Aponogeton: distachyos: The Virtues of Vleikos in Black and White

Although I sometimes delude myself that I ought to be close to exhausting the number of untried underground plant storage organs, there always seem to be more to discover; some of these edible roots, tubers and corms could be said to be hiding in plain sight. Here's one: vleikos (Aponogeton distachyos). Strangely, this aquatic edimental (ornamental edible, geddit?) is actually already cultivated commercially on a small scale - but not for its roots.

Aponogeton distachyos, Cornwall,  December 25th 2018

It's a native of the Cape region of South Africa, where it grows in the vleis, seasonally dry ponds and marshes, hence the name vleikos. It vaguely resembles some of our native pondweeds in the genus Potamogeton, having similar narrowly oval leaves which float on the water's surface. Its flowers are altogether more classy, however and account for its other Afrikaans name, 'waterblommetjie' - small water flower. Adorned with forked inflorescences of white flowers which are born at or near the water surface, it's a looker. These flowers are fragrant, but I'm not normally in a position to press my nose close enough to get their full effect without risking immersion myself. The most common English name is 'water hawthorn', an allusion to the resemblance of the flowers to those of the hawthorn tree (Crataegus monogyna). Yes, kind of, I suppose.

Eat me, smell me, don't ignore me

Flowering seems to peak in the spring, but I've seen plants blooming in the depths of winter if the weather is mild, Christmas 2018 being an example. These flower spikes are the bit for which the plant is cultivated in its native area. They're gathered after pollination and added to the hearty lamb stew known as waterblommetjiebredie. They impart a green bean sort of flavour to the dish. It's said that the original inhabitants of the region, the Khoikhoi, taught the Dutch settlers how to use them. If you can't be bothered to wade through chest deep water to pick your waterblommetjies, you can buy them in tins from South African  supermarkets. For those of you who want to know more about waterblommetjie cultivation,  this article by Robert W. Pemberton is a very good place to start. Waterblommetjie consumption has even featured in Afrikaaner pop songs, not a claim many alternative crops can make. While we're on the subject of making a song and dance out of emergent inflorescences, I'm pleased to announce that waterblommetjie farmers harvested a bumper crop in 2018 after several years of failure. This must be a relief to both them and their customers. Gelukwensing!

Vleikos is certainly a plant for which I have a long and abiding fondness: it's pretty and easy to grow - just add water, lots of it. Even better, it's an edible with an authentic track record. Established plants seem to seed with abandon and seedlings can often be scooped from the pond's surface for potting on.

They want to break free: vleikos seedlings released from a tangled mat of floating vegetation

Vleikos was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century for ornamental purposes. As ornamentals sometimes do, it's taken a liking to its new homes and has spread into the wild with unwanted enthusiasm in various parts of Europe, as well as Australia and California. If you choose to grow it, bear this in mind. It certainly does well here in southern Britain and I'm looking forward to sampling the crop of some enterprising pond owner who decides to test the market for Aponogeton distachyos flower spikes. Rumour has it that you can even lactoferment them with whey, salt and miso. Could this be the hipster's asparagus that the Shoreditch set have been crying out for since 2010?

I think it's fair to say that vleikos is the waterweed that keeps on giving - not only above the water, but beneath the surface too. Lodged in the mud, it produces a tuber, which, on roasting, is "considered a delicacy of the natives of Kaffraria." Thus spake Carl Peter Thunberg, the 'father of South African botany' in 1796.

For those who are a bit hazy on defunct South African polities, Kaffraria is just an old name for the eastern part of Cape Province "the land of the Kaffirs', that is to say, the Xhosa people. In contemporary South Africa, the K-word is considered an offensive racial slur for people of colour. Once, during a trip to South Africa many years ago, I was called a 'white kaffir'. What was clearly intended as a put-down, I now choose to see as a badge of honour. What better way to celebrate this gong than by eating an authentic K-food?  With that in mind,  I boiled a small vleikos tuber on Boxing Day; I can confirm that, as the Xhosa doubtless knew very well, vleikos tubers are are a tasty treat.

Spoilt for choice

Pemberton describes the tubers he ate as having both very tough skins and also an impenetrable layer of dense black hairs (roots?). My diminutive morsel lacked the tough skin and roots. This could be a result of its immaturity, as it was decidedly towards the small end of the 1.5 - 6cm length quoted as typical. Another thing: I fished my chosen victim out of a Sargassum-mat of free-floating vleikos plants in my mother-in-law's pond rather than liberating it from the chilly ooze where the biggest tubers dwell. Could that be a contributory factor towards its easy-peelsy properties? In any case, first impressions were decidedly favourable, in terms of both taste and texture. I'm now wondering why it took me so long to sample the delights of vleikos tubers. I've had motive and opportunity, after all.

It may not look like much, but it tasted good

Vleikos is a fitting symbol for the Rainbow Nation, being an esteemed food for both blacks and whites in its homeland. Like a true internationalist, however, it repudiates any individual or national claims of ownership and grows where it will, both north and south of the equator. I, for one, am happy to welcome it into my garden so I can  enjoy its floral display, eat those waterblommetjies and cook its tubers too. Welkom, Vleikos, stay a while.

Oh - and one other thing: the genus Aponogeton contains over fifty species, of which several others are known to be in possession of tasty tubers. I better dig another pond...

Further Reading

Pemberton, R. W. (2000) Waterblommetjie (Aponogeton distachyos, aponogetonaceae), a recently domesticated aquatic Food Crop in Cape South Africa with unusual origins Economic Botany Vol 54 pp 144-149

Thunberg, C.P.  (1796) Travels in Europe, Africa, and Asia, made between the years 1770 and 1779. 3rd. ed., vol. 2–4, London.


Eli said…
Happy 2019 from a random! Your blog is charming, and I promise I'm not selling designer handbags or anything. Good luck in 2019 growing and I hope I might hear what you taste.