Monday, 16 December 2013

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a perennial plant from the Polygonaceae family. It is also known as Cuckoo's Meate, English Sorrel, Field Sorrel, Gowkemeat (Scotland), Oseille, Red Sorrel, Sheep's Sorrel, Sour Ducks, Vinegar Plant and Wild Sorrel.

An image of common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

It can be found in Britain, most of Europe, North America, Greenland and temperate Asia. In the British Isles it commonly grows in meadows, at the edge of woodland, by the side of roads and in back gardens. It prefers acidic moist soils.

Growing methods

Sow the seed in spring in their permanent position. Plants grow quite quickly and will produce edible leaves within several weeks. Mature plants can be propagated by division. Simply slice the roots apart with a sharp knife or spade and pot them up while they get established or plant straight out into their permanent position. We found this plant (see photo) growing in a well mown lawn and transplanted it to the vegetable patch where it flourished. Pinching out the slender flowering stem with its small red flowers will encourage the production of more leaves. It is often considered a weed because of its creeping rhizome but, as is usually the case with plants, it is very useful.

Raw edible parts

The flowers, leaves, root and seed are edible raw. The acidic lemon flavoured leaves are easily identifiable by their arrowhead shaped leaves and acidic lemon flavour. They are excellent in salads, soups and stews. Since they are quite strong in flavour they are best mixed in with other leaves. We have never really bothered with the flowers, root and seed preferring just to take the leaves. Sorrel is happy to be used as a cut and come again plant. The leaves can often be found throughout the year even in quite cold winters. Leaves can be dried and used as a herb flavouring or made into a tea. They can also be preserved in oil. Because the plant is so acidic, it can be used as a curdling agent.

Other uses

Sorrel has a long history of use in herbal medicine. The leaves were once used to prevent and treat scurvy, which is a result of a lack of vitamin C. A dye can be obtained from the roots and leaves. It is attractive to wildlife and is a food for various butterfly and moth larvae. The sap of the plant has been used as a laundry stain remover.


Sorrel contains high levels of oxalic acid. Those with arthritis, rheumatism or gout should modify their intake as this plant may exacerbate their condition.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)

Elderberries come from the European Elder which is a deciduous broadleaf shrub or tree from the Honeysuckle or Caprifoliaceae family. Elder has many commons names including Battery, Black Elder, Black Elderberry, Boontree, Boortree, Bour Tree, Borewood, Dog Tree, Elder, Elderberry, Ellern, European Elderberry, Fairy Tree and Troman. It is native to the British Isles and Western Europe. It has also been introduced to many other parts of the world including East Asia, North America, New Zealand and the southern part of Australia.

An image of a bunch of elderberries (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)

Elder is an extremely useful tree and has historically been used for all sorts of things from herbal home remedies to wood for pipes. It is also associated with a great deal of myth and magic, being seen as a force of good and bearing protective properties.

Elderflowers blossom during July and the ripe black berries can be found in the British Isles from August to October. Leaves begin to fall from October onwards.

Growing methods

Elderberry seeds are usually distributed in the wild by birds and animals. However, they can also be grown at home. Sow fresh ripe seed outside in situ or in pots in the autumn. Leave pots outside during the winter to allow the seed to be subjected to the cold. Seeds will then germinate in the spring. Young shrubs can be planted out into their final positions in the summer.

Suckers can be dug up from around mature shrubs or trees in the winter months and replanted. Heel cuttings can be taken either of half ripe wood in the summer or ripe wood in the autumn.

An image of elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) in a hedgerow in Scotland
Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) in a hedgerow in Scotland

Elder trees can also be purchased online from various nurseries in the UK and USA.

If you need to carry out any sort of pruning do so when the plants are dormant during the winter months. They can be pruned quite hard without any undue damage.

Other uses

Elder has a long history of use in herbal medicine and is particularly popular in remedies for colds and flu. Historically all parts of the tree have been used for medicine particularly the flowers but also including the inner bark, the leaves and root.

Elder has many many other uses. A pioneer species, the shrub can be planted as a shelter belt and will grow in exposed and maritime areas. It is also very resistant to pollution. Dyes can be obtained from the fruit, bark and leaves. The wood itself has been used to make household items such as pegs and skewers as well as musical instruments. The branches have a pithy interior which can be hollowed out and made into a variety of useful implements including whistles and pipes.

An image of elderberry (Sambucus nigra) leaf and berries
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) leaf and berries

Raw edible parts

The frothy crunchy clusters of pale yellow flowers are edible raw and have a very delicate flavour. They are popularly used to make tea, cordial or champagne. They look particularly good decorating raw cakes and fruit salads. The flowers dry very well and can be stored in an airtight container for later use. The black fruit is edible raw but can be very tart. Ensure that the berries are very ripe before eating. To avoid an upset stomach it is probably wise not to eat more than a handful raw in one sitting or until your body gets used to them.


Elder does contain cyanide producing glycosides, the most common of which is sambunigrin. These glycosides are present in varying amounts depending upon physiological and ecological factors. Cyanogenic glycosides are released once the plant material has been eaten and digested.

The flowers are generally safe to eat raw. The ripe black berries are also generally considered safe to eat raw. However, it is important to ensure the berries are a ripe deep black colour. Do not imbibe any green or partially green berries. All other parts of the tree are considered too toxic to eat raw or at all.

Plants containing cyanogenic glycosides can be freed from toxins (or made less toxic) by macerating and dehydrating or by cooking e.g. boiling or baking. 

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Hazelnut (Corylus avellana)

Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is a hardy deciduous shrub or tree from the Betulaceae or Corylaceae family. Hazelnut is also known as the common hazel, cobnut, European hazel, filbert, hale nut, stock nut, wood mut and Pontic nut. It is native to many parts of the temperate Northern Hemisphere including the British Isles.

An image of a hazelnut (Corylus avellana) shrub
Hazelnut (Corylus avellana)

Hazelnuts grew in deciduous forests around 18,000 and 17,000 B.C, gradually moving north when the glaciers retreated. They have been cultivated in China for more than 5000 years. In the British Isles large scale processing of the nuts was carried out on the Hebridean island of Colonsay as far back as 9000 years ago. The leading producer in the world today is Turkey. Within the UK the largest commercial orchards or 'plats' are produced in Kent. However, they can be successfully grown all over the British Isles.

Hazelnut, cobnut or filbert?

Throughout the world the terms hazelnut, cobnut and filbert are often used to describe any one of several species these days. Hazelnut, in particular, is used to describe most species including the wild forms.

Cobnuts (European or common Hazel) are generally regarded as being derived from Corylus avellana. They have a short husk or papery casing which doesn't completely cover the nut.

Filberts are generally considered to be from Corylus maxima (the Balkan Hazel). They have a long husk or 'full beard' which completely covers the nut. However husk length does depend to a certain extent on the growing conditions as much as the variety.

An image of dried hazelnuts without the shell and husk
Dried hazelnuts without the shell and husk

Corylus are a genus of around 15 species of nuts comprised mainly of deciduous shrubs and trees common to northern temperate regions. The nuts of Corylus avellana, which now has many cultivars, is highly productive and probably more widely grown than most. Hazel cultivars grown today were originally taken from wild species and tend to produce larger nuts and heavier crops. There are many named varieties.


To propagate shrubs the easiest way is to layer them by nicking a branch with a knife and then bending the branch over and pegging the nicked part to the ground to root. Shrubs can also be propagated by air or tip layering or by taking softwood cuttings in June or July and hardwood cuttings in February. It is more difficult to take cuttings and none of our 2012 cuttings took at all.

If you have squirrels, they will clear a shrub of nuts within a very short space of time, eating some and burying most. The nuts that have been buried will often germinate of their own accord and when the little trees appear they can be dug up and transplanted to their final position. Shrubs transplant well even when quite large. Nuts may not grow true to form but we have obtained edible nuts from shrubs grown in this way.

No squirrels? Not to worry! Take fresh seeds and sow immediately in the autumn in a cold frame. Seeds will germinate in the late winter or early spring. To check whether seeds are viable before sowing place them in a bowl of water. Viable seeds will sink.

Ready grown shrubs and trees are available from nurseries throughout the UK and may be a more reliable option if you just want one or two specimens.

An image of a hazelnut shrub planted as hedging
Hazelnut planted as hedging

Growing conditions

Hazelnuts are monoecious and small yellow female flowers and male catkins are produced on the same tree. They are self fertile and wind pollinated. Since male and female blossom is not always produced at the same time, it is more productive to plant different cultivars to ensure a higher degree of pollination. Plant in a square formation to further assist the process.

Hazelnuts like full sun or light shade plus light well drained soil which is kept moist. They will, however, tolerate many soil types and ours grow well in heavy clay soil. Keep the soil moist around the base, watering where necessary. Don't over feed as rich soil can lead to excessive growth. A yearly feed of animal-free organic fertiliser in late winter can be beneficial. Nuts are produced after about 3 - 4 years and on last year's growth.

Hazelnuts are generally disease free but can be attacked by some pests such as nut weevils or Lepidoptera. And squirrels of course.


Hazelnuts can be grown as a single or multi-stemmed shrub or tree. Left unpruned they may grow several metres tall. For an averaged sized back garden it is probably prudent to prune in winter to the desired height and shape. Keep the shrubs or trees open in the centre in a cup shape. In August encourage the tiny female flowers (and therefore more nuts next year) by snapping but not breaking off new top growth. This is a technique called 'brutting' or 'bratting'. Please note that coppicing on a regular basis will stop the crop of nuts for several years and so should not be carried out on trees designated for nut production.

An image of a single Hazelnut shrub planted in a front lawn
A single Hazelnut shrub planted in a front lawn

Storing nuts

Pick the nuts when the outer husks turn a yellow colour in late September. Nuts can be eaten fresh from the tree or stored. To store fresh nuts pack in damp sand and check regularly for mould. They should last 3 or 4 months before they begin to sprout. They can also be dried in the shells by storing in nets or on trays in a dry airy place for several weeks. Shells can also be removed before storing in which case the nuts should be thoroughly dried to between 8 – 10% moisture in a dehydrator before storing in an airtight container.

Raw edible parts

The nuts of all Corylus species are edible raw. Hazelnuts can be eaten fresh from the tree or dried for later use. Most nuts available in shops these days are the dried form. Nuts can be blended with water and sieved to make a milk or pressed to make a raw edible oil. Ground down into a fine powder, they make a good raw flour for cakes, flan bases or biscuits.

Other uses

Hazel wood can be used for furniture, basketry, as dowsing rods, to make artists' charcoal, thatching, fencing, plant stakes or pea sticks. It used to be grown for wattle and daub. The oil from the seed is non-drying and can be used in paints and cosmetics.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an herbaceous annual from the Portulacaceae family. Also known as green purslane, summer purslane, golden purslane, garden purslane, verdolaga, sun plant, pigweed, pursley, moss rose and little hogweed. It is found in many parts of the world including Europe, India, China and Japan. Although not indigenous to the British Isles it is a frequent casual visitor. It is very common in North America where it is considered a weed!

An image of common purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Common Purslane has a long history of use in herbal medicine and has anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-oxidant properties. It contains protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin A, C and E, beta-carotene, pectin, minerals, flavonoids and melatonin. Battram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine says it is no longer used medicinally.

Growing methods

Sow seeds from April until August in trays or pots under cover or outside after the first frosts. Seeds will germinate at around 15 to 20°C. Once seedlings are big enough, pot on to larger containers or plant out in their final position.

Plants like the sun and warmth and prefer well drained soil with extra water during dry periods. Purslane grows rapidly and should be ready to eat 6 to 8 weeks after sowing. Use as a 'cut-and-come-again' plant. Leaves will readily re-grow after picking.

There are green and golden leaved cultivars available. Golden leaved plants are less hardy but considered more succulent. Purslane is traditionally a trailing plant but the modern garden varieties tend to be more upright in their habit with larger more succulent leaves.

Purslane can be used as a cut-and-come-again plant. Leave the plant in the ground and snip off the stems as required. It will grow new slightly smaller stems.

An image of purslane used as a cut-and-come-again plant.
Purslane used as a cut-and-come-again plant.

Raw edible parts

The whole plant is edible raw. Purslane has a refreshing crunchy texture with a salty peppery flavour. It adds a rich saltiness to salads and can be used to thicken soups as it has a mucilagenous quality very like Okra. Use the chubby paddle-shaped leaves in salads or soups. The stems, which are a lovely red colour, can be pickled raw in vinegar and herbs.

Purslane can be dried in a dehydrator for later use. Drying causes the plant to use the water stored in the stems to develop seed pods. Dried seed pods can be used as a flour. We've never had enough seeds to make the flour so know nothing about using it.

Other similar plants

A similar looking plant and one available for wild foraging in the UK is water purslane (Lythrum portula) from the Lythraceae family. A rather low growing fellow, found around reservoirs, ponds, bogs and other wet areas such as rutted tracks. It has raw edible leaves.

Also sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides) from the Chenopodiaceae family which can be found in salt marsh areas. It has raw edible leaves.

Another useful member of the Portulacaceae family is pink purslane (Claytonia sibirica). Also known as claytonia or Siberian, miner's lettuce. This evergreen annual or perennial is more hardy and can be found in leaf very early in the year. It is naturalised in Britain. The whole plant is edible raw.

Winter purslane or claytonia (Claytonia perfoliata) is another to add to the list. Also known as miner's lettuce and India lettuce. Similar to claytonia sibirica, it is a great winter salad crop. The whole plant is edible raw.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Common chickweed (Stellaria media)

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is an annual wild plant distributed widely in the British Isles. From the Caryophyllaceae family, it is native to Europe but found in many parts (usually temperate regions) of the world including North America. It is also called common starwort, satinflower, starweed, craches, winterweed, chickenwort, chicken grass and maruns.

An image of common Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed likes a mild wet climate and is available throughout most of the year in the British Isles, only really disappearing during the very harsh winter weather. The soft foliage and tiny white flowers form a carpet up to 0.45 metres in height. The very tiny mature seed is dark brown in colour and produced in abundance. Seed readily falls from the plant ensuring a continuous supply of lush salad greens for the taking.

Where to find Chickweed

There is no need to go gallivanting around the countryside to find this plant because it is very widespread and likely be found in any old back garden. Chickweed is usually found in disturbed soils such as flower borders or vegetable patches. It shouldn't be necessary to grow this plant but if there is nothing available anywhere, seed can be purchased online.

Raw edible parts

The raw edible parts of this plant are the flowers, stems, leaves and seeds. Cut plants with a pair of scissors when about 10 cm in height or snip off the top 10-20 cm on mature plants (stems can get a bit stringy). Flowers, stems and leaves can all be used as a main ingredient in green salads, green smoothies, pesto or anywhere else where greens are used. It is a good lettuce or spinach substitute.

Chickweed is bland tasting and as such is an ideal first food for those new to foraging. Some wild plants can be very strong tasting and off putting but this one can be used as a main ingredient without overpowering a dish. Once cut the leaves will remain firm and succulent for a few days stored in the fridge. However, to preserve the nutrition in the plant, it is best to cut and eat immediately. Chickweed can be dried in a dehydrator and stored in an airtight container for later use but will lose its colour and some of its nutritional properties.

Chickweed can also be made into a tea. Use 4 tsp of the fresh plant to one cup of hot water. Infuse for 15 minutes and drink.

Other uses

Chickweed has a long history of use in medicine particularly for skin problems. It contains saponins which can be beneficial to health (see also 'Issues'). American herbalist Susan Weed says in her Wise Woman Herbal Ezine that "Saponins, like soap, emulsify and increase the permeability of cellular membranes. When we consume chickweed those saponins increase our ability to absorb nutrients, especially minerals. They also dissolve and break down unwanted matter, including disease-causing bacteria, cysts, benign tumors, thickened mucus in the respiratory and digestive systems, and excess fat cells."

Chickweed is a dynamic accumulator. It is a good plant (they all are) for wildlife and is food for a variety of moths and butterflies.


This plant contains saponins. Saponins are poorly absorbed by the body and it is often reported that plants that contain saponins should be used in moderation. Some references suggest pregnant women and very young children should avoid imbibing this plant. It can absorb nitrates from the soil.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Siberian pea tree (Caragana arborescens)

The Siberian Pea Tree is a hardy deciduous shrub or small tree native to Russia and China. Also known as the Siberian Pea Shrub or Pea Shrub. They are often grown in the British Isles as an ornamental and there are different forms including dwarf, upright and pendulous. They are currently (May/June) in flower in the British Isles so look out for the yellow flowers.

An image of the flowers and leaves of the Siberian pea tree (Caragana arborescens)
Siberian pea tree (Caragana arborescens)

The Siberian pea tree was introduced to North America in the mid-1700s and has become established in most of Canada and around half of the states in the USA. They are now considered an invasive species in some areas of North America.

Growing methods

Sow seed in the spring. Scarify and soak seed overnight. Sow around 2 cm deep in a seed bed or pots. Press soil down firmly. Seeds should germinate at around 20°C within 2-3 weeks. Prick out seedlings and pot on when large enough. Plant out the following spring.

Shrubs sown from seed should begin to crop in 3-5 years time. The flowers bloom in May or June and the pea pods ripen in September. A mature shrub produces a prolific amount of seed and when the pods are ripe seeds will disperse around the base of the shrub to produce more plants.

Siberian Pea Tree (Caragana arborescens)

Shrubs can be pruned back to as much as 10 - 30 cms from the ground (to grow as a bush) or left to their own devices to grow naturally. They can grow up to around 6 metres in height although they are more often smaller in the British Isles. Shrubs are long lived, very hardy and generally not affected by frost. Whilst they prefer a sunny position, they can tolerate a strong winds and drought conditions. One reference said they do well in maritime areas, another said not. For best results the soil should be kept dry or moist.

A review of the biology of the Siberian pea tree in Botanical Studies (2012) states that:
"Caragana arborescens is known for its tolerance of many environmental conditions including droughts, temperatures to -38°C, infertile soils, sunny sites, high winds, alkaline soils and saline conditions (Henderson and Chapman, 2006; Dietz et al., 2008; Martine et al., 2008; USDA NRCS, 2010)"

Other uses

These shrubs are a nitrogen fixer initiating nitrogen fixation at temperatures of 3-5°C, which is lower than many other plants. They have an extensive root system so can be planted to counter soil erosion. They can also be used as a wind break. They are less attractive to being eaten by predators as they produce the toxic non-protein amino acid L-Canavanine. The flowers attract pollinating insects and are particularly liked by bees. Cordage can be made from the bark. An azure dye can be made from the leaves.

The genus Caragana is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is considered a remedy for many ailments.

Raw edible parts

An image of the flowers of the Siberian pea tree (Caragana arborescens)
Siberian Pea Tree (Caragana arborescens)

The pretty yellow flowers and very young green pods are edible raw. This is a legume so it is probably wise to eat pods raw in moderation. The older pods are also edible but should be cooked. Both flowers and pods have a pea flavour and are good in salads. The seeds, which are similar to lentils, and can be used in the same way, also produce an edible oil.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion is a hardy perennial plant. Also known as lion's tooth, priest's crown, swine's snout, fairy clock and pissenlit (pee-the-bed). There are around three hundred different species and they grow in the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and North America but are also found in most areas of the world including Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

An image of a dandelion (T. officianale) flower
Dandelion (T. officianale) flower

Growing methods

Dandelions are very common in the British Isles and really don't need to be cultivated. If you really feel the need to grow your own then the cheapest way is to gather seeds from other plants. Check for the yellow flower (from May to October) and then wait for the 'clock' (see photograph) which holds the seed. It takes around 12 days for the seed to ripen. Gather when they are ripe and ready to blow away in the wind. These fresh seeds may be planted immediately and should germinate immediately. There is a high germination rate. If you can't find any 'clocks' then seeds can be purchased online.

An image of a dandelion (T. officinale) 'clock' or seed head
Dandelion 'clock' or seed head

Dandelions can also be propagated by planting small pieces of the root, the thicker the better. If trying to eradicate these plants, do not leave even a tiny part of the root in the ground as it will grow another plant. Deep taproots are difficult to remove manually although ploughing may bury roots so deep that they are prevented from emerging. A large taproot can reach a depth of 2 metres.

Plants can grow to a height of nearly 12 inches and live for as long as 10+ years. Dandelions are apomictic and seeds are produced asexually without fertilisation. Seeds produced are genetically similar to the parent plant. Plants overwinter as seeds or basal rosette. The leaves are grooved and funnel water to the roots. The flowers open with the sun in the morning and close in the evening or during dull weather. After the flowers have been picked the petals will still close when brought indoors out of the sun.

An image of a dandelion (T. officinale) plant
Dandelion (T. officinale) plant

Raw edible parts

The whole plant, of all species, is edible raw but can be very bitter. The very young leaves and the flower petals, which are produced early in the year, may be slightly less bitter but not much. Mask the bitterness of the leaves and flowers in a sweet green smoothie. Alternatively use in a salad and mask the bitterness with an oil and vinegar or lemon based salad dressing. The bitterness can also be reduced by blanching for a few days (cover with a bucket or cardboard). The whole plant can be used to make a tea. The unopened flower buds can be pickled and used like capers. Dandelions are very hardy and the leaves, and sometimes the flowers, are available during the winter months.

Other uses

Dandelion is a pioneer species and a dynamic accumulator. The tap root can break up deeply compacted soil. The flowers are an important source of nectar and pollen for insects early on in the season. Dandelion is widely used in herbal medicine, the Latin name Taraxacum is from the Greek meaning disease remedy.


Dandelion is generally considered a very safe plant to use but some people may be allergic to it. Since these plants are often treated with weed killers, take care to pick from a safe place if wild foraging.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Common gorse (Ulex europeaus)

Common gorse (Ulex europeaus) is a hardy evergreen shrub which grows to around 1.5 metres high by 1.5 metres wide, sometimes larger. It is a member of the Fabaceae or Legume family. Other common names include furze and whin. It is a native of Britain and parts of Europe including Portugal, France and Spain although it has been naturalised in Australia, New Zealand, North America and South America.

An image of common gorse (Ulex europaeus) on the Mull of Galloway
Common gorse (Ulex europaeus) on the Mull of Galloway

Growing methods

Gorse can be purchased as seed or root trained and container grown shrubs. To grow from seed scarify the seeds with sandpaper and soak them overnight in water. Sow individually in pots under cover in the autumn or spring. Once seedlings have come up keep them under cover for the first winter and then plant out in their final position.

It is pollinated by insects and once the flowers have ripened and produced seed, shrubs will self seed and naturally propagate. Ripe seed can be ejected from the pods for up to 5 metres. Shrubs can be grown in poor soil, drought conditions and exposed coastal areas. They will grow in most soils although they prefer acidic conditions. They must have a sunny position.

This shrub has a life cycle of around 30 years becoming increasingly woody as time goes on. To maintain shrubs prune out old woody growth as the young to mature parts regenerate the best. To maintain large areas cut back to within 15 cm on a rotational basis and rake around the base of the shrub to encourage seed dispersal. Gorse is also myrmecochoric meaning its seeds are dispersed by ants.

Gorse has a large and long-lived soil seed bank. There can be up to 400 million seeds per hectare in the soil under a mature bush. Most seed is hard and can lie dormant for decades before germination takes place. It is considered a weed species in many countries but can be controlled and maintained providing benefit to humans, wildlife and the environment. Large stands of mature shrubs can be a fire risk as dead spines hang on the bush and dry out.

Raw edible parts

The bright yellow flowers are edible raw and can be made into a tea. The buds can be pickled and used like capers. Gorse is a useful wild food as it continually flowers all year round. Flowers may have a slight coconut aroma and the faint taste of bitter almonds.

Issues: Do not eat flowers in very large quantities on a regular basis as they contain slightly toxic alkaloids. Do not let this put you off! The long pods and dark seeds are not edible either raw or cooked.

Other info

Gorse is a useful native shrub. It is a pioneer species and a nitrogen fixer feeding the soil and other plants around it. The wood can be used as fuel and is good kindling which burns quick and hot. Wood ash is rich in potassium and can be used to make a lye for making soap or to enrich the soil. A yellow dye can be made from the flowers and roots.

Since it is thorny it often presents an impenetrable barrier to both people and animals. It will usually tolerate the grazing habits of deer and rabbits, although this may depend on how hungry the animals are. The flowers produce pollen in the autumn, winter and spring when little else is in flower and is therefore important to bees and other pollinating insects. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Gotu kola (Centella Asiatica)

Gotu kola is an evergreen perennial from the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) or Parsley family. It is also known as brahmi, European water marvel, Indian ginseng, Indian pennywort, hydrocotyle, horsehoof, spadeleaf, marsh penny and tiger's herb. It is native to East Asia, Africa and Australia but also grows widely in many other parts of the world, particularly tropical areas.

An image of a gotu kola (Centella asiatica) plant growing in a pot
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

Gotu kola is a really important herb and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It has very many medicinal uses including treatment for tuberculosis and leprosy, the pain of arthritis and rheumatism, as a blood purifier, for digestive problems and skin conditions. It is well known for its rejuvenation properties and as a brain food and a nervine. It is commonly described as the miracle elixir of life or fountain of youth.

Under the name fo-ti-tieng it was prescribed and taken by Professor Li-Ching-Yun, Chinese herbalist, who died in 1933 at the reputed age of 256 ('Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' by Thomas Bartram). 

Growing gotu kola

Sow the seed during the spring under cover or in the autumn in an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel. Seeds can be difficult to germinate. Emerging seedlings should be transfered into pots until large enough to be planted outside. Plants grow to around 0.2m in height and are frost tender. Gotu kola prefers boggy soil, damp rocky areas and shady conditions although it will grow in full sun as long as it is kept moist.

Although it is an evergreen perennial it can be killed off during the cold winter months of the British Isles. It is probably best grown outside during the summer and kept under cover during the winter or grown as an annual. It can easily be propagated by division during the summer and will root at the nodes. It is a low growing creeping plant which can be used as ground cover. The purple flowers are small and inconspicuous.

Plants can be purchased from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery. We obtained our seeds from Horizon Herbs in America. We have also seen seeds for sale on Amazon and Ebay.

Raw edible parts

The leaves and stems are edible raw and are quite pungent and aromatic, similar to parsley. Although some people like to eat the leaves on their own, we prefer them mixed with other bland green leaves. The fresh or dried leaves can be made into a caffeine-free and theobromine-free tea. Dried leaves can be ground down into a fine powder for culinary use e.g. in smoothies, nut milks, raw cakes, raw crackers, etc.

If you can't grow it for any reason, Raw Living sell a powder and an extract.


Gotu kola can cause photosensitivity. It is best avoided by diabetics as it can interfere with drug treatments. It is an abortifacient and excessive use should be avoided by pregnant women. ('Traditional Herbal Medicines: a guide to their safer use' by Dr L. Karalliedde and Dr I. Gawarammana).