Pretty and edible, or oh no not another spinach

Those who’ve read my works before may have noticed a certain prejudice against most garden designers. To me too many are failed artists fiddling about with gardens because they’re not good enough to follow their original leaning. When these non-gardening gardeners turn their attentions to the kitchen garden they often come out with ineffectual ideas that would hardly credit a complete novice. In particular that long abused term ‘the cottage garden’ allows them to pander all manner of poor plantsmanship. Vegetables, even salad crops, are mixed up with highly competitive shrubs and herbaceous plants in a way that has no chance of success in the real world.

With many ornamentals you may just get away with poor performance from bad positioning or tough competition as they will simply grow bigger more slowly. With fruit and even more so with herbs and vegetables good positioning is crucial. If many are not in full sun most of the day they just do not do very well at all. Apart from that major problem there is another one; of harvest- if you did actually try and live with some of these cottage garden designs what happens when you want to eat that carrot, lettuce or whatever? Do you leave a gap? Unless meticulously planned with years of practice such mixed up schemes are foolish. It’s rather like an old boy I knew on an allotment who bought ready pickled beetroot as he didn’t want to spoil his rows for judging by picking some from them. Of course there are such as loose leaf lettuce, some herbs such as chives that could be treated so yet succeed. But instead the designers rub salt in the wound by blithely suggesting we might enjoy eating all sorts of ornamental edibles such as frilly cabbages and multi-coloured chards. I would like to make a reality tv show where these designers were forced to live on a diet based mostly of such culinary delights as these! Brussels’ sprouts stalks are edible –but you don’t eagerly look forward to eating a couple.

However the designers have struck a good point with their mythical cottage gardens; both aesthetic and useful. Gardens are not getting smaller and we really do need to have more gardens filled with plants that are both pretty and edible.

Now; as well as garden designers one of my other bug bears is how few of our world’s potentially edible plants we have yet developed to the point of desirability. Few of us can be bothered with the like of rose hips, evening primrose or burdock roots. Yet the apple, plum, the cabbage and carrot all came from equally unprepossessing wild forms. What we need are more more-edible plants that are also pretty so we can make beautiful gardens that also give sensible returns. There is a good example of an edible garden at the Ryton gardens of Garden Organic (used to be known as the HDRA). However although this one exists it stands almost alone. Almost all other attempts I’ve seen are either utilitarian and thus effective but stark or designer inspired, dysfunctional and unproductive. A moment’s thought betrays so many absurd ideas. How do you keep birds off soft fruit in a mixed ornamental border? answer - you can’t. One design I perused for a client looked good on paper- until you realized the slope and alignment put most fruits on north facing walls at the bottom of the slop in frost pockets and the vegetables in a hedged plot so small the sun would rarely touch it’s robbed soil. One permaculturist I heard ‘lecture’ reckoned his planting of blackberries close under his apple trees would give him pies in one go- I think pain is more likely if he ever tries to pick the apples.

One of the next problems is that it seems those who are most interested in really self sustainable gardening are not simultaneously great gourmet cooks. The sheer bulk of most lists of recommended edible plants carry the concealed warning ‘may be used as a spinach’. This may appeal to some but a diet with much green leafy stodge does not grab me no matter how nutritious it may be. (see KG October 07 for more on unusual esculents and foods good enough to be ‘eaten by children and in times of famine’). We want new ‘strawberries’, new ‘new potatoes’ and new ‘peas’ not more spinaches.

Now, as I am often whinging on; what we really need breed are more tree and shrub crops. Perennials are less work and much greener than the labour and resource demanded by most vegetables. (see KG May 08 for more on weird fruits). This calls for more research and development, amateurs could beat the professionals in this- we need breed sweeter big berried fuchsias, bigger sweeter elderberries and rowans, hardier myrtles and roses with luscious hips as big as apples, sweeter evening primrose roots and huge hull-less sunflower seeds. And transform the poisonous sweet pea to an edible seeded form.

But there is another way to make prettier edible gardens and that is to get already part edible plants to flower more beautifully, and for longer. Much work has been done on extending the colours and flowering period of most ornamentals but this has been neglected with fruiting crops. However wouldn’t fruit trees and bushes be much more widely planted if they bloomed for longer in a wider range of colours? Already right now fruiting apples and apricots have blooms in white, pink or red. Why not more? Why not cross and combine flowering and fruiting currants?

Flowers are themselves intrinsically pretty and the most over-looked food resource that could be more widely exploited. Indeed we eat but a few already when a vast number more are edible but as yet unnoticed and undeveloped. Flowers are very easily produced compared to fruits and vegetables- they take less resources for the plants to produce and often bloom in huge excess anyway. Often, as with squashes, the petals may be taken still leaving the fruit to come. But most of all flowers can be added to so many dishes- quantities can be used in salads, they are garnishes and or flavourings for both savoury and sweet dishes, and included in beverages. Even being beverages themselves as with the charming Hibiscus sabdariffa, Roselle or Jamaican Sorrel. This is easy to grow in a conservatory or frost free greenhouse. The rather lovely yellow flowers have red calyces which are dried and then steeped in syrup to give a cinnamon and clove flavoured drink full of Christmassy overtones, alcoholic or not as your taste will have it. Dried jasmine blossoms are frequently added to tea, as can many others to give a range of personalized flavours. You can dry mixtures of herb flowers to make winter tisanes and teas or make alcoholic tinctures or wines from them. Primrose, cowslip and elderflower are still well known. My favourite tipple is my fake Drambuie made from mostly thyme and rosemary with other herb flowers, steeped in whisky and honey.

Of course a flower we often consume goes unrecognized as such, the cauliflower and it’s cousins the broccolis are barely recognizable as flower heads until they bolt when all becomes apparent. However they do show what a bit of intensive breeding can achieve. The brilliant cockscomb celosias are another, non edible, example of what can be wrought (Celosia has other species such argentea and trigyna which were once eaten as pot herbs so a bit of crossing could produce something spectacular in the veg. bed.) Marrow and squash flowers have long been used for stuffing- if we could breed these a tad bigger, tastier and more succulent they might be useful in more similar sorts of ways, maybe even as floral pitta breads. The nasturtium is another plant waiting to be improved- all parts are edible from the seeds which can be pickled like capers to the young leaves and flowers for salads. Although these have a distinctly strong pepperiness if they were bigger and blander they too could be stuffed and used in more ways.

Then there are the countless edible herbs where the flowers are also edible and usually similarly flavoured to the leaf. Salads and savoury dishes are much improved if the flowers, fresh or dried, are used in place of the usual leaf- though not always- my mint flower sauce was not so good. Rosemary flowers are especially delicate, thyme flowers very strong, sage blooms well but rarely and clary sage flowers bloom but briefly. Of course most herbs should be cut back and not let go to flower and seed but even so some can be left for use. Basil flowers are delicious and chives chewy unless trimmed. Sweet Cicely flowers are a sweet treat- chew them when fresh and the foamy heads are as sweet and aniseedy as candy, now one of them the size of a cauli…

In general if we eat the foliage of a plant then the flower is safe. However although we may eat the root or fruit yet the foliage and thus the flowers can be poisonous or suspect. Potatoes, tomatoes and rhubarb stems are good examples of edible parts of rather poisonous plants where the flower would probably be toxic if you were foolish enough to experiment.

Many flowers of common ornamentals are edible though not often well known for it. Day Lily, hemerocallis, especially the orange ones have very tasty petals- I candied some-delicious. Violets, pansies and heartseases go well with sweet dishes and are often crystallized. Dahlias were first introduced for their uneatable ‘tubers’, the petals turned out more edible. The alcoholic extract of sweet violets is a most delightful liqueur and claimed aphrodisiac. Just takes an awful lot of picking! Wallflowers, stocks, pinks and carnations were used to flavour beer, or rather ale, and where would a Pimms be without the borage flowers? Rose petals are wonderful in salads but also go well in rice puddings- as do lavender blooms surprisingly, and these taste remarkably nice in short bread biscuits. The Garland Chrysanthemum, C. coronarium, has yellow or yellow and white flowers the petals, and leaves, of which are really good in stir fries though bitter in excess. Ordinary Pot Marigold, Calendula, petals give a lovely aroma to stews and casseroles and really must be tried.

Although we are conservative with the flowers we consume native peoples have long known their value. You may not guess it but the petals of white waxy Yuccas blooms are much prized in their homeland. Likewise the oddly borne (come straight out of the trunk and branches) red pea like blooms of the Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum and the Redbud, C. Canadensis are considered good tucker with a crunchy texture and a bean come apple taste. Some adventurous folk eat runner bean flowers, others geranium/pelargoniums and even those of chicory, dandelions and daisies. Indeed we are really missing a huge number of potential culinary delights by not examining the potential of edible flowers and their future development.

However be careful. Although most of us can eat the petals of many edible flowers with no problems some people may be allergic and get reactions to even small amounts. Floral parts other than petals may be bitter or even toxic and it’s best to remove the bases of most petals. And of course a vast number of flowers are actually highly poisonous. So be careful; you don’t want to be getting wreaths of lilies.