Sunday, 12 November 2017

Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea)

Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) is an annual plant from the Chenopodiaceae family. It is also known as sea asparagus, sea pickle, sampha, sampher, samfa, samfer, sampkin, a mermaid's kiss, common glasswort or glasswort.

Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) stems on a plate
Marsh samphire (S. europaea) stems

Marsh samphire plants look like small cacti but without the spines and the stems look like thin asparagus spears. Found natively in coastal areas of Western Europe, it grows on salt marshes, mud flats and is commonly found in estuaries. It is at its best from June until the end of August in the British Isles. It has a short growing season but is well worth foraging for.

Growing methods

It is not absolutely necessary to go foraging for this plant since seeds and plants can now be purchased for home growing. To grow from seed sow seeds under cover in trays in the spring. Germination takes between 5 to 20 days at 25°C and may be erratic. Once they are around 2-3cm in height, seedlings may be potted on to individual pots and grown on a windowsill. If a sunny sheltered spot is available outside, preferably with free draining soil, they can be grown outside. However, protect plants from harsh winter weather.

Plants benefit from watering with salt water (1 tsp per 2 litres of water). Use sea salt not table salt which contains all manner of additives. Keep soil moist at all times. Marsh samphire grows to about 30cm high. Leave one or two plants to flower and they will self seed. Seeds mature in September.

Other uses

Marsh samphire ash was once used in the glass and soap making industries. The plant is rich in vitamins, minerals and fucoidans. It has reportedly been used to aid digestion and kidney complaints.

Raw edible parts

Marsh samphire has raw edible fleshy jointed stems. They are better when young (under 15cm in height) and become tough later on. Marsh samphire can be used as a 'cut-and-come-again' plant. The stems will regenerate after cutting.  Woody older stems can still be eaten, simply pull off the flesh with the teeth and leave the woody bit for the compost bin. As the stems age, or if they contain a lot of salt, they turn a red colour. The crunchy salty stems add flavour to salads and can be pickled. The small black seed, which is a bit small and fiddly to handle, is not edible but the oil pressed from the seed is.

To gather stems, snip with scissors and take care not to pull up the roots. This is particularly important if wild foraging. Refrigerated, stems will keep for a few days. Some say don't wash before storing and they last longer. Marsh samphire can often be found in organic box deliveries during its short season and sometimes supermarkets. However, beware the supermarket variety since they won't always use local samphire. We purchased some this year and only later realised it had been shipped in all the way from Israel!

Marsh samphire (S. europaea) is not the same as rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), the one that Shakespeare purportedly wrote about in King Lear! The latter is much less common and is more difficult to find growing on high rocky areas. However, the stems can be used in the same way.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata 'butternut')

Butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata 'butternut') is an herbaceous vine from the Cucurbitaceae family. It is also known as winter squash, crookneck pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, gamma and bell squash. Believed to have originated in Latin America, it is easy to grow and store. It is a popular winter vegetable in the UK and is available to buy in the shops now.

Butternut squash growing in a polytunnel
Butternut squash growing in a polytunnel

Growing methods

Sow seeds 2.5cm deep in April or May under cover. Seeds can also be sown in situ in May but only after the risk of frosts has passed. Place seeds on their edge to avoid rot. Since the seeds and the emerging plants are large, it is best to use one seed for each pot.

Once the seedlings are a decent size pot on into a larger pot or outside into their final position. Plants are large and easy to handle but can by easily bruised so should be handled gently. Ensure the soil has been well fed with a few spades of home made compost.

Plants are sprawling so need to be spaced at least a metre apart. Alternatively, they can be grown up a sturdy stake or trellis. We now grow ours up rather than along the ground to save space in the polytunnel.

Butternut squash growing up a cane
Butternut squash growing up a cane

When main shoots reach just over half a metre long pinch the tips out so that the plant concentrates on producing fruit rather than a lot of foliage. Allow insect pollinators to visit to encourage pollination of the flowers. Once the butternut squash fruit fill out ensure they are well supported if they are growing up a stake or trellis. If growing on the ground place them on straw or a clean piece of wood so that they don't get too wet or succumb to any pests or diseases. Keep plants well watered, but do not over water, and feed every two weeks with a high potash feed. We use a liquid feed made from home made compost.

Once fruits are the required size cut the stem leaving around 5cm of stem. Fruits for use immediately can be cut smaller. For winter storage, leave the fruit to grow on the plant until the foliage dies down but ensure fruit is cut before the first frosts. Avoid cutting or damaging the skin at all which will prevent them from being stored for any length of time. Store in a cool dry airy place and butternut squash will last for months.

Plants are susceptible to powdery mildew or grey mould. To deter disease ensure optimal growing conditions. Keep well watered, a good air circulation, especially if grown under cover, and feed well. Pick off any infected leaves or fruit to thwart infection early on.

Other uses

Butternut squash has some medicinal uses. The seed has been used as a remedy for tapeworm.

Raw edible parts

All parts of the plant are edible raw. The rich orange flesh of the butternut squash fruit is probably the best bit. It can be grated or sliced finely in salads or blended to make a raw soup. The inner flesh of the seed is also good although fiddly to remove from the hard outer shell. An oil can also be obtained from the seed.

New butternut squash leaf growing on plant
New butternut squash leaf

The leaves and stems are very hairy and might be a bit rough for eating raw unless very finely chopped. The new growing tips are more tender. The yellow flowers can be used in salads or for decoration.

As a point of interest, all parts of all squash plants are edible raw.