Tag Archives: forest garden

Perennial wall rocket

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

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

Image by T. Voekler on Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Eating the shrubbery

It is surprising how many good edible plants are grown purely as ornamentals and their food wasted. When tomatoes were first introduced into the United States, they were widely regarded as poisonous and grown mostly for decorative purposes. The same thing goes for a lot of common ornamental shrubs. All the plants below would happily take a place in the forest garden or allotment, but perhaps in this case you could save some space and just raid the nearest shrubbery. Think of it as urban foraging.

Fuchsia

Fuchsia magellanica is the hardiest and most widely-grown fuchsia in Britain. It makes a large shrub to 2-3 metres. Here in the north-east the top growth is killed every few years in a hard winter, but the roots always survive and the plants soon recover. The milder west is more to their liking and I have seen them bidding to take over entire hillsides around Mallaig. The flowers are edible, if more for novelty value than taste, and very pretty. I like their Spanish name: pendientes de la reina – the queen’s ear-rings. These days there are many varieties available, but they are usually overblown and gaudy, lacking the elegance and beauty of the original.

Ripe fuchsia berries are very pleasant with a mild, sweet flavour. The biggest difficulty is picking out the ripe ones: unlike most fruits there is no great colour change, the ripe fruits are simply a little lighter, a little larger and a little softer than the unripe ones. It makes eating fuchsia berries something of an art, because the unripe ones taste horrible and catch at the throat, but you get your eye in after a while. Fuchsia berries are said to vary a lot in taste, although I suspect that some of the more negative descriptions (from ‘peppery’ to ‘petrol’) are the result of eating under-ripe berries rather than a true reflection of the ripe berry’s taste. I now make a point of tasting any fuchsia berry I see. They take extremely easily from cuttings so if you find a particularly nice variety, nip off a branch, put it in water and take it into your own garden (and send me a bit!).

Fuchsia magellanica

Gaultheria

Gaultheria is a large genus containing a number of ornamental shrubs. It now contains a number of species which used to be called Pernettya: these were the Southern-hemisphere species but since there was no consistent difference between them and the northerners they have now all been lumped together under Gaultheria. The nicest of them all is probably shallon (G. shallon), which I’ve written about before. The most striking is definitely prickly heath (G. mucronata), with red, white or pink berries that look like they are made out of polystyrene. It is difficult to imagine anything less edible looking, but in fact they are sweet and tasty. My girlfriend suggests that they could be used as healthy cake decorations. Like the fuchsias, Gaultheria species are variable and easy to propagate, so have the potential to be selected for the quality of their fruit. I recently found a variety of shallon with much fleshier berries than usual, so I plan to knock on the owner’s door and ask for some divisions of it some time.

Gaultheria mucronata berries

Berberis

Two species of Berberis are widely used as shrubs: B. darwinii (Darwin’s barberry) and B. thunbergii (Japanese barberry). Both have fruit that are too sour to enjoy raw, but B. darwinii berries are very tasty in a jam or jelly. Ciaran Burke gives a jelly recipe on Blooms ‘n’ Food. I think I prefer them as jam but I’m still experimenting. I’ll post a recipe next season.

Berberis darwinii

Japanese barberry is less useful, but you can juice the berries to make a lemon juice substitute. The Agroforestry Research Trust describe Korean barberry (B. koreana) as ‘the best edible barberry’ but Plants for a Future give it an edibility rating of 1 out of 5, so who knows?

barberries

Elaeagnus

Elaeagnus is yet another varied genus of shrubs, including oleaster, silverberry, goumi, autumn olive and even Trebizond date. Mostly they are planted for their silvery, glossy or variegated foliage, but a lot of them have nice edible fruit too. Sadly this can be hard to come by: they need a pollinator and I’m not sure how far now far north they succeed in bearing fruit – I’ve found E. x ebbingei fruit in London but never in Scotland – but I think it’s worth checking out any bush you find.

Aronia

Black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa) is sometimes planted for its stunning autumn foliage, but it’s also a useful berry crop. Best in jellies and jams, it is rich in pectin and helps other fruits to set. The ones in my garden are growing happily and fruiting in a semi-shady position. They eventually grow to about 2.5m.

Aronia melanocarpa

Garlic chives

We’ve had a couple of frosts now, but the garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are still going strong – and still hoaching with hoverflies on a sunny day. I think of garlic chives as a sort of late-season wild garlic (Allium ursinum). They have all the same edible parts: leaves, flowers, seeds and (rather fiddly) bulbs. They also have much the same uses, imparting a garlicky tang to soups, salads, sauces, pestos – pretty much anything you like. They also have the same limitation, which is that cooking breaks down their flavour quite quickly, so it’s best to add them near the end of the cooking.

The difference is that where wild garlic is a woodland plant that prefers to lurk in the shade, garlic chives are sun worshippers. This means that while wild garlic has big, flat leaves to harvest every ray of sunshine going and rushes through its life cycle before the leaves come on the trees, garlic chives have long, thin leaves and a more leisurely approach to life. If you have both species you’ll only be without their flavour for a couple of months a year.

So long as they have their sunny spot and a well-drained soil, garlic chives are unfussy plants, tolerating drought and a wide range of soil types. They are hardy too, only dying down for a few months of the year and starting back into growth when the temperature goes above 3°C. Their main drawback is that they are so keen on flowering that they are not hugely productive: most of their energy goes into blossoming. However, their flavour is quite strong so you don’t need much, you can eat the flowers too and who could argue with all those hoverflies?

Daubenton’s kale – growing and cooking

Daubenton’s kale (Brassica oleracea var ramosa) is a perennial vegetable that seems to have everything going for it: tasty, hardy, productive and easy to grow.

I also grow nine-star perennial broccoli (Brassica oleracea botrytis aparagoides – actually a sprouting cauliflower) which is often touted as a perennial, but really it’s just a biennial that manages to hang on for a few more years if you zealously remove all the flowers. Daubenton’s, on the other hand, is the real deal, a perennial kale that usually lives for 5 or 6 years.

It seems that a lot more kales used to be perennial, but Victorian seed companies selected for biennialism in order to be able to sell the same variety year on year. A few old varieties have hung on by being passed from gardener to gardener, leading to a plethora of names such as Ragged Jack, tree collards, Woburn kale, Taunton Deane and many others which may or may not be the same as each other. Worse, some biennial varieties share a name with perennial ones having been bred from them. My all-time-favourite biennial kale is Pentland Brig; there’s a rumour of a perennial version out there which I dearly hope is true. In Germany there’s an ehwiger kohl (‘everlasting kale’ or, as Google Translate charmingly puts it, ‘eternal carbon’).

The bargain that Daubenton’s makes for its long life is that it is lived in complete celibacy. It is hardly ever known to flower [but see The Joy of Promiscuity], which means that it doesn’t exhaust itself, but adds a problem for the gardener: no flowers means no seeds, perhaps giving one reason why it is so rare. Fortunately, it is extremely easy to propagate from stem cuttings, particularly if you break off branches near the base. You’ll find some knobbles which are incipient roots. At most times of year you can plant cuttings or put them in water and the roots will start to grow. In autumn, Daubenton’s undergoes a brief hiatus when it slows its growth and sheds a lot (but by no means all) of its leaves. I’ve noticed that at this point its capacity to grow from cuttings is much reduced, so if you have failed to get them to root at this time of year, don’t give up. Another method is to layer branches by bending them down and burying a section. Over time the buried section will develop roots and make a new plant.

I got my first Daubentons in 2009 from Pépinière Eric Deloulay in France. He’ll deliver to the UK but there doesn’t seem to be an English version of the website, so you’ll have to scrape your secondary-school French back together or Google Translate it and run the risk of buying some eternal carbon by mistake. I got two versions, one green one with a red tinge to the leaves and another, variegated, one with larger leaves. The Agroforestry Research Trust now sell the non-variegated variety and Pennard Plants have both kinds. Cotswold Garden Flowers sell the variegated form (plants simply disappear from their list if they are sold out, so if it’s not there, that’s what happened). I’m often asked about suppliers in the US and Australia. I haven’t managed to track any down, but if you’re a supplier, or know of one, anywhere outside Europe, let me know and I would be happy to put up a link. If you are in the States, you might like to look at the ‘Kosmic Kale’ supplied by the Territorial Seed Company. This claims to be a new variety but it certainly walks and quacks like variegated Daubenton’s.

My original plants have now all died out but they have given rise to several generations of successors. A mature plant typically makes a dome about one metre high and wide and lasts for about 5 years. Winter hardiness seems to reduce with age and I usually lose some older plants over winter, but taking cuttings or allowing plants to self-layer seems to reset the clock. The worst cold my plants have had to face was -15°C one year, which they did with aplomb.

I have planted cuttings in various positions in sun and part shade (under an apple tree) and they have thrived in all of them. This ability to tolerate shade makes them ideal for my forest garden set up. They are also said to be very tolerant of soil conditions.

I use Daubenton’s pretty much wherever I would use an annual kale, in soups, stews and stir-fries.  In summer I mostly use it as a pot-herb, usually in a 50-50 mixture with sea beet. The kale takes longer to become tender than the beet, so you have to make sure it is cooked enough. In winter the leaves become sweeter and tenderer, enough that I start to use them in salads too. They are also ideal for kale chips (i.e. crisps).

Incidentally, Daubenton’s kale was named after the great French naturalist Jean-Louis-Marie Daubenton, a man who has had to suffer the posthumous indignity of English speakers constantly sticking an apostrophe into his name in order to make it look more French, so you’ll often find the plant referred to as D’Aubenton’s kale or even chou D’Aubenton. It’s also sometimes seen as ‘Dorbenton’, which seems to be an English phonetic spelling.

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).

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

Growing and eating garlic mustard

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

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

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

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

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

Leycesteria

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

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

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

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

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

treacle tree

shrimp flower

 

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.