Thursday, 24 April 2014

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a deciduous tree native to the British Isles. It is also known as common beech or European beech. Beech trees are one of the largest trees in the British Isles and are typically identified by their smooth grey bark and copper coloured leaves in the winter which hang on the tree until just before new spring growth emerges.

An image of young beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaveswhich are edible raw and used in salads
Young beech leaves are edible raw and used in salads

Hedges are often made of beech and can be treated as evergreen and used as screening. The dense shade and carpet of leaves from these trees often prevents plants underneath from growing. This is particularly the case in a beech wood.

An image of beech (Fagus sylvatica) planted as hedging
Beech planted as hedging

Growing methods

Sow fresh seeds when they are ripe in the autumn in pots outside in a coldframe or seedbed and they will germinate in the spring. Seeds are not viable for very long. When the seedlings are big enough prick out into individual pots and grow on for a year before planting out into their final position. Trees are slowing growing in their first few years and can be susceptible to frosts. Beech trees are shallow rooted and do well in a woodland position.

Other uses

Beech wood can be used to make tools, furniture, flooring and for turning. It is an excellent fuel burning with a great deal of heat. It can also be made into charcoal. It has been used as a source of creosote, tar, methyl alcohol and acetic acid.

The dried leaf buds picked on the twigs in the winter months can be used as toothpicks. The nuts can be used as a food for wild and domestic animals including squirrels, mice, voles, dormice, deer, boar as well as pigs and goats. Horses and ponies enjoy the young spring leaves and buds. Oil from the nuts can be used as lighting fuel, for polishing wood and as a lubricant. The dried leaves can be gathered in the autumn and used for stuffing.

Beech has certain herbal medicinal uses and is used in Bach flower remedies.

An image of mature beech (Fagus sylvatica) trees
Mature beech trees

Raw edible parts

The buds with the young leaves just emerging in the spring are edible raw and are good for salads. They have a slight lemon flavour. Leaves can become chewy as they mature so catch them early on (about now).

An image of the new growing tips of beech trees in the spring which are edible raw
New growing tips in the spring are edible raw

The triangular shaped nuts may be eaten raw but can be small and fiddly to prepare. They are best soaked to remove toxins if eaten in large quantities. They can be dried and used as a flour. They can also be pressed for a very good edible oil which stores well. The nut residue is not edible.

Every five to ten years there is a 'mast' year and a huge number of beech nuts are produced. Inbetween mast years the tree may produce empty shells. Other trees such as oak and pine also have mast years. To eat the nut (seed) remove from the green prickly burr or case and then peel the hard skin away to reveal the nut.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

The nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is a trailing annual plant from the Tropaeolaceae family and is the only genus in this family. It is also known as Indian cress, lark's heel, monk's cress and garden nasturtium. Originating from the Andes region in South America, it has naturalised in parts of North America. Nasturtiums are usually used in the UK as a colourful annual summer flower.

An image of nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) leaves and flowers
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) leaves and flowers

Growing methods

Nasturtiums are easy to grow. Sow seeds in the spring in pots or in the ground in their final position. Seeds will come up quickly, usually within 2 weeks. Thin seedlings out to about 30cm apart. Nasturtiums will flower throughout the summer and into the autumn. The flowers come in various colours including yellow, orange, cream and reds. Leave the flowers to set seed and plenty of plants will come up next year of their own accord. In this way they can be treated as perennials rather than annuals.

Plants like the sun and well drained soil. If they are grown on rich soil then there will be an abundance of leaves but fewer flowers. The poorer the soil, the more flowers will be produced.

Other uses

Nasturtiums are considered a good companion plant in the garden. They will attract insects and butterfly larvae away from other plants and therefore be used as a trap crop. Use them to fill up any empty spaces or gaps in the fruit, vegetable or ornamental garden.

This plant has many herbal medicinal uses and the plant has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and antiseptic qualities. In the Andes it is used as a disinfectant, expectorant and wound healer.

A drying oil can be obtained from the seed which can be used in paints and varnishes.

Raw edible parts

All parts of the plant are edible raw. The taste is peppery, spicy and hot. The flowers are less hot than the leaves. The leaves are less hot than the seed pods. The seed pods are very very hot! The flavour overall is similar to cress.

The leaves, flower buds and flowers can be added to salads. The ridged unripe green seed pods can be eaten raw or pickled in vinegar or salt water to be used in a similar way to capers. The flowers can be added to raw apple cider vinegar to make a peppery nasturtium vinegar. The dried seeds can be ground down to use as a pepper or pressed to make an oil.