Friday, 14 December 2012

Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)

The Black Chokeberry is a deciduous shrub from the Rosaceae family. It is native to eastern North America and has become popular in Eastern Europe and Russia. It is very easy to grow, very hardy and never fails to produce edible black berries each year. We planted it, ignored it and thereafter picked the fruit in the autumn. Very easy. This is the way it should be!

Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)






















Growing methods

We purchased our shrub ready grown. However, they can be grown from fresh seed as soon as they are ripe or from dried seed. Dried seed should be soaked and then cold stratified for three months before sowing. Seeds can then be sown in pots, grown in a cold frame for their first winter and then planted out in their final position in the following spring. Shrubs can be propagated by taking softwood cuttings in the summer. Cuttings should root easily. Chokeberries also produce suckers and these can be successfully dug up and transplanted to produce a new shrub.

Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)



















Chokeberries produce white flowers from July to August and then clusters of glossy black fruit (6-9cm in diameter) from September onwards which hang down from red pedicels. The fruit contains a number of small seeds which ripen from October to December. The leaves turn a spectacular shade of orange in the autumn and provide attractive autumn colour.

Shrubs will grow in most soils and conditions although they do like a bit of sun. Ours is in shade until the afternoon and grown in heavy clay soil up against a wall. They grow up to about 3 metres in height and spread. The flowers are pollinated by insects.

Shrubs can be pruned as required but are probably best left to get on with it. They know what they are doing. These shrubs are very hardy will tolerate disease, pollution, drought, salt, soil compaction and insect infestation. They will even tolerate temperatures as low as -25°C.

The birds have tended to leave the fruit alone unless there is nothing else to eat and there is really no need to go to all the trouble of protecting them with netting. Fruit tends to remain on the shrub for a very long time and will often shrivel and dry but can still be eaten.

Vigorous cultivars are available e.g. 'Viking' and 'Nero', which produce larger leaves, flowers and fruit.

Health benefits

Originally considered to be of little medicinal value, new research shows that Aronia melanocarpa has a high concentration of polyphenols and anthocyanins, stimulating circulation, protecting the urinary tract, and strengthening the heart. Ongoing studies at the University of Illinois also suggest it may include compounds that fight cancer and cardiac disease.

Raw edible parts

The fruit which look a little like a blackcurrant, are edible raw. Ensure they are fully black and ripe before eating otherwise they can be rather tart and unpalatable. Some references say they have to be cooked first but this isn't the case and as long as they are ripe, they are fine. They are rather mealy and, while not the most sweet or our most favourite fruit, they are extremely beneficial. The fruit can also be dried and turn out like little raisins but are not sweet like raisins. We prefer to eat them fresh straight from the bush or added to smoothies.

Fruit from the Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and the Purple Chokeberry (Aronia prunifolia) are also edible raw in the same way. The former is supposed to be sweeter and more palatable raw although we haven't tasted it as yet. There are no known adverse side effects from eating the fruit.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Edible Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium)

Edible Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) is an herbaceous annual from the Asteraceae family. Other names include Chrysanthemum Greens, Garland Chrysanthemum, Chop Suey Greens, Crown Daisy, Kikuna, Mirabeles and Shungiku. Native to the Mediterranean, it has spread throughout Asia and is even found in the Americas. It is grown as an ornamental for the yellow or bi-coloured yellow and white flowers. Alternatively the leaves are used as edible greens particularly in Asian dishes.

Edible Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) leaves
















Growing Chrysanthemums

Plants are very easy to grow. Sow seeds about 30cm apart in situ or in pots from spring to early autumn. Seeds take around 10-18 days to germinate at 15°C. Sow successively to obtain a regular supply of leaves and flowers. Shoots can be pinched back to encourage a bushy growth. Plants grow to around 60cm in height. They do well in full sun, well drained soil, slightly colder weather, rainy conditions and short days. The photos of the plants on this page were taken today. Plants really thrive in the chilly damp weather and will survive severe frosts and temperatures down to minus °C.

Edible Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) flower




















Raw Edible Parts

This plant has raw edible leaves and flowers. The whole plant has a very distinctive aromatic flavour and is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly potassium. Older leaves and the centre of the flower may be a little bitter. Double check before picking.

The open flowers and unopened flower buds (pearls) can be used to make a beneficial herbal tea. Chrysanthemum tea is a beautiful yellow colour with a very pleasant aromatic flavour. Flowers can be used fresh or dried.

As a point of interest all Chrysanthemum flower petals are edible raw.

Issues

Some people may be susceptible to a mild stomach upset or a skin reaction through ingestion or contact with the skin.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Yew (Taxus baccata)

Yew Berries in a churchyard in Oakham, Rutland.
Photo by Simon Garbutt (Wikimedia Commons)



















Yew is an evergreen tree or shrub. Also known as Common Yew, English Yew and European Yew. It is native to Britain but can also be found in much of Europe, Asia and Africa. In Britain it is often found in and around sacred sites including graveyards and churchyards. Yews are often used as ornamental trees and hedges in domestic gardens.

Yews are long lived and considered one of the most ancient trees in Europe. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is estimated to be around 5000 years old although it is difficult to gauge the exact age of these trees by counting the rings because a fungus often eats away at the tree leaving hollow rotten wood in the centre.

Uses

Yew has been used in folk medicine to induce menstruation, abortion and to treat diphtheria, tapeworm, tonsillitis, epilepsy and rheumatism. Native Americans used extracts for arthritis, fever and rheumatism. The wood itself is very hard and can be used to make furniture and tools. It can also be used for fuel and burns well as firewood.

Growing methods

Yew seeds have a low viability and are slow to germinate. They can be grown in pots but are probably best kept outside because they require exposure to the cold to germinate. Germination may take two winters or longer. A quicker option would be to take hardwood cuttings of the stem tips in late autumn. Cuttings should take around 3 months to root. Young plants should be kept moist but not over watered. Once established they can be trimmed or pruned hard without any undue damage.

Yew are slow growing but once established will provide around 30 cms of growth a year. They grow in most well drained soils but will also tolerate deep shade and drought. They make excellent hedges and are often used in topiary. Yew produces a dense evergreen canopy and a litter of needles thereby discouraging any plant growth underneath.

Raw edible parts

Nearly all parts of the Yew are highly poisonous containing toxic alkaloids including taxines or taxanes. It takes 50g - 100g of Yew needles to cause death in humans (Traditional Herbal Medicines: a guide to their safer use by Dr L. Karalliedde and Dr I. Gawarammana). Horses, cattle and other animals are also vunerable to poisoning. Poison will remain in clippings or prunings so care must be taken disposing of garden refuse containing Yew.

One part which is safe to eat is the soft red fleshy fruit, called an aril, which is found around the seed (see photo). These are available from female trees only. This red glutinous flesh is gorgeous, gooey, soft, sweet and highly recommended. To eat gently pop out the seed with thumb and finger and discard. The seed must not be chewed or swallowed under any circumstances. Yew fruits are available right now so keep an eye out for them. Shazzie, the Doxtor, shows how to eat them on this following YouTube video.



Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

The Opium Poppy has been cultivated for a very long time for food, medicine, recreational drugs and as an ornamental plant. An archeological site in Northamptonshire (England) revealed eight Opium Poppy seeds dating from the early Neolithic period which is 5,800 to 5,600 years ago and suggests that this plant was farmed as a crop.

Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) flower


The Opium Poppy belongs to the Papaveraceae family. It is an introduced annual and a garden escapee in the British Isles. It usually grown as an ornamental and often found on waste ground. There are many other common names for this plant including Common Poppy, Garden Poppy, Florists Poppy and Chessbolls. 

Papaver somniferum is generally regarded as being descended from Papaver setigerum which is a slightly smaller wild plant from the western Mediterranean. They are very similar and some regard both plants as being the same species.

Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum) stems, leaves and capsules or pods


Growing methods

The Opium Poppy is an annual and it grows, flowers, fruits and seeds in the same year. The fruit is also the seed pod which ripens over a period of weeks and then opens little holes in the top where it releases many tiny seeds. Plants are short lived and are normally finished by the summer.

Seeds are fairly easy to obtain from plant catalogues but the seed sold for culinary use will also often germinate. There are many varieties and cultivars and they have different physical characteristics. Plants will readily self seed so if seeds haven't been collected, they will naturally disperse and come up again next year anyway.

To grow from seed, sow in the spring in situ about 30 cms apart or just scatter for a more natural look. They can also be grown in pots and then planted out to their final position. Seeds can also be sown in late summer or autumn for overwintering. The Opium Poppy likes a sunny position and well drained soil. Flowers are produced from June to August and have fragile petals similar to tissue paper. They are usually pink, purple, white or red in colour and mature plants stand just under a metre in height. Seeds of Papaver somniferum tend to follow the shade of the flower. White seeds come from pale coloured flowers and dark seeds from dark coloured flowers. As the plants grow, the flower capsules or pods hang in a drooped manner and the pale green ruffled leaves hug the main stem.

The Opium Poppy is susceptable to insect infestations and fungal diseases such as Downy Mildew and Powdery Mildew. Plants are very sturdy and don't usually need staking but high winds and heavy rain can destroy the petals which are very delicate. To harvest the seeds wait for a few days of dry weather and for the seed head to dry out to a hard papery shell. The seeds will rattle inside if they are ready.

Raw edible parts

The seeds and young leaves are edible raw but read the Issues section below before imbibing.

Normally the black dried seeds are the parts eaten in the UK. They are popularly used to flavour sweet and savoury dishes such as breads, pastries and cakes. They can also be pressed to make an edible oil.

The leaves can also be eaten raw but before the flower pods have formed. They are crunchy and very similar to a lettuce leaf. There is no bitterness and when we can get 'em, we love 'em. However, be sure to eat them before the pods form.

An infusion can be made from the plant (usually the pods) but alkaloids present will be transferred to the tea. A search on Google (other search engines are available) will provide more information on the uses and dangers of this type of tea.

Issues

Much has been written about the Opium Poppy and its uses. Be aware it is a powerful plant containing addictive substances so should be used with a certain amount of caution. The potency of individual plants will vary with each species.

It has been reported that plants grown in cooler climates like that of the British Isles do not contain high levels of these substances. How much is high and are these levels dangerous? We have no idea and probably not providing the plants are used in a sensible manner. For example, eating the seeds is probably fine, making a daily infusion of Poppy Pod tea is probably not!

Photo: TeunSpaans (Wikimedia Commons), 2006.

























Morphine is the principal alkaloid of the Opium Poppy and the raw material for producing heroin. Other alkaloids include codeine, thebaine, papaverine and noscapine. These substances can be found in the white latex of the plant. It is usually collected from the green immature pods of the plant by making incisions down the side. It can be seen oozing from the flesh of the plant - see photo. However, the whole mature plant (except the seed) contains this latex and so can also be processed to obtain these substances. The whole mature plant (minus the seed) after harvest is called Poppy Straw.

The seeds do not contain alkaloids. However, they can become contaminated as a result of insect damage to the capsule, or poor harvesting practices. Poppy seeds are, therefore, not always alkaloid-free. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA Journal, 2011) states that: "Consumption of foods containing poppy seeds that are contaminated with opium alkaloids can lead to adverse health effects and to detectable contents of free morphine in blood as well as measurable concentrations in urine, sufficient to interfere with drug abuse testing." This might occur if single large portions of seeds or seeds that are raw and unground are consumed. The EFSA goes on to say that: "Food processing may decrease the alkaloid content by up to about 90 %. The most effective methods include washing, soaking and heat treatments, as well as grinding and combinations of these treatments."

That deals with the seed. Now on to the leaves. When is the best time to pick the leaves without subjecting oneself to a dreadful morphine addiction? One study (Morariu et Caulet, 2011) showed the level of morphine in the leaves of all genotypes began at the 43rd day after germination. The graphs in the study show no morphine in the leaves before this. As the pods formed morphine was detected in both roots and leaves. At this point the leaves contained the higher amount. Roots showed small amounts of morphine levels 23 days after germination.

This corresponds with general advice which is to pick young leaves and before the flower pods form. This is what we do. However, we have taken older leaves too (but only the odd one and not very often) and there were no obvious physical affects from this. This is probably because the plants we have are very low in alkaloids. However, to be on the safe side we do generally refrain from eating older leaves.

Is it illegal to grow this plant? It is not illegal to grow the Opium Poppy in the UK but it is illegal to process these plants into drugs. No surprise there then. It may, however, be illegal to grow them in other countries so always check first.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Raw Edible Flowers & Leaves by Amanda Rofe - NEW eBOOK

Raw Edible Flowers & Leaves contains details of over 250 edible plants that can be grown in the British Isles. Many can also be grown in Europe and North America. Included are familiar garden flowers as well as grains, herbs, superfoods, trees, vegetables and wild plants. Find out about Aloe Vera, Comfrey, Fuchsias, Tulips, Wheat, Gingko Biloba, Hemp, Maca, Stevia and much more.

Originally written for those following a raw food diet, it is also a useful reference book for everybody interested in eating a wide variety of interesting plant foods. Includes all parts of the plants that can be eaten raw, a short introduction to the raw food diet, information on stockfree organic gardening, plants to avoid, and a resource section containing useful websites and books.

Available for Amazon Kindle - only £2.99.

Raw Edible Flowers & Leaves eBook





















The following is an excerpt from the book.
Chapter 5: Edible Plants A - C 
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) A perennial plant. Also known as Lucerne, Purple Medic and 'The Father of All Foods'. The leaves, young shoots and sprouted seed are edible raw. The leaves can be dried and used as a supplement or made into a beneficial tea.
Issues: There have been warnings from some quarters against eating sprouted seed, Alfalfa in particular. I will cover a couple of the main issues here which apply to all sprouts. One is centered on the possible microbial contamination. It is important to employ good hygiene precautions for home growing (keep everything thoroughly clean). In addition, purchase seed for home growing from reliable sellers since seed has been known to be infected at source from the medium they are grown in or from inadequate cleaning. While we do have to be careful regarding hygiene and contamination, the following might put the situation a little more into perspective. The most common cause of food poisoning in the UK is Campylobacter bacteria responsible for more than 371,000 estimated cases in England and Wales in 2009 (FSA, 2011). It is found mainly in poultry and a survey on chicken for sale in the UK during 2007-8 found Campylobacter present in 65 percent of fresh chicken sampled. Before it is even purchased it is contaminated. No guidelines say we should not eat poultry. What can I say? Eat the sprouts.
Alfalfa also contains canavanine which is suggested may affect individuals with compromised immune systems although it is likely fine for the rest of the population. Scare stories regarding canavanine stem largely from dubious experiments on primates and involving huge quantities of Alfalfa, certainly more than anyone in their right mind would want to eat. In an article called 'Natural Toxins in Sprouted Seeds: Separating Myth from Reality', journalist Warren Peary and William Peavy PhD say: "These studies are not relevant to the human diet. The minute doses found in the diet are completely irrelevant and harmless ... Just remember that most substances can show some kind of toxic effect at a high enough dose. Vitamin A, selenium, copper, zinc, and iron will all kill you at a high enough dose."

Friday, 24 August 2012

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Holy Basil is also called Tulsi (pronounced “tool-see”), Tulasi, Thai Holy Basil, The Queen of Herbs and The Elixir of Life. This legendary plant belongs to the Lamiaceae or Mint family. It is so easy to grow in the British Isles and so highly beneficial to health that we would be crazy mad not to make more use of it in our gardens.

Holy Basil (O. tenuiflorum). Synonym: O. sanctum


Holy Basil is a sacred and medicinal plant and has been in use in Asia for thousands of years. In India, Hindus use it in daily religious worship in their homes and their temples. It aids meditation and spiritual well-being or enlightenment.

The health benefits of this plant are vast and the Longevity Warehouse call it an "adaptogenic supertonic". This plant can boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, reduce stress, eliminate toxins, calm the digestive system, regulate blood pressure, regulate blood sugar and support the liver and heart, amongst other things.

Growing Holy Basil

Holy Basil is very easy to grow. Sow the seeds in the spring or summer just under the soil and they should germinate within two or three weeks. Seedlings should be planted out or thinned to about 30cm to 60cm apart. Holy Basil plants prefer full sun, fertile soil and regular watering. They can be grown in the soil or in pots. In the British Isles they should be grown as an annual or brought indoors for the winter. In its native tropical Asia, and under the right conditions, Tulsi may live to a decade or more.

Raw edible parts

The fresh aromatic leaves of Holy Basil are usually chewed or made into a herbal tea. The tea can be taken on its own or with a plant milk and a sweetener. It reminds us of a slightly spicy Rooibos or Redbush tea and is very refreshing. In India it is used as an alternative to coffee. The leaves of this plant can also be dried and ground down to a powder for later use. While the leaves are most commonly used, all parts of the plant have certain medicinal and religious uses.

There are many other cultivars of the various Basils available and they all have raw edible flowers, leaves and seed (probably the whole plant is edible raw). Basil seeds are often sold as Tukmaria (edible vegetable seed) for use in Asian dishes. As with all seeds, they are best soaked and/or sprouted before use. The soaked seed make a thick gel like frogsprawn (in a nice way) and can be used in desserts and drinks. Since the seed is so mucilagenous, it needs to be sprouted using the clay dish method. Holy Basil seed is reported to be less mucilagenous. I'm afraid we couldn't confirm this as all we've ever done is grow the seed.

All true Basil plants are part of the Ocimum genus and include annual and perennial plants. Sweet Basil (O. basilicum) is one that is rather more familiar to us in Britain. It is a perennial plant but more usually grown as an annual in the British Isles. The leaves are mostly used for Italian style dishes and are the main ingredient in pesto.

The Lamiaceae or Mint family is large. Thomas J. Elpel author of Botany in a Day says that you can "safely sample any member of the mint family".

Tukmaria edible vegetable (Basil) seeds

Friday, 27 July 2012

Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum)

The Buffalo Currant is a deciduous shrub. It is also known as Clove Currant, Spice Bush, Missouri Currant or Golden Currant. It is native to North America and Canada, and has naturalised in parts of Europe where it has escaped from domestic gardens.

Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum) fruit ripening now

It produces pretty yellow flowers in the spring which have the scent of cloves. The fruit is produced in the summer and is ripening now. Buffalo Currant is attractive to bees, butterflies and birds.

Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum) flowers

How to grow

Buffalo Currant is easily grown from seed or cuttings. Fresh seed are best sown in the Autumn. Dried seed will take around 60 days to germinate at around 2.2°C but germination is enhanced by scarification. Hardwood heel cuttings can be taken in the summer or autumn. The US Dept of Agriculture say that Buffalo Currant can reproduce vegetatively by rhizomes, sprouting after cutting and fire. They say it is rated mostly good in initial establishment, ease of planting and natural spread. It tolerates dry exposed sites, a range of soil types and can be used as a soil stabiliser. Unfortunately, it is a host of White Pine Blister Rust (Cronartium ribicola) so has been eradicated from areas of America where the White Pine is grown commercially. It is hardy to -25°C. Final size of the bush is around 2.5 m x 2.5 m. Named cultivars (e.g. 'Crandall') are available but we haven't seen much sign of them for sale in the UK.

Raw edible parts

The ripe black fruit is edible raw. It looks like a Blackcurrant and can be 6-10mm in diameter. What we like about these fruit is that they are sweeter than Blackcurrants so are easier on the stomach if eating raw in quantity (not that we've had them in quantity because the birds are getting there first). Fruit can be dried for later use. The flowers are also edible raw but we don't eat too many because we prefer the fruit. The leaves can be made into a tea or used to flavour food. The leaves seem to have the flavour of 'greens' which isn't very exciting and we feel that we should be getting more flavour than this for our money! As a point of interest, all Ribes genus produce edible fruit.

New eBook coming soon





















Raw Edible Flowers & Leaves contains over 250 plants with raw edible flowers and leaves. This ebook actually lists all the raw edible parts of each plant so is good value for money. All the plants can be grown in the temperate maritime climate of the British Isles as well as other areas of the world, including much of Europe and North America.

Available from mid-August onwards for Amazon Kindle. Price £2.99.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Pineapple Guava (Acca sellowiana)

The Pineapple Guava gives the impression of tropical islands and sun kissed beaches. Also known as Feijoa, it belongs to the Myrtle (Myrtaceae) family, and is a shrub or small tree native to South America.


This isn't the best photo in the world but we were having trouble getting a good shot due to the unrelenting wind and rain. Where is our summer?! The Pineapple Guava is flowering now in the British Isles, right this minute, so look out for those flowers. You can't miss them because they look like they are on sparkly disco-dancing steroids. We mainly grew this as edible screening but the flowers are so pretty we just don't want to eat them.


Growing Pineapple Guava

Growing from seed is an unreliable method of propagating this shrub. Seeds don't grow true to the parent plant and can vary in size and yield of fruit. Hardwood cuttings (just below a node) can be taken but don't always take. Mature plants like a well drained rich soil and do well in the cooler weather. However, always try to keep the soil moist and don't let them dry out. This is a slow growing shrub which can tolerate partial shade, full sun and a bit of salty wind. Temperatures below -9°C or above 32°C affect it adversely and can prevent fruiting. This is definitely our experience. Various cultivars are available, some with larger fruit e.g. 'Mammoth'. The Pineapple Guava will grow to around 2 metres (spread) by 2 metres (height).


Raw Edible Parts

The stunning flowers and small green sweet fruit are edible raw. The outer white velvet-like petals, which taste very tropical, are the edible bits on the flowers. The rest isn't listed as edible but we have tried it, like you do, and it is tough and not so good! The flavour and texture of the fruit apparently varies. Our shrubs have not fruited and the photograph below is not our fruit so don't get too excited. If anyone does manage to get any fruit, it needs to be picked when ripe and eaten immediately as it doesn't keep. Cut it in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a spoon. It can also be used in smoothies, ice cream, jam or anywhere else where soft fruit is used. It apparently has a distinctive flavour akin to pineapple, strawberries, banana and/or guava.

Fruit of Pineapple Guava. Photo attribution: Hans B at nl.wikipedia.












Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Ox Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

The Ox Eye Daisy is a perennial plant also known as Margarite, Maudlinwort, Common Daisy, Dog Daisy, Horsegowan and Moon Daisy. The old botanical name was Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. They are similar to the more common Daisy (Bellis perennis) normally seen in lawns but are taller with a much larger flower. The foliage is dark green and smooth.


Ox Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)









Native to Europe and northern Asia, Ox Eye Daisies are commonly found in fields, clearings, disturbed areas and by the side of roads. Unfortunately, they are listed as a noxious weed in many countries of the world including America and Australia.

Raw Edible Parts

All the aerial parts are edible raw. The flowers and leaves can be used in salads and the flower buds can be pickled like capers. Many references say to eat the petals only on the flower but we find the whole flower very tasty although too many seems to make our tongues numb! The fresh or dried leaves and flowers can also be used to make a tea. The upper stems usually die back in the colder months but in milder areas the basal leaves may still be seen.

Other uses

Ox Eye Daisies were used in folk medicine for centuries. The Herbal Manual by Harold Ward lists it as antispasmodic and a tonic. It was used to treat whooping cough, asthma and internal wounds and ulcers, amongst other things. Like Chamomile it has a calming effect. It is a really pretty little flower and is very long lasting. The open flower heads attract a large range of pollinating insects particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Growing Ox Eye Daisies
Seeds will germinate in the autumn or the spring although they can actually be sown at any time of the year. Seeds are able to remain viable in the soil for many years. This plant is generally dependent on seed for regeneration. However, a new plant can grow from a piece of rhizome which makes it difficult to get rid of (as if you'd want to). Basal cuttings can be taken in the spring from existing plants. Plants grow to around half a metre high and they do best in soils with a low fertility. They are hardy to -20°C. Now is the time to see them as they flower from around May to September.

NEW EBOOK ... coming soon
New ebook Raw Edible Flowers & Leaves

























Raw Edible Flowers and Leaves contains over 250 plants with raw edible flowers and leaves. As the title suggests, they all have raw edible flowers and leaves. However, most are blessed with many other raw edible parts and these are also listed. Everything can be grown in the temperate maritime climate of the British Isles as well as other areas of the world, including much of Europe and North America.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Amelanchier species

Amelanchier (pronounced am-ul-lank-ee-ur) is a genus containing around twenty deciduous species of shrubs and trees from the Rose (Rosaceae) family. They are more commonly known as Serviceberry, Juneberry, Saskatoon, Sarvisberry, Shadbush, Wild Pear and Wild Plum. Amelanchier are native to the temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere and so do very well in the British Isles. Amelanchier x lamarckii is thought to be a natural hybrid and is also naturalised throughout Europe although it is not a native here.

Canadian Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
















The shrub in the photo is of the species Amelanchier canadensis. It was taken today and shows clusters of unripe fruit. They look a bit like unripe Blueberries. However, unlike Blueberries, they are much much easier to grow. These little berries will increase in size and turn a purple black colour when they are fully ripe. We think these shrubs are well worth growing since they don't take much looking after and have reliably produced really nice fruit each summer.

Canadian Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)















Amelanchier species are often sold as ornamentals in the UK and there are various cultivars available. Pretty white flowers appear in the spring and edible fruit in the summer which is also very popular with the birds. The berry is 5-15mm in diameter and while it is called a berry it is actually a pome which is related to an apple. Trees or shrubs can be pruned in June if needs be or, if space allows, they can be allowed to do their own thing. Amelanchier can grow to around 20 metres high. Species to try which are reported to have decent fruit include A. alnifolia, A. canadensis, A. laevis and A. x lamarkii. Planting different species apparently ensures cross pollination and a better fruit.

Raw edible parts

All species from the Amelanchier genus have edible fruit but some taste nicer than others. It is important to ensure the fruit is dark and ripe before eating to get the best of the flavour. The berries can be eaten fresh, cooked (as if) or dried and used like raisins. We haven't tried drying them yet due to the fact that the birds always get most of the fruit before us.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax has been used throughout the world for food (seed, oil) and fibre (linen, paper) thousands of years. It is easy to grow in the British Isles and is a staple raw food. There are around 220 different species of flax but Linum usitatissimum is the one usually grown commercially

Pretty blue flax flower growing in Kent















.
Flax seed/oil

Flax is also called linseed and is an edible seed and oil. It is a good source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, lignans and soluble and insoluble fibre. It is a popular raw food and is commonly used as an ingredient for crispy flax crackers. Two types are usually available in the UK: a brown seed (see photo) and a yellow or golden seed which is much lighter in colour.


The oil is also used in paints, linoleum flooring and as a wood preservative which is safe and natural for indoor and outdoor use. There are two types commonly sold diy/hardware stores; raw linseed and boiled linseed. The raw linseed is more natural but takes longer to dry. Boiled linseed dries more quickly, is darker in colour, may have added chemical driers and is non edible. It shouldn't, therefore, be used on things like wooden bowls.

Flax seed (shop bought)
Flax Fibre

The flax plant also produces a fibre which can be spun into a yarn or made into paper. The yarn can be used for knitting, to make string or woven to make a fabric called linen. Flax is a perfect alternative to cotton which cannot be grown commercially in the British Isles.

Buying seed to grow

Buy edible organic seed from a wholefood store or supermarket as these are the cheapest. Mail order plant catalogues sell small packets of seeds for an extortionate price so making the whole process of growing seed for home consumption a non starter. We've been growing these organic seeds for years and they are always absolutely fine.

The flax grown for the edible seed is usually a short straw which yields little fibre. If requiring fibre for spinning or weaving choose the long straw fibre varieties. A long stemmed variety called 'Marylin' can be bought from Wild Fibres. We have the seed but I'm afraid we haven't actually grown these yet although we often spin flax. It is also possible to get seed from the long straw varieties but it doesn't produce as much seed.

Growing flax seed

Flax is an annual plant which prefers a moist cool climate. Sow seeds in March outside where they are to grow using about 13g per square metre. We usually sow in rows about 10cm wide and 2.5cm deep leaving about 40-50cm between rows. Plants grow to about 75 cm tall. The pretty blue flower only lasts for about 3 weeks and seeds can be harvested from June onwards. The round seed heads formed after flowering go from soft green to a papery brown as they mature producing several seeds to each pod. Flax plants are robust and generally crowd out other plants.

Harvesting and storing

Allow the seed head to mature before harvesting them. Just before harvesting ensure a few dry warm so the plants are nice and dry. Grab a handful of stems and pull them up. The root is fairly small. Shake the soil off, tie with string in bundles and hang up for another week or so to further dry out. Sometimes we lay them out on the ground in the sun if it is very hot and dry. Once they are properly dry, the seeds can be shaken out. Gently rub and shake the heads and the seeds will drop out together with lots of bits of papery chaff.

To remove the chaff, we lay the seeds out on a large tray with a lip or low sides in a windy place for a day. It is usually all be blown away by the evening. Further dry the seeds off in a dehydrator at the lowest setting (20°C or less) and store whole in an airtight container in a cool dry place. It can be stored for up to three years like this. Don't store seed ground down to a fine powder as it will go rancid quickly.

Bundles of flax ready to hang to dry out














Raw edible parts

The raw edible parts of the flax plant are the seeds. The seed can be used whole, ground down to a powder or sprouted. It is a mucilagenous seed and should be sprouted in a clay dish sunk in a bowl of water. Seeds can also be grown on a wet paper towel or compost and harvested as micro greens. The health benefits of flax seed have been widely reported. There are a couple of issues with flax that people should be aware of. However, these issues shouldn't discourage anyone from using flax.

This is what the Flax Council of Canada say:

"Illness from eating too much uncooked flax seed, in a diet with little variety, can arise because flax seeds are among 12,000 plant seeds, such as almonds and cassava, which contain moderate amounts of natural compounds called cyanogenic glucosides. These glucosides occur naturally in many plants ... In an unbalanced diet, one which is based mainly on a plant containing cyanogens, a concentration of the cyanogenic compounds can build up in the body, leading to unpleasant and, on occasion, life-threatening reactions."

Eating 50g of flax daily shows no increase in glycoside buildup in the body and is fairly safe. Cooking, something which most of us reading this probably won't do, also renders the compounds harmless. Cyanogenic glucosides found in flax can inhibit the uptake of iodine. Therefore, anyone taking flax seed regularly should ensure their intake of iodine is good. Kelp is a good source of iodine for those on a raw food diet. It is bad to have too little iodine but equally as bad to have too much so don't overdue it.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Chia (Salvia hispanica)

Chia (Salvia hispanica), also known as Mexican Chia or Salba, has a long history of use in South America and was a major food crop in pre-Columbian civilisations, particularly favoured by the Aztecs. There are actually over 60 different varieties and other species such as Golden Chia (Salvia columbariae) are grown and used in a similar way.

Chia (Salvia hispanica) growing in Kent

























Health benefits

Chia comes from the Mayan word meaning 'something that makes you strong' and the health benefits of this plant have been known for a very long time. Chia seeds are gluten-free and contain essential fatty acids (including omega-3), protein, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Chia are known to stabilise blood sugar levels as well as reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.

Growing Chia

Chia is an annual herbaceous plant growing to over a metre in height. Plants can be sown in March or April (now!) under cover and seeds should germinate within a couple of weeks. Chia can also be sown in the ground outside in May but this may reduce the chances of them flowering and setting seed (they may not anyway). Plants produce a prolific amount of leaves and should flower between July and August. They are frost tender and prefer a dry sunny position in the garden with just enough, but not too much, water. In the wild Chia have adapted well to arid conditions and areas of low soil fertility. Chia is also known as a 'fire following' plant and thrives after foliage in the growing area has been burnt down.

Our seeds were raw and organic from a raw food supplier (can't remember which one) and were sown in March in pots and planted out amongst the water hungry cucumbers (not a good idea in hindsight) just after the last frosts. Plants were quite fragile and side stems broke off easily particularly during windy weather. In the end, the main stem had to be heavily staked and tied to stop it falling over.They did not flower (groan!) so we didn't obtain any seeds. This is really what we wanted and so were very disappointed. On the plus side these plants produce a massive amount of leaves, which have their own health benefits.

Possible problems

If harvesting seeds, care should be taken. Chia seeds are prone to absorb moisture. If this happens mould, yeast and salmonella can form inside the seed and be a possible health hazard. Commercial seeds are tested for safety. Home growers don't normally test for anything so this could be an issue.

To grow or not to grow

In conclusion, Chia are easy to grow but will probably not produce flowers and set seed outside the sub-tropics. In the temperate climate of the British Isles we might get lucky if we start them off early indoors and we have a long hot summer (not looking very promising so far). However, the leaves (of which there are many) have their own health benefits and can be used fresh or dried to make a herbal tea.

Raw edible parts

Raw edible parts include the seeds which are mucilaginous and can be soaked to make a make a drink called 'fresca' or a dessert/porridge. They absorb many times their weight in water and soaked seeds can be very refreshing during hot weather. Seeds can also be eaten raw (like hemp seed) or sprouted. They can be used instead of (or with) flax seeds to make crispy raw crackers and breads. Chia seeds don't need to be ground down for digestion like flax seeds. The fresh or dried leaves can be made into a beneficial herbal tea.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum)

The Common Houseleek is a hardy evergreen low growing perennial which is naturalised in the British Isles. Other names include Thunder Plant, Liveforever, Jupiter's Eye, Thor's Beard, Aaron's Rod and Hens & Chicks. It is very well known and often seen growing in dry shingle, old sinks, walls, roofs or rocky places. It has the ability to store a lot of water in its thick chubby leaves and so does well in increasingly dry areas of the country. Folklore tells us that it has the ability to protect a house from lightning and fire. Since it contains a large cache of water, there may be some truth in this.

Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum)









Growing Houseleeks

Houseleeks are very easy to grow but do not like damp shady conditions so ensure they are planted out in a dry sunny position. These plants are very hardy and will survive extremes of weather including snow. They can be grown from seed but are more usually propagated from offsets which are little baby plants or 'chicks' that grow around the edge of the mother plant or 'hen'. These offsets are held in place by a flexible stolen or cord. The little babies can be gently prised away from the mother plant and potted on to become a fresh new plant. If growing from seed, sow the seeds on the top of compost in pots and cover with sand or grit. When the seedlings emerge they can be potted on and eventually planted outside. Houseleeks usually grow for several years before they produce a tall pink star shaped flower. They are monocarpic and plants will die after they flower. Flowers do set seed and will germinate naturally in garden soil producing new plants. However, plants readily cross pollinate and hybridisation is very common.

Raw Edible Parts

The young shoots and chubby leaves of this succulent are edible raw. They are crunchy and similar to cucumbers in taste and texture. The leaves can also be juiced to make a drink. Other species are not necessarily edible. This plant stores water in the leaves in a similar way to the Aloe Vera plant. In fact it can be used on sunburn or for other accidental burns in the same way. It is a good Aloe Vera substitute because it can be left to its own devices growing outside and is therefore easier to look after. In large doses the Houseleek can be purgative and upset the tum so take it easy if trying it for the first time.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Almond (Prunus dulcis)

Prunus dulcis is a deciduous tree. These trees are one of the earliest in the year to produce blossom and so are a popular with bees and other beneficial insects. The almonds themselves will be ripe and ready for picking in the autumn. Almonds are often called a nut but they are actually a drupe consisting of an outer fleshy part called a shuck, a hard shell and an inner seed. Ripe Almonds look like large green fruits and often split open by themselves exposing the hard shell covering the seed.

Almond blossom (Prunus dulcis)


Sweet Almond trees are grown for their edible seed and Bitter Almonds are grown for the bitter almond oil. If you want to grow this tree ensure you buy a Sweet Almond with a soft shell such as the self fertile Prunus x persicoides 'Robijn'. Hard shelled varieties produce a shell that cannot be broken using an ordinary nut cracker. You usually need a hammer or a vice and it is not an easy task. This might not be a problem for commercial growers who use machinery to shell their almonds, but it is hard work for the home grower!

Raw edible parts

The furry outer shuck, seed, gum and blossom are all edible raw. The blossom can also be used to make a tea. The gum is called badam pisin and is obtained in the autumn from the trunk of older trees. It should be soaked for 8 hours in twice the volume of water to make a jelly like substance. It can then be added to cool summer drinks. It is popular in Southern India. Badam pisin is also used as a substitute for gum tragacanth.

The outer green shuck covering the hard shell of the almond
















Green (unripe) Almonds are considered a delicacy and are popular in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Almonds are closely related to Peaches and Nectarines and the furry shuck can be eaten in exactly the same way. It tastes unripe similar to a hard unripe peach or nectarine. The inner unripe tangy seed is soft and white and also edible.

Almonds also have medicinal uses and the kernel of the Bitter Almond contains Laetrile or B17. There is a huge amount of information on the Web regarding this and we leave it to the reader to investigate.

Raw Almond Milk

1 part almonds
3 parts water
muslin fabric or nut milk bag

Soak the Almonds overnight in water. In the morning discard the water and rinse well. Add 1 part Almonds and to 3 parts water to a blender and blend until really smooth. Filter the milk using muslin or a nylon nut milk bag. Squeeze tightly to remove all the liquid. The dry pulp can be used in raw cakes, crackers or muesli. Drink the milk as it is, add flavourings or use it on muesli or other breakfast cereals. A thicker creamier milk or cream can be made by reducing the amount of water used. If time is short, the milk can be made without soaking first.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)

Stevia is an herbaceous perennial shrub native to Paraguay and Brazil. It is also known as Sweet Leaf, Sugar Leaf and Sweet Herb. Today Stevia is mostly grown for the leaves which are used as a sweetener but this plant is also an important medicinal herb.

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana)






















Natural sweetener
The sweetness in Stevia is due to a glycoside called stevioside. The amount of stevioside (and therefore the sweetness) varies from plant to plant. The quantity is triggered by short day length and is at its highest immediately prior to flowering.

Stevia is usually sold as an extract (liquid or white powder) or powdered plant leaf (green powder). Beware the extracts as they may be highly processed and contain binders, fillers and additives. The green powder, on the other hand, is more natural since it usually just contains the dried leaf. Stevia is relatively easy to grow and home grown freshly picked Stevia leaves are by far the healthiest way to use this plant.

Health benefits
Stevia also has important health benefits and was used for centuries by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay as a sweetener and medicinal plant. More information about this can be found at Raintree's Rainforest Plant Database.

Growing Stevia
Stevia can be grown from cuttings or seed. We grew several batches of Stevia from seed  last year and the germination rates were erratic and low. We found that starting them off in a heated propagator gives them the best chance. Once plants are a reasonable size they can be potted on. Plants should be grown in a sunny spot in free draining soil. We kept the shallow roots moist by mulching with homemade compost and grass cuttings. Once established they can be used to take cuttings. Cuttings should be taken inbetween nodes and should contain three or four nodes. Be careful with the leaves and stems as they are quite fragile and can be damaged very easily.

Our plants have been raised in the polytunnel to protect them from the frosts, the birds and the slugs. According to some references, Stevia is naturally resistent to most pests and one of the last plants that insects feed on. In our experience they are not one of the last plants that birds and slugs feed on!

Overwintering plants
Plants can be overwintered in the British Isles. They should be cut down to about 20cm in height and kept under cover. For optimum conditions the soil should not drop lower than 0°C. This plant is known as a weak perennial and some suggest replacing the plants every few years because they become less productive. Our plants have only come through their first winter with us so we don't know how weak they are! They may become very weak if their leaves are systematically harvested year after year.

Raw edible parts
The leaves, growing tips and young stems are edible raw. Leaves are good in salads. Fresh and dried leaves can be used to make a sweet green tea.We don't have any information about the roots or the flowers of this plant. It seems likely that they are also edible but we can't find any references to this.

Processing Stevia leaves
To ensure as much sweetness in the leaves as possible harvest just before flowering. Cut down the branches to about 20cm from the base of the plant and the strip off the leaves and growing tips by hand. Stems are a bit woody and less sweet so can be composted. Dry quickly using a dehydrator at around 40°C until very crispy. If leaves are dried in under 8 hours, very little stevioside (and therefore sweetener) will be lost. Store in airtight containers out of the direct sunlight. The leaves can be ground down to a fine powder just before use.

Stevia suppliers
Nicky's Nursery (seeds)
Poyntzfield Herbs (plants)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Shallots (Allium cepa var aggregatum)

Shallots (Allium cepa var aggregatum) are perennial bulbs. They can be purchased as seeds but, like onions, are more commonly bought as sets or bulbs. They were probably introduced into Europe by the Crusaders returning from the Middle East. Shallots are easy to grow and are a really useful raw food staple.

Shallots 'Longor' growing in the spring
















Growing shallots
There are a limited range of varieties available in bulb form so the more unusual plants must be grown from seed. The traditional date for planting old varieties was the shortest day of the year but most of the modern varieties can be planted out from late January to the end of March. They are traditionally grown in rows roughly 20cm apart. However, they can also be dotted about the garden and grown around the base of shrubs or trees, in flower beds or used as ground cover.

Use a small stick or 'dibber' to make a small hole just big enough to take the bulb and gently push the bulb into the ground (root side down and pointy side up). Press the earth gently around the bulb. Each bulb will grow and divide into five or six new shallots. Be careful when hoeing to avoid damaging the bulb. If they become dry they stop growing so make sure to keep them moist during the growing season.

Shallots 'Longor' in storage
















Lifting and storing
The bulbs will be ready to lift from June to August. Once the top foliage starts to go yellow and flop over, they can be allowed to dry out and ripen. They can then be dug up (lifted) and stored. If the ground is very wet and damp all the time, they may start to rot, so keep an eye on them. The soil can be scraped away from the base of the bulbs once they are big enough. This allows the air to circulate and can prevent rot. Lift during a few dry warm sunny days and leave out to dry off properly in the sun. Bulbs can be stored in a cool dry airy place in nets, crates or tied with string and hung up in bunches.

The bulbs in the photograph were lifted last July and have been hanging in a net in a shed ever since. They are a variety called 'Longor' and sold by The Organic Gardening Catalogue. Bulbs can be saved for use the following year so always grow extra.

Raw edible parts
All parts of all Allium species are edible. All parts of all Allium species are probably edible raw although we cannot find a specific reference to this. This is no surprise since there are around 600 difference species. Only around 30 have been used regularly for food and even less have been cultivated. The most important of these being onion, chives, garlic, leeks and shallots.

Having said this, all parts of the shallot appears to be edible raw. The long green leaves can be used like spring onions. The leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads. The bulbs can be used in place of any onion. The bulbs are purportedly milder than the large onions. However, we find they are milder when cooked but not particularly mild when raw. The seeds can be sprouted. Enjoy!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum)


Tomatoes are the basis of many raw food recipes and home grown fruits have an amazing flavour. Now is the time to think about growing them and to get organised. If drying them, as well as eating them fresh, try and grow as many as possible. We usually grow over 40 plants each year but there still never seems to be enough to keep us going all year round.

Heirloom beefsteak tomatoes (dried)















What to grow
Tomatoes are mostly grown as a cordon (straight up a cane) but can also be grown as a bush or in a hanging basket. Tumbling Tom is the one for the hanging basket. For indoor or winter growing try Red Robin which is a tiny plant and can set fruit in low light conditions. San Marzano has a relatively low water content and is used for sauces so is one to use for drying (but they can all be dried). There are white ones (White Beauty), pink ones (Pink Wonder), black ones (Black Krim), yellow ones (Golden Sunrise and Yellow Perfection), small ones (Gardeners Delight), long ones (Incas), pear shaped ones (Yellow Pear) and stripey ones (Tigerella). The Organic Gardening Catalogue has a wide range to choose from including some we've mentioned here.

Growing
Sow the seeds in March in pots in a polytunnel, greenhouse or a cold frame. If possible use homemade (seed free) compost for this. However, a selection of animal-free composts can be obtained from The Organic Gardening Catalogue. Station sow two seeds per pot and water in. Keep the pots under cover and don't let them dry out. Remove the weakest seedling when the plants come up. They should take about 8-10 weeks to grow large enough to plant out. If plants get too big for the pot, they can be potted on to larger containers. If planting outside, wait until the frosts have finished first. Plant out with a spadeful or two of homemade compost. Firm the soil down and water using rainwater if available.

If growing cordons, stake the plants with a cane and string as they grow because they cannot support themselves. Depending on the variety the side shoots on the main side branches may need to be pinched out. Some varieties e.g. bush or hanging basket, can just be allowed to grow how they want. Tomatoes can be mulched to keep the moisture in around the shallow roots. They also like a regular liquid feed e.g. comfrey.

Dried tomatoes stored in a sweet jar
Storing
Tomatoes can be stored fresh for a certain amount of time. If doing this try to keep them on the vine and hang them in a dry cool place. All tomatoes will ripen eventually although we've found that the beefsteak varieties ripen really well indoors (on or off the vine). Tomatoes can be stored long term by drying using a dehydrator. Slice the tomatoes (including the skins) no thicker than 6mm. Place in a dehydrator and dry for 7-10 hours until brittle. No Teflex type non-stick sheets are required for this. Store in an airtight container until required.

Saving seed
Most modern varieties of tomato seeds are self pollinating and will not cross. If in doubt grow them in seclusion in a polytunnel or greenhouse and exclude any insects that might be carrying pollen from other tomato plants. We highly recommend using Real Seeds method of seed saving. They also have a great selection of seeds.


Raw edible parts
The raw edible parts include the fruit (tomatoes) and oil which is extracted from the seed. The oil contains anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids including a high proportion (54%) of linoleic acid. Seeds are a major waste product from tomato processing industry. However, home growers probably won't have the quantity of seed or equipment required for oil extraction. No other parts of this plant are edible.

Using dried tomatoes
Drying home grown tomatoes extends the tomato season all year round. Dried tomatoes can be eaten as they are or re-hydrated by soaking in water. We often grind them down to a fine powder in a coffee grinder and use them as a flavouring for raw crackers, soups and pasta sauces. Dried tomatoes are really useful as they have a concentrated flavour and add a real depth to any dish.


Perennial alternatives
Tomatoes are perennials but grown as annuals in the British Isles. A similar but much hardier plant is the Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa). They are easy to grow and suffer from few pests and diseases. The best thing about these is that they do not succumb to blight but they can be susceptable to slug damage. As an added bonus each tangy fruit is encased in a lovely green or orange paper case.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)


Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is a biennial/perennial plant. It is also known as Sea Cabbage or Wild Sea Cabbage. It is very useful producing greens all year round particularly in the winter months when other plants are not available. As a wild plant, it will be far more beneficial healthwise than some of the modern hybrids currently available so is really worth growing. The photo below was taken recently and is our Wild Cabbage growing in heavy clay soil in our average back garden. It didn't mind the snow or frozen ground at all.

Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)
Growing Wild Cabbage
Seeds can be purchased but they are not easy to find. Check out Ebay because they are sometimes available here. Wild Cabbage can be grown like any other cabbage. Sow the seeds in the spring in pots or directly in the ground. These plants don't have to be grown half way up a cliff to thrive and actually do well in most garden soils. They are biennial and so flower and set seed in the second year. Thereafter they can more or less be left to their own devices and treated as a hardy perennial.

Raw Edible Parts
Wild Cabbage can be used as a cut-and-come-again plant. The leaves and stems are edible raw but only use the younger stems as the older ones become very tough. The leaves and stems are really good for sauerkraut. The flowering heads, which look like broccoli, are also edible raw and are good for salads. The seeds, like any other cabbage, can be used for sprouting.

History
Wild Cabbage has grown in the British Isles for hundreds of years and is considered a native British plant. It still grows wild in some areas, particularly on the English coastline. The first evidence of the domestication of Wild Cabbage is taken from the Greeks and Romans, although it is likely to have been domesticated earlier than this. It has been suggested that the Romans or Saxons brought them to Britain. Unfortunately, crops like Brassicas with their soft leaves and stems often leave very little archaeological evidence so it is difficult to be precise about their origins. Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Kale, Kohlrabi and the many different modern Cabbages available today have all been bred from the Wild Cabbage.

Crop Wild Relatives
All of the crop plants grown today for food, energy and other purposes have their origin as wild plants. These wild plants are also known a Crop Wild Relatives. One of the largest families of flowering plants in the UK, which contain Crop Wild Relatives, is the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae). Others include the Grass family (Poaceae), the Legume family (Fabaceae), the Rose family (Rosaceae) and the Carrot family (Apiaceae). The high-yielding modern crop varieties have a limited genetic variability so the Crop Wild Relatives are becoming increasingly important to increase the genetic diversity of domesticated crops.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Nine Star Perennial Broccoli (Brassica oleracea botrytis asparagoides)


These are one of our favourite perennial plants. They are very easy to grow and are much less work than the annual broccoli which has to be sown and grown again and again each year.

Growing perennial broccoli
These plants can be grown from seed in the spring in much the same way as annual broccoli plants. Once the plants are large enough they can be planted outside into a permanent position. They grow to about 50cm - 100cm high and can have a spread up to 100cm so leave enough room for them to grow. Be aware, they won't produce any broccoli (immature flower heads) in the first year because they flower the following spring/early summer.

Problems
The wood pigeons loved them, an occasional Cabbage White butterfly paid a visit and the very cold winter of 2010-11 killed them off. On the face of it, this doesn't sound very promising. However, temperatures at that time often reached -8°C and snow laid on the ground for a very long time.

We must have thought these plants were worth growing as we replaced them last spring. These new plants are very healthy with plenty of leaves. They seem to be quite happy with the recent snowfall (see photo) although the temperature in the garden this year has only reached -4°C on odd nights.

The wood pigeons are getting wild bird seed so are less interested in these new plants. For anyone interested in home grown bird seed we buy ours from Vinehouse Farm who grow most of their own seed in the UK. 95% of the seed in the 'Mixed Seed Bird Food' is grown on their own farm in Spalding, Lincolnshire.

The only other thing we would say is make sure that all the flowering heads are picked off before the flowers fully open so that the plant doesn't put its energy into making flowers and seed heads. Also stake any plants that are leaning over as they won't be at their best if they are not given some support. The plants that grew straight didn't seem to need staking even in very windy weather conditions.

Edible parts
The flowering broccoli heads, stems and the leaves are edible raw. The seed can also be sprouted. The flowering heads form in the spring and have a really good flavour. There is one main head in the centre and then lots of smaller heads arranged around the edge of the plant which are really useful for salads. The stems might need peeling as the outer skin tends to get a bit tough. The leaves taste like cabbage and can be picked all year round which makes this really useful plant for winter greens. The broccoli heads and the leaves can be picked as a cut-and-come-again crop.

Benefits of perennial plants
Perennials save the gardener time and money with a one time only purchase and planting. Once plants are established they usually involve very little work to look after them. Perennials are usually far more resilient than annual plants and become adapted to their local environment. They build and protect the soil, providing a permanent (untilled) area encouraging beneficial insects and mycorrhizae. The leaves provide a canopy to prevent soil erosion and suppress unwanted plant growth. The roots and leaves decompose naturally providing a regular stream of organic material for the soil. The roots hold and store water and other nutrients which might otherwise be washed away. Perennials are also often available as a food source when annual short season crops have died down.

There are more perennial plants on the planet than any others. They live longer, storing more carbon than annual plants. Because they live longer, they produce more extensive root systems which are good at adding carbon to the soil. Research at Rothamsted shows that perennial vegetation contains 10-20 tonnes more C per hectare in the subsoil than arable crops (DEFRA, 2010).

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis)


Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis or Aloe vera)


Aloe Vera is also known as the Barbados Aloe, Burn Plant, Medicine Plant, Miracle Plant and Wand of Heaven. This is an evergreen perennial and as such will have leaves ready to harvest all year round. It can be grown outside in a sheltered sunny spot but must be brought in during the winter months or during a frost. It also makes a really good house plant and this is probably where most people in the British Isles keep their Aloe Vera plants.


Edible parts
The raw edible parts of this plant are the leaves and the seed. Whilst this plant is easily grown, it doesn't flower freely in the British Isles so seed production may be a bit thin on the ground. We don't have any other information on the seed apart from the fact that they are edible. The leaves consist of three parts. The first is the outer rind or skin. Next comes a layer of aloe latex which is a bitter, yellowy brown substance containing anthraquinones. These are usually filtered out in commercial products and they have strong laxative properties. Last is the centre of the leaf which consists of copious quantities of a tasteless clear gel. This inner gel is not laxative, is safe to eat and this is the bit we normally use.


The International Aloe Science Council explains how aloe is obtained commercially:
"To get to the inner leaf juice (aka aloe gel) without the latex and thus without the laxative effect, the plant is stripped of the outer rind either by hand or by machine (known as "filleting," because the inner leaf without its outer plant shell looks like a fish), and the latex is rinsed away. The remaining material is then ground or crushed into juice. The fibrous pulp is usually discarded. This process leads to aloe that is "decolorized" because removing the yellow latex leaves the juice clear.
Whole-leaf aloe is obtained by grinding the entire aloe leaf, then removing the rind material (usually using an enzyme treatment such as cellulose) and aloe latex via filtration (charcoal is a popular filtration form). A good filtration process removes the aloe latex down to 10 ppm or less in orally administered finished products and 50 ppm or less in cosmetic applications." 


Obtaining the gel for home use
Take a sharp knife and slice off a leaf from the bottom of the plant close to the base. New leaves grow up from the middle so try to avoid taking those. Be careful of the edges of the leaves because they are serrated and quite prickly. Plop the base of the leaf straight into a mug or glass temporarily otherwise gel will ooze everywhere. When ready, take the leaf and place it flat on a chopping board and slice it in half lengthwise with a chef's knife. Scrape out the gel with the flattened knife and tip the gel into straight into a bowl or blender. Use immediately otherwise the gel will oxidise and lose its beneficial properties. It would probably be OK in the fridge for a couple of hours but don't keep it for long. This gel is good added to smoothies or used on the skin as a wound healer. It is particularly good for burns and is very soothing. Aloe Vera has long been used as a home remedy and has many other medicinal applications.


Growing Aloe Vera
Aloe Vera can be grown from seed but the seeds may take months to germinate. Sow during the spring in a free draining compost. Keep in a warm sunny spot like a greenhouse until the seedlings have grown and then pot on. It is probably quicker and easier to propagate this plant by taking cuttings or by removing the little offset plants or pups which are produced around the edge of the mother plant. These come with their own root and can be gently prised away from the mother plant. Use a knife if need be to cut the little plants free. Let the cut dry out or scab over and then pot them up.


If growing from cuttings, slice off a bottom leaf from the mother plant and leave it to dry so that the bottom scabs over. It may take a few days. Then place in a pot of free draining compost making sure a third of the plant is below the soil. Keep the soil moist for the first few weeks. The stalk may shrivel a bit but don't worry and don't over water. It should root quite quickly.


General care
Water the plants about once a month but let the soil dry out in between watering. Aloe Vera can be grown in most soils but prefers a free draining soil suitable for a cactus. We don't feed ours with anything in particular except leftover herbal tea. We do, however, refresh most of the soil every year preferring to use our own home made vegan organic compost for this.


We tried growing the Aloe outside but ended up faffing about worrying about it being too cold or frosty. Beware if dark shrivelled leaves appear as they are a sign of frost damage. We thought it would like a hot sunny spot but found that it didn't like direct sunlight at all. In fact the leaves turned an orangey/brown colour and become very stressed. Ours do much better inside than out and the plants are much easier to use especially during the winter.