dig around for them. They dry out easily so if you are storing them for a long period of time they need to be kept cool and moist. I get round this by only eating them in season. They are usually ready by the start of June so they fill the gap in the potato season nicely. I dig them up, take a proportion for eating and replant the rest as they will keep quite happily in the ground for the rest of the year.

Such an early harvest gives an opportunity to use the ground for something else for the rest of the year. This could simply be weed control as you can hoe over the top of the dormant dog’s tooths so long as you have planted them deep enough. Alternatively you could sow a green manure or a quick crop like mustard greens or intercrop it with something like wild strawberry that uses the later part of the year and won’t interfere too much with the erythronium’s growth. Like most bulbs, dog’s tooths are adept at punching up through a thick layer of mulch, so I give mine a thick mulch of leaves in the autumn to both feed and protect them.

Growing and eating ground elder

What did the Romans ever do for us? Well, they introduced ground elder…

To many gardeners, this one fact alone is probably enough to condemn the entire 400-year Roman occupation of southern Britain out of hand. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) is a perennial vegetable with a bad rep. Its combination of propagation by seed and by masses of spaghetti-like underground runners makes it an almost unstoppable spreader and very difficult to remove from ground once it is established. In parts of Australia and North America it is legally controlled as an invasive weed. All this adds up to a plant that is considered by most gardeners to be one of the worst weeds that there is.

ground elder

Of course, there is another way of looking at ground elder’s ebullient nature: it’s an edible plant that is very productive, grows strongly enough to outcompete any weeds, tolerates shade and poor soils and is found almost everywhere. One big question remains though: does it taste any good?

Many people will have read that ground elder is edible and nibbled a leaf speculatively, perhaps wondering whether they could eat the damn thing into submission. The result is usually not good. Mature ground elder leaves have a strong, unpleasant taste that invades the mouth and won’t let go, rather like the plants in a plot of ground. It’s a shame that this puts so many people off, because, picked and prepared properly, ground elder is actually very nice indeed.

The trick to ground elder is to pick only the youngest, freshest leaf shoots – before the leaf has even unfolded. At this stage they have a glossy, translucent green colour that helps you to pick them out. It is the petiole or leaf stem more than the leaves themselves that constitute the vegetable, so pick them off as low down as you can manage.

ground elder shoots

The simplest way to prepare ground elder is to fry it in olive oil until the leaves have wilted and the stem is tender and serve as a side dish. Even in more complicated dishes, frying is a good way of bringing out its flavour – as in this recipe.

Pernicious pasta (1 serving)
100 g dried linguine
half an onion, finely chopped
garlic
a few mushrooms, finely chopped
5 nettle tops
10-20 ground elder shoots
50-100 ml double cream
1 tsp stock powder
finely chopped herbs

Break the linguine in half so it is about the same length as the nettles and ground elder shoots (if the ground elder stems are particularly long, cut them in half too). Cook the linguine until nearly al dente and drain. For the rest, use the biggest frying pan you can find as you want to fry rather than steam the ingredients. Fry the onion or other alliums in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic (if using wild garlic, chop in near the end) and mushrooms (ideally shiitake, otherwise cultivated) and fry for a couple of minutes more. Then add the nettle tops and fry for 5 minutes or so, followed by the ground elder stems and another 5 minutes frying. Add the linguine and stir. Then add the cream and a little water, a teaspoon of bouillon or other stock powder and fresh, finely-chopped herbs such as parsley, wild celery, Scots lovage and sweet cicely. Cook gently for a couple more minutes and serve.

ground elder pasta

If you want to grow ground elder, the simplest advice is probably – don’t. It is so common that it may well be easier to find a patch near your garden that you can forage from. You could possibly even manage it gently for greater production. If you use foraged ingredients then it goes without saying that you should wash them well, make sure they haven’t been sprayed and make sure you have positively identified them.

If foraging isn’t an option, or you’re feeling particularly brave, and you want to give growing it a try, you will have to bring in the big guns in terms of containment. You need a larger patch than can be contained in a pot sunk into the ground, so choose a bed and accept from the start that it will spread through the entire bed. The bed has to be bordered on all sides by GE-proof barriers, which is to say short mown grass, paving without lots of cracks or a woodchip path that is hoed regularly. All these barriers should be a metre or more wide as the runners can go a good distance underground.

You want to cut the whole stand down as soon as it starts to flower, both to encourage new shoot production and to prevent seeding, so you can’t mix it in with anything that won’t take being cut down in late spring. One option is to grow ground elder in a ‘thug bed’ with other strong growers such as wild garlic. The bed should be in fairly deep shade under a tree or wall. It is possible to get variegated ground elder, which is not quite such a strong grower. If you have ground elder in your garden, invited or uninvited, it is very important not to put fragments of it into your compost as this will spread it into other areas. I have a ‘toxics’ compost bin where persistent weeds like docks and ground elder and potential disease spreaders like potato haulms go for extended treatment.

ground elder

Eating rhubarb flowers

There’s an unusual perennial vegetable lurking unsuspected in many gardens at this time of year: rhubarb flowers. You should remove the flower stems from rhubarb to stop it wasting its energy on seed production in any case, so instead of chucking it on the compost, you could use it, as they do in the far east, as an exotic seasonal ingredient.

rhubarb flower stems

The secret to preparing rhubarb flowers is to know that the tiny individual flowers that make up the head do not contain any oxalic acid, the substance that makes rhubarb so sour, but the flower stem does. The stem is a branching structure that goes right inside the head so you’ll never get it all out, but if you just cut off the most accessible bits you’ll have got rid of most of it. Also be sure to remove the stem leaves, which are presumably as poisonous as the basal ones, and the papery bract which surrounds the flower head.

rhubarb flowers

The result is still sour, but interestingly rather than overpoweringly so. It goes best in dishes where there is a sour element and you can often leave out vinegar or lemon juice from a recipe in compensation. I find it delicious boiled for four or five minutes with broccoli sprouts, then drained and served with oil and salt over the top, leaving out the shake of lemon juice that I would usually add. It also goes very well in a stir fry.

Since a flower head will contain some stem and therefore some oxalic acid no matter how carefully you prepare it, it would be a bad idea to consume excessive amounts of them. This is also true of the rhubarb stems that are more normally eaten.

More on rhubarb in Rhubarb and elderflower jam, and a surprise.

Four forest gardening myths

I’ve learned a lot of things in the course of trying out permaculture and forest gardening. Some of them I’ve then had to unlearn again. Here are my top four forest gardening myths.

Ground covers
Practically every forest gardening book you can find will tell you that you need ground covers: plants whose main function is to cover the soil. They are usually aggressive spreaders like mint and tansy that also attract insects and are said to benefit the garden in some rather intangible way through the aromatic substances they release. Sometimes they can be plants like Rubus pentalobus, a bramble relative that carpets the ground thickly and produces a token yield of small fruits.

I can see where the ground cover idea came from. If you have a large area and are mostly interested in the tree and shrub products, then perhaps all you want from a ground layer plant is that it will outcompete the weeds and save you some work (raising some interesting questions about how you define a ‘weed’). But in a smaller area there is absolutely no point to ground covers: you want to fill the whole ground layer with productive plants and fertility-builders.

In my experience ground covers are completely unnecessary for attracting wildlife: the whole point of a forest garden is that the productive plants get to go through their entire annual cycle of growing and flowering and most of them are excellent wildlife plants in their own right. I am also a firm unbeliever in magic ingredients like aromatics in ecosystems: the only magic ingredient is diversity.

Straight lines are bad
Funky, curvy lines almost seem to be a defining feature and article of faith of permaculture, which is the route by which a lot of people come into forest gardening. However, at the risk of sounding very… well… straight, I have to say that there’s a lot to be said for planting in straight lines. One reason is that it makes hoeing much easier. There isn’t a lot of weeding to be done in a forest garden, but there’s still some, and running a hoe down between rows is by far the easiest way to do it. It also helps you to avoid hoeing down your crop plants. A lot of perennial vegetables die down during winter and it is very disheartening to slice the tops off them just as they should be bursting into new growth. Having them in straight lines helps you remember at least generally where they should be.

Another reason for hoeing is that sometimes you want to thin out your plants, particularly with the self-seeders. I neglected to hoe lines through my leaf beet this year and was rewarded with a patch of scrawny plants that were more interested in producing stem and racing each other for the light than they were in producing fat, juicy leaves for me to eat.

Finally, straight lines make for good access. Mandala beds may look great when they are first laid out, but regrettably a New-York-style grid is probably the best compromise between getting round the garden, getting access to individual beds and not taking up too much space that you can get.

No work
A mature forest garden is often said to be a ‘no-work’ system. If only! However, there is a kernel of truth in this one. There is far, far less work involved in digging and weeding a well-planned forest garden than there is in an annual veg plot. However, there tends to be more work in the harvesting. With annual vegetables you generally lift the whole plant; in a forest garden you pull bits off it, which takes more time.

I would change ‘no work’ to ‘better work’, as I don’t know many people who prefer weeding to harvesting. Perhaps the biggest advantage in work terms is that the the work schedule in a forest garden is much more forgiving. In the veg plot, you generally have to weed those seedlings NOW or you’ll lose them. In the forest garden you can usually leave a task til mañana, or indeed next month, with little harm done.

Bare soil is the devil’s work
A quick walk round any forest should be enough to dispel this one. You certainly want to keep soil disturbance to a minimum and only those who like thankless work would try to maintain areas of bare soil for the sake of it, but there is no need to obsessively try to cover every square inch with ground covers and mulch. Woodchip is for the paths and the paths only and other, more nitrogen-rich mulches are a useful bonus if you can get them – a way of adding fertility to the soil – not a requirement.