These days I spend much of my time in private and community gardens (and sometimes even my own) working with plants and I’ve learnt a great deal over the past few years about where garden plants will thrive, how they will combine with their fellows and when they will steal the limelight. But my knowledge of our native flora is still at the seedling stage, with only a few stalwarts remembered from walks in the Welsh country lanes with my grandparents (Herb Robert, Red Campion, Lords and Ladies…) I’ve not yet developed the ability to connect with a landscape through observing its plants the way I have with birds, through years of watching, listening and learning.
So this year I’ve started developing my knowledge of our wild flora. I’ve attended several excellent courses at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens – on Trees in Winter (sticks), Trees in summer (sticks with leaves) and Tricky Taxonomy (focusing on Docks, Sedges, Umbellifers, Crucifers and Willows). These courses have been interesting and useful – not because I can identify a great deal more than I could before, but because they have opened up a whole new world of native plant life and a new way of looking at it – focusing on the structure of the plant and its links to native habitats, rather than considering plants in terms of their garden worthiness and aesthetic possibilities.
Thus I found myself at RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk this week, crouched in the vegetative shingle, focusing on the plant life rather than the bird life. There was a brief foray into East Hide with the rest of the family to marvel at the iconic avocets and argue over the identity of a female whinchat/stonechat, but mostly I wandered along the shore learning to connect with the landscape through its vegetation. I’ve learnt to identify new species and enjoyed researching their history and uses. I’ve been surprised at how many have edible parts, at least theoretically and historically (some are now not eaten due to their toxic effects and some are protected species in certain areas).
Here are some of my favourite new acquaintances and a little about why I’ve found their histories captivating:
1. Sea Pea (Lathyrus japonicus)
These beautiful little papilionaceous flowers (shaped like a butterfly) are tiny specks of colour in an otherwise green and tan landscape. A trailing perennial, the flowers have obvious links to sweet peas and garden peas with their 5 petals (the upstanding ‘standard’, the 2 lateral ‘wings’ and the 2 fused lower petals forming the ‘keel’.)
The seeds float and can remain viable for an impressive 5 years. It was first recorded in 1570 and used to be so abundant that it was regarded as a valuable food source in Suffolk in times of famine. However, like many other members of the genus, they contain a neurotoxin which can cause a disease called lathyrism if consumed in large quantities. Lathyrism causes paralysis and is still an problem in some areas of the world where large quantities of lathyrus seeds are consumed due to poverty and famine.
Suffolk supports a large percentage of the UK’s scarce population of sea peas, so foraging would no longer be a responsible option – even if there was a consensus on the safety of eating it in small quanitites – which there isn’t.
2. Sea Radish (Raphanus maritimus)
A common sight along the coast, I love sea radish for its yellow or white flowers and its abundant profusion. The flowers aren’t conventionally beautiful, but I spent quite a lot of time studying Brassicaceae flowers through a hand lens last month, examining the four petals in a cross shape which gave the family its older name, Cruciferae. The open flower structure and generous quantities of sea radish blooms add a fresh, airy feel to the dunes. Although the Brassicaceae I’m most familiar with are grown for their edible parts, the family also includes ornamental garden favourites like wallflowers, aubretia, honesty and night-scented stock.
The seed pods can be clearly seen at this time of year and remind me of the rat-tailed radishes which commandeered the vegetable patch last year and produced hundreds of (to my mind rather unpleasantly cabbagey tasting) seed pods. The abundance of sea radish and the fact that it can be harvested for leaves, flowers and young seed pods, especially in winter when other wild crops are scarce, makes it a valuable wild food source. Although I didn’t harvest any myself this time, it is possible that the taste will be better than the rat-tailed variety as I do generally like the radish pods of varieties which are not conventionally grown for their seed pods (not sure why they taste better – perhaps it’s just that I don’t get on with anything with ‘Rat-tailed’ in the title due to nettle compost tea trauma – see Nettle Soup blog post).
3. Sea Kale (Crambe maritime)
Another member of the Brassicaceae family, sea kale was a favourite food of the Victorians and their habit of digging up plants to try and grow them in their gardens contributed to their decline in the wild. Today plants are still scarce in some areas, but they grow in abundance on stretches of the Suffolk coast. However, we can now grow sea kale from seed, thus avoiding putting pressure on local resources. Seeds are available from Suttons Seeds and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, or plants can be bought from Victoriana Nursery Gardens from 2017. (All links are based on my personal knowledge and use of these suppliers. They are not sponsored links). Sea kale is an interesting vegetable to cultivate because of its perennial nature and its many edible parts – roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. If you are interested in learning more about sea kale, Mark Williams’ fascinating blog, Galloway Wild Foods covers more foraging information and Alison Tindale offers excellent practical advice about growing and propagation in The Backyard Larder.
4. Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum)
Sea holly is another plant perfectly adapted to grow on vegetative shingle, with its long tap root growing down a metre or more and an extensive root system which helps protect the environment against erosion. It has a long history of usage as a medicinal and edible plant – the shoots can be blanched and used as an asparagus substitute whilst the root can be cooked as a vegetable or candied and used as a sweetmeat.
Eryngium spp. have, of course, been traditionally planted in gardens for their ornamental value. The waxy, glaucous leaves and bracts, which protect the plant from sun and wind damage, also create the beautiful silvery blue sheen which contrasts so well with orange and yellow flowers such as Helenium, Anthemis and Achillea, or complements blue and purple combinations with other flowers like Allium, Echinacea and Perovskia.
For more information on sea holly’s history and edible properties I’d recommend Plants for a Future. I first came across this resource several years ago when I bought the book second-hand at Conwy RSPB reserve. Online, it’s an astonishing database of over 7000 edible and medicinal plants, with their historical and modern uses. I use it regularly both as a source of fascinating historical information and to help me maximise the use of the plants growing in my garden and allotment.
5. Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis)
Marsh mallow is a plant of tidal river banks, salt marshes, damp meadows and coastal margins. The flowers are smaller and paler than common mallow. Most of the mallows have been used as food for centuries in the UK and all around the world and marsh mallow was apparently a delicacy in Roman times. Like the sea pea, marsh mallow is still eaten in countries like Syria as a staple in times of famine, but without the unfortunate side effects.
The mucilaginous sap of the root has been used as a sweet treat since Egyptian times, mixed with sugar and egg whites to form a meringue which hardens as it cooks. Modern marshmallows no longer use Althaea officinalis as the base of the confectionary, but the plant still has myriad uses. The root can be cooked as a vegetable, the leaves used to thicken soups and the flowers and root made into tea. Marsh mallow also has many medicinal applications listed in Plants for a Future and further interesting historical information is available in Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931), now accessible online.
Marsh mallow is scarce in the UK these days and therefore not a viable option for foraging, but seeds can be bought from numerous suppliers, such as Kings Seeds and Jekka’s Herb Farm. With a damp area in the garden it should be possible to grow Althaea officinalis to make marshmallows, as a vegetable or for medicinal purposes. Alternatively it could simply be grown to attract pollinating insects and to create a link to our diverse and rich natural floral history.
If you have enjoyed this post and would like to follow more of my explorations into wild flower territory in the future, please subscribe to the blog:
It’s always great to have comments on the posts – I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences. Do you forage, grow or cook with these or other coastal plants? Looking forward to hearing from you…
Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always ensure it is legal to forage and where identification is concerned, if in doubt, leave it out.