Of the tens of thousands of plants available our remote ancestors found a few they could not only eat but some they could actually grow for themselves. Even so in pre-Columbus England our range of crops was very limited. The most important basics for survival were grown in fields. Instead of vegetables in the gardens there would be quantities of culinary herbs, and more ‘herbal’ herbs, along with a few fruits of course.
Until recent times our ancestors ate much more fare gathered from the wild. They certainly ate many of our native and imported ‘weeds and wild flowers’ as potherbs, perhaps up to several hundred, more as a matter of necessity.
Amongst all of these a very few were destined to be selected and grown on as garden crops up until modern times. Indeed from the time of the Romans a millennium before there were still almost unchanged the same choices for pre-Columban Europeans. Cabbages, leeks, garlic and onions, beet and field beans and if you were rich melons, cucumbers, asparagus and globe artichokes. Then the Americas gave us French and runner beans, squashes, sweet corn, potatoes and a host of other interesting crops that had been developed by their peoples in isolation.
And in all parts of the world we ate countless wild fruits and ‘herbs’- many of which in Europe were pounded to a gloop for those with tooth complaints unable to eat. (Old accounts suggest much of the food had to be of a similar texture as gruel, stews and so on because of this common dental failing.) So many entries in books on diets and plants read “can be used as spinach” for any leaf that can be classed as edible fodder”.
A fascinating read is Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World. Ed. By Hedrick, published by Dover, this may be out of print so see libraries or second hand. It is worth the effort to find. Written a century ago Sturtevant searched the literature for references to the various plants we have survived eating and compiled them. Indeed survived on is just about what it is in places because along with detailed histories of the evolution of our everyday vegetables, herbs and fruits, it lists those others also once eaten more in desperation than for delectation. A very very few are now known to be potentially toxic such as rue and fern fronds but more than 99.9 % are safe to eat in moderation. Remember people in the past also had tougher digestions than us and that some plant bits need preparation first. Also it is often important as to which exact species and where it is grown. Bizarrely a form of Huckleberry I’ve grown from commercially offered seed is apparently in every way the same as one of our Nightshades, and the foliage of another very similar plant eaten as spinach in the Caribbean. So be extra careful of anything you are not 100% sure of. Also Beware entries sub-texted with something along the lines of “eaten by children and in times of famine”. From the days when everybody was hungry most of the time then for a plant to only ever be eaten by children and when actual famine gripped the land is not a high recommendation as to it’s palatability. I grew Kudzu, Pueraria, as it as an easy (fortunately not very hardy) climber with a scented flower, edible roots and edible foliage “that could be eaten like spinach”. I never got to the roots as the edible foliage took over the greenhouse and was indeed edible but not palatable to me, maybe to a rhino….
A Brussels sprout’s main stalk is edible but not very palatable. Many many things are eatable; that is they can just be chewed, swallowed, retained and may hopefully give more nutrition than actual poisoning. However the bulk are sadly not also palatable. That does not mean they should be ignored, no for they are the tasty crops of the future. With a little selection and cross breeding many edible crops could be developed which would be every bit as good if not better than those we already have.
Mind you us gardeners are such a conservative lot that the numbers seen of even the not so unusual are small. Why do we grow so few different crops? It is frequently we see the rows of the everyday but not very common to see rare crops offered in most of the catalogues if not in the racks at the garden centre. Why don’t more of us grow the useful long storing Kohl rabi and celeriac, the delicious carrot like salsify and scorzonera. The Hamburg parsley is I must admit not so useful and the foliage is too rank to use as parsley and the root too strong. But Pak choi or stir frying Chinese cabbage is also in every catalogue and it’s superb, yet rarely ever seen, except in ethnic plots. Believe me it’s so quick and can be used from small, cut and will grow again, even under unheated glass in winter. As healthy as cabbage and tastier. So why is it so rare?
I can understand that the growing for several years then blanching and forcing is too much trouble for Seakale to be popular but why not the quicker Chicory for chicons. And Swiss chard is as rarely seen and easier to grow than any spinach or seakale, and even crops through many winters given cloches. Those awful coloured forms are often stuck in ‘cottage’ gardens or as ‘ green’ tokens, but I don’t find them as good eating as the white.
Another plant that is so easy and so tasty yet rarely grown for food is the common Nasturium. The flowers and leaves are good in salads and the seeds are great pickled. With a similar biting taste and good with the pak-choi in stir fries are the young leaves and flower petals of Shungi-ku the Chinese edible chrysanthemum. This can be used for cut flowers too and is a good companion plant with brassicas making it a multi-purpose plant. I do find many of other Chinese mustard leaves too biting though they may be popular with some and do grow in winter. Better are the seedpods of ordinary radishes such as Cherry belle which are a piquant little snack when still small and succulent- these ought to be tried more often.
A little grown salad crop in England still appearing in most catalogues though far more popular in France is Corn Salad, Valerianella. This grows under glass in winter giving succulent leaves but also makes a good green manure and it flowers as beautifully as forget-me-not in spring. But Alexanders, a Roman potherbnow on offer is halfway between lovage or angelica and cow parsley and is too rank for modern tastes-though a pretty enough foliage-which can of course be used as spinach.
Although the big catalogues offer the commonplace and some under-utilised rarities it is the specialist seedsmen and nurseries who have the really unusual stuff. You may not quickly find the Asparagus pea, Lotus tetragonolobus, which has a tasty winged pod when small though tough as it ages, this grows well on poor soil-and the seed can be roasted to make a poor coffee.
Good King Henry, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, is another rarer offering. Eaten like asparagus the plant is a weed in moist sites and although interesting it needs improvement. The shoots of hops are about as good, Solomons seal was also eaten as were fern fronds but both these latter must be considered to risky. Another plant crying for improvement is Mesembryanthemum/ carpobrotus crystallinum, which may indeed grow in arid conditions, and come ‘ready salted’ and indeed it could be eaten as spinach. On the other hand Ysaño the tuberous nasturtium, Tropaeolum tuberosum, was easy to grow and once frozen made a strange ‘ice-cream sorbet sort of eating’ interesting but not palatable enough to bother a third year.
Rocambole or the Sand leek, an unusual garlic, has endured with me. One it is pretty, but two it has self sown itself about the garden so is an ever present source of mild garlic. Perhaps more of us should have this. Or of course we can grow Ramsons the weedy wild garlic allium, and Sysimbrium, the wild hedge garlic mustard can add another weed to a pongy range. Horseradish is another old English crop we ought to treasure; a roast beef sandwich is nothing without it and try horseradish sauce on toasted cheese!
Rocket is very popular now as a quick and easy salad and there is a very similar but perennial Wild Rocket. This is an excellent alternative though hard to eradicate, as is the even bigger thug Turkish Rocket, Bunias orientalis which although making a salad or spinach crop in famines is allowed to stay only for it’s later show of brilliant rich yellow flowers beloved by my bees.
Similar sounding Latin is Bunium, the Earth chestnut with foliage almost like a carrot. Bunium bulbocastanum is also known as the Great Earth-nut and can be grown much like any other root crop umbellifers such as carrots or parsnips (it even gets carrot root fly). Except instead of straight roots you dig up bits of string with lumps on them. Rather like peanuts once cooked these are surprisingly tasty, if small. The larger and more common Pignut or Earth chestnut, Conopodium majus is not as pleasing. Neither is as good as the similar looking and delicious, sweet Skirret, Sium sisarum . This is quite exceptional and if a little bigger and less stringy could be a sweet potato substitute. Dahlias were even introduced for the same purpose but failed and then came back as the flowers we know today. The Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis, is a weed once introduced, famous for it’s oil, the roots are edible and apparently kept early American settlers going. I tried them, too bitter, I grew them on enriched mounds of fine moist soil, bigger roots and still too bitter- but a possibility one day. Indeed the ornamental garden often has much too offer if only in edible petals and leaves as with all the herbs.
The grocery department of the local supermarket can offer some other vegetables coming with their own seed or means of propagation. For example the commercial slips for sweet potatoes come far too late. Buy supemarket tubers and force them with heat in moist compost in late winter, detach and pot on the shoots and grow these on for bumper crops in big tubs under cover. Likewise with Eddoes, these potato like tubers with an irritant rough skin, can be planted and multiply if kept frost free. They make attractive houseplants too, though a bit prone to red spider mite if they get dry. Okra is another tender crop that is so good fresh that the supermarket ones really are only useful for seed. (There is another very closely related and interesting plant Hibiscus sabdariffa v. sabdariffa, which can be grown under cover for the flowers which make a clovey cinnamony Christmassy sort of tea, cordial or liqueur.)
And never ever buy Lemon grass again as it is another weed, any bit can be got to grow in any frost free moist compost or soil. Indeed if planted out for the summer it will grow like topsy.
Without any doubt though the least grown and hardly known plant that everyone should get is Claytonia/Montia perfoliata Miner’s lettuce. This thrives in winter especially under cover. ~It grows anywhere damp even in shade and covers the ground well excluding all weeds. Every bit is edible even when flowering and it self seeds. Chickens love it and it strips off leaving bare soil and never regrows. Truly amazing value as a salad crop for the dark months- and of course it can be used as a spinach.