It’s March and Sophie is already enjoying some coastal foraging:
Now the spring is showing signs of arrival, I’m enjoy keeping an eye out for the coastal-loving plants that are beginning to show their faces again. I’ve seen all of the ones mentioned below in and around Rhoscolyn. Here are five of my (edible) favorites!
Sea Kale – Crambe maritima
Not only is it edible – but it’s delicious too! The shoots start to show in the early spring, the flowers (not dissimilar to broccoli) appear between May and June, with the leaves coming through during August.
Usually found above high-tide mark on pebble beaches, it was once common for coastal people to heap loose shingle around the naturally occurring root crowns in springtime, thus blanching the emerging shoots. By the early eighteenth century, it had become established as a garden vegetable, but its height of popularity was the early nineteenth century.
The shoots are served like asparagus: steamed, with either a béchamel sauce or melted butter, salt and pepper. It is apt to get bruised or damaged in transport and should be eaten very soon after cutting, which may explain its subsequent decline in popularity.
Sea Beet – Beta vulgaris (oaritima)
The sea beet is the wild ancestor of common vegetables such as beetroot, sugar beet, and Swiss chard. Its leaves have a pleasant texture and taste when served raw or cooked – because of this it is also known as wild spinach. Best eaten when newly emerged and before flowering.
It’s a perennial plant that thrives at the top of beaches. It requires moist, well-drained soils, and does not tolerate shade. However, it is able to tolerate relatively high levels of sodium in its environment. It can grow up to 1.2 m, and flowers in the summer.
Sea or Wild Cabbage – Brassica oleracea
Sea or Wild Cabbage, a biennial/perennial edible plant, is considered very useful because it produces greens all year round, when most other plants are not available.
A tall plant that forms a stout rosette of large leaves in the first year. In its second year, the stored nutrients are used to produce a flower spike, between one and two meters high, bearing numerous yellow flowers.
It is believed to have given rise to a wide range of cultivated crops including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts – and many more brassicas. Other species may be involved – the genetics of Brassica seem to be hugely complex – but at least part of this wide variation in its cultivated descendants is attributable to the innate variability of Brassica oleracea.
Jack in the hedge or Garlic Mustard – Alliaria petiolata
In the first year of growth, plants form clumps of round shaped, slightly wrinkled leaves, that when crushed smell like garlic. The next year plants flower in spring, producing cross-shaped white flowers in dense clusters. As the flowering stems bloom they elongate into a spike-like shape. When blooming is complete, plants produce upright fruits that release seeds in mid-summer.
Plants are often found growing along the margins of hedges, giving rise to the old British folk name of Jack-by-the-hedge. Other common names include Garlic Mustard, Garlic Root, Hedge Garlic, Sauce-alone, Jack-in-the-bush, Penny Hedge and Poor Man’s Mustard. The genus name Alliaria, “resembling Allium“, refers to the garlic-like odour of the crushed foliage.
All parts of the plant, including the roots, give off a strong odour. In 17th century Britain it was recommended as flavouring for salt fish. It can also be made into a sauce for eating with roast lamb or salad – and thought of a good source of vitamins A and C. The herbs medicinal purposes include use as a disinfectant, a diuretic, and sometimes being used to treat gangrene and ulcers.
Alexanders – Smyrnium olusatrum
The plants are stout growing to 150 cm high, with a solid stem, which becomes hollow and grooved with age. The flowers are yellow-green in colour and arranged in umbels, and its fruits are black. Look out for this tall plant on cliff paths, the first seaside greenery of the year!
The flavor is somewhere between that of celery and parsley. It’s almost forgotten as a food source now, but it was once used in many dishes. To enjoy the stems as a fresh vegetable, similar to asparagus, try peeling them and boiling them for 5 – 10 minutes, or until tender. Cook unripe flowerheads in the same way, or eat them raw. Large leaves can be blanched, while young ones can be eaten raw. The hard black seeds appear late in the year and can be used as a spice, much like pepper. You can even eat the roots, preparing them as you would parsnips.