Although my garden is mostly ornamental, I’ve always longed to incorporate more edibles. My efforts at vegetable gardening have repeatedly been met by failure – I’ve been outwitted by chipmunks, rabbits and woodchucks, defeated by grasshoppers, cabbage flies and other pesky insects, and the weather never seems to cooperate with the type of vegetable that I grow that season. So it was with great interest that I discovered Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos in the bookstore of Longwood Gardens. I devoured the book in one evening, and am looking forward to tasting many of her recommendations.
As Ellen explains in the introduction to her book, many of our favorite garden plants have edible parts that have simply been overlooked. And since many of us gardeners already know what we’re growing in our own backyards, plant identification is easier than foraging in the wild. Sixty-five familiar plants you didn’t know you could eat are the stars of this impressively comprehensive guide, and Ellen stresses the “ease and elegance” of foraging these familiar greens, fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers, and fungi in yards and nearby environs.
I was surprised and delighted to find that some of the perennials that grow with unabashed abundance in my garden are on the edible list. Here are 5 of my favorites:
Do you have an abundance of the orange “roadside” daylilies somewhere on your property? Mine grow right in my compost pile where they were discarded several years ago. I have always known that dried lily buds are integral to Chinese hot and sour soup. But did you know that you can eat them fresh – either raw in salads where the taste is reminiscent of green beans, or lightly sautéed in olive oil with salt and pepper?
The best surprise about daylilies? You can eat the tubers, which are like mini potatoes! They are small like baby fingerlings, and are best harvested in fall and early spring when they are plump and full of starchy goodness. Like potatoes, they can be roasted in the oven with a light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper.
Every year when I dig my dahlia tubers for storage, I feel like a farmer harvesting her potatoes. Little did I know that dahlia tubers can be eaten like potatoes – boiled, roasted or baked. Apparently they don’t have a strong flavor, so they are a good vehicle for gravies and spices. They can also be grated and used like zucchini in quickbreads. Although I have a hard time picturing all those gorgeous dahlia flowers going to waste, dahlia tubers would be fun to try at least once!
3. Bishop’s Weed
I planted variegated Bishop’s Weed in my dry shade garden despite being warned about its invasiveness. It’s good to know that I can harvest and eat it to keep it under control! The plants should be cut at ground level and the stems discarded. Young Bishop’s Weed leaves can be added to salads, where their taste is light, fresh and reminiscent of celery. Mature leaves can be a substitute for cooked spinach in recipes, particularly Greek spinach pie. Can’t wait to try it!
4. Bee Balm
Bee balm, also called bergamot, is a member of the mint family, and both its foliage and flowers are useful as herbs. For some people, the taste resembles oregano, while others are reminded of Early Grey tea. You can actually brew a delicious bergamot tea, the chopped leaves may be used as an oregano substitute in recipes, and the chopped flowers make a colorful addition to pasta dishes, rice, pizza, tomato sauces and meat rubs.
Like many gardeners, I was enamored with propagating plants early in my gardening hobby, and now I have a plethora of plain green hostas that require a crowbar to remove. It’s great to know that I can serve them for dinner! You can remove a third of the plant’s outer leaves without harming the health of the plant. New, tight shoots can be served like asparagus over pasta and rice. Slightly older shoots that are just starting to open can be briefly blanched , then sautéed and served as a vegetable with or without sauce. In northern Japan, hosta has become a commercial crop. So what’s stopping us?
I hope that you’ve been inspired to learn more about “Backyard Foraging”. Sixty more backyard edibles await you in Ellen’s book, which can be found at Amazon. Bon apetit!