'Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs' to read (and to eat!)


Emma Cooper, ethnobotanist, author of "The Alternative Kitchen Garden: an A to Z" and producer of The Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast and of numerous other online horticultural initiatives has written an ebook entitled 'Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs' which is coming out on 1st of May this year.

Emma's book is about unusual edibles. Jade pearls and alien eyeballs are both common names for edible plants and as she sent me a preview of the book I know which ones they refer to! In fact the whole book provides a rich and appetizing seam of references to unusual edible plants alongside engaging stories of people who seek them out and grow them.

Kitted out with pith helmet and magnifier, Emma is on a virtual book tour this month and she is visiting The Backyard Larder Blog today. So I asked her some questions about her views on the possibilities/limitations of perennial vegetable gardening.

Emma on tour!

Welcome Emma! In the course of researching for your book did you get any idea of the proportion of gardeners who are growing something you'd call an unusual edible?

Not really. On the one hand, it’s clear that unusual edibles are still unusual, and that the majority of gardeners are happy growing their favourite vegetables and reliable varieties. But it is sometimes surprising how willing people are to give something new a go once they’ve learned a little bit about it.

Would you say that seeking out unusual edibles to grow is becoming more popular in recent years?

Recent books by Mark Diacono (A Taste of the Unexpected) and James Wong (Homegrown Revolution) have certainly given unusual edibles some more mainstream attention, although it’s not clear how long that will last. Research shows that the majority of allotment gardeners use commercial sources for their seeds, so it’s encouraging to see some of the big seed companies adding more unusual edibles to their range and making them more widely available.

Can you tell us about particular edibles that were unusual, say, 20 years ago but are now quite commonly found on allotments and in gardens?

There’s been a real resurgence in salad leaves. It all started with Joy Larkcom and her ‘saladini’, which she brought back from her tour of Europe, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted 20 years ago that rocket would become so ubiquitous in kitchen gardens. The market for chilli pepper seeds and plants has really heated up in the last few years, as well – they’re very trendy at the moment.

What do you think it takes for a food to make the leap from 'unusual' to 'common'?

That’s actually quite a complicated question to answer. I looked at that as part of the research for my Masters degree, and there’s a lot of factors that are involved when people choose what to eat. Foods can be adopted very quickly into the diet – which seems to have happened with chilli peppers for example – or completely overlooked. Here in the UK I think we’re currently going through a period where many people are open to trying new foods, and that’s a big part of the battle. But for something to really become common then of course it has to be affordable to most people, and the supply lines have to be there. In terms of unusual edible plants then for them to catch on with gardeners the seeds have to be readily available, and the plants have to grow well in our climate – and for many species that means some breeding work is needed.

Was there anything you discovered which particularly surprised or impressed you whilst researching for the book?

All of the people in the book, and in fact all of the people I have encountered on my unusual edibles journey, are really committed to sharing their knowledge of these plants and helping to make them more popular. Everyone is so willing to help if you have a query, it’s a really welcoming community. Even amongst gardeners, who are lovely people in their own right, people with an interest in unusual edibles stand out.

Your book covers both annual and perennial edible plants of course but, as a gardener yourself, would you say there is less work involved in growing perennial rather than annual plants - or other advantages? How about disadvantages?

I don’t think there’s less work involved in growing perennial plants particularly, but what you find is that the work is spread out across the year. With annuals there’s a huge race to sow seeds and get plants into the ground in spring, and then you’re hard pressed to keep up with the harvest in late summer. With perennials the work is more evenly spread out. That can also be a disadvantage, as it means you have to remember when you’re supposed to be tending to a particular plant; it’s easy to miss your harvest! Gardening media is very much geared to a traditional garden with mostly annual plants, and if you want to include a lot of perennials then you have to work out your own timetable – but once you do you have a good spread of crops throughout the year.

I've often wondered about the familiarity, or otherwise, of names for perennial vegetables. Do you think people are more likely to try Caucasian spinach for example, because 'spinach' is familiar as a vegetable name, but less likely to eat say musk mallow or day lily?

That’s a factor that came up in my research. Historically cultures have found it easier to accept new crops that they understood. Once of the reasons the potato struggled in Europe was because there wasn’t a tradition of using tubers. The chilli may well have been accepted everywhere it went because it was recognised as a spice. Marketers use this tactic now – oca is described as being very similar to potatoes. I’m not entirely sure it’s helpful, as they are quite different, but there’s a need for unfamiliar things to be explained in familiar terms. But I don’t think that goes any way to explaining why so many plants are unlucky enough to have ‘bastard’ in their name.

Of the perennial vegetables you have become familiar with, which do you think has the most to offer the amateur vegetable grower? 
I think it’s definitely time for a sea kale revival. It was popular in Victorian times, but has fallen out of favour. It’s easy to grow, and familiar enough to be accepted, whilst being different enough to add novelty to the garden and people’s diets. That doesn’t mean we have to grow or eat it in Victorian ways; in Charles Dowding’s new book – Gardening Myths and Misconceptions – he says that he’s stopped forcing his sea kale plants. Not only is it a chore, but it weakens the plants. He now harvests young, green leaves instead and finds that they’re delicious and that the plant is more productive.

In your book you talk about how concern about the planet is a major motivation for people to grow unusual edibles and you explain the thinking behind this. Are you optimistic that growing such plants might be part of a broader, long-lasting shift towards 'greener' methods for growing food in this country?

I was reading an article recently about a farm in Nebraska that was responding to drought by diversifying into grapes, as they use far less water. Here in the UK the media coverage of the floods we’ve suffered this winter has put some of the blame on our current farming practices. My personal feeling is that agriculture will adapt to changing conditions – but only when it’s forced to. If gardeners have already shown that unusual edibles can grow well in this country, and there’s a demand for them, then that might be a way to get change happening a bit more quickly.

Do you have a personal favourite unusual edible (of whatever sort)?

I have a soft spot for achocha, partly because it was one of the earliest unusual edibles I grew, and partly because it’s such an easy plant. Sow the seeds around the same time as you’d do your French or runner beans, and you’ll quickly have a climbing plant that will scramble over its support, the shed, the washing line and even the dog if it stands still too long! It has beautiful leaves, and although the flowers are small they attract hoverflies and other beneficial insects. And then, one morning, you’ll notice a small army of fruits hiding among the foliage. You’ll be picking them all summer without making a dent, and it’s beyond easy to save your own seeds for next year.

Sliding down the scale of unusualness a bit, if people are looking for something a bit different but still familiar then there are some lovely courgettes and summer squash you can grow. Rugosa friulana is a yellow courgette with bumpy skin – it looks very ugly, but tastes wonderful and has firmer flesh than a traditional courgette. And the little patty pan squashes that look like flying saucers are wonderful, too.

Thanks Emma - your answers (and your book!) have given me a really useful broad view of the world of unusual edibles.

For details on buying 'Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs' go to the book's homepage.


Bringing the Babingtons Home for Tea


Babington leeks
Babington leeks in late summer
I had my first harvest of Babington leeks yesterday. This wild perennial leek is Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii, named after Charles Cardale Babington, who lived at the same time as Charles Darwin. It is one of many closely related perennial leeks: amongst them being elephant garlic A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum, kurrat or Egyptian leek A. ampeloprasum var. kurrat and pearl onion A. ampeloprasum var. sectivum. Most of them reproduce by seeds rather than the topset bulbils of Babington leek.

I'd read that the leeks (at at least 2-3 years old) are harvested from late autumn to spring but the new growth on mine didn't emerge until mid-winter and the white stems looked too short to harvest until now. They still look rather short but I want to use a good few of the leeks before they throw up a tough flower stalk in late spring. (In summer the green topset bulbils can be used and when the flower stalk dies down you can dig up and store the bulbs.)

The usual advice is to slice the leek off at ground-level when harvesting, leaving the distinctly bulbous portion near the roots to regrow. I'd planted the original leek bulbils about 2cm below the surface in autumn but found during the following winter that they had pulled themselves deeper into the ground - to about 10cm. (I learnt on Twitter that they do this by means of 'contractile roots'. Amazing!) So to get a longer shank I dug down a little way to the bulb and sliced the leek off just above it.

Underground bulb of Babington leek

Harvested Babington leeks

I expect one can plant even deeper to get longer shanks but digging further down to slice them off would be time-consuming. A better strategy would probably be a fairly deep mulch or ground-cover. I haven't got around to mulching my leeks and have left them in rather bare ground whilst they wait for a camomile ground-cover to establish itself around them. The camomile was chosen for its anti-fungal properties in the hope that it might guard against leek rust. But it is the Treneague form, very ground-hugging, and I'm wondering now whether a slightly taller plant, perhaps the species Chamaemelum nobile, might be better for promoting longer white stems on the leeks.

Or a different approach... if the leeks are happy growing closer together (and I think they would be) I could have lots of plants in a small area and could afford to pull whole plants up when they are old enough to harvest. In which case planting deeper makes more sense and it would be easy to pop a bulbil into the hole left behind when a leek is pulled up.

Having harvested, what to do with them?  The leek is a very versatile vegetable - leek recipes are truly abundant. But Babington leek tastes of both leek and garlic so I decided to substitute it for both leek and garlic. I used this Jamie Oliver recipe for braised leeks with garlic and thyme as a starting point, where the vegetables and herbs are sautéed in butter in a frying pan and then simmered in wine and stock in the oven. I scribbled down the recipe and then - gave it to the cook! I'll come clean - this blog rather belies the fact that Stew, my husband, does most of the cooking in our house! It just doesn't seem very fair to ask him to do experimental cooking with the unusual vegetables I insist on growing. But a leek is a leek and he was very accommodating.

Chopped Babington leek

Our thyme wasn't plentiful so he used some rosemary instead, along with eight leeks rather than four - as they were small - no garlic, and rather less wine, stock and butter than in the recipe.

Braised babington leek and rosemary in wine with spaghetti

We ate it with wholemeal spaghetti and Parmesan cheese (washed down with more of the wine). Mmmm!

A word of caution - don't cook with Babington leeks if you don't like the smell of spring woodlands when the lovely wild garlic is out! That's what the house smelled like whilst the dish was being made. The leeks didn't have quite the same sweetness as biennial leeks but the garlic flavour was delicious and the meal seemed very vibrant and healthy.

Can anyone tell me if kurrat tastes of garlic too? I'm interested now in growing a variety of perennial wild leeks with a variety of flavours and, ideally, a variety of harvest times.

If you're looking for somewhere to buy Babington leek plants I have both plants and bulbils for sale here.


Thus far.....


A year has passed since I starting blogging about the possibilities of the perennial vegetable garden - so here is a review of discoveries to date and a note or two to update previous posts.

Firstly, the non-flowering form of garden sorrel - a plant that just gives and gives!

Non-flowering form of garden sorrel
Non-flowering form of garden sorrel

Sea kale -  I love everything about it including its purple crinkled young foliage, its slightly older glaucose blue leaves (delicious steamed) and the heady smell of its lovely blossom! I have yet to try its young spherical seed pods as a summer treat.

Sea kale in flower
Sea kale in flower

Sea kale 'peas'
Sea kale 'peas'Attribution AttributionAttributionhttp://4.bp.blogspot.com/-gSAnIn6oQjQ/UhZvG49wAzI/AAAAAAAAApM/bVw8TSgqG20/s1600/index_opt.jpg Leonora Enking

Good King Henry is good early in the year when both its young flower sprouts and youngish leaves make really tasty vegetables.

Poached egg with good King Henry flower sprouts
Poached egg with good King Henry flower sprouts

The wild cabbage plants have fed us over and over for months from late last summer when they grew big, all through the winter and into the spring. Will they keep going?

Wild cabbage plants with purple shoots
This wild cabbage plants has produced purple shoots

Wild cabbage sprouts next to purple sprouting broccoli sprouts
Wild cabbage, left.    Purple sprouting broccoli, right.

The day lilies were another success from last year - plucking their fat buds was like picking green beans.  The few I dried stored well in a glass jar and I want to dry a lot more this year.

The Jerusalem artichokes - the easiest perennial vegetable ever, requiring no work at all beyond planting, harvesting and replanting. Such a shame they are not more universally digestible!

Jerusalem artichoke tubers
Jerusalem artichoke tubers

Not everything has gone well. Sadly the Daubenton kale plants (the first plant many people seek out when they start collecting perennial vegetables) are very poorly! They fed us well last year but these plants will have to be pulled out. I found evidence of cabbage root fly. Luckily I have plants to replace them with.

Daubenton kale on its last legs
Daubenton kale on its last legs

Daubenton kale
It should look more like this

I had another sick plant last year. The Caucasian spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides) may have been attacked by beet curly top virus...

Curled puckered leaves on Hablitzia
Curled puckered leaves on Hablitzia

but it's looking healthy so far this year. I shall keep a close eye on it - I still haven't had much of a chance for a Caucasian spinach feast!

Young Hablitzia plant
Hopefully healthy spring growth on Hablitzia

I'm still waiting to try the Babington leeks too although we did enjoyed the garlicky green bulbils last summer. I expected to harvest the leeks in the winter or very early spring but ours are only just ready.

Babington leeks
Babington leeks to be harvested soon

The Chinese artichokes were disappointingly small. They may have been too dry so now they are planted in a frame containing a heavy leaf mulch to retain moisture.

Only one of the sea beet plants has survived the winter. This year I'm trying again with some seed from plants I found growing on a north Anglesey beach last September. It may prove to be a more truly perennial and wild beet than the plants I grew last year.

Sea beet seedlings
Sea beet seedlings

Ground-covers are gradually covering bare soil between the perennial vegetables. I have more clover paths to sow but on the beds wild strawberries are taking over wherever I plant them, the silverweed is beginning to make a show around the skirret, lambs lettuce is keeping weeds at bay on the asparagus bed as well as providing salad greens and the creeping Jenny has only allowed a very occasional dandelion to infiltrate the sea kale.

There are many more perennial vegetables to investigate; I think I have about fifty in my collection now and I'm gradually organising them all onto one allotment plot. One I rather wanted to see flower last year was my Bath asparagus (Ornithogalum pyrenacium).

Bath asparagus flower
Bath asparagus flower Björn S...

A bunch of Bath asparagus
Bath asparagus ready to cookBastienM

Well it hasn't yet! Thanks go to others for these photographs. But this entry on the Wiltshire and Swindon Biological Records Centre website suggests that the plants do take a while to mature so I shall live in hope.


The Simplicity of Watercress

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Here's a lovely easy recipe for watercress soup given to my mother by a friend.
Put one bunch of well-washed watercress, one pint of stock, one clove of garlic, a pinch of nutmeg and half an ounce of flour into the liquidiser for thirty seconds. Bring to the boil in a pan and cook two to three minutes to thicken the soup. Season to taste. Decorate with a swirl of cream and serve.
Recipes don't come much simpler than that - and it makes delicious soup!

Watercress Soup
Watercress Soup

Watercress is Nasturtium officinale, a shade-tolerant perennial vegetable, and it is almost as simple to grow as it is to cook. I remember once making the claim on Twitter, "Buy some watercress, sprout it in a jar, plant it in your garden and never buy again!" (Basically true but perhaps a little glib! - I have encountered a couple of problems since then which I'll write about below.) If you can't find a traditional three and a half ounce bunch of watercress in your local greengrocers the shorter branches that come in supermarket bags will do fine.

Sprouting watercress from a supermarket bag
Sprouting watercress from a bag

Watercress forming roots
Forming roots

In its natural environment watercress grows in shallow, gentle streams. It gathers most of its nutrients from the flowing water through roots embedded in the gravelly stream bed but also puts out aerial roots on its stems to gather more food. It especially likes slightly alkaline water and grows in abundance in Water Forlorns, the lovely chalk stream which runs through the East Yorkshire town where we live.

Watercress growing in Water Forlorns chalk stream
Watercress? growing in Water Forlorns

It grows there along with Apium nodifolium, fool's watercress, to which it looks rather similar but I am learning that Nasturtium officinale has smooth leaf margins, rounder leaves when young and the leaflets aren't consistently in opposite pairs. (In flower they are easy to distinguish as Nasturtium officinale is a crucifer with four-petalled flowers whilst Apium nodifolium is a umbellifer with five-petalled flowers.) I think the photo shows Nasturtium officinale (with some Apium nodifolium in the bottom left corner) but I wouldn't completely swear to it yet! Fool's watercress is a traditional accompaniment to meat in West Country pies and pasties so it wouldn't be too disastrous to eat it by mistake but the risk of liver-fluke infection from eating wild watercress encourages me to cultivate our own.

When I initially grew watercress (planted in a pot immersed in a tub of water) I found it grew enthusiastically for a couple of months but then became a bit lethargic. Clearly I was failing to replicate its favoured conditions. In his book on perennial vegetables Martin Crawford explains that the plant doesn't like stagnant water and that you need to change the water everyday or two. Doing this helped but, apart from being a chore, it became very awkward when I started using a larger tub in order to fit in more pots of watercress. The tub was too heavy to lift and, without a drain immediately to hand, sluicing away that amount of water on the soil in a small backyard is apt to make things just too muddy.

Thinking I was being clever I formed a plan to resite the watercress pots to a cascade of tubs next to our small water butt. I wanted to arrange for the overflowing water from the butt to run through the tubs and finally discharge into the drain below. But on further thought I realised that watercress wants mineral-rich alkaline water, not rainwater which I believe is slightly acid and has very low levels of minerals.

So my next step will be to simply grow the watercress in a large, fairly deep tray of fertile soil. I'll puncture some fine holes in the bottom so that it drains but not too freely, and water and feed it regularly.

The other problem I've found is that watercress, being in the brassica family, easily falls prey to flea beetle, greenfly and cabbage white caterpillars. I think a fine net may be called for!

Watercress has been grown commercially in the south of England since 1808. Wiltshire grower John Hurd went organic in 1992. He provides a downloadable booklet on his website which gives some nutritional and historical information about watercress along with lots of recipe ideas (most of them simple!)


Salad Burnet - but not in a Salad!

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Salad burnet in summer
Salad burnet in summer...

Salad burnet, Sanguisorba minor, is sometimes listed as a herb. But to my mind, with its mildly flavoured leaves which can be added in quantity to a salad, it qualifies as a vegetable. I like it; despite being a tough customer - a drought tolerant native perennial which will grow almost anywhere - it's pretty and neat and freshly green nearly all the year around (the photo below was taken a few days ago). A well-behaved perennial vegetable. So I was interested to see if I could do more than just use it in a salad.

Salad burnet in winter
...and in winter

I couldn't find any recommendations to cook it as a separate vegetable but I did try this. It really doesn't taste of much cooked this way - but it is nutritious and can be added to soups and stews early on in the cooking process (presumably to make sure the stalks are cooked through). Although most recipes talk about using burnet as a flavouring, (in tomato sauce for instance as you would use oregano, or in Frankfurt grüne sosse (green sauce) where it accompanies borage, sorrel, garden cress, chervil, chives, parsley along with dill pickle, shallots, hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt and sour cream and is traditionally eaten with eggs and potatoes), a few that I found sometimes used larger quantities. I think it just depends on the cook! Salad burnet has a distinct but mild flavour (often likened to cucumber) - using a lot won't spoil the dish and will give you more green nutrition! So you can try a mass of it in herb butter to use in delicate sandwiches or accompany fish, or mix it (as I did) with cream cheese, cottage cheese, salt and pepper as a baked potato topping.

Salad burnet cream cheese on baked potatoes
Salad burnet cream cheese

But don't be lazy as I was and fail to strip the little leaves from their stalks. It's so easy - I was just a bit tired after doing some jobs on a very windy allotment! Despite fine chopping, our topping was tasty but rather stalky!

The burnet was gathered from the very windy allotment but for the best tasting leaves either pamper your plant with a sheltered position, a non-acid, very fertile soil and plenty of water or grow lots of it (it makes a good-looking path edging) and pluck just the softest, youngest growth from the centre of the plants.


Winter in the Perennial Vegetable Garden

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It's a dark, cold day out there today! Despite the atrocious photographs I hope you can nevertheless make out the state of play for the fourth season in my round up of perennial vegetables on the plots. (Look back for spring, summer and autumn). It looks like I'll be waiting until March to harvest the Babington leeks. I'm interested in getting a picture of when these are ready (at about 30cm tall) for different areas of the country - so if you are growing Babington leeks I'll be pleased to hear from you. The Chinese artichokes really were as tiny as they look in the photo (about 3-4cm). It was an extremely dry summer in East Yorkshire and despite some heavy mulching with leaf mould they just weren't happy. I'm going to try to keep them really moist this year and cut them down before they flower too.

Come back in April to see the first set of photos for the rest of the perennial vegetable collection.

Sea kale
Caucasian spinach
Daubenton kale
Good King Henry
Sorrel "Profusion"
Ostrich fern (wild garlic: not arisen)
Sea beet
Babington leek
Giant chives
Turkish rocket
Buckler-leaved sorrel
Pink purslane, musk mallow, hosta
Skirret (still just a stalk)
Red-veined sorrel
Jerusalem artichoke
Chinese artichoke