Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Bulbous Belly Border 1) Cacomitl - The Flecked and Feline Flower

There are a surprising number of edible bulbs, which although quite low yielding, deserve a place in the garden for occasional snacking purposes or impromptu feasts. As I pondered on this a while ago, I came up with the concept of planting up a mixed bed of these species: the Bulbous Belly Border. But which bulbs or corms to choose?

Camas is well-known for its edible qualities and is an obvious candidate.   But another bulb, the extravagantly exotic tiger flower (Tigridia pavonia), must surely be the dark horse in any race to get bulbs onto your plate.  It's a well-known Mexican plant, quite easily grown, with ridiculously large and opulent flowers for its stature. These open in the middle of the day and seem to close just before you get home from the daily grind - a particularly annoying trait in view of their spectacular beauty. Luckily, the flowers appear during the summer over a period of several months, so odds on you'll get the chance to see them in all their glory on a few occasions.

Tiger flower bulbs are often sold in the pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap supermarkets at this time of year, although I wouldn't advise eating these - plant them and consume their progeny after a couple of seasons' detox in your own garden.  As plants they're certainly much hardier than received wisdom suggests and the bulbs happily survive the erratic cycles of wet and cold weather that typify our winters here.

For all its gaudy allure, this is a plant that seems to be adept at generating a considerable amount of confusion and misinformation.  Tigridia, as is pretty obvious, is derived from the tiger, an allusion to the stripes in the flowers. Except they're not stripes, they're spots. The Aztecs, who knew the plant well, referred to the flowers in Nahuatl as oceloxochitl, which means - no, not ocelot, but jaguar flower.  At least both the ocelot and jaguar are spotted New World cats - a definite improvement on tiger.  I can only assume that European prejudices about the superiority of Old World felines influenced the decision to elect the tiger Top Cat when bestowing names on new plants.

The bulbs (not corms as is often stated) were a familiar foodstuff to the Aztecs and were known as as cacomitl.  This has nothing to do with and should not to be confused with the cacomistle, a raccoon-like animal with which the Aztecs were also acquainted  and whose name is derived from yet another Nahuatl word.  And to top it all, Tigridia is also a single species genus of Nymphalid butterfly found in Mexico and South America.  Thankfully, that does at least have stripes.

Cacomitl bulbs have a pleasant, sweet flavour and floury texture when cooked, quite similar to a sweet chestnut - but don't eat them raw.  Like the jaguar, they bite.  I was tempted to try one straight out of the ground, but at the last moment, discretion overcame my valour. I would be interested to know what causes the nasty sensation of burning mouth and throat that will surely ensue should you be braver than me. I wonder whether they contain those vicious needle-like calcium oxalate crystals that you find in some other roots and tubers, notably taro.  Cooked, however, they're like a lion tamed; I've had them both boiled and baked and they certainly make good eating.

The bulbs produce large numbers of offsets and if you dig up the clumps every couple of years, you can eat the spare ones.  Yield and bulb size are not spectacular, but there's something quite satisfying and subversive about converting ornamentals into edibles on the sly.

As might be expected, I'm by no means the first person to explore the potential of cacomitl in recent times.  Ken Fern, in his excellent book, Plants for a Future, describes their ease of cultivation and propensity to self-seed in a Cornish garden not so far from my own.

More surprising is Luther Burbank's interest in their potential as a food.  Burbank was a prolific plant breeder who developed hundreds of varieties of ornamental and edible crops at his trial grounds in Santa Rosa, California.  I can do no better than quote the "Plant Wizard" himself, from his 12 volume 1914 book 'Luther Burbank: His Methods, Discoveries And Their Practical Application'. In Volume 10, Chapter 3,  'Tigridia and Some Interesting Hybrids. New Charms in Faraway Flowers', he has this to say:

The development of the bulbs of the tigridias has not been at all a matter of accident. At all stages of the experiment in hybridizing and selection, I have paid the most careful attention to the condition of the bulbs, selecting always those that were largest, firmest and soundest. And the reason for this was not merely that such bulbs usually produce the best flowers, but also that it is worth while to improve the size and quality of the bulbs quite on their own account.

The particular reason for this is that the bulbs of the Tiger Plant are edible. When cooked like potatoes, or made into a stew, they constitute a really delicious vegetable.

To my taste the bulb of the tiger plant is at least the equal of any vegetable under cultivation. It is also highly nutritious. I am not sure that it has an equal among the vegetables of our gardens in its combination of nutritiousness and appetizing flavor.

No one to my knowledge has ever said that about mashua. Or oca.

Burbank was somewhat of a maverick and his unorthodox approach to record keeping (what records?) did not endear him to the scientists who were at that time making the first forays into understanding the genetic nature of inheritance.  He liked to cross plants, sow the progeny by the thousand and cull the inferior ones. Maybe that's an approach a bunch of contemporary cacomitl enthusiasts could take: sowing seeds and selecting for the biggest, tastiest bulbs.

Burbank was interested in Tigridia for both its ornamental and edible qualities, but I'm not so worried about the flowers myself; if they were a quarter of the size and the bulbs four times bigger, that would be, to my mind, an acceptable trade-off.  After all, the heart doesn't crave flowers when the belly lacks bulbs.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Another Root Less Travelled: Silverweed

Imagine a not-uncommon weed, one which any self-respecting gardener would evict from her garden with alacrity. A bed choking thug, which although short in stature, compensates by spreading sideways with panzer-like rapidity.  It turns out that this self-same plant has been helping keep the hungry alive on several continents for centuries.  Even more incredibly, it is now doing sterling work in preventing infant malnutrition.

So who, or what is this sinning saint, this sweetpotato of the north? I'm talking about none other than silverweed (Potentilla anserina). Even if you don't know this plant, the chances are that you've walked on it or passed close by.  

Image courtesy of
It's a rather beautiful plant, forming low growing tufts, with silkily haired leaves which give it that eponymous silvery sheen.  Dotted amongst the leaves, during the growing season, are pretty, bright yellow, five-petalled flowers, which help establish its identity as a Potentilla. This combination of two precious metals on the one plant accounts for a common French name, richette.

Actually, botany's grand panjandrums have seen fit to rename it Argentina anserina, but in the pugilistic world of plant systematics, this change has not gone unchallenged - the gloves are off and it's Round Two.  I'm personally hoping that the cocky upstart is decked by a swift left hook and Potentilla is reinstated.  I won't cry for you, Argentina.

As the season progresses, silverweed sends out wiry red stolons which root along their length, establishing daughter plants at every node.  Large colonies build up rapidly.  You have been warned.

I remember my surprise when I first evicted a few small clumps from a friend's garden.  Astonishingly, they had long roots.  Even more astonishingly, they were slightly thickened, particularly at the ends, in a way that is sort of reminiscent of the Chinese yam (Dioscorea batatas).   It was possible, in a state of intense hunger, to imagine how it might be worth harvesting and cooking these roots, in lieu of any other carbohydrate staples.  That dog-eared old
copy of Food for Free, whose entry on silverweed I had doubted, wasn't lying after all.

The region of Britain that is most associated with silverweed harvest is Scotland, more specifically, the Outer Hebrides.  On North Uist, in a certain place, according to folklorist Alexander Carmichael, a man could sustain himself on a square of ground of his own length.  Either the silverweed of Uist is remarkably productive or he meant a single day's ration. Perhaps a kind inhabitant of said island paradise would like to confirm or deny these rumours. If true, would she please send me a specimen of brisgean, as it is known in Gaelic, for further evaluation.

Over on the other side of the world, along the Pacific seaboard of British Columbia,  silverweed harvesting was also carried out in an intensive way.  Harvesting, frankly, is not an adequate description of the highly organised approach to crop management that was used by the First Nations of this area.  Like with the camas crop, this was really horticulture. In fact both species were sometimes cooked together, along with the rhizomes of a clover, Trifolium wormskioldii.  Elaborate gardens were constructed, sometimes involving dry stone walls and their ownership was jealously guarded.

To get further information on silverweed and its cultivation and preparation in that area,  I contacted Professor Nancy Turner at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.  She is a renowned ethnobotanist and has carried out research into silverweed and several other native root crops of the area.  Her studies show that silverweed roots have a comparable food value to that of the potato, with the added advantage of higher calcium and magnesium levels.  Traditionally the roots were steamed in pits and eaten with an oil condiment, a favourite being ooligan (or eulachon) grease, produced from the shoals of smelt that abound in the area.  Some native people have compared the taste to that of sweetpotato. Occasionally the cultivated roots reach a diameter of 7mm, which is really quite impressive.  The Pacific silverweed is often classified as a separate sub-species P. anserina ssp pacifica or as P. egedii and is distinctly less silvery than the plant that I know and love.  

Abe Lloyd, one of Nancy's students, told me about his research into traditional silverweed gardening methods in British Columbia.  Abe has been restoring First Nation silverweed plots that were abandoned about 50 or 60 years ago, using a combination of weeding and tilling.  Favoured sites are generally found along estuaries in moist, sandy soil.  The traditional tool of choice is a digging stick made of Pacific yew. Yields sound quite good to me: about 710lbs per acre according to Abe, this being an average from the 60 plots he managed as part of his MSc project.

All this may seem to be a sufficiently ringing endorsement of silverweed to send you scuttling to nearby gravelly river banks or estuaries in search of it.  But no, there's more.  High up on the Tibetan Plateau, droma, as silverweed is known, is being incorporated into the barley-based diet of young children. Silverweed's amino acid profile complements the barley's and creates a complete protein, presumably supplying the lysine that the barley lacks.  In any case, the Terma Foundation has been promoting a return to silverweed consumption as a way of ensuring that the next generation of Tibetans are strong and healthy.  It's a common plant there and as the name Potentilla suggests, it also has medicinal uses.

Silverweed is one of those foods which the potato (damn its eyes!) seems to have driven from our plates out to the badlands, with the status of vegetable pariah.  Perhaps it's time for reacquaintance and re-evaluation. So, in the spirit of enquiry, I decided to investigate further.  Last spring I collected some silverweed shoots from a few locations and potted them on.  I left them alone pretty much thereafter, apart from watering them. 

I also had my eye on a wild stand, growing, true to type, by the water's edge in gravelly soil.  The plants die back quite early in the autumn, so I headed out while the leaves were still visible.  Armed with a trowel and a bag, I set about excavating the plants and their roots.  

Initial yields were puny: I discovered that the densest growth at the centre of the clumps produced no thickened roots. Dispersed clumps proved to be more rewarding.  It was easy to see how the very act of harvesting, with associated disturbance and thinning, might benefit the harvester by reducing competition between the clumps.

Encouraged by my success, I went home and harvested the potted plants.  This is how the roots looked after I'd cleaned them.

So what did they taste like? I took the largest of the roots and boiled them for a few minutes. They had a starchy, somewhat nutty taste, with just a hint of bitterness.  I was surprised to find that they were, as our ancestors knew, perfectly suitable for eating.

So silverweed may really deserve the precious allusions its name conjures in the mind.  It's frost hardy and easy to grow; it's certainly vigorous.  It is even, to my mind, an attractive plant too. The roots may diverge a little from the bulky ovoid shape typified by the potato, but that doesn't seem to have hindered spaghetti's adoption as a common foodstuff. Silverweed's roots are thicker than spaghetti strands, have their own flavour and are nutritious.  With a bit of selection for taste and yield, this could be an interesting low maintenance crop for adventurous gardeners.  The first step is to locate superior wild strains.  That's where you come in.  If you've got a digging stick and time on your hands, you can help me find the finest silverweed varieties for yet another Radix breeding programme. Tempted?
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