list Horticulture 101: Culinary and Garden Queries

I thought it appropriate to address some of the mysteries in the world of food and plants not often discussed. Who could blame me living in a world today where Ratatouille was not only a favorite (when properly prepared) of the late and great Julia Child, but is also a favorite at some regional food festivals, and, most recently, the movie theatre crowd? So, here goes. These might be wager worthy, but, don't bet on it.

What is the difference between fennel and finnochio?

Fennell is also referred to as sweet fennel and is a feathery leaved seasoning herb with very aromatic foliage and seeds. The seeds are a customary ingredient in Italian sausage, and a breath freshener tasting a bit like licorice. It is botanically Foeniculum vulgare dulci. It is an annual and is widely used in cooking and as a flavoring agent. It self-seeds freely and can become invasive. Its habit is quite similar to dill and, in fact, is quite promiscuous and will readily cross-pollinate with dill, and this spoils the flavor of both.

Finnochio, also referred to as Florence fennel, Foeniculum vulgare azoricum, forms a bulbous base with its swollen overlapping leaves and has a sweet anise-like flavor and celery like texture. The market label is Anise. It is eaten as a vegetable and is frequently featured on Food-TV where its Italian origins are often praised.

Is the sweet potato the same as a yam? I've asked at big supermarkets and never gotten a straight answer!

Not even close. Not even related, surprise! It is sweet potatoes that have the food value. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batata) is a member of the morning glory family. It is a rich source of carotene from which the body produces vitamin A and also has three times as much vitamin C as yams. Sweet potatoes are native to the Western hemisphere alone.

Yams (Dioscorea alta) are native to warm regions of both hemispheres, are sweeter and juicier than sweet potatoes, and much less nutritious. One reason why so many Africans have been undernourished for so long is their reliance on starchy yams for food.

Another source of the confusion is that so many people interchange the names of these two tubers. Sweet potatoes grown in the south are called yams there, and in the northeast when they arrive here. Even the candied yams you eat at holidays, including those from a can, are still sweet potatoes. Almost no yams at all are grown in the U. S.

Did you ever wonder where growers get the seed for the seedless watermelons they grow and sell?

Sure this inquiry seems like a riddle. The solution lies in the fact that mating parents that are genetically different almost always results in an offspring that is sterile. Consider the male donkey and the female horse. The result is a mule, usually sterile. Genetically different parents (determined by chromosome count) produce sterile progeny.

Vegetable reeders genetically manipulate the female watermelon plant and cross it with a normal male plant. The resulting seed produces normal looking watermelons. The fruit grows from the parent plant's non-reproductive cells, and is sterile and seedless. Growers of seedless watermelons must purchase new seeds from the breeders. A really adventurous grower might try to root cuttings of that genetically identical plant. Perennial relatives are known around the world in dry and arid regions. There's a challenge for someone.

The blue hydrangea question continues to come up. Most recently, from my wife's cousin on Long Island, only a few weeks ago on an annual visit. He wanted to know how he could get his pink flowering hydrangea to flower blue. He had it in the ground one season. How fickle we humans can be, eh?

We are talking about what are commonly known as Big Leaf Hydrangeas, aka French, Japanese or Snowball Hydrangeas: Hydrangea macrophylla. The flower clusters are large and showy, up to ten inches across. It was commonly believed for a long time that the flower color was solely pH dependent. Acid soil produced blue blossoms, and alkaline soil provided pink. That was determined in 1913 by German researcher, Richard Willstatter.

Since that time, more complex explanations involving organic acids, pigment complexes, and molecular stacking have come to the fore. Aluminum is now said to play a significant role. Both the addition of sulfur and coffee grounds will acidify the soil. Pink is a nice color, too. If you have to have blue, be advised: All the aluminum in the world won't work until the soil is acidic enough to make it available to the plant.

Is the famed Rocambole the same as the Egyptian onion? Both of these produce aerial clones or bulbils atop their flowering stalks.

No, they are not the same. The Egyptian onion (aka walking onion) is an heirloom perennial onion, Allium cepa var "Proliferum". Any and all parts of the plant can be used for food, from the large bulbs as onions, the leaves like chives, and the bulbils pickled, roasted, chopped, or in stews and soups. I have chopped the bulbils and added them as a piquant salad ingredient.

Rocambole is a relative and a widely grown hardneck garlic. Allium sativum var ophioscordon is renowned for its depth of flavor. Preferred by many well-known chefs, rocambole has relatively loose skins and is therefore not a good keeper. Its top setting bulbils are far too small to be of any culinary value. In the northeast, rocambole is an annual with rather broad leaves showing its close relation to leek. There are several varieties available for fall planting, the best time for planting all garlic

Pumpkins and squash are both cucurbits, that is, in the same genus, Cucurbita. The giant pumpkin growing contests provoke the question, "What is the difference between these two? How do we know the winner was a true pumpkin?"

We don't, or at least didn't. "Dill's Atlantic Giant" was a rounder phenotype of a giant squash, and produced winners of the giant pumpkin contest year after year. In 2006 Ron Wallace grew a 1,502-pound fruit. He sold a single seed for $ 850.

Today we know the degree of difficulty determining the difference between a squash and a cross between a pumpkin and a squash. Hybrid crosses look a bit like each of the parents. True pumpkins cannot cross among themselves.

There are three subgroups in the genus Cucurbita. The species Cucurbita pepo is the true pumpkin. Its characteristics are a firm, bright orange, hard exterior skin. The stem and the fruit meet in a star shape. The points of the star end in ridges or valleys traveling from stem to base.

Cucurbita maxima are the pumpkin-like squashes. Several varieties all have yellowish skin, and soft curled stems. The stem and fruit meet in a round cross section with no valleys or ridges present.

Cucurbita moschata has skin less orange with a fruit shape long or oblong rather than round. Most squash-like of all, the stem and fruit meeting is hard and swollen, with deeply flared ridges.

Growers of giant pumpkins are contest seekers an secretly bet the judges aren't so knowledgeable as to disqualify an entrant without concrete evidence. Care to get on board? Care to make a wager? 

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 29, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.