Growing and eating skirret

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.

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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.

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A skirret clump

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.

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A single clump separated into crowns. The labels are to keep track of individual strains for plant breeding purposes.

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!

 

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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

Growing and eating wild garlic

Very few of the really shade-tolerant vegetables are as productive, versatile and useful as wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as bear garlic, ramps or ramson. When I was young, on a family holiday in Wales, I discovered a wood carpeted with ramsons. Overwhelmed by such exuberant bounty, I stuffed my pockets with leaves. In the car on the way home my parents noticed a certain odour taking over the space and after a quick search my foragings were evicted. I suppose it could have been worse, it could have been me. Nowadays I have my own tame patch of wild garlic in my allotment and I can harvest it when I like. Wild garlic

As with many perennial crops, there is a useful synergy between wild garlic and the cultivated kind (Allium sativum). It starts to be ready just as stored bulbs are usually running out, some time in February or March, and runs through until about June. Wild garlic can be used pretty much anywhere you want a garlicky flavour, with the caveat that the flavour doesn’t survive cooking for long, so you generally need to add it to cooked dishes near the end. Ramson pesto packs quite a punch. I like to chop leaves into salads: whole leaves are a bit strong to eat in bulk but chopped roughly and mixed with other leaves they are delicious. Layering a few leaves into a sandwich works well too. For some seriously local food, you can try using it to supply the garlic flavour in broad bean hummus.

However, if its garlic flavour were the only thing that wild garlic had going for it, it would be best regarded as a herb and grown in a small patch in a shady corner. What makes it useful as a bulk vegetable is the very fact that it loses its garlic flavour when cooked for more than a few minutes, leaving a very tasty, oniony green. As such I use it anywhere where I would use onion, particularly as the base of a sauce, be it pasta, curry, stew or soup. You can also substitute it for spinach for delicious variations on dishes such as lasagne. It makes an excellent pot herb, either on its own or mixed with other leaves that are available at the time, such as annual and perennial kales or leaf beet. One thing to be careful with is that wild garlic quickly develops a rather unpleasant burnt-onion taste if allowed to dry out while cooking, so you need to take care to keep it moist. In our household we love wild garlic on pizza but we always layer it at the bottom so that the other ingredients protect it.

Almost all parts of wild garlic are usable, including the leaves, stems and flowers. The flowers look amazing in a salad. The bulbs are also usable once the leaves have died down, but they are not as good as the bulbs of cultivated garlic and they don’t store very well once lifted. And of course, if you eat all the bulbs then you don’t get the other parts. That said, if you have a good supply of them you might want to try the recipe for pickled wild garlic bulbs that can be found – with many others – on the excellent Eat Weeds blog.

You can harvest wild garlic simply by pulling off individual leaves or, for less garlicky hands and to speed things up, you can cut a clump at a time with scissors. I generally put my wild garlic leaves in a bowl of cold water for five minutes as soon as I get home, to preserve and wash them. They’ll then keep for at least a week in the fridge. Another way of harvesting that gives a slightly different product is to dig up a clump and then prepare the individual plants by cutting off the roots and removing the sheath of the bulb. The whole thing then hangs together in a sort of ‘spring onion’ version of wild garlic. Fried in plenty of oil and dipped in a sauce these are gourmet food indeed.

wild garlic clump, separated

wild garlic clump, separated

Ramsons are an easy plant to grow, flourishing in the parts of the garden that most other plants avoid. They are a plant of deep woodland, so they like plenty of shade and a moist, humus-rich soil. Once you have got them established they will generally self-seed (to the point of nuisance if they weren’t so edible). Their habit of dying down in the summer makes them easy to manage as you can choose this time to top-dress them, mulch them or hoe over the top of the bulbs. They can even be used in a strip as a bit of a barrier against the spread of other plants. During the spring they suppress other plants by the strength of their growth and during the summer you can hoe the strip. Ramsons are capable of growing through quite a thick mulch: their leaves form green spikes that punch up through mulch before unfurling. Alternatively the dormant period is long enough that you could fit in another crop or a green manure, or interplant wild garlic with another perennial that makes use of the later part of the year.

wild garlic - just emerging

wild garlic – just emerging

Wild garlic will tolerate growing in the open, but as soon as there is hot sun its leaves will burn off and it will retreat to its bulb. It is worth growing some wild garlic in the deepest shade you can find, in which case it will persist until midsummer. Wild garlic can be raised from seed or, more easily, grown from bulbs. The bulbs do not store like those of cultivated garlic, they dry out and die quite quickly if they are not stored moist. They transplant very well ‘in the green’ (while the bulbs are growing), which also avoids the problem of forgetting where you have planted the bulbs! If you are in Scotland, don’t forget that it is legal to pick leaves, flowers and seeds for your own use without the owner’s permission but not to uproot a plant (e.g. by transplanting bulbs) or to harvest commercially. If you want to do either of these you will have to ask the owner.

One word of warning, whether you are foraging wild garlic or growing it. While wild garlic is entirely edible, it can be growing in with leaves of plants that are quite poisonous, as most of the spring bulbs are. It is hard to mistake wild garlic for anything else when you look closely – the combination of the broad, soft leaf and the garlic smell is unique – but if you are picking lots of leaves you might become a little careless. In the photo below you’ll see a patch of poisonous snowdrops growing in about the wild garlic, so if you are foraging, take care, and if you are growing I would recommend removing any snowdrops, bluebells or other spring bulbs from the same bed. wild garlic 02 Photo: Monimail Tower woodlands from Scottish Wild Harvests Association’s Forage In Fife. Further reading: Forest Gardening; Real Spring Onions.

In North America, the name ramps has transferred itself to a similar-looking plant, Allium tricoccum, also known as wild leek. It’s a fascinating piece of convergent evolution. The two species are actually rather distantly related within the Allium genus, but by adapting to the same woodland niche they have come to be very similar in both looks and behaviour. Both are spring ephemerals, coming up and dying down early to make the most of the spring sunlight before the trees leaf up. Both carpet the ground and have broad, delicate leaves, adapted to capturing as much light as possible and dropping the usual allium adaptations to drought and strong sunshine. Despite this there are differences reflecting their divergent ancestry. The North American ramps has shallower bulbs than the Eurasian and the whole plant is more commonly used rather than just the leaves. The leaves and bulbs become tough and inedible and start to die down once the plant starts flowering, unlike A. ursinum, in which leaves and flowers occur together.

Perennial wall rocket

I first came across Diplotaxis tenuifolia at a seed swap on my allotments site. It was labeled ‘wild rocket’ so, thinking it was nothing more than a wild version of the familiar salad leaf (also known as rucola or arugula), I sowed a row and more or less forgot about it. When it grew, there was nothing to make me change my mind. Its attractive, lacy leaves looked like a finely-cut version of rocket and that distinctive peppery taste that you either love or hate (I love it) was there.

But then it did a very un-rocket-like thing. It kept on growing. And growing. The frustrating thing about ordinary rocket is that it just wants to flower and seed, so the period during which it can be bothered producing leaves is little more than a month. My new rocket flowered profusely with lemon-yellow crucifer flowers that the hoverflies clearly loved, but it also went on and on producing new leaves, eventually making a bushy, if floppy, plant about a foot high. Finally, I made some discreet inquiries into its parentage.

Image by T. Voekler on Wikimedia Commons

Wild rocket, it turns out, is just one of the names of D. tenuifolia, along with sand rocket, sand mustard, Lincoln weed and perennial wall rocket. These give a clue to its habitat. It likes a free-draining soil, be it sandy or rocky, and doesn’t need much in the way of water or nutrients. Ideally for my forest garden setup, it will also tolerate some light shade. It is also perennial, meaning a much longer period of leaf production than annual rocket. It is still growing in my garden in Aberdeen, despite several heavy frosts, and last year it went on until the first snows. It is also very early to come back into production once winter is over.

The taste of wall rocket is much like that of its annual cousin, but with a hint of cabbage and more of a kick. The leaves get stronger as they get older, but there is a continual production of fresh leaves, so I don’t find this matters much. You can cut the plant down to encourage a bigger flush of new leaves. If you have lots of older leaves, you can blanch them in boiling water for about 30 seconds which reduces the heat a bit. Cooking them for longer than this isn’t recommended as they lose their flavour entirely. My favourite uses are in salads, sprinkled on pizzas once they come out of the oven and as a topping for pasta sauces. You can also make soup with them in the same way as you make watercress soup.

The final surprise that wall rocket had for me came when I tried to move a couple of plants. They had deep, fleshy tap roots, which means that they probably act as dynamic accumulators in the garden ecosystem.

Growing and eating garlic mustard

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a phenomenally successful plant. In its native range it grows from Ireland to China and from Africa to Scandinavia. In North America, where it is introduced, it is frankly rather too successful. Unpalatable to native grazers and naturally vigorous, it has become a serious invasive pest. As well as taking up space, it produces chemicals which interfere with the native mycorrhizae and sets a nasty ecological trap for a native butterfly. The caterpillars of some species of garden white butterfly naturally feed on toothwort (Dentaria). Unfortunately, garlic mustard looks very like toothwort and the butterflies are suckered into laying their eggs on it. When the larvae hatch, they are unable to digest the garlic mustard and soon die.

In its native range, garlic mustard (a.k.a. hedge garlic, Jack by the hedge and sauce alone) is much better behaved and an excellent candidate for the forest garden. Every part of it is edible, including roots, leaves, flowers and young seed pods. Flavour-wise, it does what it says on the tin, tasting like a cross between garlic and mustard. The roots are the hottest part, with a horseradish-like bite.

Garlic mustard is quite early to come into leaf and the youngest leaves are the mildest, so it’s a useful winter/spring green. As the year goes on the leaves get hotter and a bit acrid. I use them in salads and as a pot herb and often stick a leaf or two into sandwiches. There are much more imaginative ways to use it than this however. The one upside of the garlic mustard invasion of North America is that people have put some serious effort into finding ways to cook them in an effort to eat the interloper into submission.

Pesto seems to be a favourite, with the oily ingredients acting to balance the mustardiness. One recipe combines the pesto with green lentils and one particularly adventurous one throws in the roots for good measure. Garlic mustard roulade wins my prize for the most beautiful recipe and one person has even pickled the roots which must taste amazing.

Garlic mustard is a biennial, growing lots of leaf in its first year then running to seed in its second. It is a very vigorous seeder, so unless you want to end up feeling like North America, I suggest that you pull up most of the plants in the second year and just leave a few to provide the next generation. Be prepared to treat it as a weed in the rest of the garden and hoe it out ruthlessly if it seeds beyond where you want it. It is shade tolerant, growing in either full or partial shade (under a Victoria plum in my case) and not fussy as to soil.

Leycesteria

Some fruits are just meant for picking and eating, there and then, in the garden. Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is one, with its tiny, sweet, ever so slightly vanilla flavoured fruit that are doled out carefully throughout the summer. But the king of instant consumption has to be Leycesteria formosa, known to gardeners as Himalayan honeysuckle and to connoisseurs as the ‘treacle tree’.

No plant in the forest garden divides opinion like leycesteria: you either love or hate its startling mixture of molasses sweetness and bitter aftertaste. But however much you like it, don’t expect to take any home – the berries burst and splat so easily that storage is practically impossible.

Foods that you’ll never see on a plate have a special allure, but even some more common fruits are best eaten one by one, on the go. Blackcurrants and gooseberries, for instance, are at their best when they are far too soft and squishy to be picked and stored easily.

My treacleberries kicked off a conversation recently about planting food plants for children. Instead of coaxing kids to eat their five-a-day at the table, how much more effective to just plant a tangle of fruit in the garden and leave them to it, play and feeding all in one. I’m sure my love of fruit and foraging came from grazing on the yellow raspberries that lined the half-mile walk home from school. For maximum effect it is probably best to strictly forbid the kids to eat it.

When I first started in my allotment, my neighbour’s daughter used to beg to be allowed to come down and eat the sprouting broccoli. I think that’s when the full extent of how much more appealing self-picked food is to kids dawned on me. I’ve taken this insight into the park that I manage, which is stuffed with as much fruit as I can fit in. Leycesteria is an excellent option for a public food plant. It ripens its berries four at a time down the flower head, so it produces a regular supply rather than a glut that can be stripped. It is a very attractive, structural plant, sometimes known as ‘shrimp flower’ because of the look of their flowers, and any that don’t get eaten by people are made very welcome by the birds.

treacle tree

shrimp flower