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 species, 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 garlic, 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.

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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 haemorrhoid 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.

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Bronze Ficaria verna (R), Primula veris (L)

2016 seed list now out

Apologies to website subscribers who received a post called ‘Donating’ earlier today. This was meant to go up as a new page rather than being published as a post. The news that I meant to put out today is that my 2016 seed list is now on the website as part of a redesign in which the old ‘shop’ page has been replaced by a new one which takes more of a gift-economy approach. You can read all about it at forest garden seeds.

Hop shoots

The hops are in flower, but I’m not making beer. Besides their better-known use, hops are also an excellent perennial vegetable. They have been described as the world’s most expensive vegetable, apparently fetching up to 1,000 euros per kilo. I find this rather astonishing as they are actually quite easy to grow.

The hop plant (Humulus lupulus) is a climber. Everything about it, from its twining stems to its roughened skin, is evolved to help it get into the sun by exploiting the woody structure of other plants. This means that if you are growing it in the garden you need to provide some sort of structure for it to climb up, as you do for runner beans. Hop plants are perennial, so the structure can be left in place for years. Traditional hops grow to several metres so for an ordinary garden it is a good idea to get one of the new dwarf varieties such as Prima Donna.

The peak time for picking hop shoots is in late spring when the young shoots start to emerge from the ground. The plants spread by underground rhizomes, so this can sometimes be in unexpected places. Harvesting is therefore combined with heading off a potential weed problem, cutting unwanted growing points down to the ground. I also find that the young growing tips are usable, if a little smaller and less productive, throughout the summer until the plant slows its growth, toughens up and turns its mind to flowering in the autumn. The constant nipping out of growing tips as you harvest them probably helps to keep the plant smaller, bushier and, by delaying flowering, tender for longer.

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I usually harvest tips of about 10cm – longer than this and they are already becoming woody. The raw shoots are quite astringent so I always cook them, upon which they develop a lovely nutty flavour. In their early growth they produce enough to cook as a standalone vegetable. The cooking options are quite like green asparagus, which they are often compared to.  They can be steamed or boiled, then served with butter or olive oil, or fried. They go very well blanched and then cooked in an omlette – if a little of the astringency is left for this dish it complements the egg well. Later in the year mine tend to go in stir-fries – my constant stand-by for using a large number of different vegetables harmoniously together. You don’t have to stop there: this post from Anne’s kitchen gives a wide range of gourmet hop recipes.

Once you have a hop plant established, propagation by digging up and transplanting the rhizomes is easy. They prefer to grow in sun or a little shade and do not require feeding.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are a relative of raspberries and brambles. They are as easy to grow as raspberries and it’s surprising that they aren’t more common in the UK. There are a number of reasons why you might want to grow them. One is that they fruit in early autumn, nicely filling the gap between summer and autumn raspberries, but they are also worthwhile in their own right, different from either rasps or blackberries.

They certainly look different. The stems of Japanese wineberries are covered in red glandular hairs which give them a red, furry look (and their Latin name – phoenico means red) and an odd, somewhat sticky, somewhat waxy feel. You sometimes see insects stuck to the glands, making the plant look a little carniverous, but apparently it gains nothing nutritionally from these catches: presumably the motivation is more to do with pest control. The hairs extend onto the calyces which enclose the young fruit; as the fruit ripens the calyces slowly peel open to reveal it. The ripe fruit is a design classic. About the size of a wild raspberry, the berries are wine red and share a little in the stickiness of the canes. The taste is sweet and pleasant.

photo by Eva-Maria Kintzel

photo by Eva-Maria Kintzel

The big drawback to growing wineberries at my latitude is that not all plants offered for sale in the UK seem to thrive here. I first came across Japanese wineberry myself at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall and it quickly made my list of plants to acquire. Unfortunately, a succession of plants bought from nurseries in the south of England either perished over winter or grimly clung to life but never produced any fruit. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t suitable for the north of Scotland. Then a friend told me about a self-seeding population at Crathes Castle in Deeside. She obtained a seedling for me and it quickly grew into a hearty, vigorous bush that has now seen off several winters. This underlines the importance of local varieties and trying to get hold of local provenances.

Japanese wineberries like to grow in full sun. They are mostly immune to raspberry diseases but mine has poor ventilation due to a tall fence built by a neighbour and the racemes or flower heads have a tendency to rot in wet weather. From what I have seen of other plants moving it should fix this. Like most Rubus plants the stems are biennial although the plant as a whole is perennial. The fruit is borne on the second-year canes (floricanes), which should be pruned out at the end of the season. In growth habit they are somewhere between raspberries and brambles. Like brambles, the canes form a dense clump from a single point, so they need to be trained along wires or tied loosely to a stake at the centre of the clump. Fortunately they don’t spread as aggressively as brambles, but they do share their ability to root at the tips if they touch the ground: a characteristic that can be used to propagate from a superior plant.

UPDATE: You can buy Scottish-grown wineberries at https://plantsandapples.co.uk/

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Eating nasturtiums

At this time of year, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are making a splash everywhere, in flower beds, in hanging baskets, in the forest garden – and in the wok and saucepan. Many people will know nasturtiums for their brightly coloured, peppery tasting flowers, but there is a lot more to their culinary use than that.
All parts of the nasturtium – leaves, flowers and seeds – contain the aromatic oil that makes them taste similar to watercress, and all parts can be used in recipes that exploit this flavour. The flowers look spectacular in a salad or as a garnish and the leaves give an interesting twist to pesto. For me though, the biggest attraction is that all this colour and spice mask a less showy but equally useful side to nasturtium, as a very well flavoured green vegetable.

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If you cook nasturtium greens, you will be left in no doubt that the aromatic oils are being driven off, as the heady smell fills the kitchen. The surprise is what is left at the end: neither the cress flavour of the raw vegetable nor the bland taste that might be expected, but another taste entirely, distinctive and very pleasant. One way to enjoy this is as a pot herb or spinach. Fry a small onion and some garlic in a pan until soft, then throw in a good quantity of washed nasturtium leaves and a little extra water. Put the lid on and cook for a few minutes. You’ll smell the oil being driven off – once that is over the leaves are ready. The result not only has a nice flavour but also a good texture: soft and buttery. This is very nice as a side dish in its own right, or you could substitute nasturtium leaves for spinach in more complex dishes or mix them together with other leaves.

Another way to use nasturtium is to harvest the soft growing tips, nipping off about 10 centimetres of growth, and use them in a stir fry. I add them near the end: they don’t need a lot of cooking and the ideal is if they keep a little of their cress flavour but not too much.

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Nasturtiums are prolific seeders, and this gives another great product: the pickled green seeds. These are often described as caper substitutes, but to my taste they are on a par with capers. Used in similar ways but with a different taste, I’m happy to have both available. There are great preparation instructions on Garden Betty’s blog.

Nasturtiums like a well-drained soil, preferably in full sun. Growing guides tend to say that they do best in poor soil, but it is more accurate to say that they flower best in poor soil. They will grow quite happily in a rich soil, with lots of leaf growth. They are quite rampant and may smother plants that are too close, so give them a bit of space or plant them next to a taller plant that they can scramble up without inconveniencing too much. In my forest garden I have them planted next to some raspberries and also able to cascade over a low wall. The space next to them has wild garlic, which is well over before the nasturtiums really get going. Nasturtiums are annual but they produce lots of seed and often self seed; however, it’s still a good idea to save some seed over the winter so you can plant them where you want them. They can vary in vigour, flavour and size and the tips of some plants are a bit woody, so seed saving gives you a chance to propagate from your best plants.

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Eating elm seeds

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

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

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

An elm in seed is a wonderful sight. It begins with tiny, nondescript (but quite beautiful if you look closely) flowers. Being wind-pollinated, they dispense with showy petals and rely on sheer numbers of pollen grains blowing in the wind to find a partner. Over spring they develop into the mature seeds. The seeds are green, leafy and coin sized; they develop before the tree has produced leaves but they are so numerous that a seed-bearing elm looks like it has come into leaf already. This prolific production is the elm’s insurance policy. Where some trees pack their seeds with toxins to deter seed-eating animals, the elm’s strategy is to produce as many seeds as possible as quickly as possible so that no predator can have a hope of taking more than a fraction.

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a curtain of elm seeds

The maturing fruit goes through several stages. It starts very much like a leaf, but as it grows the seed in the centre begins to develop and the whole thing develops a succulent oiliness. Beyond this stage, they turn dry, brittle and brown and blow off the tree. Around seeding elms there is a premature autumn at the end of spring as little drifts of the seeds carpet the ground like fallen leaves.

A human wishing to eat elm seeds faces the same problem as any other seed-eater – the sheer overwhelming number and the far-too-brief period when they are in the sweet spot of oily edibility. It’s hard not to fall prey to foraging greed, but I’ve learned to be sanguine about the fact that most of this bounty will dry up and blow away and just to enjoy a fraction of it while it lasts. The best use of elm seeds is in a salad where, as one source puts it, they will leave ‘the mouth feeling fresh and the breath smelling pleasant’. Cooking them is harder: one of the best uses I have found so far is as a component, along with wild garlic, nettles, kale and other spring greens, of ‘leaf sauce curry’ (about which I’ll post soon). This is a dish that lends itself well to being cooked in huge vats and frozen in portions, which helps to preserve the bounty a little.

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Of course, I am lucky to have elm seeds at all. Many elms worldwide have been wiped out by Dutch elm disease. In the north of Scotland we are quite fortunate. Our native wych elms are more diverse and resistant than the English elm (Ulmus procera) and the cold, windy climate makes it harder for the bark beetles that spread the fungus to get around. As a result the spread of the disease has been slower and we still have many fine trees.

In other areas, all is not necessarily lost for the elm. There are now various projects to breed or discover elms with some degree of resistance to the disease. Some are based on attempts to shuffle the genetic pack by hybridising different elm species. While this can be effective it does have the downside that the results cannot be called native in any area and, ironically, one of the leading cultivars has been suspected of increasing the spread of a different elm disease. The Conservation Foundation supplies clones of native (UK) elms that have shown some signs of resistance and I have planted several round my local area. Finally, there is a chance that resistance might emerge more organically from wild trees in areas like northern Scotland where transmission rates are lower and death rates less catastrophic. If you want to give the elm a helping hand by finding a home for some resistant varieties, I’m sure they would be happy to repay you by supplying some seeds to fill your stomach and freshen your breath.

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too late

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!

Lilium lancifolium ‘Splendens’

There are easier ways to grow starchy roots, but if you want a spectacular veg patch or an edible flower bed then Lilium lancifolium ‘Splendens’ (tiger lily) is a plant that erases the difference between the two. Its ornamental appeal lies mostly in its striking spotted orange flowers (which inevitably raise the question, why tiger rather than leopard lily?) the petals of which curve right back to the stem, exposing long stamens, giving an overall effect that always puts me in mind of a jellyfish when viewed from the side.

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There are two edible parts. The flowers can be eaten, although an internet meme holds that the pollen causes vomiting. Eat the Weeds suggests that this arose from the fact that all parts of the plant are indeed poisonous to cats and quotes one author who has eaten the pollen with no ill effects. Next flowering season I’ll try some (tentatively) myself and let you know. The bulbs (which I have tried myself) can be either fried or boiled. They have a mild taste and a starchy texture similar to a floury potato. They are traditionally cultivated in Asia as a food crop.

tiger lily bulb - continuing the jellyfish theme

tiger lily bulb – continuing the jellyfish theme

Spectacular as the flowers are, they are completely sterile and this lily doesn’t produce fertile seed. Instead, it can be propagated by splitting the bulb or by potting up the handy little bulbils that grow along the length of the stem. These are best grown on in pots for the first year, then planted out and grown on for two or three more years until they are big enough for flowering and/or eating. If anyone would like to give it a go, I sometimes have bulbils in my seed list. Tiger lily likes a warm, sunny spot with freely draining soil.

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Eating hogweed

Talk about giving a plant a bad name! The hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) in my garden is neither a weed nor for the hogs: it is a valued vegetable. It does need to be handled with some care though.

Hogweed has some pretty knowledgeable fans. Roger Phillips, author of Wild Food, describes it as ‘Unequivocally one of the best vegetables I have eaten.” while Margaret Lear of Plants with Purpose, writing in A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, calls it “an epicurean vegetable for the hungry gap”.

Like many other members of the carrot family, the best part of hogweed is the young leaf shoot, picked before the leaves have properly unfurled. The tastiest way of eating them is to sauté them in butter until they develop a melting texture and a slightly caramelised taste. Achieving this can take some practice though. Undercooked hogweed is not at all nice and might be dangerous. I find that it requires some moisture to cook right through, so wash the shoots before cooking and use without drying, and add a little more water later on if required. The exact cooking time is around 10 minutes, but varies with the size of the shoots. Larger shoots take longer to cook and it can be a good idea to cook them first, adding in smaller ones later. A variation is to add a little stock after frying, then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes to braise them.

hogweed shoots

hogweed shoots

One of my favourite uses of hogweed is to make soup. I slice up the shoots to 1 cm lengths and cook for 10 minutes in some stock along with some wild garlic leaves, then use a hand blender to blend it to a smooth consistency. The result is very creamy, with a delicate but distinctive flavour. Apart from this, it is a useful vegetable in any recipe where it will be cooked through, such as stews, curries or pasta sauce. I have also found it very tasty cooked with other shoots in tempura.

Hogweed leaf stems are covered in tiny hairs which I usually prefer to rub off before cooking. As they get older they get stringier and it can be worth peeling larger shoots. They store well in the fridge for a few days: in my experience they store much better if dry, so best to leave cleaning them until you are ready to use them (but see the note below). If blanched in hot water for a couple of minutes they will freeze well for later use.

Other parts of hogweed that can be used include the immature flower heads, which come neatly wrapped in papery bracts, and the seeds. The flower heads are best while still inside the bract although they remain edible until the flowers themselves open. The dried seeds have a wonderful citrusy aroma which makes an excellent addition to a spice mix. Even more exotic uses of hogweed have been reported: the Plants for a Future website says that the leaf stems are tied in bundles and dried in the sun until a sweet substance resembling sugar forms on them. Professional forager Miles Irving reports that the original borscht, now a pickled beetroot soup, was made from lacto-fermented hogweed leaves.

hogweed flowers at varying stages of opening

hogweed flowers at varying stages of opening

However, before you go rushing out to the hedgerows and roadsides where hogweed likes to grow I need to sound several notes of caution. Hogweed can be dangerous: the risks come both from the possibility of confusing it with other species and from hazards that are present even if you have the right plant.
The most obvious danger with hogweed comes from confusing it with its close relative giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzeniga), which can cause disabling burns from contact with its sap. It is also has a superficial resemblance to several other members of the carrot family, some of which are distinctly poisonous. If you are going to try to eat hogweed, make sure that you can positively identify it using a guide which is comprehensive enough to distinguish it from all the possible lookalikes in your area. In particular, get to know what young giant hogweed looks like and how to tell it apart from normal hogweed. If you aren’t sure, don’t put it in your mouth (in fact be careful about even touching it)! That said, hogweed is quite distinctive once you get to know it.

If that weren’t enough, even when you do have the genuine article hogweed can be harmful due to toxins called furanocoumarins found in its sap. These can cause milder but still quite nasty versions of the burns caused by giant hogweed. I know this from painful personal experience after getting some of its sap on my arm while strimming in hot, sunny weather (we aren’t cursed with such weather too often in Aberdeen, so I wasn’t aware of the risk at the time). The affected area formed a wound that took months to get better since every time it healed and the scab came off the new skin underneath was damaged again.

As bad as this sounds, a little care is enough to avoid getting the sap on your skin in strong sunlight and I have never had any problems while handling it for food preparation. I always make sure to wash my hands immediately after cutting it up but that is all. Furanocoumarins are also found in more usual vegetables such as celery, parsnips and citrus fruits like grapefruit. In grapefruit they are famous for inhibiting the action of certain drugs, so it is quite possible that this might also be true with hogweed. Furanocoumarin levels are generally increased by damage and during storage, so it may be sensible to use your hogweed fresh and trim off the ends of the shoots. Quite how much furanocoumarin is in British hogweed is uncertain. Plants for a Future suggest that the sub-species sphondylium and sibirica (the only two listed on the Euro+Med plant database as being present in Britain) are not phototoxic but I would be sceptical about that.

Given that hogweed must be one of our most common wild plants, why might you want to grow it? I have some in my garden so that I can always be sure of finding some whenever I need. I can also extend the season as hogweed resprouts through most of the year if it is cut down. Otherwise the edible shoots are mostly over by the end of June. It is a woodland edge species, enjoying a rich soil and a little shelter but not growing in deep shade. If growing it in your garden it is advisable to remove the seed heads as it can self seed quite freely.

All in all, hogweed may require some care but I would rather get to know the dangers of plants and then use them safely than live in ignorance and fear of them. The reward is the distinctive taste of a vegetable that well deserves the praise heaped upon it by wild food enthusiasts.

Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

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.

Udo - with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Udo – with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

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.

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Shoots for tempura: lovage, udo, sweet cicely and hogweed

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
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
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.