Udo (Aralia cordata) may be one of the largest vegetables you will ever grow in your garden. It is a herbaceous perennial, dying right down to the ground every year, then growing to over two metres in height in the summer, so the spring growth is truly spectacular. Since the young shoots can be eaten, this means that it is also very productive.
Udo is one of the Japanese sansai or ‘mountain herbs’. These are usually foraged from the wild rather than being cultivated, but if you don’t happen to have them growing on a nearby mountain they are often quite simple to grow, especially in a forest garden.
Udo will tolerate quite deep shade, making it very useful for awkward shady spots in the garden. Mine has a privet hedge on two sides and a large bamboo on a third: the only relatively open side is the north – but still it seems quite happy. On the other hand, they don’t seem to mind more open conditions either: the one growing in the local Botanic Garden is on a south-facing wall and seems to be thriving. In fact, it was this plant that first gave me a chance to try out a good range of udo recipes while my own plants were still establishing. Mark Paterson, the curator of the garden, generously gave me permission to carry off part of their prize specimen in the name of research.
Here, the stems emerge in April and are good to eat for a couple of months after that. The skin has a bitter, resinous taste, so it is usually removed – peeled off when the stems are young or pared away as it gets increasingly woody later on. The remaining pith – about an inch in diameter on mature specimens – is juicy and crispy and has a taste that has been described as citrusy but really is very distinctive and like nothing else.
Western sources mostly only describe one way of using udo – slicing the pith thinly then soaking it to get rid of any remaining resiny flavour and using it in salads. This is indeed very nice but it seems a great waste to use such a productive plant in such a limited way. A Japanese blog post suggests using it for both kinpira and tempura. Kinpira involves sautéing thin strips then simmering for a short while with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Both ways use plenty of strong flavours so the skin can be left on and the resiny taste used instead of being disposed of. I have tried both these methods and can testify that they are delicious. I also find that udo makes a great stir fry ingredient and goes well in miso soup.
As well as being a great vegetable, udo is a good ornamental plant, making it very useful for edible-ornamental plantings – just make sure that you plan for the enormous gap it leaves when it dies down in the autumn. It also means that it is a relatively easy plant to get hold of since it is widely sold for this purpose. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and seems to have only two weak spots: the spring growth is a little frost sensitive, so it prefers a growing position that doesn’t get morning sun; and while it is establishing the new growth needs some protection from slugs and snails who like it just as much as I do.
There is also a cultivar of udo called ‘Sun King’ that is widely sold. It has pale yellow foliage and is much less vigorous than the species. It is less use for the pith since stems are smaller, but the growing tips are milder-flavoured and harden off less quickly.
“Aralia cordata, flower 03” by 三上 勝生 – f:id:elmikamino:20100723103123j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63GLJ6OS9)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.
“Aralia cordata, fruit 01” by 三上 勝生 – f:id:elmikamino:20100817141615j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63EWlX3Nc)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.