A Taste Of Unusual Edibles: RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

Calycanthus (Allspice)

The first inkling I had that unusual edibles would catch my eye at Hampton Court this year was the sight of deep red Calycanthus flowers around every corner. As soon as I entered the show, there was Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ in Evolve: Through the Roots of Time Garden, beautifully set off by the predominantly green foliage of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, then more specimens by the entrance to The Countryfile Garden, in The Family Garden and outside the mirrored meadow-room of Apeiron: The Dibond Garden.

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Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’

This aromatic shrub is most often grown for its glossy foliage and single elegant flowers, but its bark was traditionally dried in indigenous American cultures and used as a substitute for cinnamon and allspice. The flowers and seeds of both Calycanthus florida (Carolina Allspice) and Calycanthus occidentalis (Californian Allspice) are poisonous and the Plants For a Future database advises caution when using the bark due to the plant’s toxic components, but James Wong includes Calycanthus floridus in his Homegrown Revolution, it has been featured in The Guardian by Lia Leendertz as producing an ‘edible spice’ and Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ has also been planted in this year’s RHS Grow Your Own Garden along with other shrubs with edible parts. 

Ugni molinae ‘Heritage Ice’ (Chilean Guava)

Regular readers will already know of my fondness for the Chilean guava. I have Ugni molinae ‘Ka-pow’, just one of the cultivars on display in the Plant Heritage section of the floral marquee. Dr Gary and Dr Maria Firth hold the National Collection of Myrtaceae which includes collections of myrtle, luma, Chilean guava and lophomyrtus and this year their Ugni molinae selection includes ‘Kapow’, ‘Butterball’, ‘Variegata’ and ‘Heritage Ice’. 

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Ugni molinae ‘Heritage Ice’

‘Heritage Ice’ has variegated leaves speckled with cream and Gary told me it isn’t prone to reverting, unlike ‘Variegata’. With such attractive foliage, delicate white flowers and delicious, aromatic fruit in October – a time of year when sweetness and perfume are fading away with the memories of summer – this is a shrub which deserves to be more widely grown.

Zanthoxylum (Szechuan Pepper)

After helping to plant the Foraging Forest Garden at the RHS Autumn Show last year and showing visitors around the installation, I became fascinated with the different Szechuan peppers around the garden. I bought a Zanthoxylum piperitum earlier in the year and it has been an unmitigated failure so far. When I planted it out in the garden I noticed the developing leaves kept disappearing overnight, leaving me week after week with an unprepossessing stick poking out of the earth. Deciding that slugs were the culprits, I moved it back into a pot away from the molluscs, but it is still sulking and refusing to produce leaves (although it is still alive – just!) 

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Can you see any leaves? No neither can I…

When I saw the Zanthoxylum piperitum in the RHS Grow Your Own Garden I felt a certain amount of pepperish envy. Beryl Randall, who writes the gardening blog Mud and Gluts, was helping to plant the garden and she brought along her own Szechuan pepper to add to the edible display – doesn’t it look healthy? 

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Beryl’s Szechuan Pepper

To find out what I’m doing wrong I spent a while chatting to Fiona Blackmore and Chris Smith at Pennard Plants about their growing collection of Zanthoxylum. They have 11 species so far including winged prickly ash (Zanthoxylum planispinum) – a very spiny Nepalese form which is is one of the ingredients in Chinese ‘Five Spice’, lemon-flavoured Zanthoxylum simulans and my favourite, the Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum ‘Purple Leaved’), which forms one of the main ingredients in the Japanese blended spice shichimi. As well as collecting the berries of these peppers as a spice, the leaves can also be used in salads and as a flavouring. 

The general feeling was that my problem had been slugs and the plant now needs some TLC (better growing medium/seaweed fertiliser) to help it recover and come into leaf. If this doesn’t work though, I’ll not be too sad. It will be a good excuse to buy a couple more peppers from Pennards and this time I’ll follow Beryl’s example and keep them in pots.

Broussonetia papyrifera (Paper Mulberry)

This Asian shrub in the mulberry family was a new one for me when I came across it in the RHS Grow Your Own Garden. Its primary traditional use was for making paper in China and handcrafted washi paper in Japan, and it has edible fruits and leaves (when cooked). It is classed as an invasive species in some countries like Uganda, Pakistan and Argentina, and has allergenic pollen.

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The unusual shaped immature foliage of the paper mulberry

The fruits, which develop if the flowers are fertilised, have a similar look to the mulberry with a cluster of drupes creating a spherical pom-pom which ripens to orange or red. They are apparently best eaten fresh and have a sweet taste. The paper mulberry can be grown in most areas of the UK, but it’s classified as H5 by the RHS (hardy down to -10/-15) so might suffer in cold winters. It also has a suckering habit – one of the factors which can make it invasive in warmer countries. I’m not sure I’d grow it exclusively for the fruits as I imagine the crop would be fairly small, but the dramatic foliage creates impact and in areas that don’t have repeated hot summers the plant remains shrubby, perfect for the back of a sunny border.

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Do My Cucamelons Look Big In This?

This will be my fifth year growing cucamelons and the first year I’ve successfully overwintered them. Heralded as an exciting addition to cocktails by James Wong in 2012, I’ve spoken to many people who have grown cucamelons only to be disappointed with either the taste or harvest of these diminutive fruits. I am prepared to accept that for some (misguided!) individuals the fresh, citrusy sweetness of a ripe cucamelon isn’t an instant hit. Perhaps they aren’t big fans of cucumbers, limes or watermelons either, as the cucamelon combines snatches of all these favours within its own zingy freshness. What I won’t accept, is that cucamelons are dry, chewy, bland or sour. All these complaints suggest one thing – that the offending fruit has been harvested too late.

Cucamelons need careful watching – miss the couple of days in which the fruits attain their optimum flavour and texture, and you’ll always believe they aren’t worth the hype. In the bustle of modern life this window can easily be missed and cucamelons don’t help with their trailing habit, as the tiny fruits are often hidden behind the leaves of other plants, only to be discovered several days later well on their way to winning the ‘grow a giant cucamelon competition’ at the expense of their taste. The ideal size is about equal to a grape and the colour should be green with dark stripes. If the fruits grow any bigger and turn a paler green then the skins become tough and the juice rather insipid. I generally advise first-time cucamelon growers to try tasting a fruit when it is pea-sized. Then, when fruits are harvested a few days later, if they don’t taste as sweet and delicious as the first tiny fruit, they should be harvested earlier next time.

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I found this one hiding at the back…

The other issue with cucamelons can be their tendency to have years when fruiting is reduced. I’ve had some bumper years where the vines fruit continuously throughout the summer and some where fruiting has been rather disappointing. I grow four pots in the greenhouse trained on wires around the top edge, although there are always side-shoots escaping to make friends with the tomatoes, chillies, lemongrass and other greenhouse residents. I’ve also tried them outside with some success (they grow well up supports but tend to fruit a little less than in the greenhouse). This year I fed and watered the greenhouse crops more and also made sure the door was left open to encourage pollinators in as flowers aren’t self-fertile and the crop was good. I suspect hand pollination might also increase yields, but I’ve not felt the need to attempt this yet.

I’ve also tried over-wintering cucamelons several times without success. A few years ago I attended a talk by James Wong at the Edible Garden Show where he mentioned that they could be over-wintered. Cucamelons produce long, tuberous roots which can supposedly be stored, like dahlia tubers, in a cool dry place over-winter. When I asked him at the end of the talk, James said he hadn’t tried it but this was the recommended way to store them. So the next winter I tried, but the tubers rotted in storage. The following year I left them in pots of compost in the greenhouse along with my dahlias. This was also unsuccessful (although the dahlias were fine.) I even found a tuber one spring in the vegetable bed which looked dormant but healthy. I potted it up, but it spent the whole summer in the pot without ever awakening.

This winter I thought I’d give it one last try before giving up on over-wintering altogether. Keeping the plants on the dry side in their pots in a cool spot indoors seems to have done the trick. I cut the vines back to about 10cm before bringing them in. One died back completely and the other has retained its vine but not grown further. Now both are showing some new growth and I do believe I’ve cracked it! Hopefully the over-wintered plants will crop earlier and more heavily than my seed sown plants – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It’s alive!!

Raw cucamelons add a tangy note of sharpness to salads without being sour. I think this is by far the best way to appreciate their flavour. My kids love them and they are a superb fruit for small fingers to harvest. One year we also pickled our cucamelons. They were good on sandwiches and burgers, but lost the sweet/sharp combination which is their defining feature. I haven’t tried them in cocktails, but they’re good in Pimms with strawberries and mint. Go on, you know it makes sense  🙂

So if you want to experience the delight of a fresh, juicy cucamelon it’s important to ensure good pollination. Then, once you have your harvested crop in your hand, ask yourself this question: ‘Do my cucamelons look big in this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve left it too late…

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One or two of my crop here are on the large size. The smaller ones are an ideal size.

If you’d like to try growing these tiny taste bombs this year they are easy to raise from seed and are now available as plug plants. When I started growing cucamelons, seed wasn’t that readily available, but now it can be sourced from the following suppliers and many more…

Suttons Seeds (where I bought my first seeds, available as seeds or plug plants), Pennard Plants (also offers a great range of other unusual fruit/veg seeds and edible perennials), Chiltern Seeds (with a wide range of heritage and heirloom vegetables too) and Jungle Seeds (who also sell other interesting cucurbits such as gherkin cucumber and horned melon).

Sow seeds indoors from the end of February until April and they will be ready to plant out in the greenhouse or the garden/allotment at the end of May. If you are planting them outside, consider slug protection as one small munch at the base of the vine can undo weeks of careful growing.

Maybe you disagree completely with my cucamelon favouritism? Have you experienced different problems from the ones I’ve discussed or do you find the taste too sour even in small fruits? Or perhaps cucamelons crop well for you and you’ve got alternative ways of using them in recipes? If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment…

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