Plants with a purpose
If you need cucumber but don’t have any, this leafy herb is here to help.
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!