One of the questions I am asked most often about forest gardening is which plants to start with. I find this a hard question to answer for a number of reasons. One is that the key to a forest garden is diversity, so the answer I really want to give is all of them, which I realise isn’t very helpful. The second is that it’s a very individual matter, depending on the gardener’s climate, site, taste buds and access to plants that can be foraged. For instance, I don’t grow brambles (blackberries), since I know of several spots within cycling distance where I can pick to my heart’s content – but if I couldn’t get them wild I would most certainly grow them.
Despite all that, the question keeps coming up again, so here – with all the caveats above and in no particular order – is my personal top 30, of plants that are productive, easy to source and easy to grow. It might not be the same as yours, but it’s a place to start.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)
Very shade tolerant, very reliable and very productive once it gets going, wild garlic is available from February to June and provides a garlic flavour when raw or a bulk vegetable with an oniony taste when cooked.
Growing and eating wild garlic
Kale (Brassica oleracea)
With year-round leaves and delicious, nutritious flower shoots in spring, kale is one of my most reliable pot herbs. Both biennial and perennial varieties are available.
Daubenton’s kale – growing and cooking
Perennial kale breeding
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
There is a huge number of leafy alliums that can be grown in the forest garden, but this traditional one is still one of my favourites. I use the flowers as much as the leaves, cooked as much as raw.
Perennial leeks (Allium porrum)
Complementing annual leeks nicely, perennial leeks can be bred quite easily from traditional annual varieties or grown from bulbils produced by cultivars such as Babington leek.
Celery (Apium graveolens)
Half way between a herb and a vegetable, hardy celery provides stems, leaves and/or flower shoots at almost any time of year. I never use it on its own but to add flavour and bulk to pot herbs, soups, stews and stir fries.
Sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima)
The ancestor of sugar beet, beetroot and chard, sea beet is hardy, nutritious, tasty and productive. I use leaves in autumn, winter and spring, moving to the immature flower heads (steamed and then dressed with sesame oil, soy sauce and lemon juice) in summer. Just remember to let some of them produce seed as it grows better as a biennial than as a perennial.
Giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia)
Giant bellflower provides leaves, shoots and roots and has the advantage of being more shade tolerant than most bellflowers.
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
A mild-tasting salad leaf, miner’s lettuce needs some ground disturbance to keep seeding itself. Once established, it will pop up wherever there is a gap.
Claytonias – miner’s lettuce, wood purslanes and spring beauties
Fawn lilies (Erythronium)
A useful shade-tolerant starchy root crop. The cultivar ‘Pagoda’ is large and productive and very pretty too.
Eating dog’s tooth violet
Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
Wait, what? Tatties? Yes, spuds are perennial vegetables that grow well in the organic-matter-rich soil of a forest garden (not in deep shade, obviously). Using blight resistant varieties like the Sarpo family and growing new ones from seed allows you to grow them more like a perennial crop, less like an honorary annual.
Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Alpine strawberries are wild strawberries that don’t produce runners. They are thus more manageable and easier to select good varieties from. Will self seed in the garden.
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
My favourite soft fruit, and a natural inhabitant of the woodland edge.
Caucasian spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)
A perennial climber with spinach-like leaves and edible shoots.
An easy-to-grow, attractive perennial that likes a sunny spot and produces edible flowers.
Eating daylilies (Hemerocallis)
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes)
Of the many mushrooms that can be grown in a forest garden, shiitake is my favourite – and perhaps the easiest.
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Of the many carrot relatives with edible young leaf and flower shoots, I perhaps make the most use of sweet cicely, which has a very long cropping season and aniseed-flavoured roots, leaves, flowers and seeds.
Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
A feast for the eye, for the pollinators and for the stomach, poppies produce nutritious, oil-rich seeds and pop up everywhere to fill any temporary space in the garden.
Japanese plum (Prunus salicina)
Japanese plum makes the best fruit leather, is absurdly productive and fruits earlier than traditional domestica plums.
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)
Another one that you might not expect in the forest garden, parsnips self-seed around the place and produce a crop with very little effort.
A very well-known perennial vegetable, rhubarb has both more species and more uses than it is traditionally given credit for.
Forced to choose between the different currants. I’d probably go for red/white currant, which becomes sweet enough to eat off the stem if protected from birds by netting, and is a secret ingredient in many jams with its high pectin content.
The sharp, lemony taste of sorrel is found in many plants. Forced to choose, I’d go for garden sorrel (R. acetosa) or buckler leaved sorrel (R. scutatus). Or both.
Small-leaved lime is my favourite ‘salad tree’. If the growing tips are picked rather than individual leaves it will produce a supply of tender leaves for most of the growing season. Best pruned like a hedge.
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
Another self-seeding annual, salsify produces an abundance of artichoke-flavoured flowers.
Broad bean (Vicia fava)
The bean that fits best into the forest garden system, growing in small cleared patches.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale)
Another source of shoots throughout the growing season, lovage adds an earthy/yeasty/meaty taste to all sorts of dishes.
Persian garlic (Allium altissimum)
As well as being a striking ornamental, Persian garlic is a vigorous plant, producing large clumps of mild, garlic-flavoured bulbs, available outside the wild garlic season and easy to preserve by slicing and drying.
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Nettles can be foraged, but having your own patch allows you to cut them down for repeated harvests. There is even a non-stinging variety!
Udo (Aralia cordata)
An enormous herbaceous perennial, udo produces an edible pith for stir fries and salads and shoot tips for tempura or stir fry, or to add depth of flavour to a leaf sauce. The taste is part citrussy, part resiny.
Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata
I have set dates for a couple of Introduction to Forest Gardening courses in the next few months. These are the only courses that I’ll have time to do this year.
The one-day course will cover all the basics that you need to start forest gardening, including designing, planting, looking after, harvesting, cooking and eating from your garden. It should be particularly relevant to those growing in an allotment, small garden or community setting. It will cost £50 and will be on the dates below. I can take a maximum of 8 people on each, so please book in advance. You can book by clicking on the booking link below. If you would like to come but really can’t afford the fee, email me.
Saturday 27th July 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
Tuesday 8th October 11:00 – 17:00 – booking link
If you need to stay over in Aberdeen for any course I can put one person up in my spare room (two if they are willing to share a small bed). First come, first served!
The Claytonias are a very useful group in the forest garden, being very palatable species whose natural habitat is woodland.
Claytonia perfoliata, miners’ lettuce, is unusual in the genus in that it is an annual rather than a perennial. It is often grown in greenhouses in Britain as a winter salad, but it is much less commonly found grown outside. It can be difficult to get established as a self-sustaining, self-seeding population, but once you manage it makes an excellent early salad that maintains itself with little fuss. Getting a locally adapted strain might be the key to success: I spent a long time trying it with little luck until I found a population self-seeding itself in the nearby university car park, prospering despite the chemical warfare waged against it by the university’s estates department. Seeds from these plants germinate earlier and grow more vigorously than any that I have ever bought from the seed trade.
Miners’ lettuce is mild-flavoured and succulent so it makes an excellent bulk ingredient for salads. All parts are edible, including the leaves, stems and the unusual-looking large fleshy bract around the flowers. They can also be cooked, for instance in stir fries. In my garden some plants germinate in autumn and are available in small quantities through the winter. Others germinate in early spring and by March I have a good stand of it. It will grow in the open or in partial shade and likes a well-watered soil. It is rich in vitamin C: the name comes from its use against scurvy by gold miners in California’s gold rush. There are two closely related species: C. parviflora and the deep red C. rubra. I can’t find any information on the edibility of these but I’m sure they would be worth investigating: C. rubra in particular would look very striking in a salad.
Claytonia sibirica, pink purslane, is a perennial equivalent of miners’ lettuce. It is widely naturalised in Scotland, to the extent that there are locally named varieties, such as the white-flowered Stewarton flower found in north Ayrshire. It tends to form an extensive carpet in both broadleaf and coniferous woods: this looks spectacular when it flowers. In the forest garden it can be used in the shady areas under crop trees. The flavour is stronger than that of miners’ lettuce – something like raw beetroot.
Other species listed in the literature as having edible leaves include acutifolia, caroliniana, exigua, lanceolata, megarhiza, scammaniana, tuberosa, umbellata and virginica.
Finally, a number of species have edible roots, which go by the name of fairy spuds. Species include acutifolia, caroliniana, lanceolata, megarhiza, tuberosa, umbellata and virginica I haven’t managed to grow or try any of these yet but forager Euell Gibbons described C. virginica roots as tasting like sweet chestnuts when cooked.
I’ve written a few times already about using daylilies but I thought it would be helpful to have one post to tie it all together.
Daylilies have been described as ‘the perfect perennial’, due to their brilliant colours and all round ease of growing. They tolerate both drought and frost and thrive in many different climate zones and soil conditions. They are vigorous perennials that last for many years in a garden and see off most weeds. As if all that wasn’t enough, they are really nice to eat too.
Daylily is not one species but a whole bag of them, all in the genus Hemerocallis. Plants for a Future list over 20 species and only one, H. forrestii, gets anything less than a four-star rating for edibility. Many daylilies that you might encounter do not fit strictly into any one species as they have been hybridised widely and many are listed only as Hemerocallis and their cultivar name.
I should add a few words of caution before I go any further. Daylilies are listed by some sources as poisonous to either humans or pets. Largely this seems to come from confusion with other plants with ‘lily’ in their common name, some of which are not a good idea to eat at all. Many of these plants also look superficially similar to the daylily so obviously you need to be certain that what you are eating is what you think it is (always a good idea in any case). There is a good article by Delishably on the some of the confusion that has arisen here.
All I can say personally is that I have experienced no ill effects from eating moderate amounts of the cooked flowers of Hemerocallis altissima, citrina, dumortieri, exaltata, fulva, lilioasphodelus, middendorfii and minor and a range of hybrids. Bear in mind that any individual can have an adverse reaction to even common food plants and any new food should be taken with some care. Each new species and hybrid is best treated as new rather than assuming that if you are fine with one Hemerocallis you are fine with them all. The only hazard for the genus listed on Plants for a Future is from a single source and states that large quantities of the leaves are said to be hallucinogenic, so you might want to avoid that (or you might want to try it – I don’t want to make any assumptions about my readers).
Daylily flowers are often recommended for salads, which is a bit of a mystery to me as I find them rather unpleasant raw but delicious cooked. The cooked flavour is rich, sweet and complex. The key to bringing out the best in them seems to be frying, which imparts a little bit of a caramelised taste. Perhaps the simplest method is to pan-fry them for about 5 minutes in olive oil. They might have been purposefully designed for stir-frying as their elongated shape is perfect for it. I cut up the largest H. fulva flowers for stir fries but all other kinds just go in whole. One useful property of the flowers is that they will thicken a soup or sauce and I sometimes use them like onion, chopped and lightly fried before adding any other ingredients. There’s a recipe for a miso soup using yellow day lilies (H. lilioasphodelus) here.
The flowers can be used at all stages of their development. Many people consider them to be at their best for frying as flower buds, just on the point of opening. I also enjoy the opened flowers this way and the open flowers of large-flowered species and cultivars are great for cooking as fritters or tempura. If left on the plant in dry weather the flowers will dry up and will then last indefinitely in storage. The bags of ‘golden needles’ or ‘lily flowers’ than you can find in Chinese supermarkets are dried daylilies. They seem to keep their ability to thicken a soup even when dried.
The young leaves of daylilies are edible (but see the cautions above) and I use them in a mixture with others as a pot herb or in leaf sauce. However, they are no better than many more productive plants and harvesting the leaves presumably leads to fewer flowers so I don’t make heavy use of them. They also quite quickly become tougher and more fibrous.
Another part that I don’t use for fear of weakening the plant is the roots, despite one source describing them as ‘quite possibly the best tubers I’ve ever eaten’. I’m sure, however, that if I lived in one of the parts of the world where daylilies really thrive and have become a foragable weed I would be digging them up with enthusiasm.
Growing daylilies is easy. They do best in a moist, fertile soil in sun or semi shade. There is apparently a daylily gall midge (Contarinia quinquenotata) which can lead to distorted flowers. Fortunately I have never seen it in my garden. Slugs are fond of the young growth. This isn’t a problem with established plants but new plants are worth protecting when first planted out.
Choosing a daylily is harder as they have almost become a victim of their own success. Many new varieties are becoming hard to recognise even as daylilies. The trend in breeding seems to be for ever more open flowers, with petals curved back hard – pretty much the opposite of what you want for cooking. Smaller flowers and delicate, divided petals are two more qualities prized by breeders but not by chefs. On the whole, this means that older, more traditional varieties are better for cooking. Varieties I use include Whichford, Burning Daylight, Franz Hals, Yellow Moonlight, Pink Damask and Cream Drop. You can also find double varieties of daylily which have the culinary advantage of being chunkier: H. fulva ‘Kwanso’ is one that I grow. Two common varieties that I have found rather disappointing in terms of size and yield are ‘Stella de Oro’ and ‘Corky’.
In countries where daylilies self-seed I expect there is a tendency to revert to type. If you are lucky enough to live in one of these countries and you find a particularly nice wild specimen I’d encourage you to take it into cultivation and pass it around. It’s a pity that no-one seems to be actively breeding daylilies for their culinary rather than their ornamental properties. I would certainly buy them.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I first came across king’s spear (Asphodeline lutea) at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall, where I was captivated by the beauty and sweet taste of the yellow flowers. It only remained to try to answer my usual question: yes, but will it grow in Aberdeen?
I had almost come to the conclusion that the answer was no and king’s spear was coming close to joining my failures list. It has grown quite happily for around five years, surviving temperatures of down to minus fifteen centigrade on one occasion, but there had never been any sign of those flowers. This year, however, perhaps sensing impending doom if it didn’t get its metaphorical finger out, it has flowered gloriously.
King’s spear’s flowers are sweet and mild. They are borne on huge flower spikes, with the individual flowers lasting only for a very short while, which means that they lend themselves well to regular picking for salads. Their main drawback is that it also means that they don’t store well and they are best used the same day that they are picked (which is not usually difficult). New flowers are opened the next day so little is lost decoratively.
It has an unusual growth pattern, presumably linked to the climate in its native Turkey. It comes into growth in the autumn and grows happily through the winter. Cold weather slows it down but doesn’t seem to stop it. It then flowers in spring and summer (mine started in mid May and looks like it will make it through most of July), before going dormant for a period in late summer.
There are two other edible parts. The leaf bundles can be harvested during the growing season. The tougher ends of the leaves are trimmed off and they are boiled, rather like leeks. The flavour is mild and pleasant and they make a welcome winter vegetable. The roots are also listed as edible: apparently the ancient Greeks used to mash them together with oil and figs. I have tried them and all I can say is that (a) the ancient Greeks must have had more time on their hands than I do as they are very fiddly and (b) I can see why they used the oil and the figs – probably to disguise the flavour.
King’s spear is very easily propagated by dividing the roots and it is widely available since it is used as a decorative plant. For me it only remains to find out whether its flowering this year was down to the very mild winter and spring or if it is now going to be a regular feature.
UPDATE. Since this was written, king’s spear has flowered most years, although not always. I have also discovered that the best part to eat is the whole immature flower spike – although then of course you don’t get the flowers.
If you were designing a new crop for forest gardening, you might decide you wanted a starchy bulb rather than yet another leaf or fruit producer. Ideally it would be ready early in the season, before all the other roots. It would be nice if the bulbs tasted good, stored well, were a decent size and weren’t fiddly to prepare. Needless to say, it would have to grow in shade. It would also be handy if it was simple to propagate, maybe by dividing and self seeding modestly. While we’re at it, why not give it beautiful early spring flowers too?
As is so often the case, nature has got there ahead of us, in the form of the dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium). The common name is a bit misleading as erythroniums are no relation whatsoever to true violets (Viola species), but the ‘dog’s tooth’ part is clear: the tapered white bulbs look like the canines of some monstrous prehistoric hound – not one I’d want to meet on a dark night. There are a number of species you can grow, such as E. americanum, the trout lily, E. japonicum, katakuri, or E. dens-canis, the European dog’s tooth, but the best one to grow for eating, due to its larger bulbs, is the hybrid cultivar ‘Pagoda’. (All the above species are edible, plus many more, but I can’t guarantee that the whole genus is: see Plants for a Future for a list of species.)
Erythroniums have an unusual growth habit: they only ever produce two leaves, which die down in June or July having produced one or hopefully more bulbs. A bulb is a wrapped-up plant, safely packaged and ready to go for the next year. The multiple layers of an onion bulb are the future leaves, while the little dense bit at the base is the stem. The tough outer layers are more leaves, modified to seal in moisture and keep out pests. With only two leaves, erythronium bulbs are noticeably different from this standard. They are long and narrow and have no outer skin, making them ivory-white, easy to prepare and a little prone to drying out if you aren’t careful with storage.
The leaves and flowers are said to be edible, but if you eat the leaves you’ll be missing out on the main course, which is the bulb. They don’t have a strong taste, which makes them useful as a staple. My favourite way of cooking them is to slice them thinly across and fry the discs. They go chewy and sweet, a bit like plantain chips. Another way of frying them is to make chips (in the British sense). The smaller bulbs are just the right size already; the larger ones can be sliced in half or quarter. They are also good boiled and excellent in stews. It’s not something I’ve tried myself, but according to Plants for a Future the European dog’s tooth is dried to make flour and used in making cakes and pasta. (Another useful piece of information from PFaF is that large quantities of dog’s tooths have been known to be emetic. I haven’t experienced this but, as ever, it is a reminder that you should only introduce yourself to a new food gradually.)
It’s a good idea to harvest dog’s tooth bulbs before the foliage has completely died down as they are then easy to find and you don’t have to dig around for them. They dry out easily so if you are storing them for a long period of time they need to be kept cool and moist. I get round this by only eating them in season. They are usually ready by the start of June so they fill the gap in the potato season nicely. I dig them up, take a proportion for eating and replant the rest as they will keep quite happily in the ground for the rest of the year.
Such an early harvest gives an opportunity to use the ground for something else for the rest of the year. This could simply be weed control as you can hoe over the top of the dormant dog’s tooths so long as you have planted them deep enough. Alternatively you could sow a green manure or a quick crop like mustard greens or intercrop it with something like wild strawberry that uses the later part of the year and won’t interfere too much with the erythronium’s growth. Like most bulbs, dog’s tooths are adept at punching up through a thick layer of mulch, so I give mine a thick mulch of leaves in the autumn to both feed and protect them.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.