The Wonderful World of Edible Ornamentals
The hedgerows are jam-packed with blackberries right now so I made my annual trip to the banks of the Liffey and indulged myself with some much-needed nature bathing and foraging over the weekend. The little one was in tow, he mostly watched but I promised him he’d be taking part before he knew it. It's something I look forward to each year and the crop is the best I’ve seen in a long time. There’s something very primal about heading out with bag in hand and picking those plump little drupes until your fingers are gleefully stained with their purple juice. I couldn’t wait to get out and see what the hedgerows had to offer after my workshop on edible plants at Knockrose House and Garden last month. It was such a great day made even more special by the fantastic hospitality and garden tour with Trish the owner.
The main emphasis of the workshop was the world of edible ornamental plants. I introduced the participants to the health benefits of many native species such as the blackthorn, dog rose, nettles and dandelions all of which can be readily found growing in the wild and are popular for foraging. More unusual wildflowers that can be consumed for their health benefits included yarrow Achillea millefolium which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties and its leaves can be used in a herbal tea.
I also chatted about the use of cleavers otherwise known as stickyback, robin-run-the-hedge or sticky willy. Believe it or not, this sticky little fella can be eaten like a vegetable obviously not raw but can be steamed which removes the stickiness. With a mild pea-like flavour, it is said to have myriad benefits from treating psoriasis to strengthening hair and nails and those pesky little seeds which we've all picked off our clothes or dogs can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute.
Cowslip was another interesting species that is not widely known for its edible properties. Across Europe, the flowers are used to flavour ‘Cowslip Wine’ a real treat come springtime. The flowers have a citrus flavour and can be candied for decorating cakes or added to salads for that element of zing. As is the case with most wildflowers always get permission from the landowner before you start to forage, never lift the entire plant and leave some for the wildlife too.
On the ornamental side of things, there were some really interesting species that were on the list. Did you know that Hostas are edible? In Japan, Hosta leaves known as Urui have been eaten for centuries. With a similar taste to lettuce or asparagus, the leaves can be boiled, fried in tempura or eaten raw. Other herbaceous perennials which I listed included lady’s mantle Alchemilla mollis which is anti-inflammatory and astringent and used for the relief of menstrual and menopausal symptoms. It is also steeped in folklore and it was believed dew collected from the leaves in May had the ability to preserve the youth of a young woman once she applied the drops during a full moon, naked and barefoot!
Another sweet treat that most of the class were unaware of was the berries of the Fuchsia plant. These have a mild grape flavor with a slight peppery aftertaste and can be used in jam or eaten raw. The single-flowering species are better than the doubles and a new variety Fuchsia ‘Berry’ has been cultivated specifically for this purpose. Keeping in the tree and shrub theme, there were a number of species that were revered for their edible qualities. These included lavender which many will know for its soothing properties and use in the perfume industry to elder for its sprays of flowers which flavour that unmistakable cordial that sings summer, followed by those sharp little berries that are great for jams and tarts. There’s a stunning purple-leaved elder Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' that has pink flowers which in turn produce a pink cordial for something a little different.
Hazel Corylus avellana naturally had a place on the list with its edible nuts eaten by humans and wildlife alike in the autumn but did you know that it was a symbol of fertility in medieval times and of course blackthorn with its plump blue/black berries that will contort your face worse than a sour lemon if you eat them raw but make the most soothing, delicious flavoured gin just in time for Christmas. Other trees with interesting uses include Norway spruce. Its new shoots can be picked in spring and pickled or brewed in tea or beer – a popular use in Scandinavia.
The workshop was such a success I will be running it again next spring so do spread the word and let everyone know. Here’s to another great day out at Knockrose House and Garden.
As Always, Happy Gardening Folks!