Tag Archive: permaculture


cottonwoods fallen budsCottonwoods seem to get a whole lot of bad press and not enough praise.  As soon as the fluff starts to fly in late spring/ early summer people seem to want to gripe about it. Oh sure, some do enjoy the warm season snow, delicate as goosedown, swirling, lofting and icing the sidewalks. It’s a little magical when the flurries are a-fly. I promise  it is not making you sneeze, it’s just what you see in front of you while other tree and grass pollens play merry hell with your sinuses. Cottonwood pollen is released long before the flurf flies- that’s actually the mature seed with a silken sail attached.

There’s also the abundant branch shedding, of course.  It’s not a tree for the obsessively tidy. It’s branching is abundant, even shaggy, and the wood snaps easily in high winds, leading to littered landscapes.  (But if you have a chipper, or are a wizard with the shears, lots of lovely ramial wood chips for soil improvement.)  It rots quickly and also makes great mushroom logs if you have larger diameter fallen branches to dispose of.

I notice when I look up cottonwood trees, everyone writes as if the local tree is ‘THE’ cottonwood.  In fact, it’s a large number of populus that people call “Cottonwood”. In the West coast of North America, my ‘hood, it’s Populus trichocarpa. Most widely distributed is Populus tremuloides (mainly Canada, but found as far south as central Mexico.) Populus deltoides mainly from the central and East USA, but a bit into the Southern Canadian prairies. Populus grandidentata in the East in a swoosh from the Great Lakes to the coast. There’s a whack of them. If you care to make a precise ID of your particular poplar (yes, I also mean cottonwood)- check the ranges. Google ‘Populus’ with your state or province and you should be able to figure out which one you’re looking at. It also hybridizes easily where ranges intersect- just to throw a curveball into your I.D.  It’s not limited to the Americas either- Europe and Asia have plenty of poplars, too.

All varieties can be used in much the same way, though, and while one variety might be medicinally superior, I don’t know which. I’d need a lab and USDA level access to fresh samples. The spring bud resin of any can be used to make a soothing anti-infammatory salve.  Also called Balm of Gilead, use of cottonwood bud salve is very old and very widespread- you can find it in Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal, Russian formulas using bear grease, the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest-essentially, everybody who has had access figured out this tree’s resin was a storehouse of medicinal power. Collecting windblown buds in early spring seems the epitome of ethical wildcrafting!cottonwood buds

Poplars grow fast. I guess you might need to, when your substrate is quite likely to shift without the stabilizing influence of your roots. They prefer moist soils, rivers and lakes in most varieties, but definitely abundant surface moisture when the seeds sprout, since they are viable only for a short time.  Water probably distributes as much seed and live material as the air filled with ‘snow’. My nearby Fraser River has large islands in the middle of it essentially made of cottonwoods alone, catching the suspended silt and sand. They shift position stealthily on dark nights…. well, maybe not that fast, but they do creep around. Cottonwood roots easily from dropped branches in spring, and sprouts vigorously from deer and beaver-girdled young trees, it’s a very vigorously alive tree.  Propagation is ridiculously simple.  A tilted log may become a mother of thousands.

The classic river or lakeside profile of the local cottonwood is crowded, shaggy, swoopy- classic cottonwood profilethe branches seem to sag under their own weight, and then optimistically rise up at the tips, almost making an ‘s’ with longer branches. When older, trunks grey and fissure, growing corky. When young they grow in gregarious groups, but are very shade intolerant trees, so tend to grow in groups of similar age.  Young seedlings soon expire in the heavy shade of abundant parent trees.

Cottonwoods can live a few hundred years- as much as 400, but usually don’t.  Typically cottonwoods succumb to rot, or undermining by water, or some other accident at 70-100. Living on riverbanks can be precarious.  They often break records for girth within their span, however.  The largest trees in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are cottonwoods.

Early settlers would keep an eye out for cottonwood when travelling, as it’s presence indicated water.  They made frequent and widespread use of the fast growing tree for windbreaks, fenceposts, firewood and basketry. Wherever cottonwood is found, the people living among them have a history of use.  The Salish called it ‘The Tree of Life’, the Mojave people used it for practically everything one might use a tree for, the Hopi carved the roots into Kachina dolls. It’s a symbol of benevolent spirits and abundant life wherever it grows. The cambium is edible, and even tasty when the down is flying.cottonwoods branchy br

Other Uses

The wood of the tree itself isn’t as soft as the breakable branches might imply, and makes a very serviceable lumber. It’s fairly soft for making furniture with but oiling it helps prevent scratching and denting, and using it for things like trim or moldings is just fine. Since it grows so fast, that makes it quite a good choice for agroforestry projects. The trees can be coppiced for animal fodder. The wood holds inks unusually well, and makes excellent boxes and baskets, cut thin. Approved by the FDA for food containers and very workable, cottonwood also makes good bowls and cups. It’s light and ideal for models and children’s toys. As firewood it makes 16.8 million BTU’s per cord- not great, actually-but abundant! Cottonwood that has fallen as a result of rot smells a little funky though, so you might want to save that for outdoor fires.

Often thought of as a ‘waste’ tree, cottonwoods are in fact a storehouse of medicine, fast wood, wildlife support and great permaculture potential. See if you can find some at a river near you!

Fun Fact: Pando is a clonal colony of Populus tremuloides in Utah so big that it’s the heaviest (and at an estimated 80,000 years, one of the oldest) known organism.

The Oaks of Song and Story

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Photo by Aleksander Kaasik

Few trees have the immense history, the personality, and garner the reverence that Oaks do. Oaks are legendary. Although they are not the world’s longest lived trees, they may stand for many centuries, even a millennia, and reach great height and girth.  Some have  become well known as individuals, standing impassive through the rise and fall of man’s short ages and empires, shading one generation after another.

Notable Oaks

The Ivenack Oak  in Mecklenburg, Germany is 1200 years old, and called the King of German Oak Trees. France’s sacred Chapel Oak (Chêne chapelle) has two chapels that were

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Chene chapelle photo by Ji-Elle

built into the hollow trunk in 1669 and a staircase encircling the base of the tree. Hit by a lightning strike when it was about 500, the center burned out but the oak continued to grow, the local Abbot Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau, determined that the lighting striking and hollowing the tree was an event that had happened with holy purpose. So they built a place of pilgrimage devoted to the Virgin Mary in the hollow.  In later years, the chapel above was added, as was the staircase. The Rumskulla Oak of Sweden is acknowledged as the widest Oak in Europe at 14.4 metres, and the most famous tree in Poland is the Bartek Oak, which sheltered King Casimir III (1310–1370) and his court, as well as King Jan III Sobieski, who rested under the oak on his way back from the Battle of Vienna (1683)

There are multiple notable Oaks in Britain, the Sherwood Forest Major Oak, famous for it’s connection to Robin Hood, the Bowthorpe Oak with a hollowed centre capable of holding a dinner party of 20 people (for which it was used in the past), and several Oaks believed to be older than the country of England itself, within the boundaries of Severnake Forest,  the only privately owned ancient forest in England.

The Oak is sacred to many people, although perhaps most famously in western culture to the Celts. When one mentions the sacred Oaks, the prevalent imagery is of a grove of ancient Oaks venerated and whispered to by druids, yet there are Oaks as esteemed and sacred on the opposite side of the globe we easily forget.  In the Oley Valley, Pennsylvania there is a great Chinkapin Oak looked upon as the shrine tree of the Lenape people who were the original inhabitants of the region:

According to legend, a beautiful woman, the wife of a powerful chief, became very ill. All the tribe’s medicine men were called in; they administered many medicines, to no effect. Slowly, the chief’s wife became weaker and sicker. Finally, desperate for a cure, the young chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and there prayed to the Great Spirit for his wife to be saved. When he returned to camp, his wife was well again. Several years went by and the tribe was threatened by a hostile tribe. Once again, the chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and prayed to the Great Spirit, who gave him guidance. The warring tribes smoked the peace pipe together under it’s canopy.  Horticulturist Rachel Theis, who owns the land the Oak sits on, estimates the age of the tree as 500+ and most notably the Oak is of a species not found in the region, an aberration that may have been a trade item, making it all the more special.

Practical Uses

Acorns have long been an important carbohydrate source for people who still forage for food, and we are coming back to that as we try to find alternate sources of carbs that don’t require massive monocultures or ridiculous inputs to grow them.  Oaks are a prime example of hundred year + planning when designing a permaculture landscape, in fact a hundred year old oak is just a baby. You will have to wait a bit if you’re planting young oaks-they generally take about 20 years to produce acorns. Oak will eventually give you and all the nut-eating animals around you a large amount of available calories if you care to put a little time into the shelling, leaching and grinding. Excellent instructions on how to eat acorns, and which varieties are best for what, can be found here at Hunter Gardener Angler Cook. You may need a whole lot of space to process enough for large amounts of flour. The foragers I know who do this use an entire, tarped room to collect and sort the acorns.

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Acorns photo by Norman Walsh

Wood is, of course, an excellent reason to grow oak. Many of the massively wide and incredibly twisted forms of ancient oaks were created by pollarding, the practice of cutting off the top part of a tree to produce a regrowth of a dense and bushy crown, generally for firewood or livestock feed. One year’s growth makes ‘tree hay’- small branches of fairly even size in abundance, while waiting five years or so produces many branches of even size that can be used in woodworking or light construction.  Strong, durable, easy to work and rot-resistant, oak is an extremely useful wood to have handy, and makes excellent firewood (White oak will produce 26.4 million BTU’s per cord.) Big boards require big trees, but firewood for rocket stoves and wood for durable furniture and tools are easy to come by with a few oaks available to sustainably harvest.

Medicine is another reason to utilize oak.  Oak possesses the following healing properties: astringent, fever reducing, tonic, antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition, oak has been used to get rid of worms and other parasites. Number one use on my list, which is also kind of a cautionary tale, is stopping diarrhea. A simple tea made of the leaves or a bark decoction will also certainly constipate you if you’re not running to the john, so fair warning. Go easy on the internal use until you have some idea of how much it’s going to bung you up. This is another reason why most acorns require quite a bit of leaching before they are ready to be eaten.

A fast poultice of oak leaves can be used to bring down swelling and reduce irritation due a wide variety of problems like insect bites, poison ivy, or (ahem) hemorrhoids. 

The abundant tannins lend themselves to a whole host of other uses around a homestead.  Tanning hides with oak is old as the hills, although certainly not the only tree you can use.  Braintan.com has done a great job explaining how to go about the process.  Oak chips and leaves can be used to clarify and flavour beer or wine. Oak galls can be used to make a good dark ink. Oak leaves take forever to break down, (usually two-three years) so shredded leaves added to a compost pile are more a’brown’ material than ‘green’, but help to make a very stable mulch. Yes, they are acid, but it’s a weak organic acid and composting down oak leaves isn’t going to seriously affect your soil pH, unless you pile up a literal ton of fresh leaves in one spot.

Oak makes good mushroom logs (highly recommended for shiitake), and also is a host tree for delicious boletes, chanterelles and (nomnomnom) truffles.

Acorns make excellent pig and goat food, right around the time you might want to fatten them up.  An oak tree sited to hang over their pen, or being allowed to forage under oaks in acorn season adds nutrition and easy carbs to their diet without any work from you.

Oak makes microclimates. An old oak tree can be BIG- really, really big.  A hundred foot spread is an entirely reasonable expectation. Keep that in mind when siting a new tree or creating guilds.  One large tree can pump out a huge amount of water into the air via transpiration, change the nature of the ground under it with shading and yearly mulch, keep plants from the harshest of winter damage, even while leafless, and provide windbreaks and shelter in a field.

I’d like to make some notes about guilding with oaks here, but in reality your first considerations should be root competition and shade when guilding, because oaks are pretty convivial. Toby Hemenway did some research on the Oregon White Oak community and came up with these natives growing with White Oak: California Hazelnut, Pacific Madrone, Mazzard Cherry, Black Hawthorn, Saskatoon Serviceberry, Creambush Oceanspray, Round-Leaved Snowberry, Thimbleberry, Trailing Blackberry, Sweetbriar Rose, Broad-Petaled Strawberry, Poison Oak, Yerba Buena, Sweet Ciceley, American Vetch. From that, I’d say you’re safe with hazelnuts, any kind of Prunus, Amelanchier, strawberries, any Rubus, Ribes or Rosa, and leguminous ground covers. Ramps should work well in the dappled shade underneath. Garry Oak Ecosystems data may be useful in creating effective guilds as well- I know I’d sure love to see more mass Camas plantings!

Hope this helps you in valuing your Oaks, if you have some, or inspires you to try something new with them. Happy gardening!

It’s snowing again.

It’s been a rough winter here.  Yes, I know the rest of Canada is laughing at the West coast while we despair over a few measly snowfalls and a few weeks (on and off) under zero, but it’s driving us here in Lotus land crazy. We don’t know what to do with all this white stuff and it’s well past time to put in peas.

Hand in hand with the horror of repeated slushy meltdowns and extended freezes, goes dead plants.  In addition to the certainly dead and dishearteningly soft, there’s the ones we’re not really sure about yet, until new green shoots convince us that all hope is not lost. One after another pass inspected through my hands while I clean up the nursery, nicking the bark, looking for the glimmer of green that spells life. Bushes are frostburnt, newly planted perennials squashed into submission, tree limbs forlornly dangle after ice storms have had their way. It’s more than a little depressing.  I was wondering what to write about this month, while I would normally be lyrically inspired by the first of the spring bulbs and the imminence of cherry blossoms, right now I’m most inspired by the stuff I know isn’t dead.

The Haskaps.

How do I love thee, Haskap? Let me count the ways.  Firstly, cold hardiness. At the top of my list, presently, for obvious reasons.  Although we often have serious zone envy when it comes to more southerly regions, in the case of the Haskap the south envies us. The warmest USDA zone it can tolerate currently is zone 8, and that’s really pushing it. Most of the cultivars would prefer it much colder. To be really honest, they are not the best berry bush choice in my own zone 7, more of an interesting addition to the garden to provide season extension, as (reason to love it #2) it fruits earlier than almost anything else in the garden, sometimes even before strawberries. And you can grow it in zone 1! 1!! Haskap has been successfully grown in Moose Factory, which is an actual Canadian city name, I kid you not.  I also love it because it puts up with a huge variety of soils and plant combinations are virtually endless.

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‘Boreal Blizzard’ a new release from the University of Saskatchewan breeding program

The multiplicity of names is not helpful to the newbie. Haskap, Honeyberry, Blue Honeysuckle, Fly Honeysuckle (or swampfly honeysuckle, which makes me feel more than a little sorry for the people who named it.  I can imagine what boreal harvesting is like in a bog in the nice weather. Bug city.) It’s Lonicera caerulea, with a whole host of variety names depending on the origin of the plant and which botanist you’re speaking to. I defer to Haskap, for a few reasons.  The University of Saskatchewan breeding program, an invaluable source of information and stock, calls them that. The name Haskap is derived from the Ainu (the original inhabitants of Hokkaido) name for the berry. Honeyberry seems like a marketing trick, and calling it a honeysuckle just confuses people.

Named varieties are mostly  Russian and Japanese plants, or crosses of the two, but since it’s a circumboreal plant, there’s potential sources spread all around the northern world.

Cultivation

It prefers a cold, boreal climate (or at the warmest coastal temperate) and tends to grow wild in swampy areas.  I’m not saying that they should grow in low and saturated soil, but on a berm in said soil-yes. More on that from Dr. Bors of University of Saskatchewan here. Boreal chinampas, anyone? Keeping that in mind, some of the mildew issues that they can have I suspect are triggered by low soil moisture and planting should be sited carefully to keep water needs in mind. Shallow rooted plants can be fussy like that.  Haskaps are resentful of tillage as the roots naturally spread out quite wide and not deep, which should be just fine in a mixed garden, forest garden, or permaculture setting since we prefer no till methods anyway. pH is not much of a concern, which is promising for maximising your options- Haskaps tolerate from pH 5 to 8! In the wild, they will grow next to blueberries or cranberries and don’t seem to compete negatively with any specific plant family, so could potentially be worked into a number of plant guild combinations. They are tame things, and don’t self seed or sucker, and attractively blue-green and roundish when fully grown. LaHave farms in Nova Scotia has a great page with many more details on cultivation here .

Taste

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The shape of different cultivars is hugely diverse

I want to be fair about this.  The taste of Haskap  berries is highly variable and often quite tart.  The brix is high in some cultivars, but always sweet-tart, and in the case of some, (usually the ones with more Russian parentage in them) a little bitter. Your response is going to depend a whole lot on your own sense of taste. They are truly complex tasting though, process beautifully, make amazing wine and juice.  As distinct as a black currants’ flavour is from red or white, the Haskap is not really like a blueberry or a raspberry, although the marketing would have you think so. It’s unique. If you only eat a few raw from one bush, you’re not really giving it a fair chance.  Haskaps should also be purple fleshed when ripe, not green inside.  They colour up nice and blue before they’re actually ripe so that can result in disappointment, too. It’s in the processing that they really shine, as the deep colour means it’s both pumped full of antioxidants and an effective food dye, and they seem skinless when cooked. It basically just dissolves, making fillings and jams smoother. Drying also enhances the flavour, and that’s the way the Japanese like to consume them. I had some in a yogurt that was practically transcendental.

Curious Tendencies

They have confusing pollination requirements. Haskaps do best when combined with other Haskaps that have different parentage but bloom at the same time. This is further complicated by growing the same plants in different climate zones where plant flowering may or may not overlap. There isn’t at present a comprehensive pollination chart of everything out there because commercial development is ongoing, widespread in multiple languages, and new varieties get released every year.  (Breeding with Haskap is actually fairly fast, because they can be started with fresh seed shortly after harvest and get to fruiting size quickly.) To further confound the issue, you have rebrandings and renamings. I saw Borealis being called ‘Mrs. Honeyberry’, and Aroura ‘Mr. Honeyberry’ by a local grower, confusing the issue unnecessarily.  Auroura and Borealis wasn’t obvious enough? Haskaps do not have separate sexes, they have perfect flowers.  They just apparently prefer an exotic stranger to a sibling. You’re really best to get multiple varieties if you have space to do so, if you don’t, then at least two intended as a pair. Planting strategies: U of Sk pollination strategy Chart for some of the most popular varieties: Pollination Chart Dr. Maxine Thompson’s varieties, with approximate bloom times here  I am working on consolidating information on Haskaps from the different breeding programs- they tend to have pollination charts on their own field material but not the intersection of plants from the other programs. You’re still best off hedging your bets trying several varieties at once! Then just get more of the ones you like and you’ll already have good cross pollination.

They can get mildewy.  As I mentioned, I suspect that they are sensitive to drought, and this may trigger mildew growth.  They also like going into dormancy early if stressed so may look like absolute hell in summer.  I know I’d like to recommend them as an edible ornamental but only if it’s not the feature. They are a pretty glaucous colour and bushy if grown in fertile soil, so you could– but if I were installing a foolproof, has to look perfect edible landscape, I probably wouldn’t.

Getting Some

Currently they are still on the trendy new plants lists and not widely understood. The pollination confusion doesn’t help, the fact that they go for exorbitant prices in northerly climates where they’re most needed (2 Gal pot goes for $25 in Edmonton, sheesh!) also doesn’t help, and people who buy fruit bushes for fresh eating in the garden were sold a raw bill of goods with slick marketing, incomplete information, and varieties that didn’t perform well in warmer climates. Early adopters may have bought ones where the flavour was distinctly meh.  Not encouraging.

But take heart! Breeders have been hard at work and if you are one of those in zone 5 or colder you can basically take your pick of varieties and likely do just fine. Due to the risk of an early bloom with no pollinators active, or refreeze after spring growth, people in zone 6 and up are probably best going with Dr. Maxine Thompson’s breeds which are tested in zone 8a and better suited to warmer zones with less risk of early emergence. Most retail garden centres by now have some Haskaps, although they may know nothing about them and you should do your own research if you want to ensure compatible pollination. Serious about getting a decent amount? You can order from LoveHoneyberry in the USA. For Canada there’s a list of propagators here

I want to thank Dr. Bob Bors, Dr. Maxine Thompson and Lidia Delafield for their dedication and hard work in improving Haskap varieties and extending the climate range possible to grow it in.

Write about a radish. Too many people write about the moon. The night is black … A radish rises in the waiting sky. – Karla Kuskin

Not often a prized poster vegetable, the radish seems to have languished in the footnotes of garden manuals, some only note that they are gratifyingly easy and very little else.  Easy they may be to grow, but there is an almost infinite variety of radish in addition to the one most familiar to the North American, a small bulbous cerise root that makes a cheerful, if likely ignored appearance on tupperware veggie plates alongside the cauliflower and carrots.

There’s such an enormous array of radishes available for the growing that it’s worth exploring some of the other types so you can enjoy them in almost every month of the year.  Raphanus Sativus has many cultivars and comes in round, oblong, carrot shaped, white, pink, yellow, bicolored & purple roots.  There are radishes sweet and tender, long and crisp, like gigantic smooth pale carrots, indecent in their smooth phallic forms.  There are radishes that demonically sear the palate in an unexpected contrast to their round innocence. Some varieties are grown exclusively for their greens. Radish seeds can also be used to produce oil.

Most of the smaller ones will mature in 3-4 weeks, which makes them an excellent catch crop for small spaces and intensively grown kitchen gardens.  Many are compact enough to be grown in containers, and fast enough to delight young children who are new to gardening. Although typically only the root is consumed, the leaves and seeds are also edible- one of my favourite treats is from late fall, uncollected radish plants may yield  fat pods full of radish sprouts.  Milder radishes make excellent additions to vegetable dishes, stir fries, salads & slaws.

The descriptive Greek name of the genus Raphanus means “quickly appearing” and refers to the rapid germination of these plants. Raphanistrum from the same Greek root is an old name once used for this genus. The common name “radish” is derived from Latin (Radix = root). Their true origin is vague, often said to be Asian, it is a wild plant growing all across Europe and Asia, and so very unclear where the plants that led to it’s domestication and taming of the fiery root originated. The greatest diversity of radish varieties are found in the eastern Mediterranean and near the Caspian Sea, which suggests but does not confirm that area as the place of origin. However, what is known is that many different varieties of radishes spread all over Europe and Asia, with different countries preferring specific varieties. Black radishes of R. niger were favorites in Spain, and another popular European variety to use in kitchen gardens was called R. radicula. In Asia, different varieties were cultivated; among them the R. longipinnatus, also known as Daikon, in China, and the R. raphanistroides variety in Japan.

The history of radishes is hard to unravel with any precision, they have certainly been  cultivated for food since well before Roman times when documentation becomes radically more plentiful. Roman records reveal descriptions of radishes in many colours and sizes, some as heavy as (reportedly) 100 pounds each. (As an aside, I suspect this refers to horseradish once again.  A large horseradish could be truly enormous, and both were often referred to simply as “radish”, but I could be wrong, the Sakurajima daikon is a hot-flavored variety which is typically grown to around 10 kg (22 lb), but which can grow to 30 kg (66 lb).) Radishes were cultivated in Egypt prior to the construction of the pyramids, and Herodotus of Helicarnassus related in his “Histories”, written from the 450s to the 420s BC:  “There is an inscription in Egyptian characters on the pyramid which records the quantity of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the labourers who constructed it; and I perfectly well remember that the interpreter who read the writing to me said that the money expended in this way was 1600 talents of silver.” Whether the radishes were valued primarily as a food item or for medicinal characteristics is not clear.  Onions and garlic were certainly prized as food and medicine, so it’s probable they were considered to be both. (Beer, bread, onions garlic and radishes~ seriously, those Egyptians must have had some killer dragon breath!) The Isrealites acquired a taste for radish after leaving Egypt, and brought the root with them. The Talmud mentions the use of radish seeds to produce oil, and considered eating radishes to have health benefits. In my quest I turned up an ancient Greek punishment for adultery utilizing radishes. Yes, I know, not quite what you were expecting, sodomy with a  root vegetable… it was a common device in plays of the time, but whether or not it was actually done is debatable, considering you had to catch the couple in the act. Radishes were so valued in Greece that golden radishes were offered to the god Apollo. At least that’s the oft-repeated rumour.  On looking into the tale, it appears that horseradish is actually the plant said by the Oracle at Delphi to be ‘worth it’s weight in gold’  which makes a bit more sense to me, radishes being such a fast crop to grow. The quote as I have found it is: ““the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold” Lead was a valued metal in that time, this quote should not be taken to imply the radish had no worth.  In the historical records, Galen of Pergamon wrote that radishes were eaten in the region around 129-199 A.D. Also, the Greek physician Dioscorides documented drawings of radishes. However, these radishes were large, long varieties, from which the Long Black Spanish radish is descended.

The Chinese grew them as early as 700 B.C., probably earlier but it’s always hard to trace the path of vegetables historically. (again they may have come out of Asia.  Or possibly Turkey. Or the Ukraine.  Nobody actually knows yet.) Once they were introduced to Japan, they became even more popular.  Even today, the radish is the most popular root crop in Japan.  Asian cooking would not be the same without radishes, pickled, sauteed, in soups, stews, raw, dried…generally it is the larger, longer maturing radishes like the Daikon used in Asian cookery but not entirely. Certainly the array of Daikon types in Asian countries is wide.

Adding to the complications of the history of the radish is its many different names. In Europe, many of the names sound similar, from ramoraccio in Italian to armoracia in Greek, both used to describe radishes. By contrast, the names for radish in Semitic languages range from fugal in Hebrew to fuil, fidgle or figl in Arabic. In India the name for their radish variety is moola, and then the Chinese and Japanese also have entirely differing names for the radish. Sometimes, if the names for a certain plant are similar, the way a plant has traveled can be traced, but the many for radishes prevent a definite conclusion on the origination or even early propagation of the radish. Western Europe, though documentation is understandable scant has likely had the radish in cultivation since the Romans scattered themselves across it. A vegetable so widely known would have also been widely distributed.  I’ve seen several sources claim that radishes entered the Western diet around 1500, but that just defies logic entirely.  The issue is documentation, written recipes prior to ‘Forme of Cury’ commissioned by King Richard II in 1390 are sparse indeed. Radishes do not leave pips or shells in garbage pits or garderobes either, so it’s much harder to tell their presence in history as opposed to say, stone fruits.

Radish Varieties

Radishes come in many varieties but two growing types. The standard or salad type radish can be sown from early spring until fall. This variety dislikes heat so some growers do not grow them in the summer, or find a cooler place for them to thrive. In September, you can start them up again, and keep getting crops till the soil freezes. Try sowing a new batch every 2 to 3 weeks till the warm summer months.

The second type is known as a winter radish, or Daikon radish. This one takes longer to grow, about 60 days on average. Start these in midsummer, sowing every 2 or 3 weeks, so that your last harvest coincides with the fall frosts. Make sure you harvest before your soil freezes them in though, for unlike other tubular plants they will not overwinter.

Radishes grow well in almost any soil that is prepared well, is fertilized before planting and has adequate moisture maintained. Slow development makes radishes hot in taste and woody in texture. Rich, moist soils make for fast growing, tender plump radishes.

Radishes mature rapidly under favorable conditions and should be checked often for approaching maturity. Harvest should begin as soon as roots reach edible size and should be completed quickly, before heat, pithiness or seedstalks can begin to develop. Pull radishes when they are of usable size and relatively young. Radishes remain in edible condition for only a short time before they become pithy (spongy) and hot. Proper thinning focuses the harvest and avoids disappointing stragglers that have taken too long to grow.

Winter varieties mature more slowly and should be harvested at considerably larger size. Once they reach maturity, they maintain high quality for a fairly long time in the garden, especially in cool fall weather. Size continues to increase under favorable fall conditions. Daikon or Chinese radish, can achieve particularly large size and still maintain excellent quality. Winter radishes can be stored for a few months, given cool moist conditions. Black radishes have a particularly long storage liFe, in fact are best eaten after winter storage when the fiery flavour becomes milder and smoother.

Even if you totally forget about your radishes and let them bolt, don’t despair, the flowers add a pretty, spicy touch to a salad and the seed pods can be eaten fresh, pickled, or sprouted.

Getting Some

Radishes are an ideal trading seed, maintaining viability for long periods even under adverse conditions. Getting a few new varieties to try should not be a difficult task!  Even if you’re not involved in seed swapping, interesting Asian radishes have reached the wider market and it should be fairly easy to find a packet of daikon or black or watermelon radish in your local nursery or feed store. Happy growing!