In which a post mysteriously appears on my old blog, slightly obsessive in detail but that’s me!
Salsola agretti, opposite leaved saltwort, Friars Beard is a joy of a vegetable to discover if you are like me, always looking over the fence – in this case the internet fence – and seeing what people eat in other countries. I don’t think I could ever fit a rice paddy in my suburban garden and I don’t really have space for growing melons and other ground hungry plants much as I would love to try, but this plant, which kept appearing here and there on my Instagram feed, really took my fancy so I tracked down some seed and read as much as I could and looked for photos and based on what I found I had a go at growing it last year. I have to say I love it.
I read that they queue up for this in Rome when it first appears in the markets and I read that celebrity chefs grow their own in order to have a reliable supply. And others have no doubt written on their garden blogs about growing it, but here are my thoughts and photos of growing salsola agretti last year for you to have a look at.
Sources of seed that I know of are Real Seeds and Franchi in the UK and I think Otter Farm may have it too, though stock levels from all these vary and it is not available all year round. It has a short shelf life so you need to use the seed you get in one season or if you have excess just share it around. The seed has a reputation for being hard to germinate. This I suspect is because as Real Seeds say it isn’t really a proper seed, more ‘a balled up little plant’ to quote them. I have tried saving some seed from my plants this year and will add a post script and let you know if any of them germinate. They make the seed very late in the season, so it might be something to do with weather conditions, wet/dry/hot as to their percentage viability the following Spring.
If you look it up on Wikipedia you can read all about it and its history and its industrial use. The photos on Wiki aren’t brilliant though so I am going to put a load of ours on here to help give an idea of how the plant develops through the growing season here in Bristol, (mild climate). Not the easiest of plants to photograph and make look interesting either…. I understand that in Rome it has a much shorter and more intense growing season, so if you are growing it in a different climate then the times and so on will all be different for you.
I sowed seed in March and again in April. I sowed in seed compost and covered the seeds with maybe ¼ inch of soil, watered lightly and left them to it on a north facing windowsill with a plastic propagation cover over the tray until they popped up. You could sow them individually in modules if you want to see exactly how many germinate. I also sowed some outside direct in the soil in a warm raised bed about a month later. The majority of the seed I sowed came up and I had loads of seedlings, more than I knew what to do with. I have heard that sometimes germination is poor so it is best to sow the seeds quite thickly and then thin out or replant or give away the seedlings.
Seed sown thickly in a seed tray after a month
Seed sown in modules
The leaves look a bit like rosemary needles when they come up. The stems are a wonderful red, that disappears as the plant gets older. The seedlings are tough and sturdy and don’t have a very deep root system and can be handled easily and potted on or potted out as you prefer. You can sow smallish batches at intervals if you have space. I put some of my module grown ones out later on in the season. They ‘hold’ quite well in modules and wait till they have more space to grow on in.
I tried planting them out in various ways in deep salad boxes with a water reservoir underneath and in ordinary plant pots, and in our raised veg bed which is quite warm soil. I would plant them out at a distance of 6 – 8 inches apart if you want to let the plants grow to full size and if you leave a couple uncropped towards the end of their picking season you can have a go like me at saving some of the seed to grow the following year.
Once they had grown to about four to six inches in height (earliest sown plants were at this stage in June) I nipped out the central stems as above and we ate them up. I can’t be the only one who ‘test nibbles’ young plants? From then on, they grew and grew and grew, every time I cut out the nice soft stems to eat, they grew some more, each cut producing a new pair of growing stems. If you keep them short they get very bushy.
Here are the same plants as above about three weeks later, much bushier and full of tender stems.
The stems do harden up and become inedible over time if you leave them but if you keep cutting them they don’t get woody until quite late in the season. It wasn’t very hot last summer though, so I imagine if it gets very hot for a prolonged period of time they might finish being nice to eat earlier in the year. I think they have a very short season in Rome. The pictures I find on the net of salsola agretti in the markets in Rome seem to show a plant with much longer leaves, but as they are nearly always pictured wrapped up in paper it is hard to compare them. Anyway, this is what mine looked like once picked.
I am out of practice at taking food photos, and most of these were record shots, rather than trying to take them for the blog.
We ate them steamed drizzled with oil and seasalt, we ate them sautéed with garlic and chilli, we ate them in omelettes, in pies and quiches, rolled up in seaweed rice rolls and with just about everything you might eat spinach with. It is delightful with fish in particular and good with pasta of course, and I wish I had a photo of them twirled up with spaghetti to share! Don’t ask me for recipes for these because I have long forgotten quite what was in that pie, it looks like a yellow courgette which must have come from Blaise Community Garden and something like a whiite goat cheese or maybe it was kefir cheese? not sure now, or in that salad, it might be quinoa but don’t count on it!
I experimented with pickling them, using a recipe for pickled samphire. I think they are more of an oddity pickled than anything but they go with seaweed rolls quite nicely. We had quite a lot of plants here and there, maybe eighteen or so in the raised bed and two salad boxes full of them as well. I took some up to Blaise Community Garden and planted them out in a space about 1 metre square in the disabled friendly raised bed in one of the unglazed greenhouses and some of the volunteers tried it and thought it was good stuff. It never grew very tall there because it was so frequently being harvested!
So what does it taste like? It is slightly salty, slightly sour and has a bright, spring like green flavour, something like spinach but not spinach, a bit of the crunch of slightly under done asparagus, something like juicy samphire but not nearly as salty, and just altogether delightful if you are a green vegetable fan like me. You can eat it raw when it is young and tender too.
Finally the plants began to change in form, the leaves they grew were shorter and it looked more and more like a Friar’s Beard, scruffy and straggly and the opposite leaves became apparent too. Small round seeds or flower heads (I wasn’t sure initially) formed in the crux between leaf and stem and I asked Brian to take some close ups (see below) for the record. These eventually went brown and dry and I harvested some to see if they will be viable seed this season. These final photos are of the plants in this stage and I hope they are useful as I couldn’t find anything like this when I looked last year on the net.
From June to August we were eating salsola every week, sometimes twice a week, a super productive and tasty green vegetable, with the added glamour of not being able to buy it in the shops. I must admit every time I walked past the commercially grown samphire in the greengrocers at some outrageous price for 100g or so, I had a little smirk to myself….