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Edibles from the garden

"Garden" in this case extends to indoor collections on windowsills, since for some plants, that's the only way of ever getting a harvest. This is a taste test list for anything not tomato, because although I hate "normal" vegetables - leafy vegs and most root crops - my standard query towards any plant life is "if you're not edible, what are you doing in my garden?" and my interest in marigold mixtures is "so, the petals can be used in soups and salads?" Not that I like cooking, so it's mainly going to be a list of things that are edible raw. When picked early; I learned the hard way not to try and eat stalks older than one year. The listed vegs are also tough plants, since, with travelling times, weather and neighbours, I can spend on average four hours a week in the garden. Lastly, most vegs will in fact be fruits, since things like tomatoes, cucurbits and eggplants are technically fruits and not vegetables.

I've tried to classify them by edible part - greens (leaves/stalk), roots, flowers, seeds (including pods) and fruit (including those fruits commonly labelled "vegetable") although there are plants of which most if not all parts are edible. Lastly, there's a category other for anything that doesn't fit in the first five.


Chenopodium capitatum/foliosum, Blitum virgatum/capitatum
Strawberry spinach, strawberry sticks, strawberry blite, beetberry

This plant self-sows in its little corner of the garden, which is just as well since chenopodium/atriplex seeds are notoriously short-lived (two years at most). Chenopodium/atriplex species are also notorious for hybridizing, so they should be kept a safe distance apart. This plant is much like Atriplex hortensis with saw-edged leaves, but is set apart by its raspberry-sized (smaller if the soil is dry) "fruits". These are what the plant is grown for, but until they ripen, the triangular leaves, tasting exactly like atriplex leaves, can be eaten raw or cooked.

The "strawberries" are juicy blobs surrounding the poppy-like black (presumably edible) seeds. They barely have a skin, and are squashed easily, dripping juice. If, due to lack of water, the blobs are not so juicy, they are crunchy. Only the juiciness makes them worth eating, though, as their taste is watery and beet-like; "insipid" covers it pretty well. But they're decorative and the leaves are nicer than spinach.

Chenopodium album
Fat hen, lamb's quarters

No special care is necessary for this plant, it simply springs up any place where humans live, only to be denounced as "weed" and ripped up. The soil that this plant refuses to grow on has to be pretty barren or toxic. As the name indicates, it's good for domesticated livestock, although how a hen could get fat on it is beyond me (by pecking off caterpillars, maybe?) This annual is robust, reliable and generally disease-free. It was supplanted by spinach, supposedly because spinach is higher in vitamins/minerals/nutrients (which is debatable) but most likely because spinach is easier to harvest mechanically. For its lack of oxalic acid, I consider lamb's quarters the healthier of the two.

The seeds are also edible and can be used to make gruel, although I've never even tried to prepare and eat them. Harvesting them must be finicky. I nibbled on a raw seed once and thought "naah, too tough". Although it's nonsense to save seeds - the stuff self-seeds like crazy - the seed doesn't keep all that long and yanking out or eating every plant means no more plants after a while, so to keep them for food, I leave some plants alone to ensure a next generation. However, I don't want them close to more domesticated relatives, like quinoa, orach or strawberry spinach, because they also cross-pollinate like crazy.

The leaves are goosefoot-shaped (hence the Chenopodium bit) and covered on the upper side with tiny white grains or crystals (hence the album bit) which makes them moist to the touch. Although, like most of their relatives, they have a neutral rice-paper taste, I prefer my leaves dry.

Atriplex hortensis
Orach, mountain spinach

The more preferable alternative to Chenopodium album, orach not only has nice clean smooth-edged (in the wild form, arrow-shaped) leaves, but comes in three colours: emerald-green (wild), lime green-yellow and deep purplish red. The yellow form, which I've gotten/bought under the names of "blonde melde" and "Blonde Belle Dame", has larger leaves and the red form, "Atriplex hortensis var. rubra", can similarly develop quite large leaves (about two inches long) with rounded edges. These may the same as the varieties sold in a mix of Green Plume (wild form), Gold Plume and Red Plume, and a fourth variety, Copper Plume, which I've never seen but which is said to have red seed-heads. The cultivated varieties also differ from the wild one in their seeds, which are not only large and round but, half of the time, enclosed in round envelopes shaped like flying saucers, one seed to a saucer. I tried to cook these saucers along with the leaves when still green, but they were hard and stringy. Leafwise, the Atriplexes are my favourite, being almost without taste (especially the yellow form), easy to harvest without getting one's hands dirty, nice-looking, and self-maintaining: this is a veg that needs NO care. Sadly, the caterpillars love these plants as much as I do, especially the cultivated varieties with their imposingly large leaves, so the leaves must be picked while young, small and untouched.

Chenopodium ambrosioides

Outside, this plant from dry, sunny, sandy Mexico will not thrive, and on the windowsill, it stays small and dies early from lack of light. Its leaves smell penetratingly of lemon and are used for flavouring by those lucky enough to grow a big enough plant; I had to be content with sniffing at a leaf now and then. The seeds are small and black, like poppy seeds, but I've no idea if they are as edible, because I remember reading that epazote (like a surprising number of plants used for flavouring) is poisonous if eaten in large amounts. Epazote is also quite decorative as its leaves are ribbed and slightly ferny, and its nice smell is safe to enjoy.

Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Good King Henry

A perennial - no worrying about seed losing its viability! This plant is slightly fussier than the annual goosefoots, though, and will not just spring up anywhere when sown. Because it knows it will be staying there for the next few years, maybe? Its leaves are most decoratively arrow-shaped, with a blunt point in front and sharper points behind, a bit like bindweed leaves. But there the resemblance ends, because this plant's leaves are both a deeper, heartier green and stiff with what seems a waxy layer. They are like orach leaves, only thicker and with more of a bite. Shapely yet robust, they would probably do well in a salad if I could be bothered to make salads. As it is, they are either nibbled straight off the plant or cut up and tossed into whatever's being cooked for dinner.

Alliaria petiolata
Garlic mustard, Jack-in-the-hedge

My final conclusion: this plant, related to cabbage and not to onions and garlic, does not taste like garlic. It does have a dully burning taste, which is unpleasant raw and spices up the potatoes when cooked. A self-fertile biennial, it counts as an invasive weed in North America. It self-sows in the garden, especially in the shadier spots as can be expected of a hedgerow plant, and in its first year the many seedlings produce a low, brilliant green carpet of almost circular leaves with a ridged circumference, overlapping each other like disorganized dragon's scales. Very pretty, but the next year they send up tall stalks, their leaves become dull and tough, and they pack their pods with as many seeds as they can before withering and dying.

When the carpet is still low and pretty, I like to pick some leaves to liven up a meal. Other than that, I praise this plant for doing well in the shade, and ignore it.

Small addendum: I'd read that the roots were also eaten, and pitied my poor ancestors for eating any kind of root no matter how mean and spindly. But pulling up some tough plants in their second year, I found the roots quite succulent-looking, so I wiped the soil off a section of root and gave it an experimental bite. It tasted like turnip. Not swede; hot, sulphuric-compounds-containing turnip. The taste of the leaves, only more concentrated.

Tetragona tetragonioides/expansa
New-Zealand spinach

This would be a big favourite of mine if only it did better! The big, spiky seeds have to be sown late as the plant needs warm weather. On fertile clay in the sun, it does become a sprawling bush, although the leaves might be a bit bigger. But the leaves are so gritty that soil splattered on their undersides by the perpetual Dutch rainfall is hard to wash off. The few leaves worth a nibble were fleshy and very slightly salt, not that dullish taste saying "ha ha you can't digest me" that typifies greens, especially from the cabbage family. When other plants are dropping their seeds, this semi-tropical succulent thinks there's still plenty of time. The few seeds removed before the first frost are green and soft and will go mouldy inside; the rest will die and turn black and the plant will, regrettably, not self-seed. This might be a good candidate for a cold greenhouse, as it needs just a slight extension of the growing season (and no rain, please) to make tasty clean leaves and drop its seeds on time.

Lamium album
White dead-nettle

The relatively large-leaved perennial white dead-nettle is the only one worth collecting leaves from, as the annual dead-nettles' leaves are small and develop mildew in summer and early autumn. The same goes for its lusciously large white flowers, but these flowers have the same problem as those of the annual relatives: they're usually occupied by an ant. Antless, the flowers are like the leaves, only tenderer. The nettle-like, but soft and friendly leaves have a matte finish due to the slight down which turns silvery in the morning new. The taste shared by flower and leaf is "mucous"; slightly slippery, this gets worse if the picked leaves are left in water for a day (my mistake, I'd forgotten about them). This is not just a subjective taste experience, the lamiums contain substances similar to those in marshmallow roots and are said to be good against colds and coughs. Though I haven't eaten any part of this plant in a long time precisely because of the snotty taste that develops if the leaves aren't processed fresh off the plant. A tea of leaves and/or flowers suggests a jelly about to set.

The plant is an ineradicable weed, which is fine by me as I find it beautiful, even magical, at the foot of a tree with its full white blossoms and mossy green leaves. I don't know if it shares its edible qualities with close relative and likewise ineradicable weed Lamiastrum galeobdolon, which has comparatively stringy stems and mean thin leaves, likes to crowd out the competition and only looks good once a year, when it produces fat custard-yellow blossoms to match the white ones. If any part of the yellow dead-nettle is as edible as the white dead-nettle, it would probably be the flowers.

Aegopodium podagraria
Ground elder, goutweed

Moving to a new house with a garden high in trees, I was delighted to see the large patch of ground elder. Finally, I was going to get a taste of this indestructible vegetable! ...Yuck. Cooked, even using the fresh green leaves as advised, it's like the kind of carrot taste I don't like, big winter carrots that have been in the ground too long and are about to go woody. Raw, the taste is worse. I can imagine people liking the taste of this plant as it would do well in hearty Dutch winter dishes with lots of bacon and/or sausage, like aforementioned winter carrots. But it's not for me.

Urtica dioica
Stinging nettle

There is also a smaller Urtica urens, but any nettle in the overfertilized Netherlands is likely to be the four-foot-high greater stinging nettle. I've had clumps of these monsters grow taller than me. Not that it matters because they're cut down and left to rot and return their many minerals to the soil. They have an underground system of cable-like roots: pulling on a tough stem hard enough may cause other stems a yard away to pop into the ground, as a whole colony of nettles turns out to have a common rhizome. I so fear the stinging leaves (which should only be eaten fresh and young) that I'll rarely eat them even after pouring boiling water over them. People who have been pricked often enough can become immune and pop a fresh leaf in their mouths as if it were a goosefoot, which must still be painful since the leaf is as bristly as a borage leaf. Still, here's a miracle I remember them by: as a young teen with a budding interest in curative herbs, I picked some stinging nettle leaves to make tea with. The tea was a bit like the smooth, jelly-like feel of dead-nettle tea, only not so smooth, a tiny bit abrasive to the palate, which was remedied by a spoonful of sugar. And here's the miracle: my slight but ever-present headache completely cleared up. It returned in time, and the next attempt to use nettle tea as an aspirin had no effects.

Smyrnium olusatrum

What I read about this biennial umbelliferous plant is that every part of it is edible: the leaves as greens, the stems as celery, the roots as, well, roots, and the seeds ground as a pepper substitute. That's a must-have plant, I thought. Well, it self-seeds which is just as well, because it won't obediently grow in rows where I sow it. And because of that, I've never eaten the roots, because to eat the roots, I need the year-old plants lined up neatly in a bed, since I'm not stupid enough to eat a biennal's roots in its second year. I will persevere!

I was however stupid enough to eat a biennial's stems in the second year, and as with real celery, these stems, though invitingly big and round, will be too stringy to bite through even after being cooked for half an hour. While they are cooking, they give off a smell so rich as to hint at frankincense. Chewing these tough stems to indigestible pulp to at least get some juice out of them, I found the taste had that same vague impression of frankincense. It is like celery, only fuller, richer and a bit acrid. If I ever harvest those first-year roots, I'll make sure to give the stems a second try too. For now, all I eat is the three-lobed leaves, neutral in taste like orach but slightly sharper, and fully edible until they wither.

Levisticum officinale

Lovage, one would think, needs no further introduction. A metre-high perennial with flavourful leaves and (I've not tried this) equally flavourful seeds. The root is also edible, although I wouldn't try to eat a woody old root and this plant, like the alexanders, has refused to come up in neat rows for easy harvesting. (I suspect the root would taste like celeriac, only stronger.) Unlike the alexanders, it doesn't self-seed on wet clay soil; it only came up in sandy patches at a previous address and all attempts to grow more or plant bought plants have since failed. Once big enough to survive and even laugh at the slugs, it stays forever and puts out stalks and leaves until it's the size of a small Christmas tree. These leaves, as suggestive of salt and pepper as anything can get without containing either substance, are a bit too strong for raw use but are great popped between bread and cheese, after which the bread is put in the oven until the cheese becomes runny; and of course they can be coarsely cut and tossed into whatever's cooking for dinner.

Allium schoenoprasum

Like lovage, chives is one of those kitchen herbs that everyone knows. But how many chives-consumers who love to snip bits off the delicate grass-like stems for garnishing, realize that when this same delicate plant is put in fertile ground, its stems puff up until they look like spring onion greens? The taste becomes a bit weaker, and those big sliced ringlets are anything but delicate, but still chivesy enough for a spaghetti dish. The flower stems are too tough to comfortably use, though, and the pretty pink flowers, while edible like all onion flowers (though the taste differs between species) are also tough and stringy, and a bit sharp on the tongue - the kind of garnish best not eaten. Once established, chives are problem-free plants, and they seed like mad, so for more delicate garnish, one only has to shake the seeds out of the seedheads and sow some new plants indoors.

Garlic chives
Allium tuberosum

Called "Chinese chives" in Dutch, these also start like slender plants only to have their leaves widen out when they grow bigger. But if pictures are to be believed, the leaves of garlic chives will become broad and flat rather than rounded. In their first year they are already like a flatter version of chives. Said to be very hardy outside, they've already shocked me twice in pots inside the house by dying down completely in winter; they will, however, rise from the dead in spring. After a year or so, they will develop sprays of white flowers said to have the sweet smell of roses, although the tiny spray I saw smelt of nothing. They don't grow as abundantly as chives and don't get used on cooked dishes. I just pinch off a bit to eat raw now and then. Garlic chives burns slightly more on the tongue than chives, but not much.

Chrysanthemum coronarium
Garland Chrysanthemum, Tong Ho, Shungiku

The edible chrysanthemum comes in a heavily serrated narrow-leaf form and a more wavily edged broad-leaf form. My immediate preference was for the latter - more leaf for my money - but since a narrow-leaf seed had made its way into the wrong packet, I could admire both forms. The flowers, which will appear on the plant if it is not immediately harvested and eaten, are butter-yellow mixed with white, as on a Limnanthes (poached-egg plant). The leaves are very tender, more so than lettuce, and very delicately sour, as if they have been slightly pickled on the plant; a blander form of sorrel. This is the kind of leaf that can be eaten raw, boiled or fried, in large quantities.

But of course there is a drawback which has prevented me from eating these leaves in large quantities. This plant doesn't like windowsills. Its tender, juicy leaves will become infested with aphids. In a garden, it will be slimed by slugs. In short: the garden pests like it better than I do!

Cryptotaenia japonica
Japanese parsley, mitsuba

This plant is said to be grown in pots by most Japanese families to toss some leaves in the soup. I've had it in a pot where, before it was invaded by kind of aphids that look like limpets and are as hard to remove, it did push out a few leaves that were bitter and tasted a bit like alexanders, except alexanders grow outside with no problem, self-seed and are aphid-free. This plant has pretty celery-like leaves (it has a red form which makes the leaves even prettier) but its taste is forgettable, or at least replacable. I've read that its leaves should only be eaten in spring because they turn bitter as the seasons progress, whereas alexanders are edible year-round. In all, the only reason I'm still trying to grow some is to have a slightly exotic non-poisonous foliage plant.

Perilla frutescens
Perilla, beafsteak plant

The first perilla seeds I bought and tried to grow were of the red- or purple-leaved form, that resembles the basil "Purple Ruffles". Not one germinated. Researching its germination requirements on the Internet, I wept to read that it was one of the most easily seeding plants in the world, a real weed, that had one exasperated gardner pulling up seedlings years after that first fateful packet - and wept less to hear that it attracts aphids. Well, it's supposed to taste like cinnamon, maybe aphids like their plants sweet 'n spicy. The second (and third) packet were of a specific variety, "Britton", quite different from the perilla I knew, which is purple or green, and frilly-leaved; the leaves were saw-edged but clearly oval, like a coleus leaf, and purple on one side, green on another. The seeds were bigger, too. Whether this helped I don't know, but the plants actually came up, although they didn't self-seed and the seeds themselves did not stay viable for long, hence the third packet. The leaves did taste of cinnamon with a touch of mint, as the packet promised. However, eaten raw, they were the opposite of tender, and I didn't get enough seedlings, nor did they live long enough, to cook some.

A year later, having only seeds of the red-leaved form, I found that the little tykes can germinate if they want to! Their leaves are prettily frilled and not as fibrous as "Britton", and taste like cinnamon basil. Growing outside, the mean little plants are aphid-free; what happens now that I've brought them inside to overwinter, remains to be seen. (Update: they remembered they are annuals, and died.)

Stevia rebaudiana
Stevia, honey leaf

I bought seeds of this supposedly vigorous grower. One tiny seedling came up, then died. I bought another and nothing came up. Stevia germinates badly and needs so much light that this tender perennial may not survive winter even when taken inside and left on the windowsill. Desperate to get a taste of its famous sweet leaves, I bought a plant and kept it on the balcony. After some growing in which I picked the odd leaf and it even produced a seedhead (of unfertilized, empty seeds) it died down and I bought another plant. Surprise! It sent up new shoots. I now also know how to get more plants: take cuttings, they root surprisingly well.

Stevia is one of those plants that may only be sold for decorative use because the sugar lobby doesn't want it used as a sweetener. It tastes like ground licorice root and in my opinion it will never take the place of sugar because, as with licorice, its sweetness is much too sharp. I chew on a leaf now and then; the leaves are stiff and a bit hairy, but the taste makes up for it. The plant is supposed to repel aphids with its taste, but sadly I do have to wipe some of the crawlers off any leaves I pick. I've overwintered the old "dead" plant and the new plant successfully, so as long as it gets enough light in its growing period it will be fine.

Lippia dulcis
Oroznz, Aztec sweet herb

Like stevia, this plant is reputed to have leaves sweet enough to sweeten one's tea with. Unlike stevia, it comes up well from seed. Like stevia, it soon dies for lack of light. Unlike stevia, although it is a tender perennial, I didn't manage to overwinter it; two fluffy pompons of seed heads (unfertilized and useless) is what the largest of the plants produced before kicking the proverbial bucket.

Lippia dulcis has dead-nettle-like leaves of a very soft, fresh green. On biting these leaves, one finds the reason for the soft green lustre: they are hairy, more so than stevia leaves, and their comparative softness makes their hairyness somehow less pleasant. The taste is sweet, but without the sharpness of stevia, more like milk powder. In a far distant time, my parents wound up with a surplus of tinned milk powder, probably Nutricia, and I would eat the stuff by thimblefuls like candy or shake some into my hand and lick it off. That is the sweet, mellow taste of these leaves, which would be a worse threat to the sugar industry than stevia if there was an easy way to get this sweetness out of its hairy envelope.

Crithmum maritimum
Rock samphire

This plant is tough. In the wild, it grows in the crevices of cliffs. At home, it grows in one of those small pots clamped to drainpipes, and hasn't died yet. Its narrow fronds are smooth, thick and rubbery, starting reddish and turning to green. A lobe can be picked off this slightly succulent plant and chewed raw, for this plant was made for raw eating. Both taste and texture are entirely pleasing to the tongue. The taste, reputed to be salty, is in fact carrotty-anise-like, with the sweetness of carrots. This is one of those rare vegs that needs no spicing or flavouring whatsoever.

Update: after three years in its little pot, it has died. Clearly a short-lived perennial. New seeds have been procured, and a better location will be sought, where it might self-seed.

Ocimum basilicum, sp.

Suffering badly from Seed Hoarding Syndrome (wanting seeds of every plant out there, or at least of every variation of a plant somewhere, only to kill the resulting seedlings through neglect) I once bought as many different types of basil seeds as possible, and raised most of those to plants large enough to sample a leaf. Which is where said syndrome comes in useful, for I now know that there are roughly two kinds of basil: rough-leaved and smooth-leaved. A possible third kind, if I'd managed to raise a bush basil variety, being small-leaved.

The smooth-leaved kinds are the basils known from French cooking, especially the varieties "Napoletano" (with big soft ballooning leaves; the kind sold as small plants in supermarkets) and Genovese, known for its strong scent. The "normal" smooth-leaved basil has stiffer, more pointed leaves that can be as dark and thick as heliotrope leaves if given enough sunlight; I remember a spindly windowsill plant, growing each new pair of leaves only to drop them, that became a healthy bush bursting with vitality once I planted it outside, and provided me with these impressive leaves all summer. This was grown from a seed packet just labelled "basil", yet I haven't grown anything to beat its flavour since. Also smooth-leaved are the giant-leaved Mammouth or mammoth forms (seeing how large veg varieties are often called "Mammouth", I wonder if they are named after a person as with the "Ailsa Craig" varieties, or whether this is a pervasive misspelling), the disease-resistant hybrid Nufar (ironically dying on me as the seedlings were so feeble), the Mexican basils, the dark-leaved forms "Dark Opal" and "Red Rubin", and the superb form "Purple Ruffles" which not only tasted like basil but looked too good to eat, and its more ordinary variant "Green Ruffles". Getting a bit hairy but still under the "smooth" umbrella are the various "sacred basils" and tree or clove basil, one of the few basils that isn't an annual but can, if kept warm over winter, grow into a small tree.

Then there are the rough-leaved basils, typically from the tropics: cinnamon basil, lemon basil and its extra-lemon variety "Sweet Dani", lime basil, liquorice basil and Thai basil with its variety "Siam Queen". These basils have small, pointy and/or extra-serrated leaves that are bristly to the touch and tongue. They do better on the windowsill, showing higher shade tolerance, and will flower early and young, unlike the smooth varieties that concentrate on leaf production and only think about the next generation when it's almost too late. This is how I know that these basils have purplish-pink flowers, while the flowers of smooth basils tend to be white.

To sort out the naming confusion: most basils, especially the smooth-leaved forms, fall under Ocimum basilicum. One form of bush basil, the extra-small-leaved Finissimo verde a palla, is called Ocimum basilicum var minimum or just Ocimum minimum. The rough-leaved lemon basil is called Ocimum citriodorum. Lime basil, that odd one out, has three names: Ocimum americanum/canum/fruticulosum. The sacred basils, which like smooth-leaved basils come in green and purple, are all Ocimum sanctum, while clove basil, which is in a class of its own, has the flattering name Ocimum gratissimum ("most pleasing").

Although basil, being of the mint family, imitates mint in the many flavour varieties its family contains, the rough-leaved basils are generally stronger-tasting, the taste varying between extremely lemony and more towards paint remover (the liquorice/Thai varieties). This applies also to the borderline-smooth sacred and clove basil; the second I haven't been able to grow yet but its reputation speaks for itself, while the first, at least in the green-leaved form, has the kind of sharp astringent taste that would work well in rice dishes.

In all, I prefer the smooth-leaved basils, the ones with the full satisfying taste complementing tomatoes, that don't feel like Brillo pads in the mouth. Going for leaves rather than flowers is what every green veg should do, even if it makes seed saving a little harder, and the big basil leaves have the same buttery softness as lettuce, with the added advantage of flavour. If I did want the more extreme flavours of the rough-leaved basils, I would find them in Mexican basil for cinnamon taste and the variety "Mrs Burns Lemon" for, well, guess. Probably still smooth-leaved but defying all attempts to grow it is the bush variety Spicy Globe, which should probably taste of "ordinary" basil but which may, like small-leaved plants generally, be adapted to a dry sunny climate, which explains its failure to thrive in the Netherlands, even on a windowsill.

Carpobrotus edulis
Hottentot Fig

Like the fig cactus (Opuntia), another succulent whose fruit is said to resemble a fig; probably not so much in looks or taste as in being full of seed. I saw this plant in the Chiltern Seeds catalogue where it was described as a drought-resistant plant with large magenta flowers and triangularly shaped edible leaves with the taste of pickled cucumber. I have pinched off and eaten the leaves, thick sour fleshy lobes which, when cut across, do look roughly like a triangle. After that, the still tiny plant managed to die of thirst. Apparently it's not drought-resistant until it's grown to a certain size, and not at all if it's in a pot.

Reading up on it, I found that this plant from South Africa had been mass-planted in the USA to stabilize deserts, which in turn had disturbed the desert flora, and people living in warm climates were requested not to grow this pest. I don't see what the problem is since, apart from the reputedly seedy fruit, the plant is edible and can simply be relocated to the salad bowl if it becomes too invasive. I also read that in the climate of Western Europe it doesn't set fruit anyway. So what's left to eat is the fleshy leaves, which do taste of pickled cucumber but without the hassle and wait of pickling, and they're good enough to make me buy more seed and try again.


Helianthus tuberosus
Jerusalem artichoke, sunchoke, topinambour

It's said that these tough plants can't be killed. I've found, though, that they can be severely weakened by withholding light. Relatives of the sunflower that produce tubers, they are a highly productive, ineradicable weed in open ground, and weak producers under the shade of a tree. The tubers are thin-skinned, smooth or knobby, and are best left in the ground and harvested immediately before use, although in a plastic bag they will keep for about 2 weeks in the fridge. Like potatoes, they can rot in waterlogged clay, giving off the smell of putrid tulip bulb when dug up. Although they can be dug up year-round, they are best harvested between November and March, preferably after several freezes, which will both sweeten the tubers and decrease the fart factor a little.

These tubers are high in inulin, a supposed godsend for diabetics, for which reason health faddists worship them. Among non-faddists they are known for their gas-provoking nature. Apparently they have a higher fart factor than beans. This is supposed to be due to the indigestible inulin, but burdock roots are also high in inulin and don't have the same reputation. Apparently the fart factor can be reduced by storing, freezing and/or cooking them, or letting Nature do the work and harvesting them as late as possible. Preparing them with certain herbs (asafoetida has been named) is supposed to help too. My personal experience is that they bloat up my intestines so painfully that by the time the gas finds its way out, I'm too relieved to care. It matters how much you eat; I can safely eat three medium-sized tubers at a sitting without being in agony for hours afterwards.

The Dutch names for the potato, "aardappel" ("earth apple") and the Jerusalem artichoke, "aardpeer" ("earth pear") suggest that these two are in the same class of edibility and should be prepared the same way. Wrong! The Jerusalem artichoke can be both baked and boiled like a potato. In the first case, it will be sweet and glassy, like a potato that's been frozen, which doesn't improve its taste. In the second case, it will boil into a thick soup, giving off a rich floury smell. As the peels are so thin, they can be left on when boiling or baking, although I always peel them because of the sand and mud that gets caught in all the cracks. But (and here peeling is a good idea) they can, unlike potatoes, be eaten raw! At a loss what to do with a bunch of tubers harvested early in spring, I bit into a raw one and was surprised at its sweetness. Accidentally, I'd dug them up at the right time. These tubers taste like firm, resinous carrots, and like carrots they can be sweet or what I call "soapy": a bland dishwater taste. These days I only eat them raw, which helps to prevent overeating. Having moved them to a shady patch, I don't have as many to eat as I used to anyway.

The tubers I planted were of two kinds: a knobby type and a smooth type for easier peeling. Before trying them raw, I favoured the smooth type, and these were the tubers I put in the ground for the next year. (In this climate they only propagate through tubers, preventing hybridization.) But I've discovered that the sweeter tubers are the knobby ones, of which I think I've eaten the last one - oops!

Cyperus esculentus
Chufa, tiger nut

This grass-like plant likes it wet, but not too wet or it will die. It wants lots of light, or it will die. It takes forever to sprout from its little tuber. (But it must be grown from this tuber since plants grown from seed will have even smaller tubers.) It is extremely frost-tender. So, what does this spoilt bully of a plant have to show for itself once love and care have been lavished on it in abundance?

Its tubers, the "nuts", are the size of beech nuts and the same taste, leaving the same dry feeling in the throat. Like beech nuts, they are full of oil which, once extracted from the stringy fibre, would have a nice nutty, buttery taste. For now, I'll brave the fibre. Oddly enough some tubers did survive last winter, leaving me with a few to eat and fewer still to sow. So far, only one seedling has reared its head, as late as June. The truth is, the plant is not spoilt but needs a warm climate with reliably long summers and gentle winters. So, getting it to survive here is almost more trouble than the taste is worth.

Lilium longiflorum
Easter Lily, St. Joseph's Lily

This lily is said to be entirely edible, the bulbs being the best part. After a failed attempt to grow them from seed I bought two bulbs, kept one outside and one inside, and had the outside one die after extensive slug damage and hard frosts, so I won't eat any bulbs just yet. Having eaten both flower and leaf (the stem is really too tough and thick) I can say that the petals are unpleasantly astringent raw, like a bitter leek, and the leaves even more so; and that the leaves remain unpalatably bitter even when fried. So that leaves the bulb, once I have propagated the plant from its scales; as a leaf veg, this plant is useless.

It's good enough as an ornamental, producing a pure white scented trumpet on a long stalk. It's an aphid magnet, though, and has lately attracted whitefly, and will be moved outside into direct sunlight (which frequently does wonders for clearing up aphid infestations) as soon as the weather permits.

Pachyrhizus erosus
Jicama, Mexican yam bean

This is one of those plants that germinates rapidly, goes: "Hey, no sun??" and dies as rapidly. As the name implies, this plant is a legume, with poisonous seeds (and reputedly beautiful red flowers that must be removed for the bulb to grow) and a large bulbous root reputed to have the sweet thirst-quenching taste of apple. In fact, the tiny bulb to develop from the surviving plant - the size of a small radish - tasted like a radish without any pungency. This plant is normally grown in full sun in hotter climates than mine, which could make its bulb swell to apple size, but I still don't believe it would taste like a real apple.

Brassica rapa ssp. rapa
Turnip, Mustard turnip

Seed of this easily grown relative of the turnip was given to me as a "garden-warming" present when I first moved into a house with a garden. I turned over the soil of the weediest part of the garden - the planned "wildflower" section - and threw out handfuls of seed over it. The variety was the standard "Platte Witte Mei", which, despite its name, is not so much white as pale yellow, and I harvested flat little yellowish turnips of various sizes, cut out the rotten bits where grubs had burrowed and mashed what remained with potatoes and butter. Yummy. The ones that escaped my notice, put out yellow blossoms the next year.

Later attempts to make "Platte Witte Mei" grow in neat rows were not so successful. It would seem to be an anarchic, freedom-loving vegetable.

Called "meiraap" in Dutch, this is the real and original turnip, but often called something else because what is commonly called "turnip" is in fact the swede. Swedes are big, not really edible raw and when cooked, sickly-sweet. Real turnips are smaller, not frost-hardy, and pungent like radish, a pungency which they mostly keep when cooked. When grown for their leaves, real turnips are called turnip greens or mustard greens, and have the same sweet-pungent taste that stays when cooked, and combines so well with potato and butter; when grown for their seeds, they are called rapeseed. They should be easy to sow and quick to grow, so I'm still wondering why they only grew in a weedy mudpatch for me.

Sium sisarum

The English name derives from the Dutch "suikerwortel", meaning "sugar root". This is one of the many vegetables imported by the Romans, held in high esteem for a long time and then forgotten. It's a tricky one to sow; the first sowing went well and the plants produced roots and even seeds, but the seeds didn't come up when sown at a new address and successively bought seed packets have fared no better. Once germinated, this plant is a perennial that can, like potatoes and jerusalem artichokes, be eternally propagated from its roots. These roots are nothing to look at, bunches of long thin strings that look grubby even when scrubbed clean, but oh, the taste: candy with the texture of carrot. Hence my stubborn attempts to grow it again.

Pastinaca sativa

Before the potato was imported, Europeans ate parsnips as staple. It is as floury as potatoes, but sweeter, which is not to everyone's taste, especially if it is to be eaten daily. A fat white carrot, it can be eaten raw but is then so mealy and fluffy that one feels one could choke on it, so cooking it makes it a bit more manageable. Cooked, it tastes like blandly sweet and very filling carrot. It has to be mixed with butter or soy sauce just to relieve the sheer blandness. Being so soft and fluffy, it can easily be mashed and could probably be used in an imitation pumpkin soup.

Though hard to eat, it's easy to grow: from February onwards, sow in rows in any soil that's not too heavy and/or waterlogged; pull up again at the end of the year. It's fully hardy, but will go woody if left in the ground too long. Not a problem: leave it in, enjoy its umbels of yellow flowers the subsequent year, and harvest the seeds. Parsnips can attract carrot fly, so interplanting with onions or garlic is a good idea.

Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum
Hamburg parsley

Despite its reputed high vitamin content, parsley leaf doesn't do much for me. Its taste is watery and slightly bitter and while it's said to go well with carrots (which are just as watery, or rather juicy, when raw) it does exactly nothing for my palate on its own. But when leaf is replaced by root, it's a different matter! Far easier to clean than the greens, especially the curly ones, the nice neat little white root has a mild taste of parsley with the texture of carrot, capturing the combination above in just one veg. It can be eaten raw, but is much, much better mashed together with potatoes and butter.

Tragopogon porrifolius

The variety I grew was the purple "wild" flower - image a sparsely petalled purple dandelion flower waving on a yard-high slim stem - and not the cultivated salsify that produces thick roots. So, its roots were pencil-slim, but also not as "hairy" as the picture of the cultivated variety. After being scrubbed and cooked, they tasted like scorzonera, only less sweet. While being cut and scrubbed, they also gave off a milky sticky sap, a bit like scorzonera, but not as sticky. Unlike scorzonera, the root doesn't have a skin that can easily be peeled off after cooking (which destroys the sticky milky sap). Hm. Best grown for decoration.

The stem (nope, too tough) and leaves (long, narrow, stringy) can also be cooked and are bland with a touch of bitter. Clearly, this plant falls under "famine food".

Ipomoea batatas
Sweet potato

This is not a potato, nor is it a yam, although it is sometimes called that for its large tuber. It belongs to the Morning Glory family and I admit I've cheated, as I haven't grown this one myself; I saw it in the supermarket and decided to test it for taste before planting a tuber in the garden to see what flowers and crop it would produce. (If any; this is a non-hardy tropical plant.) Right. The tubers, which exist in various colours, were in this case a dull orange and a bit too coarsely textured to eat raw. Cooked, they were like parsnips, only more so: not just fluffy-carrotty but outright spongy-carrotty, soft enough to mash, and so insipidly sweet that meat and gravy had to be mixed in to make them edible. This is another good candidate for fake pumpkin soup, but I decided to forgo the garden experiment.

Stachys affinis
Crosne, Chinese artichoke

Crosnes are bought as small, shrimp-sized/shaped tuberlets and put in any soil anywhere. Plants with serrated fuzzy leaves and purplish-pink flowers come up in summer and disappear again. Now it's time to dig up the tuberlets, which will have multiplied in number, and put some back for next year. The first time I did this, I was rather late, and cut off the shoots that the bulbs had been sending up. Never mind; they made new shoots. The second time, in early March, the shoots were starting to grow but short enough to not snap off when the tubers were dug up. These tubers, sectioned like little harmonicas, can grow to over an inch long, upon which they start putting out little side-tubers, like the arms on a stick puppet. It's best to grow them in sandy soil, and let them dry a bit after digging them up, brush the soil off and only then wash them in lots of water and scrape them with a peeling knife, because even when brushed clean they will still have lots of little soil particles in the cracks between the sections. In all, much work to clean for very little to eat! Raw, they taste half-way between jerusalem artichoke and low-pungency radish. Cooked or, better yet, baked in butter with seasoning, they taste like baked jerusalem artichoke, which is supposed to taste like salsify, which is supposed to taste like oyster.


Hoya carnosa
Wax plant, honey plant

This is a well-known houseplant, and well-known houseplants tend to be tropical, inedible, and poisonous. But there's nothing poisonous about the nectar welling up from these waxy flowers.

The plant produces one or more balls of thick, flat, hexagonal flower buds. These open their five petals to turn into fat little white starfish with a smaller starfish in the centre, overlapping with the bigger one. Between the big and the small petals, tiny blobs of thick sweet nectar form. They can be scooped up with a fingernail, and as long as the plant was blossoming I would be daily "harvesting" and licking the stuff off my fingers, oblivious to parental frowns and warnings.

The blobs are tiny and a whole row of plants might just suffice to sweeten one cup of tea. However, new blobs are formed every morning, and they're fine for a quick micro-sugar fix. A page turned up in a websearch says: Hoya is an easy to grow high light plant. It grows slowly and produces clusters of star shaped flowers that excrete a sweet honeydew that is edible. So there.

Tropaeolum majus
Peruvian cress

Though mostly grown either for decoration or for the slightly pungent (not nice raw) leaves that stand on their stalks like round tables, and sometimes for their seeds (caper-like when green, pepper-like when black?), I find the flowers the most edible part of these plants. They are as sharp in taste as the leaves, but for one part: the long spur on the back of the flower (provided it's not a spurless variety). This must be where the nectar is produced, because as well as being sharp, it's sweet. In fact, I could just eat the spur and discard the rest of the flower. But, whether it's for its sweetness or the fact that it's just the right size: this spur may be occupied by an earwig! So it's best to tap or shake the flower first to remove unwelcome visitors.

Borago officinalis

Borage leaves are said to taste like cucumbers. They do, if one doesn't mind one's tongue being used as a pincushion. They are prickly enough to scratch the skin. This may be a sign of good health and of growing on mineral-rich soil, since a small mean borage plant growing in a pot had leaves as soft as a bathtowel. The big, spoon-like leaves can be cooked, but will then lose their flavour.

The tiny, starry, often blue but also white flowers taste of cucumber too, and are spineless. Once they are fully coloured (they go through shades of blue-pink as they mature) they can be pulled off like little crowns. By then they have served their purpose, the bees will have visited and seeds will already be in the making. They can be, and should be, eaten raw, maybe a pile of them picked and tossed into a salad that will need neither oil nor vinegar, where they will add not only the taste of cucumber but a touch of sweetness from remaining nectar. But: although the flowers keep their quality throughout the summer, they will soon be discovered by teeny tiny white crawling things. The early flowers can be eaten straight off the plant, but later flowers should be washed first.


Fagus sylvatica
Beech nut

These seeds are poisonous unless heated. That is to say, poisonous in large quantities. How large, I don't know, because when I was small we went to a wood and picked buckets of them off the ground and I shelled them and gorged myself. Many years later, I had to go to the post office in Slochteren and, walking under a line of beech trees, saw a thick carpet of these triangular nuts and their spiky bolsters strewn on road and pavement, most of them crushed by careless drivers. Do people even realize they're trampling food? I secretively collected two pockets full and chomped on them while walking. The trees don't produce nuts every year and I won't plant a beech sapling in the garden hoping for nuts, it takes quite a few years. As well as being slow and unreliable producers, I've read that beech trees can't stand direct sunlight on the bark, which doesn't explain how they survive planted as hedges or lining pavements.

Two pocketfuls of beech nuts are still not enough to noticeably poison me. However, I've discovered how dry they are. Between the kernel and the easily cracked shell there is a thin "liner" of fluff which should be rubbed off. And even then, the nut should be chewed thoroughly and swallowed with a lot of saliva to avoid irritating the throat. The taste is floury, and would be quite nice if not for the dryness. They would probably taste better if baked into bread or mashed to a paste. Maybe they were dried out from lying around too long?

Corylus avellana

An old classic that everyone knows. In a former garden, I planted a twiggy seedling from a carton illustrated with piles of hazelnuts. "Takes 10 years to bear", the small print read, so unless it's been chopped down, someone should be harvesting by now. Hazel bushes must be pollinated by an adjacent bush of a different type. Apart from the normal hazel types, there are two decorative ones: a variety with purple foliage and one with twisty branches. Whether these - I'd planted both - would have qualified as pollen sources, I didn't stay around long enough to know. A few moves later, I found myself in a tumbledown house with two huge hazel bushes of harvesting age. The last harvest saw me through two years, which is just as well as the next two years failed to produce nuts. I blame climate changes, as the male flowers appear around December - this is why any pruning should be done in November or earlier - and the female flowers around February, so if the winter is too warm, I suppose all the pollen will already be gone once it is needed. Since hazel bushes are notorious for their vigour, I've cut them back to yard high only to have them grow to ceiling height in the same year; someday, I shall try coppicing and skip a year's harvest.

Having hazel bushes in one's own garden means being able to see the female flowers: scarlet filaments extending from a fat green bud. The harvest, if any, starts around August as nuts hail on one's terrace, plants and head. Most nuts are small, but some are bigger and slightly lobed, like two or three nuts combined into one. The nuts are best taken inside at once and stored in a dry place. Black or pale nuts are either rotten or unripe. Hazel nuts can be baked into cookies and meringue pies, but I prefer to grab the nutcracker and just binge like a squirrel. Given past years' non-harvests, I can say that they keep for at least three years. They are also said to be richer in fat and protein, per weight, than hens' eggs, making them useful for whoever can't, for whatever reason, eat animal protein.

Myrrhis odoratus
Sweet cicely

A fern-like plant, but not a fern, it grows from long black pointed seeds that need a period of frost to germinate. Luckily, they did, and my garden was graced with this decorative semi-shade perennial of which the leaves are also said to be edible, and decrease the sourness of rhubarb and fruits. My interest in the plant was its seeds. Imagine anise seeds, not small and round, but juicy, almost an inch long and pointed. While still green, these can be eaten raw, and as with anise, too much makes me nauseous. They can be harvested and kept in the fridge for about a week (or possibly longer - but they were always eaten within a week) but must be picked before June, when they grow stringy; and with the warm summers of the past years, they're already turning stringy in May.

Chenopodium quinoa

Quinoa is a pain to harvest, and you can't exactly grow it for the birds either, since the seeds are bitter and slightly poisonous precisely to deter the birds. It can be decorative; the first packet I bought (it was the first time I'd even heard of quinoa) was a mix of all the varieties said to be grown, for their leaves, for their seeds, or for their fibre used for basket-weaving. The plants that made it to the seed stage fell in four categories: dark red, large-seeded; hard pink, medium-seeded; soft pink, medium-seeded; yellow, tiny seeds. No doubt the variety with yellow seeds had been a basket-weaving type.

Okay, so the plants had gone to seed, died and dried; now to get the seeds out. I tried getting the individual seeds out of the seedheads with my fingernails, which took ages. I tried crushing the dried leaves, stems and seadheads and then winnowing to separate chaff from seeds; the seeds were as light as the chaff. I tried to pass the mix of seeds, leaf fragments and other assorted bits (little cocoons from an unknown insect, ugh) through a sieve without being able to separate them, as seed and leaf fragment were about the same size. Finally I put the whole mess into plastic bags to sow at a future date, but alas, I didn't know yet about the short viability of Chenopodium seeds. The large dark red seeds were the easiest to harvest and I had about a handful of those to chew on, noting that they were more bitter than millet, because I also didn't know that quinoa has to be rinsed before eating.

Much, much later, I bought quinoa grain in a shop, rinsed it repeatedly and boiled it. The tiny kernels puffed up and looked as if they had little threads around them. The taste was mild and bland, but again I noticed what a nuisance quinoa was to clean, since the little grains stuck to everything and I dug through the yellow seeds picking out all the little black ones, of which I didn't know whether they were bad seeds or maybe insect eggs (brr).

In all, quinoa is easy to grow, but hell to prepare, and, on its own, tastes marginally better than millet.

Raphanus sativus caudatus
Rat-tailed radish

I've given up on radishes. There are many types of radishes, even of the round and quick-growing summer types: red, white, white-red, yellow, orange, purple, even - but this is a larger beast, and closer to a winter radish - white on the outside and red on the inside. But these don't work for me. They bolt. Even the winter radishes bolt. And though they are pretty at the rare times when they don't bolt, I hate the taste! They burn my mouth or taste weak. When cooked, they just taste weak. So here I am, putting all this effort into a veg I don't like.

Except, of course, if bolting is what the radish is supposed to do. Rat-tailed radish bolts straight away and produces long pods, green or purple-tinged (mine were mostly green). These nicely pointed pods, which must be picked young before they turn stringy, are fresh and slightly pungent, but can be comfortably eaten raw. They are even better cooked. And although rat-tailed radish has the biggest and prettiest pods, the short, blunt pods of ordinary bolted radish can be eaten in the same way. What a discovery!

Pisum sativum

What is so special about peas, that I should mention them here? The special thing is that ordinary peas are the only kind I haven't grown yet.

Ordinary peas are what goes into split-pea soup and tins of mushy green... somethings. Bleah. I hated peas until I ate some fresh out of the pod, which is when they taste like sweetcorn. Left to fully ripen in the pods, they become more like beans and have to be cooked. Ripe peas straight from the pod cooked with potatoes are not too bad.

Mangetouts are pea pods that are edible as long as the peas have not developed. They, too, taste like sweetcorn, and there's no fussing to get the peas out of the pod. Two variaties I started with, Corne de Beliér and Swiss Giant (a literal translation of the Dutch name: "Zwitserse Reus", and the French name: "Géant suisse"), grow huge pods. Corne de Bélier, meaning "ram's horn", is known in Dutch as "Grote Slier", since that's all they could make of the name. Either are heirlooms. A third variety I'm growing, Lugtmeijer, is an exclusively Dutch heirloom, grown by the family of the same name; it has small pods but is also a tiny and very early plant.

And then there are sugar snaps. The first time I grew them, I was appalled at the thick, fleshy, utterly un-mangetout-like pod. Now, I know that not only is the pod supposed to be like that, but I can wait until peas have grown inside it. Peas can also be allowed to grow in mangetout pods, but as with ordinary peas, they have to be harvested before they are fully ripe, and it may be my imagination, but peas of the mangetout type seem to turn ripe and bitter faster than ordinary peas. Snap peas are even less of a bother than mangetout peas; you can pick them flat, or when they're beginning to fill, without having to shell them. And they're deliciously crunchy!

Not only the pods and seeds of peas are edible, but the leaves and flowers too. In fact, some peas have been cultivated to grow sprays of parsley-like leaves to go in salads. I'm still looking for seeds of these peas.

Meanwhile, I've finally decided to grow "normal" peas again and not just the standard peas, but also a type sold as Pisum sativum var. argenteum, with silvery leaves: quite decorative, and entirely edible.


Chaenomeles japonica
Crab apple, quince

Neither English name is correct as crab apples belong to the Malus family and the real quince is Cydonia oblonga, not this low spiny shrub with its vivid red, orange or pink flowers in spring that is much used in wayside plantings because of its toughness. It grows small, inedible "apples" that the Dutch also call by the confusing name of "Japanese quince" (I think there is also a real Japanese quince with apple-shaped fruits, but don't know its Latin name). I didn't have a garden at that time, and someone similarly interested in homegrown edibles picked a whole bunch of them and processed them into jam, giving me a pot or three.

Food faddists and alternative healers like to blame foods like jams and jellies for everything from diabetes to liver failure, but while I can understand their disapproval of the toxic-tasting supermarket products, this kind of home-made produce is easily 90% fruit, packed with vitamins, and no scary additives. Making jam, like making wine and cider, used to be the way to preserve the good stuff in fruit, and how healthy it is depends on how it was made. This jam was fruity and aromatic (and very tangy due to the lemon used for flavouring) and, unlike most industrially produced jams, met with complete approval from my palate.

Fragaria (vesca, x ananassa)

I've had four types of strawberry in the garden: "normal", alpine, yellow and white. The "normal" ones are the ones that are grown for their fruit and survive previous inhabitants: they're the large-fruited x ananassa hybrids. They taste like, well, strawberries, and are only really sweet when they ripen in full sunlight. If they're not properly taken care of, the fruit will be small and not worth picking.

The so-called alpine strawberries (the Dutch word for them is "forest" strawberries) are wild strawberries, although they, too, are sold in various strains. My first and only red alpine was the runnerless (and near-indestructible) "Baron von Solemacher". The fruits were tiny and so soft that they couldn't be picked without deforming them. Wine is supposed to be made from these strawberries, which wouldn't surprise me since they already have a wine-like taste. When the last plant died, I didn't bother to get new seed.

The yellow, also runnerless strawberry is still putting out its first blossoms. The white strawberry, really a colourless pale yellow alpine variety, is putting out runners all over the place and isn't producing fruit just yet. It seems that white strawberries were formerly grown for juice production. Strawberry juice? Hmmm...

Crataegus (monogyna/laevigata?)

The first time I had a house with a garden, I quickly made "permaculture" plans and put in bushes with edible fruit: hazelnut, Guelder rose, hawthorn, sloe and the like. Of course permaculture defeats itself when it fails to find ways of dealing with natural predators (aka "neighbours") and so these fruit-bearers were left to the tender mercies of the next inhabitants, who no doubt levelled them to make way for a deck and barbecue. The hawthorn certainly needs not count on their mercy as hawthorn berries are tasteless and insipid, with a tiny hard kernel that is easily swallowed by mistake, although it's probably harmless. The best thing to say about hawthorn berries is that they don't taste foul. They are a most pleasant famine food, far surpassing tulip bulbs.

I later read that the young leaves can be eaten too, and have "a pleasant nutty flavour", but the news came too late. At the moment, I'm patiently waiting for the germination of a different species of hawthorn, whose pips are almost as big as a normal hawthorn's berries, and whose fruits would be plum-sized, and are said to taste delicious. (Update: after three years, I assume the seeds have rotted in the earth.)

Another Crataegus that was rudely pushing its way in from the neighbouring garden (rather like the neighbours themselves) displayed a bunch of glossy deep red berries that begged to be tasted. They had the taste of apple with a nasty twist to it.

Sorbus aucuparia

Rowan berries are big and plump and orange and stay on the tree forever. This is partly because they are so sour. The taste of them raw makes one's lips wrap around one's teeth, and one does not care to sample another berry. I've read that they taste better after being frozen (which also makes them limp and wrinkled), that they are poisonous raw and must be cooked (I can see them being used as a substitute for lemon) or dried, and that there are sweet and even pear-shaped cultivars! Pearberries, that would be worth scouring nurseries for! Because rowans are decorative trees with beautiful feathered leaves and fruit that keeps well on the branch. If only it didn't taste so awful...

Hippophae rhamnoides

Sea buckthorn and seaberry are two names I've heard for this bush being sold as seeds on eBay by a seller with a Russian background. Russians may love and prize them, the Dutch hate them: on the coast they grow all over the place, the local name being "duindoorn", dune-thorn, and there's a lot of dune around here, and they're covered with half-inch spikes down to the tiniest twiglet! They grow in unbalanced haphazard ways, which offends the Dutch sense of orderliness, are considered fit only for "wild gardens" and, to make things worse, will only produce berries on the female plant, if a male plant grows nearby.

As always, this is not quite true as my solitary buckthorn did produce a few berries. I can confirm, though, that one picks them at the price of long, deep scratches, since the berries are clustered on the main stems and around the beginnings of side-shoots, not at the end of the twigs as would have been more sensible for a bush ensuring the survival of its kind through seed! Then again, a bird feeding on these berries need not worry about being pounced on by a cat.

The bush is lopsided but beautiful, with narrow silver leaves. The berries are works of art, translucent liquid orange dusted with tiny silver specks, like frosted amber. Popped into the mouth, or even lightly bitten, they are as sour as rowanberries. There is something delicate about the sourness, though. Buckthorn berries are reputed to be high in vitamin C and are made into jams, juice and jelly. The buckthorn jam I bought at an eco-shop preserved this sparkling, zingy, delicate taste while eliminating the sourness. This jam was proof that they can be made edible, with an effort. Edibility doesn't improve after frost; I tried some again that had been hanging off a branch all winter and were wrinkled, soft and squishy. The taste was soggy and very disagreeable.

Aronia melanocarpa

This is the bush the Dutch call "appelbes" ("apple-berry"), presumably for the appearance of the unripe berries. The English name is better suited to the bitter, un-juicy currant-sized black berries on this bush with its pretty white blossoms that I only bought because the berries were said to be extremely high in vitamin C. The bush is hardy and not troubled with diseases, and flowers early in the year, but the berries should be left outside until after the first frost. After that, they are probably still not edible raw but will do well in jams. Not knowing the bit about the frost, I tried a raw berry, decided to process the rest into jam, and mixed the small harvest with apples to make one (1) pot of edible but not particularly well-tasting jam. An experiment I'm not in a hurry to repeat.

Sambucus nigra

Just about every garden has one of these growmonsters, producing faintly aromatic (of cat's piss, that is) sprays of yellow-white blossoms followed by many small dark purple berries. The blossoms, it seems, can be eaten raw, battered and fried or processed into lemonade syrup; I tried the third and was too put off by the overpowering cat piss smell to drink the stuff. The berries are nicely juicy, a bit insipid and also slightly poisonous if eaten raw in great quantities, which means that if I make elderberry jam, some Dutchie of the war generation will run up to me yelling "Don't eat that it'll kill you!!" It strikes me that the war generation would have gone less hungry if it had known more about the edibility of various common plant species. Long-dead pre-war generations knew perfectly well that elderberry jam is safe to eat, although not nice-tasting unless the berries are mixed with an equal volume of apple. Elderberry bushes crop generously and, as an added advantage, the berries have no pips to speak of.

Amelanchier ovalis/lamarckii/alnifolia

My first Juneberry was either "ovalis" or "lamarckii", the latter being the kind most offered in garden centres as a decorative bush. Either have pretty white blossoms in early summer and round half-centimetre-wide berries, a bit like miniature crab apples. They have a slight taste of apple, which comes from the pips.

Moving to another house with a Juneberry bush, I found that the bush does well in shade, the berries can get quite fat, and berries should be eaten as ripe as possible - not when they're red, but when they've coloured deep purple - for the sweetest taste. Also, they can be processed into jam but are a pain to clean, so it's easiest to eat them straight off the bush and leave whatever's out of reach for the birds.

Amelanchier alnifolia is an American species with supposedly half-inch berries and known to have lousy germination rates. A packet of seeds left me with a single surviving seedling which seems to have gone walkies over winter, so I wonder when, if ever, I'll be able to put that claim to the test.

Vaccinium corymbosum

The European blueberry is Vaccinium myrtillus, but any plant offered as such in garden centres is almost definitely its large-berried American cousin, Vaccinium corymbosum. All attempts I've made to sow any member of the Vaccinium family have utterly failed, so I was stuck with corymbosum. Not a problem: it grows in the shade of a tree and produces a little crop of nice fresh blueberries every year, the same as in the supermarket but better-tasting, as supermarket berries tend to be overripe and wrinkly. It needs no care beyond being freed of entangling weeds from time to time, although it doesn't stand heat and drought (being in a tree's shadow helps protect it from too much heat) which cause the berries to dry on the bush.

A reason for mentioning this low-maintenance fruit-bearer is that blueberries have been upgraded from "no nutritional value to speak of" to "cures AIDS and cancer" due to the near-magical qualities of their blue pigment. All those who loved blueberries despite their supposed nutritional uselessness can now say HA!

Rubus phoeniculasus
Japanese wineberry

Sharing a spot in the shade with the blueberry bush and spreading all over the place due to its invasive nature (canes arching over and rooting where they touch ground, as with blackberries), this interloper will nevertheless always be looked upon kindly by me for its sweet, juicy, easily picked orange-red berries. Its fresh, almost lime, green stems and foliage beset with red prickles don't cut a bad figure, either. They have to be pruned (unless one likes a prickly jungle) at least twice a year, around January so as not to compromise the harvest (cut them close to the ground and they will be a two yards high again in June) and after the harvest, both to reduce them to a manageable size and to remove the canes that have fruited. The prunings are excellent for spreading across beds that cats think are their personal litterbox.

Rubus fruticosus

Another classic that everyone knows and that in my opinion is far overrated. Wild brambles come in many varieties with different tastes and are savagely invasive. The domesticated ones growing in many gardens are typically either "Himalaya" or "Thornless Evergreen" which may revert to a thorned state, and have a "bramble" taste: like plum, but more intense. Nothing wrong with that, but the taste is ruined by the jarring experience of chewing on many hard tasteless pips. Even blackberry jam has this problem. The way I usually eat blackberries fresh is to sort of juice them in my mouth and then swallow the remaining clot of pips as quickly as possible. Japanese wineberry has pips too, but nothing as bad as this. The last time I bothered to pick blackberries at all, I tried extracting the juice, which means clots of pips to clean out of either a sieve or a juicer. The roughly one glass of juice I got this way was nice, although it could use a little sugar.

I've read that blackberry juice, freshly pressed and left to stand, will set into a kind of jelly. The bottled blackberry juice I remember from my childhood did nothing of the kind, possibly because the berries were boiled to extract the juice.

Rubus idaeus

Good luck trying to grow these in the shade. Good luck in getting anything like a proper fruit set. Good luck in getting fruit without little white worms in them. Good luck trying to keep the plant from taking over the garden. At least there's no problem pruning; the canes bear blossoms and then die, becoming so brittle that they can be snapped off at the ground. I suppose they make decorative twiggy pea-sticks. The few fruits I've had were not worth eating. The splash of sap produced by squeezing them has that authentic pink-sugar-coating raspberry taste, making me wish the berries were less useless and worm-ridden.

I may at some time try again with autumn-bearing raspberries, which are said to be wormless.

Prunus padus
Wild cherry

There are two truly "wild" cherries said to be poisonous: the European Prunus padus and the American Prunus serotina, which is much disliked in Europe for its invasiveness. Having the former in the garden I can say both are quite invasive. Their bark is smooth and I can understand why cherry wood is said to make good furniture and firewood, and think the many trees that have sown themselves in this garden are especially suited for the latter. Wild cherries are said to be poisonous, and it is said the only real poisonous part of the cherry is the kernel in the stone. This made me laugh: why should anyone want to eat the kernel? I now know: because the fruit is little more than a bitter black skin enclosing the stone, so the kernel is the juiciest part of the cherry. Conclusion: not even suitable as famine food.

Prunus avium

This comes in a wild version, where the cherries may be black and/or bitter but are nevertheless recognizably cherries, and many tame versions in one of two categories: sweet cherries that need sun to ripen and sour cherries that don't, but will go sweet if left to hang long enough in a sunny spot. My two trees are very young tame versions: "Dubbele Meikers" (sweet) and "Meikers" (sour, planted nearby for pollination) which further emphasizes how close the two kinds really are.

Birds are supposedly the bane of any gardener trying to grow cherries. No bird seems to have discovered my trees yet, although that may be because I eat the sweet cherries when they're small, dark orange and not quite ripe, at which point they're as sweet as the average strawberry. The sour cherry, possibly miffed at having been bought to encourage another tree's fruit set, has not given me any cherries; they wither and fall off just after blossoming.

A year later: "Meikers" translates to "May cherry" and although they weren't that early, I still had cherries in June. The roles are now reversed: "Dubbele Meikers", the sweet one, has produced the grand total of three, plump, juicy cherries. Its sour companion has produced about twenty cherries, of which half have been eaten by... something. (Birds?) This year I have been able to taste the difference: sweet cherries are sweet from the start, but sour berries have a hint of almond-bitterness until they are very deeply ripe, almost black, at which point they are purely sweet.

Physalis edulis/peruviana
Cape gooseberry

There are many "Cape gooseberries" and two types in particular are alike: Physalis edulis and Physalis pruinosa, similar plants with downy leaves and stems. The difference is that Physalis edulis is HUGE. It grows a metre both upwards and sideways. It also seems fussy about self-pollination - as are all the Physalises - and so at least two of these downy monsters are recommended, as well as a warm long summer so that fruits actually ripen. If they do, they're worth the effort.

Getting them to germinate soon enough is an art in itself. Given the Dutch climate, they should be sown inside in January/February. The only time they fruited for me was in a sandy spot in the garden where they produced a bowl of husk-covered "cherries" every two weeks for two months. Some fell and rotted before I could pick them and the year after, the spot was full of little seedlings. The miracle harvest didn't repeat itself, however. Since that time I've tried every year to wring some fruits out of late-grown seedlings, and failed. I've also tried biting into a raw green fruit, but the taste was so foul that I instantly spat it out.

Ripe, they have the freshness of oranges without the sourness. They are full of hard unchewable seeds, but these seeds are so small as to pass unnoticed between the teeth. Juicy but not dripping, these one-bite snacks are best shovelled into one's mouth by the handful. It is possible to brew them into jam, which may make sense for huge harvests, but they will last about two weeks in the fridge, which is the longest they'll lie around before being eaten anyway.

Physalis ixocarpa

This physalis has smooth, rather than downy leaves and stems. It is however as big and sprawling as Physalis edulis. Like all Physalises I know, and like tomatoes for that matter, cuttings root easily in water. There are tomatillos in various sizes and colours. There is the general tomatillo, growing yellow-green or purple fruits; the green form, ripening to yellow but preferably used green in salsas; the purple form, said to be sweeter and suitable for eating raw; and giant green/yellow forms as big as tomatoes. As with Physalis edulis, the seeds are tough but pass easily between the teeth.

Tomatilloes really, really need cross-pollination and an army of bees to do it for them! Else the blossoms just drop off. This is especially frustrating since tomatilloes start blossoming earlier than Cape gooseberries and so have the potential to be much more productive.

The purple tomatillo hasn't produced for me yet. My first succesful attempt was the green tomatillo ("Maje Verde") which tastes best when at its final size but still lime green, when it is bearably sour, like an orange, and fresh-tasting. As it yellows, it does lose the sourness and sweeten a bit, but also gets a "fermented" taste, like the smell of cheese that's going off. The year after, it was the turn of "Grande Maje", a green giant. Of course I didn't get any giants, in fact the harvest was one single fruit because all the blossoms dropped off for lack of pollinators, but that fruit was as large as a ripe Maje Verde and as sour as an unripe Maje Verde, with a fresh green apple colour. I saved the seeds of this survivor and will see if I'm lucky next year.

Physalis alkekengi

This is the story of a survivor! It all started with a packet of seed from Chiltern Seeds, which had listed this plant as having edible orange berries. The garden ornamental variously known as Physalis franchetii, alkekengi or alkekengi franchetii (the "franchetii" bit is in fact a variety, but has become the commoner name) is said to be inedible, so I assumed that this Physalis was a different species from the invasive plant with red lanterns. It is not. The non-hardy perennials survive winters through their vivacious roots, which stay big and juicy like succulents when the above-ground plant parts have already withered and died; these strong roots are the cause of the plant's invasive nature. The plants germinate easiest of all the Physalises, but the seedlings are sensitive, and may not survive the temperature fluctuations on the windowsill in early Spring; wave after wave of seedlings died. When the very generous seed packet was down to the last few seeds, I sowed these with especial care. Long-lived like tomato seeds, most germinated. A number then died due to over- or underwatering; the seedlings really are very sensitive! What was left was popped in pots and boxes alone and with tomato plants. Again, many died due to under- and overwatering and some due to replanting, because when I saw green sprigs come up from a seedling thought to have died, I quickly replanted it in new soil, thereby ensuring its demise. When I thought even the last plant - sharing soil with the oxheart called Giant of Alicante - had died, I shrugged and added "buy new seed" to my ToDo list. The Giant of Alicante bore its three tomatoes and died, and I was slow to toss the old soil. How fortunate, because... green sprigs! Wiser from experience, I left them where they were, and although the plant is now in a sorry state from bad care and exhausted soil, it has produced for me one single orange berry in a very tight orange husk. Seeds have duly been extracted.

The berry was not very juicy, and was pointed. When normally round tomatoes come out pointed on my windowsill, it means they haven't filled out properly due to bad care. Due to health problems, I drop in rarely to water the plants, and they may have to wait more than a week between waterings. So I expect a healthy berry would be bigger and plumper and more meaty around the seeds; since the berry was so hard and juiceless, the seeds were as hard and annoying to chew as blackberry pips. The seeds of Physalis alkekengi are, however, larger than those of the commonly eaten Physalises, so maybe that's why the berries are considered inedible. And after this long wait (several years!) how is the taste? The berry is the exact same colour as rowanberries, and at the first sensation of sourness, I expected my lips to pucker. But it wasn't that bad. The berry is also slightly bitter; the bitterness of sweet green peppers. Unlike the other, generally sweet members of the Physalis family, this one might be best suited to frying like pepper. Once I've raised a whole new bed of plants, that is.

Solanum burbankii
Wonderberry, sunberry

This is a hybrid created by plant breeding pioneer Burbank by crossing the garden huckleberry (not a common kitchen ingredient in Europe, where Solanum nigrum is listed under poisonous plants) with equally edible African relatives to get variety that isn't bitter, and consequently doesn't have to be cooked. It's also known as "Mrs B.'s non-bitter".

As the real huckleberry is related to the blueberry, it's easy to expect a blueberry flavour from something that's related to the "garden huckleberry". If so, it's likely that one's first ever fresh-picked wonderberry will be spat out in disgust, as it is anything but blueberry-flavoured, and leaves a faintly metallic aftertaste. The right approach to this berry is to see it as a tiny, very sweet, black tomato. That way, it becomes a delicious snack. It should of course be eaten only fully ripe, ie. purple-black on the outside and purple on the inside; if the gel around the seeds is green, it's not ripe, although one or two green-gel berries won't hurt. An indication of ripeness is how easily it comes off the stalk.

Wonderberries are supposed to be smaller than regular garden huckleberries, although I've never grown the latter and can't comment. They're pea-sized or smaller. The plants tend towards smooth-edged, downy leaves.

Solanum melanocerasum, Solanum nigrum var. guineense

This is a non-bitter variety of the garden huckleberry, as opposed to the hybridized wonderberry. Its leaves are nightshade leaves as I know them: smooth, hairless and coarsely toothed. Its berries are shinier than wonderberries and the stalks of the trusses are tougher; a truss is not so easily snapped off with a thumbnail. I expected it to be less sweet than a wonderberry and was pleasantly surprised: it is less sugary, but more like raw stevia. Taste can differ according to location and soil, though (so far all garden huckleberries have been grown on windowsills) and I probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart in a blind taste test.

The berries are not only shinier but also, I get the idea, firmer, so it's best to enmouth them whole, as biting will squirt the seeds all over the place, and the juice does stain. (This is probably how the plant survives, I've already seen the first seedling spring up from a squirted seed. In fact, two years later I'm still harvesting the odd berry from successions of volunteers on the balcony.)

Solanum leaves are said to be edible if cooked in several changes of water, but I'm not a leaf-eater, and certainly not if it takes any effort.

Jaltomata procumbens

Like tomatillos, this plant comes from Mexico and belongs in a Mexican summer. Outside, it barely manages to outgrow the gnawing slugs. Inside, it becomes a mean, aphid-ridden plant for lack of sunlight. The inside plants produced one single undersized berry which was bitter from being only half ripe; it was purple on the outside but green on the inside. So far my first taste experience - but I will persevere.

Miltomato vallisto

Another Mexican native needing full sun, closely related to the jaltomate but, judging from web photos, the petals don't form a little skirt around the berry but are attached only at the base, like webbed toes. The fruits are said to be about 1 cm in diameter. Well, in full sun maybe, but in less than full sun both the blossoms, shiny dark purple-black berries and taste were all exactly like Chichiquelite, so much so that I wondered if I'd been given the wrong seed! A trial next year in a sunnier place will show. (A volunteer Sunberry in an unlikely place - don't know how the seeds got there but it looks exactly the plant, down to the dull berries - did produce very fat berries in its sunnier spot, so the amount of sun clearly matters much.)

Cyphomandra abutiloides
Dwarf tree tomato

This shrub or small tree should produce in its first year, but only produced blossoms (which dropped off) in its second year, and ripe fruit in its third. Said fruit is the size of an apricot-coloured, egg-shaped pea. Unlike its larger relative the tree tomato, its leaves are hairy and a bit sticky. They do have the same shape, relative (to the plant) size and cat's-been-spraying smell when touched. The hairier leaves are less attractive to aphids than the smooth leaves of the larger species, and this, together with its ability to survive sub-par light conditions, makes it a good windowsill or conservatory plant. The blossoms don't self-fertilize well and have to be shaken or gently rubbed together, or they fall.

I didn't mention the taste yet, did I? One site says the edibility is doubtful, another says that it tastes of apricots. So it does - mixed with the taste of bitter almonds. I'm sure it's edible, and hope it is as medicinal as said almonds. It's perfect for those who like "amaretti" biscuits. (Note: the riper the berries, the less bitter they become, so now I let them ripen to a deep orange for that peachy taste.)

Lonicera caerulea edulis
Edible honeysuckle

This plant was bought from a Belgian online shop specializing in gooseberries but also selling other unusual fruits. It was planted in a pot together with two plants of hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta). The kiwis died, but the honeysuckle survives and thrives.

There are two species of edible honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea edulis and Lonicera kamtschatica, and both are said to need another honeysuckle of a different type planted near because they are not auto-fertile. But the same is said of hazel nuts, and doesn't always hold true. My single honeysuckle put out some fruits in its first year. (It seems to prefer putting its energy into plant growth at the moment.) The fruits were about 1cm long, oblong and, if cut open, sectioned into seed compartments surrounded by a thin membrane; I was vaguely reminded of pomegranates. They were sour as lemons. Given that the Dutch name translates to "blue honeyberry", I'm sure there must be sweeter cultivars!

Cucurbita pepo
Patisson, courgette, zucchini, marrow, pumpkin, summer/winter squash

Of the many names, "summer squash" and "winter squash" may be the clearest in distinguishing between the dissimilar but related Jack'o Lantern unit and fat cucumber that goes into ratatouilles. Summer squashes are harvested young, before the seeds have ripened, when they are still tender and thin-skinned. Winter squashes have developed a leathery skin, their flesh is sweet with stored sugars and best cooked, and their seeds need removing and can be peeled and eaten raw or roasted. The cucumber-shaped summer squashes are called courgettes (diminutive of "courge", French for "pumpkin") or zucchinis. The discus-shaped ones are called patissons, and marrows are summer squashes of either shape allowed to grow big and usually eaten cooked.

Black Beauty, or Black Beauty Dark Fog as I've seen it written out, is a favourite and everyone's idea of what a courgette should look like, dark green, smooth and cylindrical. The fine stripes along its glossy smooth sides make me think of otter fur. The circumference is not so much round as unevenly octagonal. I used to think that courgettes, like eggplants, should be cooked or baked, which "melts" their flesh and leaves bits of skin in the pan (unless peeled, which I never do) but these days I prefer them raw, just sliced, diced and tossed into the pan of cooked pasta. Like most courgettes, Black Beauty should be harvested at a length of 20cm, but I'm not always home to do it and they have grown out to half a yard in my absence. I took these banana-melon-sized mutant courgettes - one was already making seeds - to work and cut off slices to eat in the way that one cuts slices off ham. A year after, I left the mutants to ripen hoping to collect seeds, and when I harvested them the skin was too tough to eat (or comfortably peel off), the flesh was grainy and yellowed (but not sweet) and had to be cooked before eating, and there were disappointingly few seeds inside as the bees hadn't worked very hard!

Other types tried were Black Forest, Long White Bush, Long Green Trailing. The first, a climber (and F1, I was sad to discover) has not produced one single fruit, most likely because I tried growing plants inside, and all cucurbits are gluttons for raw, direct sunlight. Long White Bush grew courgettes that were pale lemon yellow. At the same time I was trying Lady Godiva (pumpkin with hull-less seed) and the famous spaghetti squash. Since these ripen so slowly and because I'd gotten them mixed up, I ate the young spaghetti squashes thinking they were Long Whites, and found them rough and grainy. Once the Long White Bush started putting out some long yellow whoppers, I realized my mistake, and found them pleasantly smooth by comparison. The Godiva had grown to baseball size before impending frost forced me to harvest it and it, too, was like an inferior courgette. The Long Green Trailing was a more emerald version of Black Beauty, although on a websearch I found its older form was vertically striped and meant to be grown to zeppelin size: a true marrow.

The year after, I bought a six-pack combination containing Black Beauty, Lebanese, Golden Zucchini, Rond de Nice, Patty Pan and Yellow Scallop. The Golden may have been Gold Rush, which sometimes is and sometimes isn't marked "F1": a buttercup-yellow courgette without markings. The Lebanese is a striped greyish-green type also referred to as "cousa", which doesn't mean anything because "cousa" or "kussa" is just Arabic for courgette. Lebanese courgettes are known for their fine taste, sadly no plant survived the slugs. Rond de Nice (the French name) or Tondo Chiaro de Nizza (the Italian name) makes round courgettes which can be boiled whole or, my preferred way, just picked off and eaten like an apple. The Patty Pan graphic looked suspiciously like the Yellow Scallop graphic with the yellow recoloured green, and what ultimately grew on the plant was a pale whitish-green discus humping up in the centre, like a jellyfish; I took one to work and cut it into sections like a birthday cake. When I tried the patisson that is known as Custard White or Elector's Cap the year after, the identical shape told me that "Patty Pan" was in fact Custard White and apparently the seed company hadn't got a picture of it when printing the packet.

Too bad this was a lousy year for courgettes, with just a few underdeveloped mini-fruits. The previous year's Custard White, as well as surprising me with its shape and colour, proved an unresistable treat. Each time a pale green jellyfish grew big enough, I snapped it off and buried my teeth in it, first chomping off the almost cucumber-fresh lobes around the edge, then ravenously eating my way into the soft, spongy, fluffy centre with its embryonic seeds. Custard White taught me that courgettes not edible raw are not worth eating. Rond de Nice was similarly butter-soft and fresh at the same time. Yellow Scallop, a real discus, is downy - unusual for a courgette - and a bit stringier, but that may be because the fruits had to be harvested as babies due to late blossoming. Vegetables are usually tenderer the younger they are harvested, but courgettes start out fibrous and become more tender as their flesh balloons out like expanding styrofoam.

Still waiting to be tried: Zephyr, an F1, bicoloured: yellow with green tops. I don't like hybrids, but since I've given up on saving the seeds of summer squash...

Opuntia vulgaris
Cactus fig

When I saw this plant in the garden centre with one nicely ripening fig and another figlet beside it, I bought it and put it in the shady, but rain-sheltered movable greenhouse. Later I read that this plant can stand a fair bit of rain. It's almost hardy, but will be coming inside for the winter anyway.

I know the fig is covered in insignificant-seeming but nasty spikes and contains hard seeds to which someone I've known lost a tooth as a boy, so when it was finally ripe enough to come off, I handled it cautiously and first tried to cut off the spiny spots. The skin is tough, so I ended up slicing it in two and ladling out the contents. This meant getting a mouthful of flat hard seeds about 5mm across and spitting them out one by one, and then scraping the rest of the pulp (and there wasn't much of it) off the skin. This kind of seediness is what makes wild bananas inedible. In fact I wouldn't have minded if the taste had been worth it, but, no. It was like a weak-flavoured beet. I hate beets. The figlet has started to dry and shows no sign of ripening, which doesn't bother me.

Apparently the flat pads of the plant are edible too, if peeled, and can even be candied. We'll see. The newer pads are at any rate tasty to slugs or whatever else it is that's eating holes out of them. (Oh, and it now also has those scabby aphids, even though it was left outside all summer. Update: it didn't survive the wet winter and I'm glad to be able to toss it.)


I cheated on this one: my plants are still growing but the taste experience comes from a dragonfruit bought in the supermarket. My, it was big! The size of a child's fist, with red ribbons growing off its 5-millimetre-thick red skin. There are red-skinned and yellow-skinned varieties, and I'm not sure the skin of either is edible, so I cut the fruit in half and scooped out the white flesh, rescuing as many seeds as possible. It tasted like soft, watered-down coconut. The fruit was being sold cheap because it was old, so I assume a fresher fruit would also have firmer flesh and a perkier taste, but I won't be sure until my own little plants start bearing.

The first time I read about Hylocereus, I ordered seeds and got four dry seeds in a ziplock bag with painstakingly detailed germination instructions and the warning that germination would be slow. These seeds never germinated. Then, I bought seeds from a different source and got a blob of seeds enclosed in pulp, held down on paper with some sticky tape. These germinated instantly. Most died - this plant needs plenty sun, plenty water but also plenty drainage, so the soil should not be deep! - but some seedlings grown in a light corner of the room on a weekly-watered inch of soil are doing fine. The seeds that I dug out of the dragonfruit before eating it have also germinated almost immediately on planting. As with bananas, these seeds only have trouble germinating if cleaned and dried; fresh in their pulp, they germinate overnight.

Passiflora edulis
Passion fruit

Another one I'm cheating on; trying to raise Passiflora seedlings and knowing that fruiting can take some time even if they survive, and seeing passionfruit for sale in the supermarket, I decided to taste the commercial product before the possible homegrown one. The passionfruits were large shrivelled grey-purple ping pong balls. Cut open, their inner walls were covered with blunt protrusions from which grew the fibres of sweet pulp and the clot of pips, like small sunflower seeds, at its centre. Separating the pulp (a bit like smears of orange juice) from the pips was impossible, so I ate the still-soft pips along with the pulp. The pulp was like sweetened orange juice (but without any sugar added!) and very nice to both smell and taste. The pips, even chewed, were hard enough to scratch my gums. I was picking bits of pip out of my teeth hours later. First impression: inedible because too seedy. Maybe these fruits had been left to mature too long and should have been eaten when the pulp was ripe but the seeds were still completely soft (if such a stage of edibility exist).

The homegrown product will take many years, even if I do succeed, but I've already partially passed the first hurdle: germinating the seeds. Like hylocereus, passionfruit seed will germinate readily if absolutely fresh. If not, a day-long soak in something acid is needed - finally, that yoghurt going off in the fridge has a purpose! After that, pop it in soil kept moist, and hope the resulting seedlings don't die of... whatever it is that Passiflora seedlings mysteriously die of. In a few years, I'll count the survivors and say which types (not necessarily edulis) are the toughest. So far, Passiflora edulis germinates the most readily, but its seedlings are quickest to die.

Gaultheria procumbens

This is the Gaultheria that falls under "Christmas decorations" for some reason, and is said to have "spicy" berries, if the berries are considered edible at all. It can typically be bought from florists and supermarkets as a potted plant around autumn, much like the cyclamen. According to the ChilternSeeds catalogue, this medicinal plant is the source of Oil of Wintergreen, distilled from the leaves. The ripe, pinkish-red berries, with not a hint of sweetness, taste like the smell of hospital. What their medicinal value is, I don't know. Taste-wise, they are famine food.

Ribes uva-crispa, Ribes grossularia

Gooseberries are the famous, usually green but sometimes red or purple "hairy berries" growing on bushes with nasty spines, although there are spineless varietes. Apparently there are even varieties with hairless fruit. The hairs can be eaten, and so can the pips (slightly harder than the pulp but still soft) but the withered blossom end has to be pinched off. I struck a nice compromise by buying a normal bush (spiny, with green hairy berries) that was grafted on a high stem, so yes, it did have the wicked spines, but they were at head level and I didn't have to push through them to get at the fruit. The berries grow straight off the stem rather than in bunches, and as gooseberries will bear in cool climate and/or partial shadow, I occasionally picked off and munched a berry until finally the time had come to pick them all. Semi-transparent with clear green "veins" in the skin, they can be eaten at any stage from half-ripe (when they are customarily picked to make jam) to completely ripe (when the veins have disappeared, making the berry seem more translucent, and the pulp has already become a kind of jam). Half-ripe, they are bracingly sour, especially the skins. Fully ripe, they are sweetish-sour, like apples turning mealy, and the pulp is so soft that it can squirt out of the fruit if not picked carefully.

In the works (having tossed out all that didn't germinate): Rosa gigantea, hackberry (Celtis australis, a few germinated, but it'll be years before they fruit); wild date or Yucca baccata (came up wonderfully, most died due to overwatering); tree tomato (Cyphomandra betacea) of which I'll have to re-sow the yellow-fruited variety as the old ones died; Acerola or Barbados cherry, which only germinates if the seeds are fresh and sown in warm soil, and takes 3 years to mature to fruiting age; Diospyros virginia, Asimina triloba and Eriobotrya japonica (loquat, Japanese medlar) which finally germinated and are now tender little sprigs that will hopefully survive to fruiting age; Coccoloba uvifera, which germinated very readily although its fruits are promising to be mostly stone.


Betula species

Although birch leaves are supposed to be edible and both leaves and bark are medicinal (a foully bitter tea can be made from the leaves) my reason for mentioning it, and even creating a section "other" for it, is its sap. Buying a house with the kind of garden that was once full of little trees because the planters don't seem to realize that little trees will one day become big trees, I was stuck with many sunlight-blockers and space-hoggers that were now too big to chop down without applying for a permit. At least two of these were hefty birches of the kind often seen in Dutch gardens: I suspect Betula nigra but am not completely sure. I'd already read about birch sap, said to be healthy and good for hay fever sufferers, and that tapping might harm the trees, and thought that tapping these trees of their medicinal sap AND killing them to solve the axing problem (I don't have to ask anyone's permission to chop down a dead tree!) would be killing two birches with one stone. I had no sap-tapping equipment, though, and surfed around on what would be the best technique. In doing so I found out that this was the last chance to tap as the sap stays usable between 15th February and 15th March, after which it becomes milky and undrinkable, and of course I was into the second week of March. I also found that the easiest way to tap, which will not harm the tree, is not to bore a hole in the stem, but chop the end off a small branch, about two centimetres in diameter, and tie a small saucepan or other vessel with long panhandle to it. The weight will bend down the branch and the sap will collect in the pan.

I did this and had about half a glass of birch juice after straining out bits of lichen. Because there really are too many trees in the garden, there is much dead wood and even the living branches are covered in mossy stuff that I should either have rubbed off before cutting the branch or kept out of the pan by wrapping a filter of cloth around the bleeding branch end. Tappers who leave pans under taps may cover the pans with cloth to prevent leaves and such falling in. And the taste? Birch sap looks, and tastes, like water. The aftertaste is a bit woody; the taste of, if it existed, sawdust tea.

Afterthought: the year after, I cut a branch on February 15th: no sap. I tried again March 1st: no sap. The branch turned out to be dead but, surfing about sap-tapping times, I read that some people don't start tapping until April. It depends on the weather, I suppose. On 7 March I tried again with a living branch, but the sap didn't exactly gush out. I'll wait until it gets better. The time to start tapping is when buds begin to form, and buds were definitely forming, so I can't be too far off. Also, if the lower, reachable branches keep dying off like this, I may have to start boring in the stem after all - I presume a lack of lower branches is why stem-boring is the usual method to tap sap.

Addendum: firstly, I've finally hit on a good way of sap-collecting: cut off the end of a branch, then slide a plastic bottle over it and stuff tissue paper in the bottle's neck to stop anything unwanted falling into the sap. Secondly, having tapped from a different, older tree, I conclude that either the taste differs per tree or it depends on weather and/or the tree's age. The sap of 2010 didn't taste like water, but was distinctly sour-sweet, like diluted lemonade. I preferred the bland water taste.

Lentinus edodes

The original instructions for growing one's own toadstools involved procuring logs half a metre in length and at least 20 cm in girth, boring 10 holes of prescribed depth and width in each one and inserting in these, 80 prepared dowels - that was the minimum quantity to buy - after which weeks of more treatment followed. This must have scared off most prospective homegrowers, so help came in the form of windowsill kits consisting of one tightly compressed wad of sawdust containing the right mycelium. I chose the shiitake kit, was given a polystyrene box and some instructions and saw that most of these could be skipped as the mycelium had already overgrown the wad of sawdust, and five or more little toadstools were already growing off it, ready to unfold their hoods. My first meal of these highly praised toadstools was a week later. After that, growth stagnated as I wasn't keeping the sawdust moist enough, so now, as well as cacti and hollyhocks, I can add toadstools to the list of easy neglect-tolerating plants (fungi, strictly speaking) that I still manage to kill through lack of care. Still, a new one popped up out of a moist corner today, which, unlike the first batch that were sauteed, I ate raw.

Shiitake is praised for its medicinal properties - I can't vouch for those and hope it will cure a chronic bowel complaint - and its taste. This taste is barely different from the papery taste of mushrooms, sour-bland, but mostly bland. Maybe "bland" is simply the most desirable taste in something that is family of moulds. The difference with ordinary mushrooms is that shiitake is sourer and the taste lingers longer. I could call the taste "nutty", but it's more like the kind of vegetable said to taste "nutty" - I know what nuts taste like. Another difference: unlike mushrooms which are fluffy all over, shiitake have tough rubbery stems. The older the toadstool, the tougher the stem.

Sliced and sauteed like mushrooms, it becomes, like mushrooms, creamy or snotty (depending on one's mood while tasting) only more so, losing its sourness to become more properly nutty, although the stems remain tough.

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