Sorrel

Short version:

A perennial that self-seeds itself into a nuisance because (I think) it’s hard to consume in large quantities due to its tart taste. It’s a lovely interesting one to add to a salad instead of a vinegarette and it’s refreshing with any rich or fatty food. It is a good plant for the hungry gap. Avoid if you suffer from any kidney diseases.

I’m a bit ambivalent about sorrel. Doesn’t sound like a great start but hear me out. It’s wonderfully easy to grow and some varieties are a perennial evergreen so you can eat it all year round but it can be a bit of a shocker to the taste buds. My issue is that despite being able to easily grow immense amount of it, I am saddened to find that I cannot EAT immense amounts of it.

Despite being a perennial, it is apparently often grown as an annual as the taste deepens with age. I like to grow it as a perennial because it’s much lazier.

There are a few types of sorrel you can grow. This is where I show my lack of horticultural education. I have heard of broad leaf sorrel, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, French sorrel and red veined sorrel. Sadly I have only grown the last two on that list, so I feel it would only be fair to comment on those.

How to grow

Both red veined and French are incredibly easy to grow from seed. The seeds are tiny, but the plants will grow to about 50cm tall and 50cm wide so do not be too temped to plant them too close together. You also don’t need many plants, especially as they self-seed very well. It appears to do very well in almost any soil. It seems to grow very well in the paving cracks, where they have self-seeded. I should weed, but I like having edibles that don’t take up any space in the vegetable patch (though pretty much all the garden IS the vegetable patch). It has a deep root system so survives well under most circumstances. This tap root does mean that it is hard to dig out when well established and doesn’t transplant well. They do well in light shade areas and in full sun.

The French sorrel seems to be evergreen and we have been eating it through the autumn and winter. The red veined sorrel, however, dies back in late autumn and then reappears in late winter. You may find that the plant dies if the soil gets frozen in a very harsh winter and kills the roots.

Pinch out the flowers to keep the plant providing for longer. The red veined will die back after seeds appear. The French loses productivity when it seeds.

If you do want to grow it as an annual you can leave the plant to self-seed before pulling out the old plant. If you want to save seeds you can collect the mature pods and let them dry thoroughly before storing.

How to harvest

For the French sorrel harvest all year round, taking the outer leaves first. It grows quickly as the weather warms up and is a welcome green in the spring and in the hungry gap. The leaves remain soft no matter how large they get. For the red veined sorrel harvest the baby leaves. The larger leaves get tough and bitter. Treat sorrel as a cut and come again salad.

How it tastes

It is tart. That means that it is sour – but that’s the fun of it. If it was fruit, I’d be complaining. As it’s a green that requires no work and grows like a weed, tart is interesting. The taste is due to oxalic acid. I have read lots of things about oxalic acid. This is a good website that talks about it – eatthatweed.

There are many good points and even better, the information is referenced so you can decide for yourself how accurate it is. The main points are that oxalic acid exists in many of the things we eat, it binds with some nutrients but if you blanch it (discarding the water), it removes a third of all the oxalic acid and most of the soluble oxalic acid so the insoluble stuff pass through the system. It can also be mixed with high calcium ingredients like yoghurt to bind it. There has been some links between oxalic acid and kidney stones, but you’d have to eat a hell of a lot of it.

It’s lovely shredded and added into a salad. It makes a great sorrel soup that is popular in countries in the rest of Europe. It is great in crispy duck pancakes (which seems to be my default use of many of the unusual raw greens).

The blanching that removes much of the oxalic acid will also soften the taste. If making soup, make sure you discard the water used for blanching if you want less of a kick.

A little is lovely in oily or creamy recipes, cutting through the richness. So, it works well in salads with rich dressings, cheese or cured ham or in creamy sauces and soups.

There is an easy way to shred sorrel:

I’ve read that sorrel gets sourer as the leaves get older. With the French sorrel I’ve found that there’s no difference in the taste of any of the leaves. With the red veined sorrel any leaves longer than 2 inches tend to be bitter and the leaves are tough. It’s a bit like chewing paper. The red veined stuff looks great though, so it can be something pretty to mix into your beds for a bit of colour used for just baby leaves.

I may not have sold it that well, but I don’t want you cursing me when you eat it after spending months growing it. It’s a bit like Marmite. Still, I like having it in the garden and sneaking it into dinners. Besides, it’s incredibly difficult to get hold of in the shops and I feel like some sort of gourmet foodie when I say I’ll just pop into the garden (in any month) and make some sorrel soup.

Physalis

Short version:

A yellow berry that grows inside an attractive case. It has seeds like a tomato and tastes sweet when ripe with a pineapple like tang. The plant grows up to 5 feet tall, prefers full sun but is not particularly fussy about soil types. It can be perennial when protected in winter and self-seeds in an unpredictable (I’ll explain what I mean) but not overly aggressive way.

I’m calling it physalis through this page but I’m are specifically talking about Physalis Peruviana. Also called cape gooseberry, Inca berry or ground cherry. There are other physalis – like Chinese lanterns – which, though beautiful, are not particularly edible.

Physalis is a fruit that is occasionally found in supermarkets or sitting proudly on top of your dessert in a posh restaurant. They look lovely and taste great.

I planted seeds in 2014, in a pot, in our last home which was a paved over yard. The extra heat from all the concrete provided a great environment for the ripening of the fruit. I haven’t had to sow seeds again since. It is usually annual when grown outdoors in the UK. With winter protection and/or mild winters it can be a perennial.

Sowing seeds

You can start them indoors in pots around a month and a half before the last frosts are expected. They need to be sown fairly shallow (just place on the surface and sprinkle a little bit of compost over the top), then kept warm and moist. I would suggest one seed per pot as it can become quite a monster, unless you’re happy to plant a few together and then only let the strongest one live. I find it really hard to not feel guilty killing healthy plants. Can you imagine taking that attitude towards pets or children?

Planting out

Once all danger of frost has passed and the plant has a few leaves you can plant in a sunny spot. It doesn’t seem to be too bothered with soil types and does fine in a large pot. It is advisable to harden them off by placing the plants outside during the day and bringing them back in for the night for a few days. The stems can grow tall but will fall over and sprawl if not supported.

This monster is one single plant in a border in my front garden. It has reached over 5ft. At the front and to the right you can see the stems have fallen over in a bid to take over.

Taste

Okay… so I did these first two steps in 2014. I wasn’t sure what to expect so I planted about 8 seeds. I ended up with far too many plants. If you have too many plants in a pot, they won’t grow particularly large (around 2 ft) but you will still get fruit. They were a bit of an unruly, bushy mass which was a welcome sight in my paved yard.

The berries grow inside green cases which turn yellow and papery. That’s when you know that they’re ripe and edible. They make me think of bananas. Not because of the taste, but because these lovely cases keep the fruit clean so even when the fruit has dropped it can be removed from their protective husk and eaten straight away. My little one loves foraging for ripe berries as we leave for school or come home. She sometimes stuffs them in her pocket for a snack later. The fruit tastes only very slightly like pineapples, with that tart pineapple tang. When very ripe they are lovely and sweet. I don’t really think that I have anything to compare them to. There are hard little seeds similar in size to tomatoes that I like to chew, but some people don’t appreciate them so much. There can be a bit of a bitter residue on the outside of the berry that comes from the papery case, reminiscent of earwax (I don’t eat earwax – but who didn’t taste their own as a child? Er…Only me? OK). If you wash the whole thing with the cases on, this taste becomes more prominent so – dehusk and wash the berries separately. I’ve read the residue comes off more easily with a bit of vinegar (so… really… quite earwax like no?) but they never make it as far as the kitchen in this house. We’ve found that the berries ripen gradually over about 1-2 months, depending on the weather so we pick them as they ripen and eat them straight away. Towards the end of the season you will probably experience a glut.   

Self-seeding

So… as I’ve said, I planted it once. The next year I wasn’t going to grow them as we only had this tiny yard and a finite number of pots. I was going to try something else but in 2015 they came up through cracks in the pavement. One was in front of the bike shed so I rescued that and put it in a pot. The rest I just let them get on with it. They grew fine and we had some bonus unplanned fruit. This is how I knew it was resilient and would grow just about anywhere. These plants were only in part sun and still did OK.

In 2016 I had the baby to deal with and so neglected the garden a bit more. There were no new seedlings that year, but the one in the pot from the previous year grew back. It must have been in a particularly warm and sheltered spot as there were no other plants.

In 2017 we moved house and took a self-seeded one in a pot with us. It was probably too small a pot, didn’t like the move, the lack of water or in fact the complete neglect as it only gave us about 5 berries.

In 2018 there was nothing. I didn’t expect anything with so little fruit the previous year and therefore no chance of a stray berry self-seeding itself.

In the spring of 2019 in one of the pots a physalis plant turned up. I was very excited. Around 25 pots of various sizes came with us in the move. Most of the plants were in pots in preparation to be planted into the new garden. One or two plants have remained in their pots and the compost in the pots have generally been moved around and/or added to the compost bin every now and then. I guess there was a seed that hadn’t germinated that had received its ideal conditions this year. The spring was warm, and the seed must have made it close to the surface of the soil. I put it straight into the front garden where it received plenty of sun and the concrete slabs and adjacent brick wall would retain and reflect the heat.

I then found a single physalis seedling hiding in the asparagus patch in June. The asparagus is at the very end of the garden, nowhere near the pots. It was a bit of a puzzler, but I realised that that particular asparagus crown was planted in a very, very (asparagus doesn’t tend to do so well in pots) big pot in the previous garden when the physalis were triffid-like. I don’t know how many years that seed was dormant. It could be anything from 3-5 years. It won’t mature in time to product fruit this year so I’ve put it in a pot and intend overwinter it in the house and see how it goes next year.

Therefore, I think it’s a wonderful resilient plant that self-seeds, but not too rampantly and can be perennial if kept warm enough and frost free.    

Pollination

The flowers are hermaphrodite and easily pollinated by insects. I have never had to do anything to help it along. They are evidently self-fertile as I only have the one mature plant this year and it’s fruiting wonderfully. The plant has been merrily self-seeding and I haven’t noticed a change in the fruit. Therefore the seeds are true to the parent plant so this is a berry that you can save seeds from.

Diseases and pests

So far in my experiences with physalis – one year I had problems with two tone spider mites. The leaves developed a mottled yellow and brown appearance. If you do have these spider mites – when you look underneath the leaves with a microscope you’ll see these tiny mites with these two spots on their backs about the size of a fine grain of sand. They are very hard to get rid of. You’ll need to remove and destroy any leaves that are affected. We tried a spray with a few drops of rosemary oil in it. I think in the end we kept them at bay by removing leaves and spraying twice a couple of weeks apart. To be honest I can’t be certain how much the rosemary oil helped. It may have been the removal of about half of the leaves and dampening the plant that did it, as they thrive in hot, dry conditions.

Otherwise the plants haven’t had any issues. They seems very easy to care for.

Therefore this plant with the soft velvety leaves is a winner in my opinion. I’ll overwinter the random asparagus invader and maybe keep it in a pot to take in again next winter to see how long it’ll survive for. I’ll also keep seeds from a berry in case I want to grow them again and the unpredictability of the self seeding doesn’t go in my favour one year. I suspect it will remain a firm favourite with my little one and I won’t have to pay through the teeth to buy them in the supermarket.

They take so little care that if you’ve eaten the fruit before and are a fan, and you have a garden of any sorts, please please do give these a go… or… a grow! Tee hee.

Nasturtiums

Short version:

With large attractive blooms in warm colours, these rampant self-seeders can be bushy or trailing/climbing depending on the variety. The flowers, leaves and seed pods are edible and when raw have a peppery taste similar to raw watercress. Its pungency is dampened by cooking.  

Eating the flowers

I’m surprised that people still visit me when I often chase guests with things I’ve just pulled from my garden, demanding that they eat it. Proffered nasturtiums meet the most resistance. People often don’t believe that something that pretty and boldly coloured is edible. They range from red, through shades of orange and yellow, to a pale peachy colour (which I sadly don’t have). The trumpet shaped blooms are around the size of a ping pong ball and the petals are soft and velvety.

I often warn people that they do taste rather peppery. Children are attracted to the appearance, but often put off by the taste. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling it well but around the peppery taste there is this unusual sweetness. We sometimes eat a couple in the garden as an interesting snack. Though, I’m afraid, we find it unpalatable to eat a large quantity of raw flowers, so they are often consigned to being a garnish or torn and sprinkled liberally in salads.

I’ve discovered that my 4 year old is a sly one and rather than eat the flowers she goes straight for the nectar.

This ‘cone’ at the back of the flower is where the nectar is stored and if you nip off this tiny bit to eat then it is very sweet with only that slight hint of pepper.

Bee friendly flowers

This brings me to the next plus point. On top of being attractive and edible, they’re great for bees and other pollinators. Nasturtiums are a good source of pollen and nectar. The shape of the flower also provides a little landing pad for the bees too. They also have a decently long flowering season – from May to September. Even with my little monkey pinching out the nectar from as many flowers as she can, there is always plenty for the bees.

Vertical gardening

It’s also fortuitous that I grow the trailing/climbing variety in my garden. Munchkin can only really reach the lower third of the plants. The bushy varieties make a stunning display in a plant border but in my small enclosed garden the climbing ones have a small footprint whilst providing a large amount of eating. Where they haven’t climbed up the supports, they trail along the ground and make good ground cover to crowd out the weeds around the base of the perennials.

They self-seed

I sowed nasturtiums in 2017. They can be sown indoors, in individual pots, just before the last frost. Individual toilet roll pots are best because the stems are easily snapped. For ease sow in situ in from April onwards. I planted the variety ‘Gleam’ as they are a climbing variety and an ‘African Jewel’ mix, another climbing variety which also has variegated leaves for something cool to look at. Since then they’ve come back every year without any intervention from me. One of the great things about edible self-seeders like these is that any unwanted seedlings can just be pulled and eaten.

Great for kids

The seeds are nice and large, so they’re easy for kids to handle. They germinate quickly so little ones don’t have to wait so long. The leaves are also hydrophobic, as in, they repel water. They make a fascinating plant to play with and then of course they’re pretty to look at and edible later.

If you grow nasturtiums then try this game: Put a large drop of water on the leaf, try and throw the drop in the air and catch it again in the leaf.

Eating the leaves

So, both flowers and leaves are edible, raw. They can be added to salads, but at our table I wouldn’t dare to add much beyond a few shredded leaves. Both the husband and the infant would have a tantrum. It’s the same with raw watercress. Blanched watercress, however, pleases the husband but not the child.  

A light stir frying of the nasturtium leaves takes away much of the pepperiness and leaves a pleasant taste that I’ve not found anywhere else. Again, the husband will accept this but not the child. She will, however, eat nasturtium leaf crisps. You can make them like kale crisps. Spray lightly with oil and oven bake in single layers for a few minutes on a medium heat. Alternatively, a hot, non-stick frying pan with oil will crisp up leaves very quickly but the leaves must be done a few at a time in a single layer. You can imagine I don’t do this often as it’s a bit too much work for someone who wants to eat out of the garden lazily and easily. Also, I suspect all the oil and heat makes it all much less nutritious and healthy.

Easy to grow

In addition to the happy self-seeding, nasturtiums grow well in poor soil. This means that they will grow readily in soil that is not fertile enough to grow vegetables. This doesn’t mean that you need to deliberately seek out rubbish soil. If the soil is fertile you will just get more leaves, which isn’t a problem as you can eat them.

As a companion

They are very attractive to aphids and cabbage white. This may sound like a bad thing as you don’t want to attract either to your garden really, but what they do is they ‘trap’ the pests and they feed on the nasturtiums rather than on your other crop buds or brassicas. The best thing is that nasturtium is so prolific that the plant doesn’t seem to be affected much by the aphids. The caterpillars can eat a good chunk of plant but it’s really easy just to pick all the leaves affected by pests and bin them all. If you’re not too squeamish you can take the leaves with the aphids and soak them in very salty water (literally a large bowl filled with water and about 2 tablespoons of salt) for 10 mins. It’s quite satisfying to see the water crowded with aphids. These are now pests no longer in your garden and you can still rinse the leaves and eat them. I’m afraid I’m a bit too squeamish to do this with the caterpillars.

Seed pods

Lastly the seed pods are, apparently, a substitute for capers. I’m afraid I’ve never done anything with them. Maybe one day when I’m feeling more adventurous. I let you know when I get there!

As a parting image – this is a photo taken 27th August. Seedlings are still appearing and the current plants are still going strong. This is really with no effort at all on my part. I don’t sow or transplant. All I do is play with the leaves, snack on the flowers, allow my little one to steal all the nectar, harvest leaves and pick off leaves with aphids as I’m harvesting (wash the aphids down the sink and eat the leaves) and experiment with different ways of cooking/preparing them.

Purslanes

This feels like a good one to write about now. I’ve just found a patch of bare earth and created another by yanking out a never eaten sage plant. I want to put something in those spaces but there’s very little that will grow this late other than radishes and lettuces. No one in the family will eat radishes, except me. Lettuces get ravaged by slug and snails and tend to bolt this time of year. Chard or kales could be planted to be eaten next spring but they were grown in one of the spots last year so in a small effort to crop rotate they were vetoed. I figured purslanes would be perfect!

Short version:

Common purslane is an annual with succulent leaves and stems that have a tangy taste. Siberian purslane is a hardy perennial that I think tastes too bitter to be useful. Winter purslane is a prolific self-seeding annual that tastes great!

This was a gift I gave to my mum. It’s a mulberry tree with a few greens planted into the bottom as the mulberry wasn’t expected to do anything for a year or so. My mum is pointing at the winter purslane. You can see buds where the flowers are starting. The big leaves to the left are Thai basil. Just above the hand you can see a summer purslane growing.

When I began to populate my garden, I was looking for things that I could neglect and still get food from year after year. I also originally had to find lots of things that would do well in the shade as one long strip of my garden would spend most of the day, most of the year, in the shade of the fence. On the internet I discovered winter purslane. I made a mistake when buying seeds and purchased purslane. Without winter as a prefix, the purslane you get is the distantly related summer/common purslane. This was no bad thing as when researching it I found that summer purslane is considered a weed by many as it can be hard to get rid of, but it is also edible and actually very nutritious. In a book on perennials I found Siberian purslane. It was reported to provide good ground cover in deep shade. This is what I found:

Summer/common purslane – portulaca oleracea

This does indeed grow well. When well-spaced you can get very juicy big leaves. It has succulent red stems and succulent obovate (oval-ish but fatter towards the tip) leaves. Both parts taste tangy but not as sour as sorrel. It can self-seed, but I assumed with its weed like reputation it would come back the year after. It sadly did not. You can save seeds from the plant for the following year. Named summer purslane, it does indeed grow well in the summer. It can be sown March to September directly outdoors, but it needs a sunny spot.  

Winter purslane / miner’s lettuce – claytonia perfoliate

This starts with cordate (sort of upside-down heart shaped-ish) leaves that are succulent, but not quite as thick as the summer purslane. The stems are just as juicy though. As the plant matures it begins to send up round leaves that have a tiny white flower in the centre. All these are edible too. Winter purslane tastes more lettuce like, so it provides a nice, easy to grow salad leaf. It thrives in the shade (does great in part sun, will flower and go to seed quite quickly in full sun) and can be sown July-September. The best things about this plant is that it provides salad leaves through the winter, hence the name. The first year we grew these, we made a lovely salad on Christmas Day – just because we could! This one really does self-seed like crazy and we found them in pavement cracks and pots that had been nearby. It was quite nice harvesting whilst weeding the paving stones. I’ve not sown these again since the first time and it comes up itself in two flushes yearly. They first appear in April and grow quickly, flowering and dying back in June. Then they appear again around August and grow more slowly over the colder months, before flowering and dying as spring comes. My little one absolutely loves these and will graze on them in the garden. Occasionally she will go and ‘pick a salad’ which consists mostly of winter purslane, dill and mint.   

When they self seed they an do so in thick clumps. I’d advise thinning and eating the thinnings to get plants that have bigger juicer leaves

Siberian purslane – claytonia sibirica

This one took me a while to track down as it seems really hard to find seeds for it. I was determined to get this shade loving perennial with cute pink flowers. I figured that they’d be as wonderful as the winter purslane. I found that they didn’t germinate very readily, unlike the other two. I was really excited when it finally grew and I put it in the shadiest spot in the garden. It didn’t grow particularly lush and over the past 4 months it hasn’t done much. I then tasted it and it was bitter and yucky. I’m afraid I’m not convinced. Maybe my seeds came from some cross breeding and weren’t very good. I’ll have to see what happens over winter. Maybe it will perk up and taste better.

I’ll continue to grow the summer purslane and just let the winter purslane continue to go crazy whenever and wherever it feels the desire to germinate. It’s an easy way to get food out of the garden for very little effort and it’s a bonus way to get greens into the little one.