From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on April 5, 2006

Edible Herbaceous Perennials.

This subject has been on my mind for some time. I suppose I might have titled the article, "Perennial Vegetables", but it is my thinking that got in the way. Most of you know the major perennial vegetables: rhubarb, asparagus and horseradish. Now, I ask myself, "Do we explore 'major' perennial vegetables and 'minor' perennial vegetables? How exactly do I go about this discovery process?"

If it hadn't been for a friend asking me to look for something in my collection of Mother Earth News magazines going back to the early 70s, I might not have thought any more about it. I would have written about the major three. But then, memories came flooding in of wild plants, edible and nutritious, and Euell Gibbons' series on stalking the good life and all manner of wild and healthy food and healing plants, along with his wealth of knowledge about, not only plants, but also, folklore, botany and cooking. And, all those Mother Earth News issues with back to the soil adventurers reporting regularly. Even early Eliot Coleman articles were there. It would have been grossly inadequate to omit mention of so many other worthy edibles.

It was a done deal. There are far too many other perennial vegetable food plants either grown by folks in their gardens or by Mother Nature. Many just go out to their familiar haunts at the right time of year and harvest the bounty. So, I decided to paint a picture on a wider canvas, and focus some attention on some of the many minors.

To prevent this article from becoming encyclopedic in size, I am omitting a great many that might fall into one or more of the following categories. These can be explored at another time. I will not include those used for teas, candies, cereals, coffee, cold beverages, culinary flavoring, or medicinal uses, as well as fruit, nuts, jams, jellies, syrups and pickles. "Wow", you might be saying. "He's leaving out a lot"! There are, indeed, a lot I am leaving out by necessity. I encourage you to explore!

I am assuming most of you are familiar enough with asparagus, rhubarb and horseradish, and that I need not delve into these here. Let me know, however, if you would like more on these, anytime. The edible perennial vegetables I will discuss with you fit into the category of tender leaves, flowers, shoots, stems, roots and tubers that can be eaten raw once properly washed clean or, a second category that includes starchy roots, tubers or corms that are mild tasting and can be eaten like potatoes as well as young tender shoots that are steamed or boiled like asparagus, or, lastly, vegetation that can be steamed, boiled, baked or fried similar to spinach, cabbage, celery, and broccoli. I expect you'll be surprised by some of these.

I first saw watercress (outside of a market setting) growing in a slow moving brook in Livingston Manor, and later outside Monticello in the Sackett Lake area. Nasturtium officinale is one of my favorite salad ingredients and has been eaten for centuries as a leaf vegetable. It's abundant if you look for it. It is slightly peppery and delicious.

Do you like chives with your baked potato? I do, too. Chives are in the Allium (onion) family and are grown for their leaves, which are used as a vegetable and a flavoring herb. They are very reliable, and are milder in taste than onions, green onions and garlic. There are many wild species, all edible. Many have edible bulbs and all have lovely flowers. Some, like field garlic and wild garlic, produce bulblets on the flower stalks, which are also edible. These little taste treats are great in salads.

Then there is Allium tuberousum, a.k.a. garlic chives. One of the loveliest lilies ever, its delicate thread like foliage and beautiful flowers are for those that find regular garlic too strong. It is a superb plant. It should be photographed more.

And, now comes what Lee Peterson, author and gastronomic botanist, called "our best wild onion", the wild leek or ramp, a.k.a. "ramsons" (Allium ursinum). It can be used in salads, as a seasoning, steamed or cooked as a vegetable. It's a local favorite and is often found at farmers' markets. Get some and be creative. I've had numerous calls about this one.

Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus, is a tall, six to ten feet, member of the sunflower family. A wonderful wild food plant that goes back to colonial times, it provides small potato size crisp tubers that can be roasted, boiled, sliced for salads, and even pickled. The flowers are a wonderful sight, too. The tubers can be harvested whenever the ground is not frozen.

One summer day, a few years ago, I was visiting some friends and was served a delicious salad of fresh violet leaves, baby spinach leaves, and wild strawberries in a light dressing of white vinegar and honey and olive oil. Wonderful. Tender young leaves of violets (blue, yellow or white) can also be cooked and dried for teas.

Another surprise might be in store for you. Most of you have read of one of our most invasive plant pests from Asia. It's impossible to get rid of, according to some. Did you know that Japanese Knotweed is a delicious treat, new tender shoots up to ten inches long can be harvested and steamed or boiled for a short time and eaten as you would asparagus. If you can't beat it, eat it. If kept cut, it will continue to produce new shoots.

Back in 1977 I lived in Samsonville, a bird's flight about five miles from where I now live. A favorite spot for relaxing and meditating was alongside a lovely waterfall. Spring through fall I was accompanied by an attractive flowering vine that I later identified as 'groundnut'. Its walnut-sized tubers and bean-like seedpods are both edible and rated excellent (by Peterson) boiled, roasted or fried in bacon-fat. (What's not delicious fried in bacon fat?) The unusual flowers were a treat for the eye and the psyche.

Had you or I been anything like our native American predecessors, or even before them, our Paleolithic European forebears, we would know every plant material that could sustain us or kill us and in between. We've all heard about cattails' ability to nourish and sustain. All parts are edible in a salad, steamed like asparagus, baked or boiled like a vegetable, prepared as for potato, even pickled. It is abundant, versatile and native.

Twelve years ago I had little idea that some gardeners actually planted a quasi-perennial known as Good King Henry. I said "quasi" because it is tender, and to remain a perennial requires deliberate protection from extreme cold. A zone 5 perennial is risky in some parts. Why deliberately plant it as a vegetable? The rewards are the reason. Delicious young leaves, raw or cooked; young flowering shoots prepared as asparagus; young flower buds, if enough can be obtained, are gourmet fare. Thanks to Evelyn Miller of Liberty for the introduction some twelve years ago.

If you put yourself into a particular mind-set, think like you're on a field trip, a wild food identification exploration, not unlike, naturalist, "Wildman", Steve Brill, who takes groups in New York City and shows them very many edible plants found while foraging in Central Park, then you'll begin to understand what I'm trying to express. I know I have to end this column. I don't want to leave you wanting. So, as a last desperate effort, I am going to list many more naturally occurring plants that are eminently edible and easily found even in your backyard and surroundings.

No ferns or mushrooms are included because of some toxicity hazards. As with the rest, since I'm using common names, always exercise caution; use a good field guide or be accompanied by someone who is knowledgeable. Never eat any wild plant until you have positively identified it as safe to eat. Wild collected plants should be washed thoroughly before eating. Here goes: black locust tree beans (seeds); elderberry flowers; chickweed; stinging nettles; dandelion leaves; yellow dock; plantain; sheep sorrel; Solomon's seal; goutweed; chicory; sweet rocket; salad burnet; salsify; purslane; wild mustard; day lily; lamb's quarters.

There are many others, as well as lots of annuals and biennials. Discover!


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on April 5, 2006

© 2006 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.