The latest book from 'obsessive foodier grower' James Wong has fascinating details and recipes on 100 edible plants Garden Trail's calendar, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
Before I’d read a page of Kew-trained gardener and botanist James Wong’s latest book, the award-winning James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution, I had an inkling of what to expect. Or rather, given the author’s reputation as something of a horticultural iconoclast, an inkling of what not to expect. A self-confessed plant geek and “obsessive foodie grower” with several successful TV series and books under his belt, Wong has declared himself on a mission to radically transform the contents of the average kitchen garden/allotment.
So his new book won’t tell you how to grow spuds, sprouts or swedes – all vegetables he combatively describes as “the allotment equivalent of powdered eggs and spam”, their popularity with gardeners indicative of “a weird 1940s time warp”.
Instead, readers will learn how the fragrant leaves of Pelargonium “Cola Bottles” can be used to lend their fruity flavour to cakes, a homemade vanilla extract can be concocted from the leaves of the Screwpine (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and a fuchsia-pink food dye extracted from the colourful leaves of shiso (Perilla frutescens).
In total, the book gives in-depth profiles of close to 100 different edible plants, offering practical information on their cultivation as well as plenty of tasty-sounding recipes.
Many of the plants profiled would be far better known as stalwarts of the ornamental garden rather than of the allotment. It was a surprise, for example, to discover that the berries of the Sumac tree, Rhus typhina, are prized in Middle Eastern cooking for their tart, tangy flavour. Or that the multicoloured leaves of Houttuynia cordata (a plant I confess to loathing) taste strongly of coriander and can be used in much the same way.
Neither did I know that the fleshy rhizomes of the canna lily – a plant whose giant leaves and acid-orange flowers are a key feature of many summer bedding schemes – are delicious used in soups or roasted like potatoes.
A recipe for Oregon grape jelly, using the blue-black fruit of the well-known evergreen shrub Mahonia aquifolium, also sounded simple but tasty.
So did another for sticky fuchsia berry and cream cheese empanadas (according to Wong, the berries of Fuchsia regia ssp. regia are the most flavoursome but those of F. magellanica, the scarlet-flowering shrub that is such a feature of the hedgerows of Kerry and Cork, come a close second).
Other plants featured amongst the pages of this book should perhaps come with a sternish warning.
Having tasted the flowers of buzz buttons (Acmella oleracea) a few years ago, I thought them mouth-gaggingly horrible. But then I did chew them whole, rather than ground up, mixed with salt and used to coat the rim of a margarita glass, as Wong suggests.