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.

too late

too late

Off foraging, back soon

Work (and blogging) in the forest garden has had to take a back seat for a while as I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of fruit and fungi to be picked out and about. There’s a close relationship between foraging and forest gardening in any case: a lot of the plants I grow in my allotment are ones that I could forage from the wild, given an infinite time and travel budget. Off the top of my head, the native wild plants growing in my forest garden include hogweed, sweet cicely, wild garlic, dittander, garlic mustard, sea beet, Scots lovage, buck’s horn plantain, common and musk mallows, Babington’s leek, Good King Henry, pignut, wild strawberry, various sorrels and wood violet. Oh yes, and raspberries, currants and small-leaved lime. A meal containing all of these would involve a week-long expedition taking in woods, heaths and coast – or five minutes in my allotment.

With every wild plant I have to weigh up whether or not it is worth giving it a place in the forest garden. Pluses are given for plants that I like and that are particularly productive. Minuses are for being too ‘spready’ or too big or for attacking me when I’m minding my own business, as with nettle. There is also the question of whether I have ready access to the plant on my foraging rounds. All these considerations are fairly individual, so the decision will be different for each person. I’m very much given to changing my mind: the latest one that I’m reconsidering is nettle, after talking to Fi Martynoga of the Scottish Wild Harvests Association, who was serving up out-of-season nettle brose at Wooplaw Community Woodland‘s 25th-anniversary bash. Fi has a patch of nettles is her garden that she cuts down several times a year to keep a steady supply of fresh new growth.

One species I’m still definitely leaving for wild foraging is the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a thorny, rumbustious plant that loves to romp around an area, pining dreadfully if it is restricted. I once saw some speeded-up footage of bramble growth on a David Attenborough programme. The briars thrashed around like groping hands; then, finding a purchase with their thorns, they surged forward. Take a look on YouTube and you’ll see why I don’t want them in my garden! We’ve just had the first flush of blackberries in Aberdeen. They are always the nicest so we’ve frozen what we didn’t eat and will make jam with a later batch.

cherry plum

Another fruit I have been picking, literally by the bucketload, is Prunus cerasifera, the cherry plum or myrobalan/mirabelle. I’ve raved about cherry plum before but well, I’m going to do it again. It is a mystery to me how neglected mirabelles are, seeing as how they produce curtains of tasty, juicy fruit and never suffer any disease problems that I have seen. True, any given cherry plum tree can produce fruits that are small, tasteless, sparse, unreliable, perishable or quick to fall from the tree, but equally I have found trees that carry fruit that is large, tasty and lasting, ones which crop reliably and ones which don’t drop their fruit at the first breath of wind. I’m sure it can’t be beyond the efforts of plant breeders to combine all these characteristics in one tree. Indeed there are some named varieties of P. cerasifera, available in the UK from Orange Pippin Trees. Has anyone out there had any experience with any of them?

There is an impromptu breeding experiment going on on a bank near my house, where there are perhaps a hundred cherry plum trees, probably planted with their blossom in mind more than their fruit. Their qualities vary wildly but some are very good indeed. I discovered one this year that has incredibly sweet fruits, even when still partly green. It is yielding so heavily that I picked a bucketful in less than half an hour. Right next to it is a purple variety that has proven itself to be an excellent keeper. I have been growing on seeds from the best varieties that I have picked for a few years now, so if anyone has a field that they aren’t using and would like to do a cherry plum trial orchard, I’m waiting to hear from you.

To add to the plum orgy clearly going on in these parts, cherry plums have evidently been crossing with my Japanese plum tree, Prunus salicina. I’ve been growing on seeds from it and some of them obviously have a variety of cerasifera called Atropurpurea as their pollen parent. Atropurpurea has been bred for deep purple bark and fruit and pink flowers and is unmistakeable. It is a rubbish fruiter unfortunately, but it suggests that other cherry plums will have crossed with the Japanese one too. Since the domestic plum arose as a cross between P. cerasifera and P. spinosa, the native sloe, who knows what will result?

Japanese plums ripening on a window sill