As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I would share this TEDx Marrakesh video, in which ethnobotanist Gary Martin discusses some of the plants harvested in Morocco that are used in herbal aphrodisiacs. Martin raises the theory that the main aim of the British Empire, and of plants hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was to find new ingredients that could be used in love potions! He includes mandrake, pellitory (the infamous ‘vegetable Viagra’) and giant fennel. There’s some lovely images of root samples from the Economic Botany collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Via giant fennel’s extinct relative Silphium, Martin introduces the important concept of conservation, and the sustainable harvesting and use of these plants. He also hints that there might be more to the Mediterranean diet that meets the eye, and that we’re missing out on these secret ingredients :)
If you’re from a part of the world in which daffodils grow, you probably recognise them in the picture above. The UK will be carpeted in the things in a few weeks – we do like our spring flowers after a bleak winter.
Our supermarkets sell bunches of daffs, some in flower and some in bud. You can buy pots of bulbs ‘in the green’ that will flower when you take them home. At various points of the year, you can buy daffodil bulbs for planting.
Given the nature of the retail market, all of those things might be on sale in a supermarket, and they’re likely to be just inside the door, on the way into the fruit and veg department. That’s just how things work.
Do you know what these are? They’re Chinese chives, an edible allium. Would you recognise them, sold this way? We’re not used to eating flowers, so we might be a bit suspicious. But this would look perfectly normal to someone with, say, an Asian background.
Now, I have seen some very unkind and ill-educated comments about the daffodil ‘ban’. As an anthropologist (which is what an ethnobotanist is at heart, with a special interest in the culture of plants), I know that culture is the way we survive the world.
Our culture is ingrained in us from our earliest moments on the planet. It’s easy to forget that what we know, and what can’t imagine anyone else not knowing is not the same as what we would have learned had we been born into a different culture.
So… if you’re having trouble understanding why anyone would mistake a beautiful daffodil for a stinky onion, I’d like you to try the following thought experiment.
Imagine you’ve travelled to another country, where you don’t really speak the language.
You’ve gone to a shop that sells food.
Amongst a vast array of unfamiliar items you’ve spotted something that looks like something you know, so you buy that and take it home.
You’re not much of a cook, but you do your best to prepare a meal, and you don’t notice anything amiss.
You’re lucky, and you wake up in hospital, having survived accidental poisoning.
You might feel like an idiot, but people laughing at your stupidity would probably make you feel very unwelcome.
We put warnings on microwave meals that remind us they will be hot after heating. We put warnings on electrical equipment to tell people not to use it underwater. We put warnings on aerosol cans to discourage people from throwing them on bonfires.
Why? Because those are dangerous things, but that doesn’t mean that everyone automatically knows that. Not knowing something doesn’t make you stupid, it just means you don’t know something.
But suggesting that people be allowed to suffer the consequences of their ignorance? That makes you look like an idiot.
Whilst I was munching my way through a particularly nice sandwich one lunch time, I began pondering the word succulent, and its various uses. In terms of food, succulent means tender and juicy. In my mind it has the same slightly indecent feel to it as moist, luscious, lush and pleasurable. But succulent food is definitely a good thing.
For a botanist, a succulent plant is one that has one of more fleshy parts that are used to store water in arid conditions. Sometimes the definition includes geophytes, whose storage organ is entirely underground, and sometimes it doesn’t.
And horticulturalists often make a distinction between succulents and cacti (for a botanist, cacti are succulents (but not all succulents are cacti)). For the sake of the following discussion, I’m going to stick to plants that are obviously succulent – those that have the characteristic swollen leaves and/ or stems.
Born and raised in a temperate climate (which is currently insisting on being very wet), I tend to think of succulent plants as unusual and ornamental. But, in fact, there are lots of edible succulents that we could include in our gardens. (And perhaps I should, since my inability to keep anything well watered is legendary!)
One that might be found in a British kitchen garden, if it’s a diverse one, is purslane. Portulaca oleracea is often considered to be more a herb than a vegetable, but it’s a very nutritious, annual succulent plant. Apparently it contains Omega-3 fatty acids, and you can enjoy its fleshy leaves raw or cooked. I think I’ve tried to grow it in the past; I don’t recall what happened to the plants – I don’t think any were ever eaten.
My little samphire plantation
Samphire (Salicornia europea) is a salt marsh succulent, which it is possible to grow at home. Victoriana Nursery Gardens sell samphire plants. I tried it once, and it’s fun because it has to be watered with salt water (so you have to be careful where you grow it, as salt water kills most things). I didn’t realise at the time that it was an annual, so I forgot to eat any before it died back. A happy plant should self-seed, so I will have to try that one again at some point. Rock samphire is a perennial, but possibly more difficult to cultivate. I have at least had the opportunity to try eating samphire. On my recent trip to Kew Gardens I selected a potato salad for lunch. It was made with roast potatoes, samphire and preserved lemons, and oh my gosh it was delicious. I’ll have to work out how to make that at home. First, preserve your lemons….
Another halophyte (salt-loving) succulent plant is Salsola, or agretti, Salsola soda. It can be grown from seed (which you can source from Seeds of Italy and Real Seeds); if I remember correctly then it has a short shelf-life and has to be sown the year you buy it. I had some last year – my notes tell me I sowed some in May 2013. Since it was rather a turbulent year, I don’t remember getting very far with it! I’ll add it to the list of ‘do overs’.
Succulents growing in the RISC Roof Garden
If I were to mention the topic of ‘edible succulents’ to a savvy gardener, I would expect them to bring up the houseleek (also known as Hens and Chicks, Sempervivum tectorum). I’ve never (knowingly) grown it, but it’s a good one for green roofs and gravel gardens, and a reasonably common garden plant. I don’t think I know anyone who tucks in, however. Have you tried it?
I once tried (and failed) to add the Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis) to my greenhouse collection. It is a succulent grown for its fruit; amid dire warnings of its invasiveness (which is true, it’s a big problem on the south coast), mine simply failed to thrive.
And one I would like to grow (and once had seeds for, but they are long past their sow-by date) is the ice plant, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, which is rumoured to be a nice, perennial, succulent salad plant. If you’re going to grow it then make sure you have the right ice plant – this is one of those times when the common name is applied to several different species, and if you’re going to put something in your mouth you need to know exactly what you’ve got!
The ice plant and the Hottentot fig are related – they’re both in the same plant family.
Dragon fruit cacti are easily grown from all those seeds…
I’ve grown one cactus for its edible fruit (my dragon fruit, a Hylocereus species), although it never produced any, and eventually succumbed to the winter weather when I couldn’t bring it indoors. I’d like to try and Optunia species, some of which are hardier. The prickly pear is O. ficus-indica, but the cactus pads are edible as well as the fruit. Some species are spinier than others, so the difficulty of harvesting your meal varies.
There are edible species amongst the Agave, including one famous for being made into tequila :) And Aloe vera has edible pulp, although I don’t know anyone who prepares their own from a houseplant. It’s a useful plant to have around, although according to Raw Edible Plants, the houseleek shares its skin-soothing properties, and is much easier to grow in a cool climate.
Then there’s the vanilla orchid, but it’s hard to grow a vanilla crop in cultivation because there’s a special technique for manual pollination you have to grasp (the job is done by an insect in its natural habitat). And Basella rubra or B. alba, Ceylon or Malabar spinach, which I keep meaning to grow. And Hibiscus sabdariffa (roselle, or sorrel) is on the list for next year already.
Have you got any edible succulents in your garden? I’m not sure a definitive list exists anywhere, but I thought it was an interesting topic.
Himalayan balsam, an ‘alien invader’, growing in the wildlife garden at Birdland
Following the news that homeowners who fail to control Japanese knotweed in their garden could face fines or ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders), I thought it might be a good time to think about non-native plants. Now, I am definitely not suggesting that anyone should choose to grow Japanese knotweed, or allow it to spread further than it already has – it’s a problematic plant in the UK. But it’s easy to clump all non-native plants into the same category, when the reality is considerably more complicated.
My latest book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, is all about unusual edible plants, and the people who grow them. It looks at some of the history of crop introductions from the ancient world right through to the modern, and explores some of the reasons why people might choose to grow something to eat that they wouldn’t expect to find in their local area. Towards the end of the book I touch on the debate about whether we should plant native or non-native plants, ending with the suggestion that “there’s a place for native plants in gardens, but it’s not the veg patch”. It’s a somewhat controversial suggestion, made for very good reasons. As the previous chapters of the book explain, most of what we find growing in our farms and gardens has made a very long journey to be there – our favourite foods are all native to somewhere, it’s true, but that’s not likely to be your local area. The UK, in particular, has rather a limited native flora, due to a history of being either covered in ice or cut off from the rest of the European continent by a body of water. So how do you determine whether a species is native? By its length of stay in a region, or how it arrived there? If you go back a few thousand years, all of the ecosystems on Earth would look substantially different….
Here’s another controversial suggestion – the whole native v non-native plants debate is pointless, because it misses the point. There are very few ecosystems left on the planet that could be said to be ‘natural’, in that they haven’t been disturbed by humankind. We should be taking care (or at least an interest in) which species we’re moving around the planet and why, but the basis on which we decide whether a species is useful or not changes over time. We’re not the only things moving species around the planet, and ecosystems aren’t static – they evolve as conditions change. The changes to the climate and ecosystem that our lifestyles are driving are likely to have much more of an impact on which species grow where than anything else we do.
‘Alien’ is not a synonym for ‘invasive’. Although some introduced species can take over, most are perfectly well-behaved. We don’t hear about those because they’re not causing any trouble. Money is spent on the control of invasive species, in some cases without scientific evidence that they’re causing harm. Although there are clearly some places where conservation matters, in many others ecosystems could be left to rebalance themselves.
In terms of wildlife, there are some animal and insect species that have very specific feeding habits, and rely on a particular plant, but most are more generalist and don’t distinguish between native and non-native plants (as anyone fending off pests in the vegetable garden will have noticed!). Although native species are good for wildlife, non-native species can be too – biodiversity is what we should be aiming for.
“Classifying biota according to their adherence to cultural standards of belonging, citizenship, fair play and morality does not advance our understanding of ecology” (Davis et al), which is a complicated way of saying that we have allowed ourselves to become prejudiced against all non-native species, rather than judging each one on its merits. When we’re choosing a new plant for the garden, we should put that bias to one side and make a decision based on which plants will thrive in the location we have available, which ones are unhappily invasive and which ones will deliver the benefits we’re looking for. Chances are, we’ll find ourselves with a happy mix of native and non-native species.
What do you think? Are you firmly on one side of the debate, or do you have a good mix of plants in your garden?
Today, for a change, I thought you might like a glimpse of the things that have appeared in my feed reader (Feedly) that have caught my eye and been saved to read later….
Nature’s Poisons has been pondering how people come to eat poisonous plants, and advises you not to eat anything with death in its name. A perennially-useful reminder that not all plants are benign (but that taking reasonable precautions mean we don’t need to fear them).
I follow From the Kitchen Of Olivia because she blogs recipes involving tea (my current obsession, in case you hadn’t noticed). Being from the UK, rather than the US, I’ve never had campfire S’mores, so I find this indoor recipe intriguing.
Another foodie one, and a recipe that might come in handy for Christmas – DIYCranberry Gin from the Telegraph.
The Odd Pantry has been making chutney from sorrel leaves – a common name that really needs clarification as it is used for different plants in different parts of the world. In this case, Hibiscus sabdariffa, aka Roselle.
Ethnobotanical Pursuits, based in America I believe, has been investigating Cinnamon vine or air potato, although naughtily the scientific name is not mentioned (it’s Dioscorea oppositifolia, or Dioscorea batatas). You can buy your own from Real Seeds if you want to give it a go.
Quite often, when I tell people that I’m an ethnobotanist (and explain what that means), they grin and joke that I must enjoy studying Cannabis. In fact, I have a pair of silver cannabis-leaf earrings that I sometimes wear as an ethnobotanist’s joke. But plant-based drugs are an interesting topic, so before we moved, Ryan and I took a day trip into London to visit Kew Gardens during their Intoxication Season – a celebration of mind-altering plants. Some of the species on display were familiar, and legal:
Tea and coffee both contain mind-altering caffeine
The display notes that tobacco could become a biofuel crop, and is being used to develop an experimental drug to combat the Ebola virus
Salvia divinorum is used by shamans to produce altered states of consciousness.
But most are illegal in at least some countries:
The cannabis plant was kept under lock(s) and key
As was the peyote cactus
Kew couldn’t obtain a license to have a real Coca plant, so visitors had to make do with an illustration
The Opium poppies had been harvested and dried. They’re legal to grow in the UK, but trying to turn them into drugs isn’t.
Intoxication Season, which focused on different types of plants over four weekends, was designed to inspire debate about mind-altering plants, society’s views on them and the choices we make as to which are legal and which are not. There’s a nice write-up over at New Scientist for those of you who would like to know more, and I can thoroughly recommend Mike Jay’s book on the topic, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, which is utterly fascinating.
Ethiopia is in the news today, remembering the famine of 30 years ago. Rather than dwell on the past, I thought I would share this upbeat video from Perennial Plate – celebrating Ethiopia’s food culture:
The description of the video on Vimeo says “We travelled to Ethiopia for two weeks and filmed the making of injera, false banana and coffee as well as everything else we saw. Please watch, enjoy and visit this amazing country!”
For those of you who are intrigued by the ‘false banana’, it’s Ensete ventricosum, also known as the Ethiopian banana, Abyssinian banana, or simply ensete. I found a nice article that explains how this multipurpose plant is turned into different foods – ensete doesn’t produce fruit, but has edible pseudostems (the ‘trunk’ is formed from tightly-packed, overlapping leaf sheaths).
The Feedback section in the New Scientist last week (9th August 2014) was mostly devoted to the topic of toilet roll – having asked for figures on the annual consumption of this essential commodity, they have been regaled with anecdotes about the size of the army rations thereof, and differences in quality in different countries.
It’s not often that the topic of toilet roll comes up in gardening circles. There is occasional talk, perhaps, of the lack of toilet facilities on allotment sites, or the construction of composting toilets by an enterprising committee.
And, most springs, you can find yourself involved in a discussion on the use of toilet roll inner tubes for sowing individual seeds. They’re good for larger ones, like beans, and can be planted out whole to avoid root disturbance. It’s much easier to get your hands on them these days, as I’m told they’re no longer wanted for craft projects at nurseries and play schools, due to the perceived problem of contamination.
From an ethnobotanical perspective, it might also be interesting to explore the potential plant replacements for the job, should our choice of tissue become unavailable. Mullein frequently gets mentioned as being suitable for this purpose, and PFAF says that Brachyglottis repanda is also known as Bushman’s toilet paper. Knowledge of this kind is worth persuing in advance should you be an outdoorsy kind of person likely to find yourself caught short.
So… toilet roll and gardens. What are your thoughts? Would the truly self-sufficient grow their own toilet paper?
I’m not a politician. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not an expert on foreign policy. It’s hard to watch what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank with any equanimity; over 1300 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 315 children and and 166 women.
I believe that more unites us and divides us, and that’s certainly true of the people in Gaza. They are farmers, gardeners and foragers.
The team found that, across 15 local communities in Palestine, locals were collecting 100 wild edible plant species, 76 of which were mentioned by 3 or more people. Those plants were distributed across 70 genera and 26 families. The most significant species were:
Some of those won’t be familiar to people outside of the Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean region. Others are. Fenugreek is on that list, as is wild mallow. Of the 100 wild species listed, some require very specific processing to remove toxins. I certainly wouldn’t rush to consume any members of the Arum family, and I’d be wary of consuming Cyclamen bulbs as well. This is where the traditional knowledge, and the Palestinian culture, combine. There are plenty of edible plants of the region that aren’t on the list, and no doubt some that are wouldn’t be considered edible in other places.
Flipping through it this afternoon, a recipe for chard and lentil stew caught my eye. The book says that “chard is used extensively in southern Palestinian cuisine.” Chard and leaf beet are two of my favourite plants – easy to grow and generous, endlessly versatile in the kitchen. Chard is also an attractive plant, that could just as easily fit in the flower border, with its colourful stems.
“Khobeiza or mallow grows wild all over Palestine”, the books says above a recipe for greens with dumplings. Or there’s purslane stew – known as rilja or baqla, purslane is a “succulent plant found growing through sidewalls and in abandoned lots all around the Mediterranean.”
There are recipes for broad beans, cauliflower, spinach and okra. The gardener in me wants to find a source of the short, stout, red carrots that are a “Middle Eastern variety with a long history”; substituting stumpy orange carrots just wouldn’t be the same.
I’m still waiting to hear when I can move into my new house (and the garden), but I already know there will be Palestinian plants in the garden next year, and Palestinian meals on the table. The Gaza Kitchen looks like a comprehensive guide to Palestinian cuisine, beginning by explaining the spice mixes and condiments, and moving on through salads and mezze, pulses and grains, vegetable stews, meats and seafood, preserves and conserves. Photos throughout give a taste of life in Gaza before the current crisis, as well as sections about farming and foraging there, with profiles of residents and explanations of ingredients and the cuisine itself. I am looking forward to reading it properly, and trying the recipes, but I can already recommend it if you’d like to know the region better through its food. You can also look out for Zaytoun‘s fair trade ingredients from Gaza, including olives and olive oil, za’atar, almonds and dates and cous cous.
There are farmers, gardeners and foragers in Israel, too. Of course there are – there is more that unites us, than divides us.