The Weeder’s Digest, by Gail Harland, is subtitled “Identifying and enjoying edible weeds” – which gives you a much clearer picture of the contents, since it isn’t a diary about weeding.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is pretty routine, covering the standard ground of the various definitions of a ‘weed’, how they spread, how to keep them under control, and the importance of knowing that some plants are poisonous. I think the first section should have been an appendix (if it needed to be included at all – books about weeding are ten a penny) – it doesn’t sit very well with the second section.
The second section is far more interesting, as it’s an A-Z listing of the most common edible weeds and wild plants. Each plant is listed under its common name, but that’s backed up by its scientific species name, and commonly used synonyms. There’s a picture, and some notes about habitat and appearance that help you identify the plant (although this is not a field guide for foragers).
The most interesting information is the section on uses, which contains some interesting ethnobotanical snippets about how these plants are used around the world – although none of them is referenced, so it’s up to you to find out more if you are intrigued. (There are some references at the back, but these mainly refer to scientific papers about nutritional content and poisoning incidents.)
However, most plants have at least one recipe, and many have several. And some of them look lovely – I am eagerly awaiting the elderflower season, as I’d like to make elderflower rice pudding. There’s also an apple and sorrel sorbet recipe that’s on my To Do list.
There’s a lot of information here, and it’s interesting. Whilst I skimmed the first part of the book, I read my way slowly through the second section, making notes. It’s not a coffee-table book with pretty pictures, it’s one that will sit on my reference shelf and inform me for years to come. Except when it’s in the kitchen….
As it’s Be Nice To Nettles Week, I thought I would share a couple of things from the pages on Nettles (Urtica dioica). The first is that the nettle has edible seeds – apparently they’re nice sprinkled on to pizzas or used in risottos and soups. It also says that by the time the seeds ripen, the plants have usually lost most of their sting and you should be able to harvest the seeds without gloves; I’ll let someone else test that out first! You need to be a little careful about who you feed your nettle seeds to – Gerard’s herbal of 1597 noted that they provoke lust….
If you can’t wait for the seeds, then try making nettle cordial from the leaves. Once you have, you can make the Nettle Gimlet cocktail – one part nettle cordial to two parts gin, garnished with lime zest. One or two of those, and you might not mind so much about the stings :)
The Weeder’s Digest: Identifying and Enjoying Edible Weeds
by Gail Harland
Paperback, 152 pages, RRP
Publisher: Green Books
Posted in Blog on May 16, 2013 · ∞
Tags: books & weeds.
It’s rare that I meet anyone who knows what an ethnobotanist does; I wouldn’t have known myself a few years ago. When I explain to people that ethnobotany is the study of the uses people make of plants, I generally get a sensible response – something along the lines of “like herbal medicine?”. If I’m in a pub then I get sniggers and “you mean, like weed?”
In fact I do have an academic fascination with Cannabis sativa, because it has to be one of the most useful plants there is. It can produce food and fibre crops, has medicinal benefits and doesn’t need a lot of inputs to grow. It would be considered a wonder crop if it didn’t also get us high.
In Super-Charged: How outlaws, hippies and scientists reinvented marijuana, Jim Rendon investigates the current state of marijuana cultivation in California – where the black market and the quasi-legal medicinal trade collide.
Rendon looks at how being outlawed since 1937 (in the US) has affected the development of the Cannabis plant. He makes a comparison with conventional agriculture, in which billions of dollars have been invested in research for higher yielding and pest-resistant varieties, with investment in new technology and infrastructure, government subsidies and university courses in which students can enrol. The net result of this has been a huge loss of agrobiodiversity, with ever larger yields coming from ever fewer varieties of our favourite crops, and dependent on chemical inputs. We have lost local flavours, vast genetic resources and small-scale production.
Cannabis growers and breeders, however, have been sent to jail. They haven’t been able to apply for government funding, bank loans or investment capital. They have no legal protection for the strains they develop, and there is no regulation of the final product. Their isolation means that seeds, and growing information, take a long time to circulate. The end result of this is a huge number of different strains, with estimates ranging from one to two thousand (obviously it’s difficult to get an accurate number). Varieties range from short and squat to 18 feet tall. Buds come in purple, green, red, brown, yellow and orange. Their scent can be skunky, sweet, spicy, citrusy and fruity.
I can see so many parallels with heritage seeds (tomatoes spring to mind, with the huge number of heirloom varieties available) and the dedicated people who grow and conserve them – albeit in a more open and less controversial manner! Rendon talks about the Cannabis landraces (strains that are native to an area and that haven’t been subjected to intensive hybridising – the raw material, if you like, for new varieties) and the concern that they are disappearing because of deliberate eradication programs, habitat changes, socio-political issues like wars and breeders keeping their seed collections to themselves to protect their business. It seems unlikely that these landraces are going to end up in seed banks anywhere, although it would be interesting to find out.
Throughout my ethnobotany course I have been surrounded by people who believe that biodiversity (including agrobiodiversity) is worth protecting and conserving as an end in itself, and I agree with them. So it’s interesting to see the value judgements that have been made about Cannabis – which, in the end, is just a plant. Entire strains have been wiped out in police raids, and the consensus remains that that is a good thing, or at least nothing to worry about.
Rendon talks us through some of the histroy of Cannabis breeding, from the discovery that you get better results if you keep male and female plants separate to produce sinsemilla, through the development of strains with higher THC levels (that give you bigger highs), to plants more suited for indoor growing. He then goes on to examine the changes occurring now that medical marijuana has a limited legal remit in California. Breeders are breaking away from the endless pursuit of higher THC levels to develop strains with higher levels of some of the other 80 or so cannabinoids in the plant. CBD, for example, has great potential medical benefits, but increasing the THC output lowers CBD levels, and so it has been gradually disappearing.
The political future of Cannabis remains unclear, but a level of legality in California means that breeders can get the chemical constituents in their strains tested, and buyers can know what they’re getting. Cannabis provides a lovely example for ethnobotany, a multidisciplinary subject that looks at environmental, political, economic and cultural factors that influence our use of plants. I hope that it never has the misfortune to become a mere botanical curiosity, eradicated from the planet and available to future generations only as a botanical specimen stuck to a sheet of paper and kept under lock and key.
With its view of the past, present and future of Cannabis, Super-Charged is an up-to-date snapshot of the plant (the book was only published last year), and well worth a read if, like me, you find it a fascinating topic.
Super-Charged, how outlaws, hippies and scientists reinvented marijuana
by Jim Rendon
Hardback, 256 pages, RRP
Publisher: Timber Press
I was provided with a review copy of this title by the publisher.
Posted in Blog on Apr 10, 2013 · ∞
Tags: reviews & books.
Normally I don’t write about books that aren’t going to be published for months and months, but this one is special – Permanent Publications have announced that Stephen Barstow’s long-awaited book, Around the World in 80 Plants, will be published this coming September.
Stephen is somewhat of a legend in the unusual edibles community, because his garden on the side of a fjord in Norway is home to more unusual edible plants than you could count in one day, despite the snowy climate and the long (sunless) winters. Alys Fowler talks about Stephen’s garden in her Thrifty Forager book, and I’m still jealous that she got to visit.
I met Stephen a couple of weeks ago, on one of his trips to the UK (and Kat Morgenstern of Sacred Earth) and we chatted about my ethnobotany course. We didn’t find the time to talk about Stephen’s edimentals*, so hopefully we will meet again at some point.
According to the advanced information sheet, Stephen’s forthcoming book has the subtitle “An Edible Perennial Vegetable Adventure for Temperate Climates”, and will take us on a journey around the temperate world, introducing us to Stephen’s top 80 perennial leafy vegetables. I think picking his favourites must have been quite a tough job – apparently he has 2000+ species to choose from!
“There are stories of the wild foraging traditions of indigenous people in all continents: from the Sámi people of northern Norway to the Maori of New Zealand, the rich food traditions of the Mediterranean peoples, the high altitude food plants of the Sherpas in the Himalayas, wild mountain vegetables in Japan and Korea, and the wild aquatic plant that sustained Native American tribes….”
This should prove to be the most exciting book of the year for veggie gardeners, plant geeks and ethnobotanists, so it’s a shame there’s still so long to wait. The book is currently only available to pre-order from the Green Shopping Catalogue.
In the meantime, if you’re not familiar with Stephen’s writing then he has contributed three articles to Permaculture Magazine, each on a fascinating topic. Discover Hablitzia, Caucasian Spinach, a cold-tolerant leafy green native to the Nordic countries, and learn how to cook Hostas, ‘Oriental Perennial Spinach’. Both of those are PDF downloads; you can read Stephen’s third article, on his record-breaking Xtreme Salads, online.
Stephen coined the term ‘edimental’ to describe the plants he grows which are both edible and beautifully ornamental.
Posted in Blog on Feb 21, 2013 · ∞
Tags: books & unusual.
Every Thursday I have an afternoon seminar on Environmental Anthropology. It’s not the easiest subject for me, a natural scientist, to get my head around. Last week we were looking at “representations of nature”, and towards the end of the class we turned to symbolism and how myths formed.
At some point my brain dragged up a memory of the Brer Rabbit stories I read as a child. They were from old books, even back then. I don’t remember too much about the stories now, so I will have to renew my acquaintance at some point. The Wikipedia entry on the stories explains that they are an example of the Trickster – a figure that appears in a lot of African folklore (Anansi the spider is another example).
The reason I mention this is because I have just started researching a topic for my second essay, which involves heirloom seeds and the people who collect them. A friend pointed me in the direct of the work of Virginia Nazarea, and I borrowed a copy of Heirloom Seeds and their Keepers from the library.
I was in love with the book before I got to the end of the Preface. It’s a declaration of love for seedsavers, the gardeners and small-scale farmers throughout the world (and they exist almost universally, in every corner) who save and pass along folk varieties without any formal organization.
The first chapter explores the idea of the Trickster – a figure whose lack of acceptance of social norms and rules allows us to explore and embrace possibilities.
“…seedsavers invent their own beat and chart their own directions, in interesting and delightful ways. Thus, they are not burdened by the rebel’s ire but rather moved by a searching, creative spirit. They are not outsiders, although oftentimes they behave as if they were. They not only demonstrate an uncanny knowledge of social boundaries but also constantly stretch and test these limits.”
I have skimmed through the whole book, looking for material for my essay. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and hope to come back to it one day when I can simply read it for pleasure and really absorb the sense of joy and wonder with which Nazarea has infused her words. It’s a scholarly work, but accessible. There are proper references at the back, and an index. There are fascinating little anecdotes from seedsavers all across the globe, including the Mende of West Africa – who tend to name their rice varieties according to where they were found. So as well as a variety called “in a palm tree” they have a whole bunch of varieties simply called “elephant dung”.
Ethnobotany is a multidisciplinary science. In the past few weeks I have waded through philosophy, touched on religion and politics, bounced through botany and the biological sciences and ended up in myth and folklore (cosmovisions – our world views). And this is a multidisciplinary book, looking at plant genetics and immigration, metaphor and cooking. It ends with a delightful roll call of all the seedsavers mentioned, together with the varieties they carry with them through time and space.
Read this book and you will never see seedsavers in the same light again. We are the Tricksters of the plant world; a thread of randomness in a homogenized modern world that brings our history into the present, and may just save us from ourselves.
Nazarea, Virginia D. 2005 Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Posted in Blog on Oct 29, 2012 · ∞
Tags: books & ethnobotany.
This is my second post about James Wong’s new Homegrown Revolution offerings. The first was about his collaboration with Suttons on a new seed and plant range. This one is about the book itself; there will be a third, but that’s still a secret ;)
Homegrown Revolution is officially published on Thursday 13th September, but I was very kindly given a review copy, so I can let you know what you’ll find inside. James starts off by explaining his revolution. He looks back at the way the British diet has changed since the war years, and then looks at the crops most people grow on their allotments and in kitchen gardens, and decides that gardening hasn’t kept pace with our changing tastes. And worse still, that we haven’t rediscovered some fabulous plants that were commonly grown by the Victorians, but fell by the wayside while we were digging for victory (or mechanizing agriculture).
His idea, then, is an extension of the common adage that you should grow what you eat – and he’s firmly looking in the direction of foodies who eat all kinds of wonderful (and expensive) things, but are still trying to harvest spuds and onions from their postage stamp plots.
Once you’re on board, James walks you through his 10 Commandments, which are really just about getting the conditions right for your plants – sun, water, soil, choosing crops, dealing with pests and diseases and stuff like that. Keen gardeners can skip ahead to the good stuff.
In the Tips & Tricks section, James outlines some speedy crops for small spaces. Unusual candidates for microgreens include borage, quinoa and purple basil. Then there are edible houseplants for windowsills, crops for window boxes and recipes for planting up pots on the patio. The section rounds off with a look at some of the weeds and ornamentals in your garden that you could be munching on, propagating your own plants and growing your own gardening sundries.
Next up comes Leaves and greens. Some of the plants here may be familiar, but many will not be. I had to look up James’ ‘Water Celery’, which is Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’ and needs to be grown in a pond, on a pond margin or in damp soil.
Borage is often mentioned in books on herbs, or unusual vegetables, with mention of its cucumber-flavoured, hairy leaves being less than appetising. Usually it is relegated to having its pretty flowers frozen into ice cubes for summer fruit punches. But according to James, it’s a common vegetable throughout mainland Europe, and we’re just growing it wrongly. If you want to eat your borage leaves, you should be growing a white-flowered variety and sowing it in the autumn. Choose a shaded, sheltered spot with rich soil and keep the plants close together, so they shade each other. Give them plenty of water, and a high nitrogen feed every week. You’ll be encouraging leafy growth rather than flowers, so if you also want flowers you’ll need another plant in a sunnier spot, treated less well.
Once you’ve grown your plants, Homegrown Revolution has harvesting instructions, and serving ideas (or full-blown recipes) for each one.
Fruiting veg and grains are next to get the treatment, with goji berries, hyacinth beans and James’ favourite cucamelons all making an appearance. James has chosen his own common names for some of the plants, which anyone who has been dabbling in unusual edibles will find confusing – but each plant has also been given its scientific binomial name, so it’s easy to cross-reference.
Buried treasure looks at root crops – with dahlia yams being a surprise edible for me, along with canna lillies. When you’re buying plants sold as ornamentals it’s important to remember that they may have been treated with chemicals that aren’t used on food crops. Don’t snack on them until they’ve had a chance to detox in the garden….
Many readers may find the Experimental herbs, spices and flavours section the most fascinating. There are strange herbs and spices here that you can grow on the windowsill, or out in the garden. There are natural sweeteners and food colourings and flowers that taste like sour apples.
The final section, on Dessert fruit is the least experimental. Any keen fruit growers are likely to already have tried their hand (if they have the space) at Asian pears, medlars, quinces and mulberries. The cocktail kiwi and goldenberries have been readily available for a few years now. James adds to the debate on edible fuchsia berries by choosing F. regia subsp. regia as his favourite variety, recommends growing your own zereshk for Persian pilafs, and says that American cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) are easier to grow than the regular kind.
Once you’re at the back of the book then you’re into Gardening Essentials territory – the equipment you’ll need, gardens to visit, a glossary and a list of suppliers.
I can’t imagine that anyone will give up growing spuds on the recommendation of this book, but there’s plenty here to give you a nudge off the beaten track if you’re looking for new plants to grow. The book is well turned out, with good photos and some lovely illustrations. James says he’s grown all the plants (in Croydon) over the last two years, and only chosen the ones that survive. He’s also road tested all the recipes (although he admits to never having eaten Vietnamese fish mint, Houttuynia cordata, which is normally sold as an ornamental pond plant. He doesn’t enjoy its strong coriander flavour.) It’s been a while since there has been a good new addition to the unusual edibles bookshelf, and I think this is one you will like.
Homegrown Revolution is available from Thursday in hardback (RRP £20) and you can pre-order from Amazon. According to my press release it will also be available as an ebook (RRP £10.99), but I don’t have any more details on that at the moment.
Posted in Blog on Sep 10, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Oct 25, 2012
Tags: books & unusual.
I was sworn to secrecy, but I managed to land an invite to a very exciting press event yesterday – the launch of a collaboration between James Wong and Suttons Seeds. James’ new book – Homegrown Revolution – is officially published on 13th September (and has already stormed up the Amazon charts), and in it James sets out to revolutionize our allotments and kitchen gardens and get us growing more ‘exotic’ things. I have an advance copy of the book, and will be blogging about that in due course, but in the meantime he’s a look at the accompanying seed and plant range.
The press event was held at Hadlow College in Kent (took me 3 hours to get there, it was a nightmare), where Suttons have a display garden. Some of James’ new range of plants was on display, although they’d only just been planted out.
The Chopsuey greens were looking lush. Before they flower, they’re used as a leafy vegetable. Once they flower, it’s the flowers you use as the leaves turn a little bitter.
James had brought some of his electric daisy flowers for the audience to try – I’m sure you can imagine a room full of rather sedate gardening journalists tentatively nibbling at something that makes your mouth fizz like you’ve eaten pop rocks, then go numb and then fill up with saliva….
These are just two of the items on the new Homegrown Revolution seed list, which is available to buy online now, and from garden centres from 13th September. Other gems include callaloo, cucamelons, inca berries, dahlia ‘yams’, quinoa, wintergreen and multicoloured popcorns. James has chosen a nice, memorable name for each plant – which may not be the one you’re familiar with, but you’ll soon get the hang of them.
Suttons are also selling James’ book and a selection of the seeds in one handy package, for £20 (which includes seeds worth over £11).
The matching plant range isn’t out yet, but will be available shortly.
This one is the Kaffir lime, whose leaves are an indispensable flavour in Thai cookery.
And this one is the curry leaf that’s used so widely in Kerala – not to be confused with the silvery curry-scented hardy curry plant that’s a readily available herb in the UK.
The olive herb was a new one on me, but it’s Santolina rosmarinifolia and its leaves are supposed to have an intense olive aroma and flavour. James’ book has full growing and harvesting instructions, plus recipes or usage suggestions, for this and around 80 other unfamiliar edible plants.
James calls this one garlic grass, but it’s better known as Society Garlic – because it gives you all the flavour of garlic without resulting in the bad breath!
There’s more about Homegrown Revolution coming next week, so watch this space!
Posted in Blog on Sep 6, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Sep 6, 2012
Tags: books & unusual.
Today is a super-exciting day, as The Peat-Free Diet is now available as an audio book, downloadable from CD Baby*. I have been working on it over the last couple of weeks, recording and editing and then formatting and submitting the files to CD Baby. The last pieces of the puzzle were the new cover artwork (do you like it?) and the blurb that – if this were a physical book – would go on the back.
(If you’re a new visitor here then The Peat-Free Diet is a book that aims to tell you everything you need to know to garden without using peat. Click though to the PFD homepage for more details.)
Although I have been recording the Alternative Kitchen Garden show for over five years now, recording and formatting the audiobook has been quite a learning curve, and I wasn’t sure how long it would take.
Obviously I am now hoping that some of you will head over to CD Baby and buy yourselves a copy:
If you do then I would also be grateful if you could leave a review on the CD Baby site once you’ve had a listen.
The book also has a new Facebook group, where you are welcome to come and hang out. I have already posted links to useful/interesting peat-free content elsewhere on the web, and will continue to do so as and when I find it.
If you’re a blogger and you’d like a review copy of the audiobook, drop me a line with your site details and I’ll be in touch.
*In the coming days and weeks it should also migrate out to other vendors, particularly iTunes, and once I see that it has I will let you know.
Posted in Blog on Aug 26, 2012 · ∞
Tags: books & peat-free.
It’s a year now since The Allotment Pocket Bible was published. Doesn’t time fly?
Last year I signed and numbered 10 copies as a limited edition set. Unless someone shoves a copy under my nose at some event or other, I have no plans to sign any more :) Half of them I gave away to friends and family at the time. I now have 4 left (numbers 7 to 10), and rather than lugging them all the way to Kent I am offering them to you at a bargain price!
The book cover price is £9.99. If you would like one of the remaining four signed copies I’m offering them for £10 including UK P&P – please pay with PayPal via the button below.
I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat on the End of an Era Sale, but there are plenty of other places you can get hold of a copy of The Allotment Pocket Bible :)
Posted in Blog on Jul 26, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Sep 13, 2012
An ebook version of The Peat-Free Diet is still a little way off, but for the past couple of days I have been working up some possible covers. I have four current candidates, and I am showing them here so that you can comment and/ or pick a favourite. I have shown them small, because ebook covers have to work when small, but click on each image to load a larger version.
Option 1: Limp
This was my first design, and although I love it aesthetically my mum hates the ‘limp’ vegetables and since limp plant growth is not what you get on the peat-free diet, this cover probably doesn’t work. They’re being composted, by the way, that’s the point of this image.
Option 2: Glow
My mum suggested nice, healthy vegetables might be in order – but the PFD is about gardening generally, so this cover showcases a stunning, healthy (and edible) flower. I also appear to have generated my own optical illusion, since the bands at the top and the bottom are exactly the same colour, but don’t look like they are.
Option 3: Lush
This is another cover all about lush, healthy and peat-free growth (and another stealthy edible :) I was aiming for fuchsia with the band colour (they’re all colours taken from the image) but may have achieved eye-watering purple instead.
Option 4: Vital
This one came about while I was wondering if the book’s title implies some kind of deprivation. I thought “celebrity diets are always popular” and so I put myself on the cover (this is firmly tongue-in-cheek, so no comments telling me to get over myself!). The first three photos are mine, but Pete took this one.
Would any of these cause you to stop and find out more about the book? Do you have a favourite? Am I way off the mark? Feel free to post constructive criticism in the comments, and let me know if your choice would be Option 4: None of the above.
Posted in Blog on Jun 11, 2012 · ∞
Tags: books & peat-free.
My time here in Oxfordshire is drawing to a close. This house, and the garden in which I created my Alternative Kitchen Garden, are for sale. (The garden looks a bit of a shambles in the online photo; I’m going to do something about that as soon as it stops raining ;)
It therefore seems fitting to have an “end of an era” sale, to find new homes for the copies of The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z I have hanging around the house. I wrote it here, about here, and I would prefer not to cart them off to my student digs.
And so, if you would like a signed copy of the A to Z at a competitive price, you’ve come to the right place! I am offering them for £10, with UK 1st class P&P at £2.30 – a total of £12.30 (less than the current Amazon price. RRP=£14.95).
If you would like me to write something specific inside then pop that in the box before you click the Buy Now button. That will take you through to the PayPal checkout page – you don’t need a PayPal account to pay, you can use a credit/ debit card.
I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat on the End of an Era Sale, but there are plenty of other places you can get hold of a copy of The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z :)
Posted in Blog on May 9, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Sep 13, 2012