Jerusalem artichoke, evening primrose, creeping zinnia – there’s a long history of plants with common names that are more than a little off-beam. With that in mind I give you my new favourite edible plant… February orchid, welcome to the wonky plant names club!
Orychophragmus violaceus – aka Chinese violet cress and zhuge cai (诸葛菜) in its native China – may well be new to you. It’s not something you’ll stumble across among the seed packets in the garden centre, or see growing in British allotments and gardens. But you should. You really should.
There are a few things going against this plant – its Latin name is unpronounceable, and its common English name is half-wrong – yes it does flower in February, but it is not an orchid. It’s a member of the brassica clan, but that’s good news for us growers because – hurrah! – it’s edible.I discovered February orchid on the website of Brown Envelope Seeds in West cork, Ireland a year or two back. It sounded good: “a brassica for use in salads or as a cooking green”… “provides mild but tasty leaves throughout the winter”.
Hardy? Yes it appears so, by the standards of the mild winter just gone anyway. I often pick off the tender tops and eat them as I potter around the garden. You can treat the leaves like spinach and sauté in a little it of butter, or shred them and add them to a salad.
The flavour is sweet and fresh, a little like pea shoots with a tinge of brassica. Like any homegrown green from my garden, I soak the leaves in a big bowl of cold, salted water for a few minutes (the salt isn’t strictly necessary for February orchid but it helps draw out any bitterness in other greens such as dandelions and kale).
The flowers are edible, pretty, and they come thick and fast between the end of February and May, depending on the weather. Compared with the rocket plants next door, they seem to be immune to damage from flea beetle, and even the slugs don’t make much of an impact.
I sowed the seeds direct in two or three spots in the raised beds I grow vegetables in last summer, sat back and did nothing. It was a mild winter, to be sure, but the plants not covered in a cloche seemed to do as well as the ones that were. It started to flower in February as advertised, and now, come April, it’s alive with colour.
Somewhere along the line I realised that my friend and colleague Alys Fowler was growing – and loving – this plant too. having got her seeds direct from Joy Larkcom, the oriental seed expert who sourced it from China in the first place. An article in the Shanghai Daily says zhuge cai is commonly found in parks and “during the flowering period, from March to May, meadows across China are awash in a sea of purple”.
Alys told me that it’s an annual/biennial that should self-seed around and become one of those “once you’ve got it, you’ve got it” items, like nigella – or listening to the Archers. Oh, and it also makes a really good cut flower – I stuck mine in a vase with Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Osmanthus X burkwoodii and Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ for an effortless spring display.
I have three patches of February orchid in my raised veg beds: my favourite is the patch next to the ‘Purple Flanders’ kale (more about which, another time) and the self-seeded Cerinthe purpurascens ‘Major’ (not edible, but I can’t bear to pull it up even though I need to remind my five-year-old not to eat it – he assumes, completely reasonably, that everything in the veg bed is fair game).
The height is about 40cm/50cm or so: you can either harvest individual leaves, pinch out the flowering tops or pull up whole plants as a kind of impromptu thinning.
So I appeal to you: petition your favourite seed company to start selling February orchid seeds: they really are easy to grow yourself from a midsummer to autumn sowing for a crop next year.