Monday, April 18, 2011
I posted a query on SP a little while ago, asking about everyone's favourite edible ornamental plants, as I was writing an article on the subject for a newspaper gardening segment. In the spirit of spring, and in the spirit of eating locally and healthily, I thought I'd share what I came up with!
Betcha Didn't Know You Could Eat THAT!
"Mommy, what are those things on that plant?"
"Those are raspberries, sweetie."
"But Mommy, raspberries come in boxes at the grocery store!"
I witnessed this conversation several years ago, and it has stayed in my mind as an example of how disconnected our society has become from the food we eat. When we recognize where our food comes from, we not only become more aware as consumers, but we open ourselves up to an experience of flavour we might otherwise miss.
There are, of course, bountiful back garden buffets throughout the city; there are plenty of edible berries, other fruits, herbs, vegetables, and – of course – weeds, to keep Toronto's human (and, more often, not-so-human) residents satisfied for the entire growing season.
But did you know that there are also a number of savoury sprouts in your garden masquerading as ornamental plants? Ah, but it's true; the reluctant rose, the bashful tuberous begonia and the demure dianthus are all sitting quietly in your garden, hoping you won’t discover they’re even tastier than those berries you have in your fridge that were trucked in from California a couple of weeks ago.
Although there are many ornamental plants that double as food, there are four edible ornamentals in particular I’d like to discuss here, simply because they are abundant, relatively easy to grow, and surprisingly tasty. They are: Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), and Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).
While I am partial to cultivating only plants native to the area in which I’m growing them, Nasturtiums – decidedly not native to Canada – deserve a special mention because they are so easy to grow (they actually tend to thrive when neglected), and are so very yummy in salads. Nasturtiums are grown as annuals in our temperate climate, and are a favourite of container gardeners because of their showy red, orange and yellow flowers and their unusual water lily-shaped leaves. Both the flowers and the leaves of the Nasturtium are edible, and yield a taste that has always reminded me of a cross between black pepper and green beans, and which is often compared to watercress. The flowers add colour and zest to salads, and, thanks to their funnel shape, can be stuffed – try stuffing them with a mix of cream cheese and chives to create a tasty appetizer. They can also be added to a bottle of vinegar to create a decorative look and a peppery taste. Additionally, the pickled green seed pods are known as “poor man’s capers,” and can be used anywhere you would use capers.
Daylilies are another non-native species, and are in fact considered invasive in many areas, but they earn a spot here because they are, like nasturtiums, common and easy to grow. They are also highly edible, since all parts of the plant can be eaten (but watch out: in large quantities, the daylily can have a laxative effect!). Unfortunately, since this plant is so popular, and the cultivated varieties number in the tens of thousands, I can’t vouch for the taste of them all. Indeed, I know for certain that some are far less tasty than others. The orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), however, which runs rampant throughout Southern Ontario, has tubers which have a crisp texture and slightly nutty flavour. They are best harvested near the end of the season, and can be boiled, steamed, fried, or eaten raw, and used to augment salads, soups, stews. The flowers of the daylily have a sweet, mild taste, which is often compared to lettuce or asparagus, and can be used fresh or dried. They are frequently used in Chinese cooking, including hot-and-sour soup. They add flavour and colour to salads and soups, and, since they are quite large, can be stuffed as you would stuff a pepper. Although I’ve never tried this, they are apparently quite tasty when dipped in batter and fried. The buds and young leaves of the daylily are also edible, and used in much the same way as the rest of the plant. The mature leaves of the daylily are not particularly palatable, as they are coarse and stringy. Note that there are many members of the Lily Family which are not edible (they are in fact toxic), so make sure you’ve got the right plant before you start digging up your garden.
Calendula, which is also known as the Pot Marigold, is a happy little plant which you will find in most wildflower gardens, since it is bright, low maintenance, and seeds easily. The petals, which are generally yellow to orange in colour, have a peppery, tangy flavour. They are used to garnish, colour, and add some “zing” to your recipes. The petals can be used fresh or dried, in soups, salads, sauces, and in rice, poultry, and vegetable dishes. Just as the Nasturtium has been called the “poor man’s caper,” Calendula has been described as the “poor man’s saffron,” and may be used in place of saffron in recipes. The petals add flavour and colour when blended into cream cheese, other soft cheeses, and butter. The next time you’re out in your garden, pluck a few petals, and add them to scrambled eggs; they’ll bring an otherwise boring dish to life. If you’re getting the idea that you can use these petals in anything, you’re just about right! If you experiment with cooking with Calendula, you will find that different varieties and colours of the petals will have different flavours, ranging from mildly peppery to quite tangy. Even petals from the same plant may have a different taste depending on the time of day they are harvested.
I’ve included Lavender here because it is one of my favourite edible flowers, simply by virtue of the fact that it is such a surprise. It is well-known for its strong, flowery smell, and has been used for centuries as a perfume and an air freshener, but the fact that the flowers taste good is less well known. Lavender is more difficult to grow than the other ornamental plants I’ve mentioned here, but if you have a sunny, well-drained spot, it will probably do quite well. Lavender flowers, dried or fresh, are usually combined with sweet treats, and go well with shortbread cookies, crème brulee, white cakes, and ice cream. Lavender can also be used, however, to add flavour and colour to salads, breads, and savoury meat dishes. Try adding Lavender to lemonade for a refreshing summer drink. Like the smell of Lavender, the taste is quite strong, so it should be used sparingly. Different plants will have different potencies, so if you’re keen on cooking or baking with Lavender, you will probably have to experiment.
When eating plants out of your garden (or anyone else’s, for that matter), there are several cautions:
1. Make sure your plants are pesticide-free. This includes taking into consideration previous owners of your house, and whether or not your neighbours are spraying. Toronto has an anti-pesticide law now, but not everyone abides by it. Do not eat plants directly from nurseries or from flower shops, as they are often sprayed with noxious chemicals.
2. Don’t pick your plants from the side of the road. Pollutants and garbage are sprayed, spewed, tossed and dumped at the sides of roads, and while the plants there may look beautiful, they are not suitable for consumption.
3. Ensure you have identified your plants correctly! While there are many wonderful surprises in your garden, there are also plants that can cause heart dysrhythmias, gastrointestinal upset, skin problems, electrolyte imbalances, and otherwise endanger your life. If you are unsure about a plant, don’t eat it.
4. Make sure you’re eating the right part of the plant. Remember the cautionary tale of Rhubarb; the stems are glorious, and the leaves are poisonous. Not every part of so-called edible plants is good for you.