How many distinct vegetable crops are there in an average kitchen garden? Most will contain between one and two dozen, seldom more. Perhaps if you counted each and every different cucurbit, allium and brassica you could find a couple of dozen varieties in an adventurous plot. And indeed if you added all the usual salad leaves, edible seeds, petals and herbs you would amass maybe a hundred or thereabouts. But even so this total is remarkably small when you consider the huge number of plant species. Of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of potentially non-poisonous / edible leaves, stalks, roots, seeds and flowers we have chosen to improve and cultivate so few.
And it seems almost random indeed I suspect we have selected neither the edible nor the palatable, nor even the most successful, to be our current vegetables. I suggest that what we grow is almost entirely from habit and convenience with little deliberate selection- particularly initially. We get what our great great … grandfathers grew, what they selected we inherit.
Naturally gardeners over millennia rejected the difficult, unreliable or unpalatable. But basically we grow modern varieties of what has always been grown and few truly new genus or species are ever introduced.
It is of course by their very nature hard to find (rather than grow) most rarities but even those offered for sale are seldom bought.
How can you account for your not growing Jerusalem artichokes, kohl rabi or asparagus peas? They’ve all been available for centuries, are simple, cheap, reliable croppers on most, even poor, soils, almost completely pest and disease free, and require no irrigation or complicated technique. I find artichokes delicious fried, and not bad pureed or in casseroles and soups. Yet they are not at all popular. Why? Perhaps their reputation for inducing flatulence is to blame, or their fiddly preparation, who knows? (The Chinese artichoke, Stachys affinis, is a bit tender so is understandably rare.) Kohl rabi are sweet, crunchy and healthy raw and remarkably like better turnips cooked. One, Superschmelz, gets huge, remains crunchy and stores for months- yet is seldom seen. Asparagus peas could not be easier, their small pods are really delicious steamed. Yet these three crops remain as rare as llamas- they are about, but not many.
Now some crops such as globe artichokes are demanding of space and perhaps not to everyone’s taste with their somewhat idiosyncratic eating method. But why has just this one flower receptacle become adopted and improved and not say Milk thistles, Silybum marianum, Carline thistles or even immature sunflower heads. All of these are just as edible, were once consumed, but were dropped and never developed. In a world continually craving novel culinary delights it actually seems rather odd we are not searching out and selecting such as these as new gourmet wonders. Are we really so conservative? Perhaps we are all like the old countryman who said- “I’ll try absolutely anything I’ve had before”.
Regard bulbs. Sure we have onions, in several forms, and garlic, but that’s about it. We do not have an improved Camassia, Ornithogalum, or Iris despite there being several edible species of each. Stranger still is why no delicious lilies, for these were once articles of food almost everywhere they grew; auratum, bulbiferum, canadense, japonicum, martagon, speciosum, superbum, tigrinum; all were once potential feasts. Even some orchids, including our Spotted Orchis, O. mascula, were widely consumed, their roots made a popular mucilaginous drink, Salep; sold from the streets of London to the middle east. But these are now all forgotten except in old books and maybe in distant markets.
Perhaps you’d think the area of saladings is more adventurous. You can certainly buy some quite unusual salad leaf seeds nowadays including a range of Chinese mustard derivatives handy for winter use, and the fantastically useful Miner’s lettuce, Claytonia / Montia perfoliata. But even so it’s a paltry list, smaller than that offered by Victorian nurserymen. Include plants with edible petals, perhaps vegetable fruits such as cucumber and tomato and we still find but a small number of salads compared to the possible. For goodness sake, how many non-poisonous plants there must be with succulent young leaves or petals that could be eaten as salad. True some may be too strongly flavoured or bitter and need be improved (we call some of those ‘herbs’ of course).
Cultivation, and selection could rapidly give us more palatable varieties. Yet where are our salad or table versions of fat hen, chickweed and dandelion for examples. (And do not believe any seed company blandishments about the fathen relative Chenopodium capitatum, the Strawberry blite; this is miserable fare) We seem to be overlooking a vast potential larder. It is said early humans ate up to three hundred different plants in their scrabble for sustenance. I suspect many a modern diet sums about two hundred and eighty less…..
Mind you, a few foreign come ethnic, herbs and vegetables have made it. Garlic, eaten in ancient Egypt, has finally got here, though still considered somewhat radical on some allotments. Suddenly hot peppers are most peculiarly popular. Coriander leaf although known since the middle ages is grown here and there -but really not much at all. Such as mouli radishes are seen but then only about as frequently as Japanese winter and Black Spanish varieties. Naturally if you visit allotments in areas with ethnic minorities you will see less common crops- but still recognisably those sold in all ethnic shops and bigger supermarkets. And still very very few compared to the potential number out there somewhere.
Perhaps the roots are the most surprisingly under represented; easy to store, stuffed full of carbohydrates, often sweet, yet we grow so few. We may have, once more, red, white and yellow carrots. We may dabble with celeriac, scorzonera and salsify, maybe even Hamburg parsley. But there are countless other roots with esculental potential. Some once popular have unaccountably been near lost such as Turnip rooted Chervil. Spanish oyster or Golden thistle, Scolymus hispanicus, was likewise once popular, similar to carrots they were in French and American garden catalogues until recent times, but have gone now. As have Rampions, Campanula rapunculus, which were once much celebrated as food for the rich. Both the roots and leaves of this Bellflower were eaten raw and cooked (said to be walnut flavoured I do not find so). Definitely tasty is Skirret, Sium sisarum, an umbellifer closely resembling several weeds, this has white tuberous roots with a distinct sweet flavour once much vaunted. The tuberous roots of Evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, were said to have sustained early American settlers through their first winters, I find them interesting but, as with so many of these unimproved esculents, rather bitter. Eryngos were the candied roots (after the manner of ginger) of Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum. Mentioned by Shakespeare, eryngo roots were baked like potatoes (as were beetroot) and then resembled chestnuts. Though gathering nuts in May probably alluded to digging Earth chestnuts or Pignuts, Conopodium majus and bulbocastanum. Wild ones are only discoverable when the plant flowers in late spring to early summer, they are small but good eating being somewhat like peanuts. Similar, and similarly named roots, can be found underneath Carum bulbocastanum, the wild caraway.
The seeds of Carum carvi, caraway proper, of course have long been used as a flavouring- but not very commonly here (though seed cake is vaguely remembered; when did you last have some?). We may come across poppy seeds on our breads and cakes but seldom grow them. Likewise sesame, nigella, coriander and even mustard, all relatively expensive and quite simple to grow for yourself, yet seldom seen.
True these are less vegetables more spices, and perhaps are needed in such small quantities they’re uneconomic to bother with. But how come there are so few actual seed vegetables other than peas, beans and true cereals. (These last are not often grown in kitchen gardens because of the required scale. To harvest enough wheat for making your own bread, cakes and biscuits you need a large area, field cultivation is effectively essential. For curiosity- a farmer might get 4-5 tons an acre. 4.5 x 2,240lb is approx 10,000 pounds, an acre of approx 5,000 sq. yd. thus yields roughly 2lb sq.yd. 2lb will grind, sieve and bulk to a good loaf. So for two loaves a week for a year you need 100 square yards minimum. Plus as much again for cakes and biscuits…. Yields of cereals can be less for the gardener than the farmer because of the edge effect from bird theft, thus small, unprotected, plots are less productive. So although sweet corn may be grown, maize, wheat and barley are not, nor millet, rye or even buckwheat.)
Sunflowers may be grown for birdseed yet are nutritious and tasty roasted and salted, as are pumpkin seeds. But, as I said, other than peas and beans, we neglect a huge range of potential seed crops- and these are the potentially richest foods far outpacing foliage and even roots in nutritive value. We really should search out more.
Unfortunately the most widely researched area of plant edibility seems to be somewhat hair-shirted with reliance on those where the foliage can be cooked and eaten ‘after the manner of spinach’. I gladly accept those foods cooked and eaten in the manner of asparagus (Good King Henry, Chenopodium bonus Henricus, shoots are actually okay though a tad small, hops, Humulus lupus, are bitter and need changes of water and Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum multiflorum, is not very tasty and a bit suspect). But I seriously balk at the thought of deriving much of my caloric intake from bowls of semi-liquidised leaves! I’m convinced some leaves which allegedly “can be used as spinach” really means as a poultice rather than as a dish. Kudzu, Pueraria, comes to mind, this thug of a plant is fortunately not very hardy or it would have choked me out of my polytunnel, the roots are used for starch and indeed the leaves as spinach. So are stinging nettles- and to be fair I much prefer the latter. Indeed, now there’s a thought- how about breeding a more succulent and tasty stinging nettle?