1 plant with all the leafy goodness you need for winter
If you are missing summer’s salad greens, this is the plant for you.
If you have ever opened a packet of mescalin greens from the supermarket, chances are you have come across the bright green, finely-dissected leaves of mizuna (pronounced meezuna). For years I dismissed this winter green, considering it a second-rate filler. I was wrong. It is one of the most useful and fastest-growing salad plants, growing virtually anywhere, anytime, tolerating heat, cold and wet soils. Anything except dry. It is one of the few veges in our garden that grows faster than the weeds.
New Zealand gardener and cook Mary Browne recommends growing mizuna for a continuous supply of delectable greens, and in our Canterbury winters, mizuna is our most reliable leafy green. Even in the coldest months, it continues to grow in our greenhouse, filling the gaps when our other leafy greens wane. The feathery leaves are a good lettuce substitute, or a crisp, tender adjunct to whatever salad ingredients are available.
The flavour is mild, the texture juicy and crunchy. The dark, chorophyll-laden leaves contain minerals, beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate and iron.
Mizuna is both heat and cold-tolerant, happily surviving sub-zero temperatures and snow in our southern garden. Even when sown in spring, it is one of the most bolt-resistant of the oriental brassicas.
In summer, the bushy clumps of glossy green, feathery leaves are surprisingly decorative interspersed among brightly-coloured annuals in a flower bed, as an edging, or dotted among other veges and herbs. Unlike most cutting greens, mizuna retains its rosette shape and looks good, even with regular cutting.
Mizuna is actually a brassica ( Brassica rapa subsp nipposinica), evolving from the primitive turnip. This may not sound promising, but the flavour and appearance bear little resemblance to turnips.
It’s probably Chinese in origin, but the best varieties have been developed in Japan where it is know as mizu-na (water/juicy vegetable) or kyo-na (Kyoto greens).
At least 16 varieties are known, including attractive red-leaved forms. Hybrid varieties are higher yielding with broader, less-serrated leaves. Clumps grow to about 23cm high and can spread to 45cm.
How to grow mizuna
Mizuna prefers temperatures between 8-18˚C, making it ideal for growing in winter in an unheated greenhouse. It seems very tolerant of low light levels, growing longer than most vegetables.
Greenhouse sowings can be made in late autumn and early winter and eaten when young and tender or left to be a productive winter heading crop. Another sowing in late winter in containers can provide plants for planting outdoors in early spring. In addition, seeds can be direct sown from spring through to autumn.
Plants can be grown as fast baby-leaf crops for a quick one-off harvest, as a cut-and-come-again crop, or as mature plants for frequent leaf picking. We combine all three methods.
What mizuna likes
Mizuna isn’t fussy. It tolerates a wide range of soil types, as long as they are fertile and moisture-retentive. Additional feeding is usually not needed if lots of organic matter is incorporated before sowing or planting.
I sow mizuna in rows and gradually thin sequentially, initially to 10cm apart, and then 20-45 cm apart, depending on how big we want our final plants to be. These first thinnings go straight into our salads – wellwashed roots and all – and are succulent and tender.
Sometimes I will also transplant a few elsewhere. If transplants are used, it is best to either transplant when they are very small, or sow into modules. Any check in growth can result in plants quickly running to seed. Seedlings will be ready to plant out in 2-3 weeks from sowing.
Though mizuna is frost-tolerant, spring and autumn-sown plants in cooler climates will be faster growing and produce more tender greens under cloches. Summer sowings, on the other hand, may benefit from light shade.
If plants do not appear to be growing rapidly, a liquid feed with seaweed will boost them along nicely. Plants need to be kept well watered, especially in hot weather. Healthy plants are seldom troubled by pests.
To rejuvenate older plants, cut all the leaves to about 2-3cm above the ground, then liquid feed to boost new growth.
How to use mizuna
You can eat your first greens as soon as 16 days after sowing, and any stage of growth can be harvested from small seedlings to large plants. The younger and smaller the leaves, the more tender to eat. The leaves make an attractive garnish and even the flowering shoots area can be eaten. Older leaves can be fibrous, especially if lacking water.
In the West, mizuna is popular as an offseason salad vegetable and the baby leaves have become common in mescalin. In the East, mizuna is treated like other oriental greens, either steamed or stir-fried, alone or with other vegetables, meat, poultry or fish. Traditionally it is cooked in soups, or pickled, or cooked in sukiyaki-like dishes. Stalk pieces are pickled and served as an appetiser or a piquant bite with a cold beer.
We tried it stir-fried with mushrooms, onion and garlic. Delicious! It would seem there is room in the West for more adventurous cooking with this versatile green. Our conclusion: when all other salad plants in the garden succumb – and you can count on it in winter – this stalwart of garden greens will not fail you.
Red and green leafed mizuna.