Monday, May 4, 2009
Pulling weeds yields crunchy culinary gems
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 4, 2009)
I go a little crazy over freshly picked food.
Consider betony, Stachys floridana.
Betony is a low-growing, square-stemmed plant in the mint family. That's the same lineage, Lamiaceae, shared by basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, lavender and coleus. In our yard, betony grows with abandon around irrigation spigots and in the enriched soil surrounding our fig trees.
Above ground, this Florida native forms a verdant carpet topped with small, rather nondescript clusters of pink blooms. Below ground, masses of white tubers stretch in every direction. The bulbous, peanut-sized nuggets attach to greenery by a series of stringy roots. A tenacious plant, betony is not at all shy about invading garden spaces. Its aggressive growth pattern is reason enough to label it a weed.
But it's such a tasty weed.
Although all parts of this versatile herb are edible, I'm partial to the tubers. Mild-flavored and slightly sweet, with a water chestnut-like consistency, the bite-sized rhizomes produce a satisfying crunch when munched raw. Ralph recently weeded around the fig trees and returned with an overflowing bowl of betony.
"Yum!" I said in anticipation and turned on the tap to fill the sink. Because they grow underground, the tubers require a good pre-eating soak and scrub. It's a pleasant enough process, and I usually nibble my way through the task.
As anyone who gardens knows, there is nothing as flavorful as fresh-picked fruits or vegetables. Any food eaten minutes after being plucked, picked or — in the case of Stachys floridana — dug from the earth, is sweeter, crunchier, and more energy-rich than produce that had to endure transportation and storage. Betony is no exception.
That first batch disappeared quickly.
"Where's the betony?" my husband asked a few hours later as he stood before the open fridge.
"They're gone," I embarrassedly admitted.
"You ate them all? You didn't save any for me?" Fortunately, he sounded more astonished than annoyed.
"They were so good I couldn't help myself," I explained before realizing how little that justification helped my case.
A few days later, my husband brought in another batch. This time I dutifully set aside plenty for him to enjoy later. Rather than devour a whole bowlful in one sitting as an unnamed glutton might do, Ralph is a prudent eater. He nibbles on one or two tubers with a meal or as a snack.
However consumed, betony is a welcome addition to the pre-summer diet. The tubers are ready to eat in April and continue producing quantities of below-ground growth for months. That's part of the problem — it's so prolific. Although it's not listed as an invasive plant by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, many people understandably label it noxious. I empathize. If I didn't enjoy eating the tubers so much, I'd consider it a pest plant too. Sometimes I do. When it appears in unwanted spots, we attack the bed with shovel and rake and hope for the best. Inevitably, we miss a few roots, and from them a new crop develops.
Betony exemplifies the confusion over good plant vs. bad plant. Do a plant's many assets outweigh its disadvantages? What makes a wildflower a weed?
On its plus side, betony's medicinal properties have a rich history. "This is a precious herb well worth keeping in your house," wrote Culpeper in the 17th century. In ancient Rome, the chief physician to Emperor Augustus wrote a treatise that proclaimed betony a cure for 47 diseases. Today, over-the-counter betony supplements are purported to strengthen the nervous and cardiovascular systems, relieve headaches and aid digestion.
On its negative side, betony is difficult to get rid of without resorting to potent herbicides.
I asked Linda Roberts, executive director of the Florida Wildflower Foundation, to weigh in on the wildflower-vs.-weed question.
"It's just a matter of knowledge, tolerance and taste," she responded. "People like me who enjoy natural beauty will see these as wildflowers. However, those going for the manicured-lawn look will see them as weeds. We have so many beautiful wildflowers in our midst. People need only to learn to appreciate them for what they are."
If you already have betony in your garden or lawn — and it's likely you do — rather than struggle to eradicate the pest with poisonous chemicals, consider readjusting your perception. Betony is undeniably a weed. But it's a weed that provides free food for the taking. Dig up some tubers and try them. You might find yourself going a little crazy over freshly picked food too.