Category Archives: Recipes

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

Wasabi, horseradish and friends

Sushi fans will appreciate this forest garden plant: Wasabia japonica or plain wasabi. Wasabi grows best in shallow running water in dappled shade – fairly demanding conditions that don’t occur in a lot of gardens – but I’ve found that it does okay in the light, sandy soils of my allotment so long as it has some shade and is watered in particularly dry weather.

Wasabia japonica

Wasabi takes a few years to come into full production. It is the taproot that is used: finely grated and then pounded into a green paste it gives that kick that I must confess to being a little addicted to. The leaves are also edible, with a much milder wasabi flavour than the root, so they can be used in dishes where you want a finer control over the heat. However, wasabi is only the most recently fashionable of a whole group of plants, all members of the cabbage family, that have a similar flavour and uses.

The king of these is undoubtedly horseradish (Armoracia rusticana). In fact, if you buy wasabi powder in the West – and even sometimes in Japan – take a look at the ingredients list: you will most likely find that it is made from horseradish powder and green dye. This popularity is not because it tastes better than wasabi but due to the fact that it is an extremely easily grown and productive plant. It is perhaps best not to give it its favourite conditions – a damp soil in full sun – as it is then said to be invasive. My plant is in light shade in a deep, free-draining soil and seems both perfectly happy and well-behaved. Horseradish roots can be harvested any time when the plant is dormant by digging up the plant and taking off some roots, which will then store for a few months if kept cool and moist. You don’t have to be too careful as it regrows easily from pieces of roots, which is also the way it is usually propagated.

Horseradish - from Wikipedia Commons

Horseradish – from Wikipedia Commons

Ungrated horseradish roots have very little flavour, but once they are cut the damaged plant cells break down a substance called sinigrin into fiery mustard oil, a protective ploy against being eaten by less perverse species than ourselves. This volatile oil is easily lost, being broken down by exposure to air or by heating, so horseradish is generally added to dishes at the end of cooking and needs to be used quickly. Grated horseradish’s shelf life can extended by combining it with vinegar: horseradish sauce is made with both vinegar and cream. Even then, however, it only lasts a few months before losing its savour, making it worthwhile to have your own plant. I also find that freshly grated horseradish has a sweetness and freshness that a sauce just can’t match.

Dittander

Dittander (surrounded by wild garlic)

Before horseradish was introduced to the British Isles, two other, native, plants were used for a similar flavour: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and dittander (Lepidium latifolium). Both have a superior flavour to my mind, but the roots are much smaller and more fiddly to prepare and I wouldn’t recommend growing them for this purpose. Both have edible leaves though, and those of dittander are especially interesting. Alone amongst the other plants, they have a strong horseradish flavour in their leaves as well as their roots, giving them the nickname ‘wasabi leaf’ in my garden. This gives an extremely easy way of adding wasabi flavour to everything from salads to cooked dishes (finely chopped – they are strong!). Perhaps they could be used to make sushi with integral wasabi flavour. If you have too many dittander leaves they can also be used as a pot herb as they lose all their kick when cooked for a few minutes. Dittander can tolerate deep shade and is an invasive spreader if allowed to be, so grow it in a pot sunk into the ground like mint.

Finally, the most decorative form of horseradish flavour is in the flower heads of lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis, also known as cuckoo flower), a native cress growing in damp and shady places. The leaves also have horseradish flavour which is stronger than that in the flower heads.

Lady's smock

Lady’s smock

The heat of horseradish can be used in two ways: by matching it with other strong flavours or by using it to spice up blander foods, especially starchy roots and oily, creamy dishes. Classically it is used with strong-tasting meat or fish but there is much, much more to horseradish than this. Scrambled eggs with horseradish root grated into them are superb, or you can try adding it to a creamy pasta sauce at the end of cooking. Mashed potato is another dish that is enhanced considerably by horseradish flavour – if you substitute wasabi leaves for cabbage you can make an amazing variation on colcannon or bubble and squeak. Adding horseradish to soups – again at the end of cooking – gives quite fine control so you can add a very delicate horseradish flavour if you like or go for the burn. For real addicts like me, you can even make a horseradish salad dressing with fresh grated horseradish combined with olive oil, lemon and salt.

Horseradish is sometimes combined with mustard – a similar flavour but more aromatic and complex – to make Tewkesbury mustard, as in this horseradish and root vegetable bake by Nigel Slater. The same combination is used in horseradish butter –  butter, grated horseradish and mustard blended together – which can then be used on dishes like sweetcorn. More horseradish recipes (including Bloody Mary with horseradish and horseradish-infused vodka!) can be found at http://localfoods.about.com/od/horseradish/tp/abouthorseradish.htm.

Finally, Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) root has also been recommended as a horseradish substitute. It has a pleasant, spicy flavour but seems to lack the characteristic kick in the sinuses of horseradish.

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.

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.

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.

Further reading: Forest Gardening; Real Spring Onions.

Real spring onions

Last year was the warmest March on record: this year it has so far been the coldest. Spring ain’t what it used to be. None the less, it’s reliably time to harvest the ‘spring onions’.

I don’t mean the things you buy in the shops as spring onions (or scallions) since I don’t grow them. Let’s face it, onions are a pain to grow from seed. You need lots of added soil fertility and fanatical weeding of things that look regrettably similar to grass seedlings. Then, just as they are starting to look after themselves, you dig them up and eat them. By this time it’s usually August, which isn’t spring, not even here in Aberdeen.

tree onion

tree onion

Fortunately there are two perennial vegetable species which produce excellent spring onions even when it’s still snowing and with very little fuss for the rest of the year: tree onion (Allium cepa proliferum) and welsh onion (Allium fistulosum).

Tree onion is the same species as the ordinary onion. A lot of allium species can produce either flowers or tiny bulbs called bulbils (or both) in their flower heads and tree onion is a kind of onion that goes for all bulbils. These often sprout when they’re still on the plant, giving it a tree-like appearance. The stem then usually falls over, giving the plant another of its many names – walking onion – as the bulbils put down roots and the plant ‘walks’ around the garden. It also reproduces by bulb division underground, like a shallot or a daffodil.

tree onion divided

tree onion divided

This gives two ways to exploit tree onions for spring onions. First you can dig up the parent plant when it resprouts in the spring, divide out some of the bulbs and replant the rest. The other way is to gather the bulbils when they are produced later in the year and plant them out into a bed where they will grow on into very well shaped spring onions. It’s kind of like having a free supply of onion sets for spring onions and yet another name for this plant is ‘topset onion’ (You can also let them grow on into bulb onions, but they tend not to be very big.). You can plant some in the autumn for spring growth as they are extremely hardy but they will also keep well if you store them in a cool, dry place, so you can make successional sowings later on in the year too.

Welsh onion is a different species from regular onion but it’s very similar to tree onion. Instead of bulbils it produces a rather fleshy flower head which can also be used as a flavouring or left to produce seed (picking the flowers stops the plants producing seed and diverts their energy back into making bulbs). Like tree onions they divide underground and can be lifted and divided as spring onions in March and April.

welsh onion divided

welsh onion divided

Both species can also be harvested by picking leaves in the summer. I find that welsh onion makes bigger and more regular-sized spring onions by division and tree onion is better for leaves, partly because you can use the bulbils to produce a really dense patch. So the best use is probably welsh onions for division in the spring and tree onion for leaves and sets for growing on. If you allow welsh onions to flower you will be very popular with the bees.

Real spring onions can be used in all the same ways that you would use the seed-grown ones. My favourite is spring onion sambar: you fry a large handful of whole spring onions until they are soft, then add tamarind, coconut and spices to make a sauce and simmer for a few minutes. It’s a great way to forget the sleet driving at the window.

Self-seeded parsnips

DSCF0548

A few years ago, I took over an allotment that had been abandoned for some time. It was an education in how long any of our cultivated crops would last without us lavishing constant attention on them. The autumn raspberries had taken over one end of the plot and there was still a cheerful patch of rhubarb, a plant that I always assume will conquer the world after a nuclear war, but everything else had disappeared under a sea of willowherb and docks.

When I started digging however, there was one more surprise survivor. A healthy crop of large, well-shaped parsnips (Pastinaca sativa). Judging from how long the allotment had been unused, they must have been several generations away from the ones originally sown by the gardener. I was inspired to allow parsnips to go feral in my forest garden.

Having all but forgotten about them, I dug up my first self-seeded parsnip yesterday. It turned out to be a beauty. It was around 300mm long, weighed in at 700g (one and a half pounds) and, despite my worries that it would be all worm-eaten, was almost flawless.

This particular parsnip was growing under in the shade of an apple tree. The soil it was in is deep and sandy but doesn’t get fed much apart from an annual mulch of leaves. The only effort that went into this parsnip all year was when I dug it up. The remainder have disappeared under a layer of snow for just now, but there seemed to be a good number.

Parsnip - sliced down middle

So we feasted on parsnip this evening. First parsnip chips, then noodle soup with parsnip. That’s chips in the British sense of chunky fries, not in the American sense of crisps. Sliced up and deep fried, they cook very quickly and are delicious, fatty and sweet: excellent winter food if perhaps not the most healthy way of enjoying them. Very little was wasted: young parsnip leaves are also edible, tasting to me rather like celery leaves. Some sources say that they can be treated as a leaf vegetable, but I would say they are better thought of as a seasoning. Speaking of seasonings, like so many of their relatives in the carrot family, parsnip seeds are also useful as a spice, tasting a bit like dill. This is very useful for me because we have motley dwarf virus in the allotments which cuts down any actual dill I plant quite quickly.

Parsnip chips
So far, very encouraging. I’ll keep on allowing my parsnips to self seed, even if that does mean taking the biggest and best of them every year and replanting them to go on and provide the next generation. (If you would like to try the seed yourself, I have it on my seed list at Forest garden seeds.)

P.S. One final use of parsnip: the Plants for a Future database says that a tea made from the root is good for ‘women’s complaints’. From observation of my girlfriend, I can only assume that this means that it helps Linux work better. Very strange.

Sorrels

Sorrel is a perennial vegetable that takes me back to my childhood. Roaming the hills above our house, thirsty from having forgotten to take water, I would seek out the apple-green leaves of Rumex acetosa. They did nothing to really stop me getting dehydrated I’m sure, but the rush of saliva brought on by the acid taste always made me feel better. We called them souries (pronounced soor-eez) from the sour taste, but the more widespread name is common sorrel.

Sorrel is a taste-name rather than a strictly botanical one: the various plants that are called sorrel are not all related but do all share that same sharpness, produced by the oxalic acid in the leaves. The oxalic acid means that it isn’t wise to eat sorrel in large quantities as it binds up calcium and can cause deficiencies, as well as contributing to diseases like gout. In small quantities however it is fine and in fact there is a small amount of oxalic acid in many accepted food plants including spinach and rhubarb.

Common sorrel

Several of the sorrels are in the Rumex genus. Sheep’s sorrel, R. acetosella, is tasty but probably too small to be worth cultivating deliberately. Buckler-leaved sorrel, R. scutatus, is also small-leaved but very productive and the leaves with their cool shape look great in a salad. My old friend common sorrel, R. acetosa, is the one that gardeners have paid most attention to and there are many cultivated forms, bred for larger leaves, mostly going by names like French sorrel and Polish sorrel. There is also a non-seeding form called ‘Profusion’ which is available from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery – ideal as it puts all its energy into producing leaves.

Buckler-leaved sorrel

Other sorrel-tasting plants are in the genus of Oxalis. I don’t know whether Linnaeus named the genus after the acid or whether it is the other way around. Oxalis is a huge genus with around 800 species, variously known as sorrels (which they aren’t), shamrocks (which they aren’t) and grasses (which they aren’t). Confused? You will be with common names.

As an aside, the genus includes Oxalis tuberosa or oca, an important root crop in the Andes which could also be grown here if only they could find a day-neutral variety. As it is, it only starts to form tubers when the day length drops below a certain critical number of hours, fine for the Andes but not much use in a climate where the first frosts might well be in September. I grew it productively for several years until an early frost wiped out the lot. All is not lost, however: it was the same story with the original potato until a mutation made it day-neutral and allowed it to conquer the world.

The only Oxalis I have in my forest garden is O. acetosella, the native wood sorrel. It is not very productive so it is more of a curiosity than an important part of my diet. As well as being eaten the leaves can be dried and used to make a tea. There is even apparently a sorrel tree, Oxydendrum arboreum, which is a member of the heath family, but a whole tree of sorrel might be too much of a good thing.

I mostly use sorrel chopped into a salad, but its most traditional use is in sorrel soup, particularly in Eastern Europe, where it is sometimes known as green borscht. Here’s my favourite sorrel soup recipe.

Ingredients
oil
1 onion, 1 clove garlic, chopped
1 potato, cut up small
600 ml stock (1 pint)
1 handful sorrel leaves, chopped
optional: 1 egg, beaten

Fry the onion in the oil until soft, then add the garlic and the potato and fry for a couple minutes more before adding the stock. The stock can be whatever kind you like: chicken is traditional but I use vegetable. Bring to the boil and add the sorrel leaves, which will immediately lose their bright green colour and go much darker. Cook for around 10 minutes until the potatoes are soft, then blend and serve hot or cold.

The size of the handful of sorrel leaves depends on how sour you want it to be. One hundred grammes (4oz) or more will give give it a good bite; 50g (2 oz) will give a hint of sorrel that slowly grows on the back of your tongue as you work your way through a bowl, an effect that I quite enjoy.

For a twist, you can add a beaten egg at the end, cooking for a few more minutes, which gives the soup a lot of body. Serve with a hard-boiled egg or a dollop of sour cream (the mallow flower isn’t strictly necessary, but there were lots of them growing next to the sorrel patch).

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.

Rhubarb and elderflower jam, and a surprise

Rhubarb is the one perennial vegetable that needs no introduction. Everyone must have a patch in the corner of their garden, even if it was planted by their granny and hasn’t been used since. It is long-lived and practically bomb-proof and it just goes on and on.

Most years my rhubarb patch doesn’t see a lot of use. One year I actually managed to set up a barter system with my local shop, swapping rhubarb and courgettes for bread, but then the ownership of the shop changed. More recently our community centre cafe has been using some of it, but I must confess to a bit of a history of neglect.

Fortunately, neglect is exactly what rhubarb thrives on and it points up a general advantage of perennial veg: if you don’t use them then they can store up the resources and become stronger plants. The yield is not totally lost as it is with annual veg.

This year, since so many of the fruits have done badly in the cold spring, I’m taking a little more interest in my rhubarb, so I called my mother, who is, in her own words, a ‘heavy user’ of the stuff. I remember most of her recipes from childhood: rhubarb crumble, rhubarb pies, rhubarb jams, rhubarb chutney and, best of all, a big stick of fresh rhubarb dipped in a bowl of sugar and eaten straight. There was even a surprisingly nice rhubarb wine.

To this day I don’t like crumble, but the rhubarb pies were wonderful, especially when left for a couple of days and served cold, with the rhubarb juices soaked a way into the pastry. However, it was the jam I wanted to try, particularly one of my mum’s specialities, rhubarb and elderflower. Here’s the recipe (adapted a little to cater for my preference for less-sweet jams).

rhubarb jam

Ingredients
3 kg rhubarb
1.5 kg sugar
10 elder flowers
Juice of 2 lemons
Makes 10 jars

Wash the rhubarb stems and cut off the leaves and the stem bases. Cut them into chunks about 2 cm long (use a sharp knife or you’ll find you don’t get all the way through the skin). Put the chunks into a bowl in layers, adding a little sugar over each layer and putting in the elder flowers head-down before doing the last layer. Pour the rest of the sugar over the top and leave overnight.

The next day you will find that the sugar has drawn the juice out of the rhubarb and the chunks are floating in syrup. Try not to let your children steal too many of these. Take the flowers out and steep them in water to make an instant cordial. Then boil up the jam in the usual way. Between the rhubarb and the lemon, this jam will set well so there is no need to overdo the cooking.

As this is a low-sugar jam, it is best kept in the fridge once opened, but it will store quite happily for years unopened. For better storage once opened, use equal amounts of rhubarb and sugar.

Elder is a tree with so many uses that I’ll have to give it a post of its own some day. It is so abundant that I prefer to forage it rather than have it take up space in my forest garden. I went down to our local park and selected ten choice blossoms; elder flowers have a rather nasty taste if you don’t get them at the right point, so each bloom got a sniff test to make sure it had that heady scent of summer. It’s the ones that look like they are almost over that are usually the best, not the pristine white new ones.

I also found a pleasant bonus while I was investigating the elders: they were full of jelly ear fungi (Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as Jews’ ears in a bit of traditional European prejudice). Jelly ears never found much favour in European cookery (one online description says that eating them is ‘like chewing on a piece of inner tube’) but Chinese cuisine has got a use for them: they are sliced thinly into stir fries to provide a mild flavour and a bit of a crunch. They can even be dried and rehydrated for the purpose.

Rhubarb in the forest garden

The scientific naming of rhubarb is a bit of a mess: you can choose between Rheum rhabarbarum, Rheum x hybridum or Rheum x cultorum. Rheum rhaponticum may refer to cultivated rhubarb or to another, closely related species. There are at least 2 other species of Rheum worth trying: Himalayan rhubarb (R. australe) is said to taste like apple and Chinese rhubarb or da huang (R. palmatum), like gooseberry. I’ve got both on order so I can let you know whether I agree.

Technically, it isn’t the stem of rhubarb that we eat but the petiole, the leaf-stem. The true stem only comes later, when the rhubarb flowers. A persistent myth about rhubarb is that it is poisonous after flowering: perhaps this came about from people trying to eat the flowering stem rather than the petioles. The part that definitely is poisonous is the leaf and there is another myth which says that you shouldn’t put them on the compost heap as they will poison it. In fact the poisonous compound is an acid which quickly breaks down in compost and is then completely harmless. A little-known fact is that you can also eat the flowers of rhubarb.

Rhubarb grows well in a forest garden. It doesn’t like full shade and shouldn’t be grown under another plant, but it is quite happy to be surrounded by taller plants which shade it for parts of the day.

Edible flowers

One of the most striking things about growing food with forest gardening is how many flowers end up on your plate. When you think about it though, the stranger thing is perhaps why this part of the plant has been neglected in our cookery for so long (apart from immature flowers like cauliflowers and artichokes). After all, plants are pretty keen on producing them and there is a massive industry dedicated to breeding and growing them for non-edible purposes.

Recently, the balance seems to have shifted and there is a bit of a fashion for eating flowers. There’s a good, comprehensive article on the subject here. However, a lot of this is driven by the search for novelty in fancy restaurants or is based on picking a few flowers off basically ornamental species to decorate a dish. There is a much shorter list of flowers that can really be considered as crops in themselves, either because they are so productive that they are worth growing as the main yield or because they are a by-product of a plant that is cropped for some other part. My short list is: day lilies, bellflowers, salsify, pot marigold, king’s spear, alliums, mallow, courgette, peas, runner bean, nasturtium, dandelion and (maybe) tiger lily and golden currant.

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Day lilies, salsify and bellflowers are the three most productive: best fried, steamed and in salads respectively. All three illustrate an important point about eating flowers: the more you pick, the more you have of them. For a plant, a flower is just a means to an end: getting pollinated and producing seeds. Once that has been achieved it rapidly switches its resources to the growing fruit or seed head and stops flowering, but if you frustrate its ambitions it will often keep on trying, sometimes for the rest of the year.

Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are not bulk producers like the last three, but a small patch will produce a lot of flowers over the course of a summer. It is the petals that are used: they add a subtle but interesting flavour and an entirely unsubtle, cheerful colour to practically any dish. Perhaps they are best regarded as a herb. They are equally good raw in a salad or cooked in almost anything and unlike most flowers they keep their colour no matter how much you cook them. On top of this they are famously good for the health of the garden, producing chemicals that kill or repel little parasitic worms called nematodes. This combination of qualities, plus their relative ease of growing, wins them a place in my garden.

Allium moly

Golden garlic (Allium moly)

The alliums or onions are a group with too many edible species to even list. They are often grown for their leaves or bulbs but the flowers are usually edible too and they are often available when the rest of the plant has either died down or become woody. Chives (A. schoenoprasum) are one that I use a lot. Like all alliums, its flowers are borne on little stems radiating from a central point. The trick to using it is to get your thumbnail into this central point and nip it out, causing an explosion of little pink florets. Chive flowers are mild enough for salads. Wild garlic (A. ursinum) can also be used but has a much stronger, more garlicky flavour. Golden garlic (A. moly) hardly looks like an allium at all, with relatively few flowers per head and those bright yellow. The flowers add a sweet oniony flavour to a salad and the leaves and bulbs can be used too. Round-headed leek (A. sphaerocephalon) has huge, showy balls of edible flowers.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Common mallow has the advantage that it will grow in the shade. It’s an all-round useful plant that I’ve already written about here.

Across in the annual garden, courgettes (or zucchini if you prefer) are already moderately well known, especially frittered. Sometimes the baby courgette is harvested along with the flower but if you’re careful you can break the flower off the end of the fruit before it wilts, allowing you to both have your courgette and eat it(s flower).

Courgette (Curcurbita pepo ovifera)

Other annual crops that have unexpectedly edible flowers are mangtout peas, sugar snap peas and runner beans. The runners in particular are delicious and mine always produce far more flowers than they are capable of ripening into pods, so a little thinning does no harm at all. Don’t be deceived by appearances though: sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata) are not edible.

Pea flowers (Pisum sativum)

Another annual famed for its edible flowers is the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus – a bit confusingly, Nasturtium as a Latin name refers to water cress, not nasturtiums.) Every part of the nasturtium is edible, with a hot, cress/pepper flavour. In fact they are too strong for me – the only way I like to use them is to pickle the seeds and use them like capers – but if you like a cress flavour then this is the plant for you.

I don’t plant dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) in the forest garden but, as you’d expect, I have them anyway. In fact they’re a fairly low level weed in the forest garden, so in contrast to my zero-tolerance approach in the annual beds I’m fairly lax about pulling them out, happy to make occasional use of the spring leaves and flowers in the meantime. Dandelion flowers should be cooked, preferably in ways that either exploit their bitterness or minimise it with a starchy component. Fritters and bhajis are good, or you could try the spicy fried dandelion recipe I found on a rather good blog by Ciaran Burke in Ireland.

Finally, a couple I haven’t tried yet but have high hopes for. Golden currant (Ribes aureum) has very pretty flowers which are said to be edible. It is closely related to buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), which grows well here, so I’ve ordered some and expect them to thrive. Then there is tiger lily (Lilium linifolium). I am already growing this for its edible bulbs but I found out recently that the flower is edible too, with some very enthusiastic reports online. On the other hand, Plants for a Future list the pollen as poisonous, which could make eating the flowers a delicate business. More research, as they say, is needed.