Most of us have fond memories of the old-fashioned French Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and it seems that no matter where you come from, these beautifully scented flowers were a part of our childhoods. For myself, it was a hedge of deep purple lilacs beside our house in the midst of an otherwise desolate army base in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Each spring it burst forth with its blooms, which were soon sought after by the Monarch butterflies, with the contrast of their deep orange and black wings against the purple blossoms taking your breath away. Of course, had the 12-year old incarnation of me known that the flowers were edible, I would have gladly snacked on them along with my usual crabapples and wild yellow plums. It was only when my wife and eldest daughters came back from a visit to France with a jar of candied lilac flowers a few years back that I realized that they have a very pleasant taste. Then while I was researching my new book, Extraordinary Ornamental Edibles – 100 Perennials, Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Canadian Gardens, I realized that the flowers could also be processed into a delicious cordial or syrup. The recipe is rather easy, just bring 1 cup water and 1 cup water to a boil (to dissolve the sugar) and add 1 cup of de-stemmed florets. I chose a rich purple lilac in order to produce a darker syrup, although I also added a few blueberries and blackberries to deepen the colour. Add your processed florets and berries to the syrup and cook for 10 minutes at a lower heat. After this you can simply take it off the stove and let it cool naturally, tasting it from time to time as the cooked flowers will continue to infuse the syrup. After you are satisfied with the flavour, simply strain your mix through a colander lined with cheesecloth and refrigerate (keeps for about 2 weeks) until wanted. This syrup or cordial is delicious added to sparkling water over ice, splashed on Greek yogurt or drizzled on vanilla ice cream. For candied lilacs, simply follow the instructions on my Candied Violets 101 which is also on this blog, as the principle remains the same. Your other option is to make a syrup of 1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water to use as your sticker, in lieu of the egg whites. Some of the better French Lilac cultivars to choose from include ‘Monge’ (deep purple), ‘Wonderblue’ (baby blue), ‘Belle de Nancy’ (pink), ‘Primrose’ (pale yellow), ‘Charles Joly’ (dbl. reddish-purple), ‘Sensation’ (variegated purple-white), ‘Madame Lemoine’ (double white) and ‘Prairie Petite’ (dwarf pink) – many of which are older varieties bred by the Lemoine family of Nice, France. French lilacs are long-lived deciduous shrubs which are hardy to zone 3. Their care is fairly simple; Plant in a part to full sun exposure with soils that are neutral to slightly alkaline – barring that, add a little dolomite at planting time and avoid the peat moss. Pruning is limited to deadheading seed heads (this diverts more energy to flower bud production) and pruning right after flowering, as a delayed cut will only remove next year’s flowers. Older stems on established plants will eventually need rejuvenation by hard pruning to the base or a younger sideshoot.
If we were truly honest with ourselves, most of us would admit that even the best preserves rarely taste as good as the fresh berries we make them from. Superb raspberry jam will never please the palate as much as that handful of fresh-picked berries, no matter how much sugar or flavour enhancers we may add. But there is one preserve that really exceeds its fresh provenance and that’s rose petal jelly. I had heard about this delicacy from some older English gardeners and decided to make my own while researching my new book, Extraordinary Ornamental Edibles – 100 Perennials, Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Canadian Gardens. Luckily the garden centre where I work as the nursery manager had a hedge of Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’ growing along the ditch, so I had ample access to fresh flowers. While you can use any rose to make this jelly, the fragrant rugosas are some of your best choices, as this delicate perfume is infused right into the preserve. ‘Hansa’ is also an excellent choice for larger gardens as it is disease resistant, usually own-root (meaning the suckers will be the same plant), grows 4-5′ high and produces lovely deep crimson-purple double blooms starting in May, repeating strongly throughout the summer. These are followed by abundant reddish-orange hips which can also be used to make rose hip jam (I will post this recipe at a later date). Some other good choices from this family of roses include ‘David Thompson’ (double pink), ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’ (single light pink, clove fragrance), ‘Scabrosa’ (large violet-red single blooms), ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ (double white), ‘Purple Pavement’ (double violet-mauve, compact growth habit) and ‘Therese Bugnet’ (double pink hybrid rugosa, RHS AGM). I began by harvesting flowers in late morning, after the dew had dried and brought them home for processing. This is the time-consuming part of this recipe, as the petals need to be removed and the bitter white base cut off each of them. I followed the recipe for ‘rose petal jam’ from the website http://www.allrecipes.com but decided the end result was more jelly-like, as the remaining petals are so ephemeral that one hardly notices them on the tongue. Once processed, the petals are tossed with juice of two lemons and one cup of sugar and left to infuse overnight. I wanted a richer coloured jelly, so I admit to adding some red rose petals from a hybrid tea, but this probably wasn’t necessary. The next day, the base is added to three cups of water and another cup of sugar, brought to a boil and afterwards simmered at a lower temperature for about 20 minutes. Then you bring it back to a boil, add the powdered pectin (I prefer this to the liquid, which I find has a high failure rate for setting) and allow to boil for one minute – after which you are ready to can your creation. The result is a floral jelly worthy of any soft goat cheese, plain Greek yogurt or thickly-cut fresh baguette, just be warned that it packs a lot of flower power, so use it sparingly.
While researching my new gardening book, Extraordinary Ornamental Edibles, I concocted a lot of unusual teas and cordials but my favourite of these was Sumac lemonade. To be honest, I was expecting it to be ‘less than spectacular’ and yet the flavour turned out to be a true lemon, without the resounding tart aftertaste. In fact, I consider it to be a vast improvement over traditional lemonades as it was surprisingly refreshing (whether sweetened or not) and completely devoid of the acidity that keeps many people from enjoying citrus of any sort, but particularly lemons. It is made from two species of Sumac, Rhus typhina (Staghorn Sumac) and Rhus glabra (Smooth Sumac). Both are native to parts of North America and Mexico and hardy to zone 3, so the potential for foraging is quite high regardless of where you live. Here in coastal British Columbia they are typically found around old farms or along ditches, where abandoned shrubs have multiplied into dense groves. This propensity for rapid spreading makes these plants less popular in modern gardens, but their pinnate foliage does have a tropical appeal and the fall colour is quite spectacular. The greenish-yellow flowers aren’t very showy and are borne from late spring into early summer, with male and female blooms held on separate trees. These eventually mature into velvety burgundy-red staghorn clusters (on the females of Rhus typhina) or clumps of individual red berries held in a cone-like cluster on female smooth sumacs (Rhus glabra). If you live in the eastern United States or Canada, it is important not to mistake these two edible species with Poison Sumac ( Toxicodendron vernix) which has somewhat similar compound foliage but bears white to cream-coloured berries (at maturity) that hang down in small clusters. In any case, always make a positive plant identification before consuming, as guessing can be deadly. The sumac berry clusters are generally ready for picking from late summer to early fall, when they have turned a rich burgundy-red colour. Use a pole pruner or secateurs to cut them off (if they are close to the ground) and try not to pick on a rainy day, as this diminishes the flavour. Also, try to keep your foraged cones clean while picking, as you want to avoid rinsing them if possible. You are going to need about 4 large cones per liter of water or one cone for every cup of water. I like to prepare my sumac lemonade in a large bowl, as it makes the process a little easier. Just pour the required cold water over the sumac cones in the bowl and gently break the cones apart, using your hands. You don’t want to use hot water or squeeze too harshly, as this will bring out the tannins and make your lemonade quite bitter. While some recipes call for as little as 10-15 minutes steeping time, it simply isn’t long enough to procure the full flavour. I have been averaging 1-2 hours for the best results and during that time I will gently rework the cones with my hands. The best way to tell if your sumac lemonade is ready is simply by tasting and the resulting beverage may be amber to a lovely rose-pink in colour depending on berry ripeness. Once you are satisfied with the flavour, you need to run your base through a colander lined with cheesecloth to separate the lemonade from the plant debris. As you will soon find out for yourself, Sumac lemonade is delicious as is or sweetened and can be used as a salad dressing or even a lemon substitute in a meringue pie.
Medlar or Mespilus germanica is a member of the Rose family (like apples and pears) which was originally native to the Balkans, Turkey and northern Iran. Although widely planted in Europe and parts of Asia, it is a relative unknown in North America and as a nursery manager I have only had it available for sale for about 5 years now. Medlars have been cultivated since ancient Greek and Roman times, and it was an important winter food crop during the Middle Ages in Europe. It is a small (15-18′ tall) self-fertile deciduous fruit tree which bears beautiful white flowers from late spring to early summer, followed by ugly brown fruits that ripen in late autumn. The 1-2″ winged fruits are called ‘Cul-de-Chien’ or ‘Dog-Butt’ fruit by the French and the description is really not far off the mark. The other problem with Medlars is that they are not ready for eating right off the tree, they literally need to rot or ‘blet’ until soft and brown inside. Leaving them on the tree to ripen is not an option locally, as this will only facilitate the raccoon buffet, so you are better off to pick these just as the first fruits begin to soften – which is about early November in coastal British Columbia. Once bletted (see instructions below), the soft brown fruits can be made into delicious jellies or a type of fruit cheese. Despite appearances the rotted fruit has a pleasant spiced apple flavour. The species is USDA zone 6 hardy (with some success in zone 5), not particularly prone to any pests or diseases (except marauding raccoons) and also features deep green foliage (with a silvery reverse) that turns a red or gold in autumn. Mespilus germanica prefers a part to full sun exposure (at least 6 hours of sun in summer) with reasonable soil drainage and is, in my opinion, an undemanding fruit tree to grow, even for novice gardeners. Now, for those of you curious about how it tastes, here are my step-by-step instructions for making delicious Medlar jelly.
STEP 1: FIND SOME MEDLARS – Not surprisingly this is the hardest part of recipe, as Medlars are not a commodity in US and Canadian stores. The only places I can find them locally in the Vancouver market is very infrequently at Granville Island and a few stores that specialize in Persian foods. Luckily, we have a demonstration tree (a cultivar called ‘Breda Giant’ with larger fruits) at the nursery I manage and the owners were kind enough to allow me to use the fruit.
STEP 2: BLETTING – After picking (early November in Vancouver) or purchasing, the firm fruit is going to have to blet or over-ripen for awhile. You need a cool room (not a refrigerator) like a garage and the fruit will need to be laid out in a box or on paper side by side in a single layer and left for 2-3 weeks (mine took 3 weeks). I had multiple boxes of fruit but I am showing one that had ripening persimmons (thanks John) and some edible Monkey Puzzle Tree nuts that were drying.
STEP 3: FIND A RECIPE – You are not going to find a recipe for making Medlar Jelly on the instructions in the Certo pectin package, so your best bet is to head online and see what you can find. Most of these are from the UK and I chose one from http://www.davidlebovitz.com and improvised somewhat with additional unripe medlars (for their pectin content, as per Nigel Slater’s advice) and a quarter teaspoon of real vanilla extract.
STEP 4: CHECK YOUR BLETTING MEDLARS EVERY OTHER DAY – You need to check your ripening Medlars at least every other day for signs of nibbling (think mice and other rodents) and texture. When they have slightly wrinkled skin and are soft to the touch, then they are ready for processing into jelly. Expect a period of anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks at which time they will be brown with a custard-like texture when you cut them open.
STEP 5: ASSEMBLE YOUR INGREDIENTS – The David Lebovitz recipe calls for green apples (‘Granny Smith’ will do), fresh lemon, bletted medlars and sugar. I added to this some unripe medlars for extra pectin (because as the fruit becomes overripe the pectin is broken down), as well as a little vanilla. I chose to ignore some advice which encourages the use of cinnamon, cloves or allspice, as I wanted to taste the natural flavours of the Medlar Jelly.
STEP 6: COOKING & SUPPLIES – Chop the medlars into quarters and put them into a stainless steel pot, along with coarsely chopped green apples and some lemon. Add just enough water to cover the fruit and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer with a lid for another 45 minutes.
STEP 7: STRAIN THE MIXTURE – Allow your medlar mixture to cool and then ladle into a colander lined with 2 layers of cheesecloth (sitting over a large sterilized pot) and allow to strain without forcing, as this may cloud the jelly. Some will allow this to sit overnight while straining. The remaining fruit pulp can be used to make a chutney or other dishes, but remember that the coarsely cut fruit will still have lots of seeds in it.
STEP 8: PRESERVING THE JELLY – Add the quarter teaspoon of real vanilla extract, sugar and bring the remaining jelly to a boil. After one minute put a little on a chilled saucer to see if it will set, if not you will need to add some pectin crystals (which I had to do). While my jelly was a beautiful brownish-burgundy colour in the pot, by the the next morning it had set to a pinkish colour – much like Quince Jelly (Cydonia oblonga) which it reminds me of in taste, but with earthy tones and that hint of lemon.
You can always tell how popular a plant has become across the globe by the number of common names it picks up over the years. Acmella oleracea or Spilanthes oleracea is a native of Brazil which makes it frost tender in temperate regions and a hardy perennial in more tropical climes. In their native country the cooked or fresh leaves are frequently added to stews or used in combination with chilis for seasoning various dishes. Fresh leaves (which have a stronger flavour) are also added to salads for a unique taste sensation. The aforementioned common names are many and include Toothache Plant, Buzz Buttons, Tingflowers, Szechuan Buttons and Electric Daisy – with the latter being the most common. An infusion of leaves or flowers is a traditional means of treating toothaches in some countries, as the plant has both analgesic and antimicrobial properties. It’s popularity in North America is as a bartender’s garnish, particularly for those seeking a unique experience. In lieu of the traditional olive or maraschino cherry, the ‘alien eyeball’-like flowers of the Electric Daisy are floated on popular drinks with the idea of eating them. The bulbous bright yellow blooms have a reddish-brown iris and when consumed produce a challenging taste sensation. While the flavour is a bit offbeat – bitter herbal with light notes of citrus and pineapple – the experience that follows is quite unique. It begins with a slight tingling of the tongue, a bit of numbness and in some people, extreme salivation. But wait, the best part is yet to come, as your tongue begins to tingle like someone is holding a nine-volt battery to it or if you’re old enough to remember, like Pop Rocks, that 1970’s candy sensation. Some people even experience a slight change in their taste sensations, giving everything you eat just afterwards a slightly different flavour. The effects last for about 15-20 minutes and reaction to it varies by individual. People with sensitive palates tend to act adversely…I once saw a chef nearly have kittens as he wiped his tongue trying to make the taste and sensation go away. And yet, I have also witnessed a 12-year old girl pop one in her mouth and just say “that’s pretty cool” with little or no adverse body language. For the less brave among you, try eating one of the bronzed leaves first, as this provides the same sensation on a much smaller scale. The plants are usually available as edible bedding starts at specialty nurseries in spring and they will produce flowers all summer as long as you deadhead them.
I first became aware of candied violets when my wife and oldest daughters returned from a trip to France with a package of these in tow. They were heavily encrusted in sugar and it was obvious that some sort of dye had been used, but they were still incredibly tasty nonetheless. As a gardener I had enjoyed eating violets for many years – in fact I’d say that of all edible flowers those of the common English violet or Viola odorata are the most agreeable to my palate, as they have an almost candy-like appeal. The traditional use of candied violets is as a garnish on cakes and pastries, although you are most likely to find them on the top of upscale cupcakes. While all violets have edible flowers, those of Viola odorata are your best choice – just be sure to gather these from an organic source as nursery-bought plants are sold as ornamentals and usually have spray residuals.
STEP 1 – Find a source of violets that you are confident has not been treated with any pesticides or herbicides. Pick fully open flowers from mid to late morning (preferably on a sunny day) and with a pair of scissors cut your blooms, leaving about a 2″ stem which will make processing a lot easier later. If you can’t make the candied violets right away, then put them in the refrigerator in a sealed container but try to use them as soon as possible.
STEP 2- Beat an egg white with a 1/2 teaspoon of water using a whisk – some people add a few drops of vodka to the coating mixture to hasten drying.
STEP 3 – Use a new artist’s paintbrush to coat each bloom on both sides with the eggwash solution, using the 2″ stem as a handle. Be thorough but try not to saturate the blossom with excess eggwash.
STEP 4 – Once coated with the eggwash, sprinkle the entire surface of both sides of the bloom with fine berry sugar over an open bowl, using a small spoon to apply. Gently shake off any excess or unattached sugar granules.
STEP 5 – Place candied violets on a wire rack covered with parchment paper and allow to dry for about 24 hours. The blooms should take on a glazed look and be slightly hard or crusty to the touch. Carefully cut off the excess stems and use right away, or store in an airtight container for 1-2 months.
While most of us are familiar with the Korean Dogwood or Cornus kousa as a reliable flowering tree, fewer people realize that the cherry-like drupes are actually edible. The starry white or pink bracts are borne abundantly in late spring, followed by an often heavy crop of red fruits that ripen from late summer into fall. When picked at peak form these are slightly pliable to the touch and have a pleasant mild mango flavour. The better varieties or cultivars include the pink-flowered ‘Satomi’, the variegated ‘Summer
Gold’ and the floriferous Cornus kousa var. chinensis. All feature ascending branches, good disease resistance and attractive reddish-purple autumn foliage. Beyond the very short season of fresh eating, there are many other ways you can enjoy this unusual fruit – they can be pureed and baked into delicious muffins or smoothies, but I think you best bet is to make your own jam, which is very similar to an apple butter in colour and flavour. Start by picking your fruit when fully ripe, meaning it should be slightly pliable to the touch. While some people might just run these through a food processor (after washing and removing the stems), the skin can be a bit bitter at times, so I prefer to scoop
them out by hand using a spoon – which is very time consuming. You need about 4 cups of dogwood berry pulp, to which you add one and a half cups of water – this base is brought to a boil in a stainless steel pot and is strained through cheesecloth once it has cooled. You then add your spices to this base, these include a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon of ground cloves – which is why this jam tastes so similar to apple butter. You will want to put in 5 cups of sugar and bring this mixture to a boil, after which you add one package of pectin powder and allow a rolling boil for one minute – when it cools slightly you are ready to ladle your dogwood butter into sterilized canning jars for future use. This preserve tastes great when spooned generously on hot buttered toast and enjoyed in the moment. For more great tips on unusual edibles look for my new book Extraordinary Ornamental Edibles – 100 Perennials, Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Canadian Gardens’ by Douglas & McIntyre – coming out in early spring 2018.