Marsh Woundwort is good to eat

Marsh Woundwort flower

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.

marsh woundwort patch
Spreading marsh woundwort patch

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!

digging roots
Digging the roots

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.

washed and ready to cook
Ready to cook

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.

Pignuts are OK to eat

Pignuts (conopodium majus) are a common wild flower in the tree field here.  I had read about them being edible; the tubers are quite pleasant to munch on raw, with a flavour a bit like hazelnuts.  When I have tried them in the past, I got a slightly unpleasant nauseous feeling, so haven’t explored eating them much.

I have a fondness for the plants.  The foliage is one of the first to show new growth in early spring, and the tiny white flowers cover the field for much of the summer.  Rather than repeat what so many others have written I’ll give a couple of links that are interesting:

and a few pictures from the tree field illustrating their growth:

spring shoots
Pignut foliage growing in early spring
Pignut blossom in midsummer
Burgundy seeds in late summer

When I was digging holes for the new spruce trees I could not avoid digging up several pignut tubers.  Often they were cut in half by the spade.  I guess the field is pretty thick with them now, as can be seen in the flower picture above.  In the past I have sometimes given them to Dyson to eat (he knows them as ‘nuttys’) and he obviously enjoys them with no ill effects.  This time he had the small, or damaged ones and any larger ones I collected in a bag for me.  They were quite easy to find with my (gloved) fingers in the soil of the upturned turfs.

turning turf
Pignut – cut through on face of turf (possibly a whole one to right?)

Most foraging guides suggest you follow the roots down from the flowering stems to the tuber, so as to be sure what you are harvesting.  This would be very hard work in turf like mine!  I would suggest also, that once seen, the tubers are quite distinctive and nothing like bluebells or celandine tubers, both of which are quite white in colour, rather than covered in dark brown skin.  The lumpy shape of the pignut tubers is also quite distinctive.

Bag of tubers with rule for scale

I collected about 8 ounces of tubers once they were cleaned and trimmed.  The ones I kept were generally just over an inch in diameter, although there were a few that were nearly two inches.  Most of course were much smaller, and these I left in the turf (or Dyson ate!).  They seem to carry on growing quite happily having been inverted, if left in situ, judging by the later emerging leaves.  I believe that the plants form very small tubers in the first year of growth (about the size of a pea) and the tuber grows larger and larger year on year.  I suspect some of those I gathered may have been decades old.  I don’t suppose they grew very much when the sheep were grazing on them!

Gathering nuts was a by-product of an activity I was doing anyway.  I will point out however that digging the turf like this is quite hard work!  So although I gathered more than enough for a meal for two in a few hours, this would not compare for ease to say digging potatoes.  Also, these tubers took several years to reach this size, so you would have to leave the ground for a few years to recover and regrow sizeable tubers again.  They do self seed readily and grow happily without any intervention from me, so it is quite nice to feel there is a bit of a larder there should I need it.

washing mud
Washing tubers

Because the tubers are quite uneven in shape they were tricky to wash.  I gave them a quick rinse in a bucket outside, them scrubbed them with a brush under the kitchen tap.  I couldn’t be bothered to remove all the skins, which is quite fine, and did rub off a bit anyhow.

cross section
Washed and halved tuber

We tried a few tubers simply boiled or baked and ate them as an accompaniment to our main meal.  They were quite pleasant, with a spongy texture not unlike parsnips, and a somewhat similar mild sweet taste.  The resemblance to their rooty relatives is more obvious when cooked.  S. preferred the roasted ones, so, having established that neither of us suffered the nauseous feeling induced by eating the raw tubers previously, we had the rest of the tubers roasted in a little oil.  Again they passed the test and we may well have them again when I need to dig holes in the field.