This is the most peculiar thing. I can’t remember where I got the idea that marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris) was an interesting edible weed. I think I came across it in an ‘Agroforestry News’ article from ART in 2017, and I certainly got a plant from them subsequently which confirmed that indeed I already had this plant growing wild on the holding. I have just checked my books and none of them seem to mention marsh woundwort as a worthwhile edible, but I really rate it highly now I have tried it. It is not in the weed bible: “food for free” by Richard Mabey, or “growing unusual edibles” by Simon Hickmott. It is not even in the “Plants for a Future” book by Ken Fern, which I have found so much inspiration in, although it is in his database now, with an edible rating of three out of five. Here is quite a comprehensive article I found about it. It is the roots that are mainly eaten, although apparently the young shoots can also be eaten. I have not tried these.
It is a plant that likes damp soil and seems to thrive here now that it is free to sprawl across the tree field. There are several areas where the thin nettle-like leaves and spotted pink flowers cover several square metres of the field. It doesn’t smother the grass out, but grows amongst it quite happily. But it is underground that the treasure lies. Marsh woundwort spreads with underground runners, and it is these that are the parts to harvest.
According to the Fern’s database the tubers grow better in damp soil. I had tried growing it in the polytunnel pond, but it is not a plant that likes to be confined to a pot. The roots were all twisted round at the bottom of the pot and there was not really enough to have a reasonable portion. The offsets I planted in the gully field don’t seem to have come back this year either, but as I said, I have a few large patches down in the tree field, so I decided this week to dig up an area to try them. In the middle of the patch a turf one spade wide and two long was enough to provide enough roots for a couple of portions. I did try a bit raw, but it wasn’t that great. Tasting like mild raw potato perhaps? Cooked however, they are very pleasant, with a sweet artichoke flavour. I just boiled them for about 10 minutes. S. also says “they weren’t too bad at all” so I think he would be happy to eat them again!
The Latin name: Stachys palustris, gives away the close relationship of marsh woundwort to another, still unusual, but more widely recognised edible: Stachys affinis, crosnes or chinese artichoke. I have tried to grow this once with no success: the tubers just disappeared in the predecessor to the fruit garden. I suspect that slugs ate them, but can’t be sure. Crosnes’ tubers are thicker and segmented, whereas the marsh woundwort tubers are longer, thinner, but smooth, so easier to clean of dirt before eating. The woundwort tubers I dug were about 7-9 mm (1/3 in) at the widest, but they don’t need peeling, since the skins are quite smooth.
I cut them down to a couple of inch long segments for cooking, but they were originally limited in length mainly to where the spade had cut them in the turf. Where I dug these plants isn’t the dampest place in the tree field (which is down by the pond probably), but there are a fair amount of reeds growing there, so it is certainly not the driest. It also grows on the riverbank where the soil is pretty dry, although I don’t know what the tubers are like there.
The only disadvantage I can see is that the tubers need to be dug up. Therefore as the trees grow, their roots may be damaged by digging up the tubers. Also it’s a bit of faff needing a spade, rather than just gathering leaves above ground. I may spread some of the plants to near the pond area. The soil there is really wet rather than just damp, so it will be interesting to see how well the tubers grow there. It seems that marsh woundwort will stand some shade as well as sun, so should continue to do well as the trees develop.