Saturday, 28 January 2012

Wild Plants for January

Here are a list of wild plants that can be used for salads, green smoothies and tea during this very mild January. These plants can be found in most British gardens.

Cat's Ear (Hypochoeris radicata) The very young small leaves are available now and good for salads as they are not too bitter at the moment. It is easier to identify these leaves if you already know where the plants are. The yellow flowers are also edible raw but are not available at this time of year.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) The leaves, flowers and stems are edible raw. They are soft with a bland taste and good for salads and tea. Since this is very mild tasting it is good for those who haven't tried wild greens before.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Cleavers (Galium aparine) The top 5cm of the soft growing tips are good for salads and the rest of the plant is good for tea. This dries well for later use especially for the summer when this plant dies down.

Common Plantain (Plantago major) The young leaves and seeds are edible raw. Only the leaves are available now. The older leaves are very tough but good for tea if you can't bear to eat them raw. The leaves and seeds dry well for use as a tea later on.

Cowslip (Primula veris) The young leaves and flowers are edible raw. The leaves are available now.

Daisy (Bellis perennis) The flowers, flower buds and leaves are edible raw. The odd flower can sometimes be found but mostly just the lemon flavoured leaves at this time of year. They are a nice flavour for salads.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) All parts of this plant are edible raw. The leaves and occasional flower are around now and the leaves are less bitter during the very cold weather.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis or petiolata) The whole plant is edible raw and the young leaves are available now. They are hot. The whole plant is hot but the roots are real bad!

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) The leaves, stems and flowers are edible raw and all available now.

Nettle (Urtica dioica) The leaves, stems and shoots are edible raw and available now. Use nettles in green smoothies or make a tea out of them. In both cases, the sting is removed and won't do any harm.

Rosehips (Rosa canina)
Rose (Rosa species) The flowers, fruit (rosehips) and seed are edible raw but the flowers are not available now. The rosehips are what you are after at this time of year. The frosts should have softened the hard red skin but you need to remove the seed before eating. This is because the tiny hairs on the seed are a skin irritant. However, the seeds themselves are actually edible raw. An easy way to remove the hairs from the seed is by cutting the red hips in half and drying them in a dehydrator. Then grind them roughly in a food processor. Place in a sieve and shake well over some paper. The hairs should fall through on to the paper and can be discarded.

Smooth Sow's Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
Smooth Sow's Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) The leaves, stalks, flowers and flower buds are edible raw. This is a biennial plant and the second year plants have just finished flowering in my garden. There are a few large leaves still available on these but they are really finished now. However, look out for first year plants whose basal leaves are growing flat on the ground (similar to the Dandelion). This plant isn't prickly and can be picked by hand. This is a good salad plant. There is little or no bitterness in the leaves but sometimes bitterness in the flowers.

Wild Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) The flowers, leaves, roots and seed are edible raw. However, only the leaves and roots are available now. These lemon flavoured leaves are excellent for salads.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) The tiny feathery leaves barely have any bitterness at this time and are good for salads. Once the plant grows, it becomes quite bitter but it can still be used by making it into a tea when all the bitterness is lost.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Mediterranean Saltbush (Atriplex halimus)

Useful evergreen shrub
I wanted to write about some of the perennial evergreens that can be eaten in the depths of winter. One shrub that I find useful is the Mediterranean saltbush (Atriplex halimus) from the Chenopodiaceae family. Also known as sea purslane, sea orach and shrubby orach. I've had one growing in my back garden in a fairly shaded spot for about 6 years.

Mediterranean Saltbush (Atriplex halimus)
Growing the saltbush
I bought a ready-grown shrub but the saltbush can easily be grown from seed. Sow in the spring. Seeds germinate in about 3 weeks. Plants should be kept under cover for the first year and planted outside the following spring. The Saltbush can also be grown from cuttings which can be taken from semi-ripe wood in the summer or mature wood in the winter. It is hardy surviving temperatures down to -8°C here. Occasionally branches have broken under the weight of heavy snow. I sometimes put compost around the base and a mulch of leaves in the autumn. The saltbush can grow in alkaline or salty soil and will tolerate drought conditions and high temperatures.

Disaster strikes
Last summer (2011) the wildlife in my garden systematically stripped the saltbush shrub leaving only bare branches. Hence my line drawing and no photograph. The culprits included sparrows (house and tree), blue tits, great tits, finches (gold and green), blackbirds, fieldfares, squirrels and foxes. The squirrels broke off small branches, ate the leaves and then left the branches in a pile. Tidy little buggers. I have taken the precaution of wrapping an eco fleece around it to help it get a head start this spring. However, since the leaves are in such demand, I am going to take some cuttings and plant more shrubs for the little critters.

Edible parts
The leaves are edible raw and are good in salads. They can also be boiled or steamed and eaten like spinach. They are a pale green grey in colour and have a lovely salty taste. They can also be dried and ground down in a coffee grinder and used as a flavouring. The small seeds are cooked before eating. They can be ground down and used to thicken soups/stews or added to flour. I'm afraid my shrub has never set seed. Perhaps because it is in a shaded area. Please don't ask about the so-called 'edible manna' that this shrub is supposed to offer up! I have never seen manna or anything that might even remotely resemble manna on any part of it at any time.

Atriplex and selenium
The Atriplex genus is a 'facultative selenium absorber' and as such will accumulate selenium but is not limited to growing in soils which contain selenium. It might make the plant mildly poisonous if grown in selenium rich soil. Most of us don't know how much selenium is in our garden soil. However, British and European soil is known to be generally quite low compared to places like America so we probably don't have much to worry about.

Other uses
The saltbush is evergreen and is therefore good for screening. It grows up to around 2 metres high and 3 metres wide. It is good for coastal regions and can be used to de-salinate and reclaim soil.

by Amanda Rofe

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Raw Edible Wild Plants

This is a short ebook which lists over 100 of the most common wild plants found in the British Isles. All of these plants (or parts) can be eaten raw. No cooking needed. Most of them can be found growing in back gardens everywhere in Britain.

It is an ideal reference book for those on a raw food diet. It is available from Amazon (Kindle) for £2.50.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Olive (Olea europaea)

Olive picking
Over the past few weeks the olives on my tree (Kent, England) have been ripening from green to black. As soon as they go black I've been picking them. I've managed to fill three 500ml Le Parfait (Kilner-type) jars so far. I've had more this year than before. I suspect it is because of the previous hard winter although I'm not absolutely sure. I've tried picking and curing the green (unripe) olives but they didn't taste as good so I'm only using the ripe black ones from now on.

Olive tree (Olea europaea)

Curing olives
Olives are better after being soaked to remove the bitterness caused by the presence of oleuropein. There are many ways of doing this. I soak them in plain water (or salt water) or pack them in sea salt until the bitterness leaches out. Making a long cut in flesh of the olive down to the stone is supposed to help. I never did this with mine but might try it this year.

Storing olives
The olives can then be used immediately or stored for a short period in plain water or olive oil in the fridge. For long term storage, place olives in an sterilised airtight jar and cover with salt water or olive oil. You can add garlic, slices of lemon or herbs for additional flavour. They should keep for up to a year like this. Mine get eaten quickly so never last that long.

Olives in the British Isles
Olive trees are traditionally from the Mediterranean but are quite hardy and do well in the British Isles. I've had my olive tree for around ten years and it has tolerated temperatures down to -8°C with heavy snowfall although it didn't like it overly much. In fact it lost a lot of leaves that winter (2010/11) and took a year or two to recover. I've pruned it so that it sits less than 3 metres high. Olive trees do well planted in a southerly or westerly facing position, perhaps up against a warm wall and with some protection from cold winds. They don't like to stand in waterlogged soil and they do better in a soil rich in calcium or limestone. Some reports say that olive trees thrive on neglect but mine liked a bit of food and water. I put a few buckets of rich homemade compost around the base each spring or summer. 

Pruning olives trees
If you want to prune an olive tree do so lightly in the spring or more vigorously during the summer so the tree has time to recover before winter sets in. Don't prune in the autumn if you can help it and not at all in winter. Excessive pruning will reduce the likelihood of a bumper crop of olives. What I love about olive trees are the fact that they are evergreen but have lovely light green sparkly leaves. These will give you privacy but won't cut out the light like the dark leaves of a Bay tree would.

Most olive trees are self fertile but having more than one tree will increase cross pollination and help bump up olive numbers. I've just bought another two trees which I hope will do this. I'm going to put one in a more exposed position in the front garden to see if it thrives in more exposed conditions. Some reports say that olive trees need two months of cold weather with temperatures below 10°C to kick start the flowering, and thus fruiting, process. This is generally the case in the British Isles and is not something we should be too worried about.

Pressing olive oil
Apart from preserving the olives whole, they can be pressed to make an oil. It takes around 4-5 kilos of olives to produce 1 kilo of oil. Olives need to be minced or crushed and then pressed to extract the oil. The professionals use expensive specialist equipment.

Olive leaf tea
A beneficial tea can be made out of the leaf of the olive tree. This is an easy way to take advantage of the properties of this tree and something you can do all year round because the tree is evergreen and always has an abundance of green leaves. Even if you don't get any olives, you can always use the leaves. The health benefits of olive leaves are huge and widely published. Amongst other things they are anti-bacterial, anti-viral, they soothe nervous tension and can boost the immune system.

Other uses
A dye can be made from the fruits and leaves. The wood is valuable for cabinet making and other joinery. The oil is used in cosmetics and toiletries. The olive seed can also be used to make flour and oil.

by Amanda Rofe