Plants with a pur­pose

If you need cu­cum­ber but don’t have any, this leafy herb is here to help.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS JENNY SOMERVELL

The herb for cu­cum­ber fans

If you had to de­scribe its flavour, you’d say cu­cum­ber-like with a hint of nut­ti­ness. It’s also one of the eas­i­est herbs to grow, pro­duc­ing young leaves vir­tu­ally year round in a cold, tem­per­ate cli­mate. That’s two good rea­sons why salad burnet is a great herb, es­pe­cially when a light cu­cum­ber flavour is needed.

But there is another. If you’re one of those peo­ple who has trou­ble di­gest­ing cu­cum­ber, you get the flavour with­out the neg­a­tive con­se­quences.

The flavour of salad burnet ( San­guisorba mi­nor) is also re­fresh­ing. Once he dis­cov­ered it, my hus­band Ken alarmed me by tip­ping ta­ble­spoons-full into our sal­ads. I need not have wor­ried. Whether chopped lib­er­ally, or sim­ply plucked off the wiry leaf stalk and tipped in whole, it is hard to overdo it thanks to its sub­tle na­ture.

In our large, clut­tered herb gar­den it is easy to for­get salad burnet is there, and for many years we did. But this unas­sum­ing herb de­serves a place in any gar­den, stay­ing fresh and green even in win­ter when other sun-lov­ing herbs have slumped into dor­mancy or suc­cumbed to frost. It is one of the few salad herbs we can rely on in win­ter, and one of the first to burst into fresh leaf in spring.

It may look del­i­cate, but this is one tough herb. In its na­tive habi­tats in Bri­tain and Europe (and nat­u­ralised in North Amer­ica) it grows like a weed, thriv­ing on out­crops of chalk and rock. The tough, fi­brous roots hug tightly to the ground, and pen­e­trate deeply to pull up nu­tri­ents even on rocky, coastal crags. It will grow well by the sea as it’s salt and wind-tol­er­ant.

Salad burnet is worth grow­ing as an or­na­men­tal plant too. Its long grace­ful stems – ac­tu­ally leaves – arch out from a cen­tral rosette like a foun­tain, while along the cen­tral rib, pairs of light green, ovate, toothed lobes give a lacy, fern-like ef­fect. From the sec­ond year on it bears thim­ble-shaped flower heads which ap­pear be­fore the sta­mens, giv­ing it an at­trac­tive red tinge.

The whole plant pro­vides tex­ture and con­trast in the herb gar­den, or any­where. It is es­pe­cially de­light­ful when the dainty l leaves carry sparkling droplets o of dew or rain.

Fran­cis Bacon rec­om­mended s salad burnet be ‘set in al­leys w with wild thyme and wa­ter m mint to per­fume the air m most de­light­fully, be­ing trod­den on and crushed.’ He was right. It is a good com­pan­ion plant with thyme and chamomile.

It’s not just hu­mans who love it. An­i­mals love salad burnet as a side dish to the main event. Sheep will graze it, and it was once a popular fod­der crop for an­i­mals on chalky soils.

In dry, bar­ren pas­tures it can be one of the few herbs which will stay green all win­ter. It con­tains pro­tein and vi­ta­min C, cal­cium, iron, mag­ne­sium and potas­sium. Per­haps an­i­mals know this. As long as it doesn’t com­pete with clover, they will munch it up with great rel­ish!

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