Asphodelus ramosus

Branched Asphodel – Asphodèle

Asphodel flower panicle


In ancient Greece it was connected with death and the underworld.  In Greek mythology, the Elysian fields, final resting place of the souls of the heroic and virtuous, were covered in Asphodel.  It was planted near graves as food for the dead.

The plant belongs to the Asphodelaceae family.  The sword-like, grey-green leaves are borne in basal tufts up to 50 cm long.  The leafless stem (up to 1.6 m) carries a panicle of star-shaped white flowers. Each flower has 6 tepals with a central brown streak.  The roots have spindle-shaped tubers.  They are edible and should be harvested after the first year.

A strong glue is made from the tubers.  They are first dried, then pulverized.  When the powder is mixed with cold water it swells and forms a strong glue.

It was considered to be food for the poor. During the second World War, the starchy roots saved many Greeks from hunger.  The tubers are bitter, but when boiled they lose their bitterness.  The tubers, dried, ground and then boiled in water were mixed with grains or potatoes to make Asphodel bread.  The ancients used to roast the roots under embers, they ate them with salt and olive oil.  If mixed with figs it was considered a delicacy.

In southern Italy the unopened buds are collected, blanched in boiling water, then preserved in olive oil as a condiment.  The young shoots are consumed like wild asparagus.  The flowers are edible as well, they have a pleasant flavour.

In Puglia, the south-east coast of Italy, they make a cheese called ‘Burrata’.  It is a ball of mozzarella filled with cream and pieces of mozzarella.  When cut into, cream oozes out. This cheese is always wrapped in an Asphodel leaf, the reason being that the cheese should be eaten fresh, within 3-4 days of manufacture.  Fresh Asphodel leaves means fresh Burrata.  When the leaves have dried out it is a sign that the cheese is past its prime.

Omelette made with young asphodel shoots

Ingredients: 1 cup of tender shoots, 3 cm long; 1 small onion, very finely chopped; 2 eggs, lightly beaten, 2 tbsp. cream or evaporated milk; salt and pepper to taste; olive oil for frying.

Make a cut in the asphodel shoots and blanch them in boiling water for 2 minutes.  Mix the eggs and milk, beating until well mixed.  Fry the shoots with the onion for a few minutes and then pour the egg mixture over them.  Cover the pan and cook over a low heat until the eggs are set.

Instead of frying the mixture it can be baked.  Cover the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil, sprinkle over the onions and prepared asphodel shoots, other ingredients can be added.  Pour over the beaten eggs flavoured with salt and pepper.  When the eggs are set and brown the dish is ready.  Serve warm.

Bibliography: website –; Docteur Yvan Avramov – Ces précieuses plantes de Méditerranée; Wikipedia – Asphodelus; Marjorie Blamey & Christopher Grey-Wilson – Mediterranean Wild Flowers







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Arbutus unedo

Strawberry Tree – Arbousier

strawberry treeIn autumn you can’t miss this tree when you come across it.  The fruits are so noticeable, initially green, then yellow, orange and finally red.  They resemble strawberries, hence the name.  As the strawberry tree has fruits and flowers at the same time, the flowers becoming next year’s fruit,  it was considered in classical times to be immortal.  It’s an evergreen shrub or tree, normally between 2 – 5 m tall.  The bark is red brown, the leaves are oblong, toothed and dark green in colour.  The fruits, as well as the flowers, hang in bunches.
Traditionally the roots were used to treat high blood pressure.  The leaves contain a lot of tannin and arbutin, which have an astringent and antiseptic effect and could be used to treat urinary tract infections and rheumatism.   It was also used in the tanning of leather.
arbutus unedo blossomThe fruits are edible, and eaten when they are red but not soft.  They taste slightly acidic and sweet at the same time, but  too ripe they become floury.  The ‘unedo’ in the name means ‘just once’ which refers to the fact that if you’ve tried the fruit once, you are not likely to try it again.  It is probably a question of taste, but I rather like them.  Made into compote or confiture they are quite delicious.  In Portugal an ‘eau de vie’ is made from the berries and in Corsica beehives are placed among the Arbutus unedo trees for a special-tasting honey.  The fruits are rich in sugar and as they ripen, they start fermenting on the tree.  The birds absolutely love them and, having gorged themselves on the fermented fruit, they have problems flying straight!

Arbutus Jam

arbutus jamIngredients:              1 kg red Arbutus fruit;  500 g cane sugar;  4 tbs orange liqueur;   1/4 tsp each of cinnamon,  ginger,  mace and nutmeg.  Wash the fruit and slowly boil with a little water until soft (stirring from time to time).  Press through a Mouli or sieve then reheat with the sugar, spices and liqueur.  Simmer until a drop mounds on a chilled plate.  Put in sterilized jars and seal.
Bibliography:  Sauvage et comestibles – Marie-Claude Paume;  Arbutus unedo – Wikipedia; Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson.
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Opuntia spp.

Prickly Pear – Le figuier de Barbarie

prickly pear with fruitNative to the Americas. Introduced into Europe by the Spanish colonists on their return from the Americas. They now grow all over the Mediterranean region.  Prickly Pears have flat rounded pads (Cladodes). They are armed with two kinds of spines, large smooth fixed spines, and small hairy prickles called ‘glochids’.  When a pad is touched, the ‘glochids’ detach themselves and penetrate the skin.  They are very easy to propagate.  Just insert a pad into the soil and a new Prickly Pear will establish itself.  They belong to the Cucumber Family, Cucurbitaceae.
Prickly Pears were introduced into Australia where they became so invasive, they almost caused an environmental disaster.  The farming community thought that the Prickly Pear would form a natural, agricultural fencing.  It started with the introduction in 1788 of Prickly Pears from Brazil into Sydney, 50 years later the plants were brought to a farmer’s garden.  His wife gave out cuttings to friends and that was the start of it.  This plant became so invasive that it transformed 260,000 km² of farming land into an impenetrable jungle of Prickly Pears, in places 6.1 m high.  It was referred to as ‘the green hell’.  In 1919 the Federal Government established the ‘Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board’ to eradicate the plant.  They first tried to remove them mechanically, that failed, then they used pesticides, again that failed.  As a last resort, in 1925, they introduced a moth ‘Cactoblastis cactorum’ from S. America. The food for the larvae of this moth is the Prickly Pear.  It was so successful that it almost wiped out the existing Prickly Pear population in Australia.
The ‘Dactylopius coccus’, a scale insect, feeds itself on the moisture and nutrients of the sap of the Prickly Pear. The insect produces carminic acid.  This carminic acid is extracted from the insect’s body and eggs to make the red dye ‘cochineal’.  Cochineal is used in red food colouring and cosmetics.  It was widely used by the Aztec and Maya people.  Produced almost exclusively in Oaxaca, Mexico, cochineal became Mexico’s second most important export after silver.  Cochineal was consumed throughout Europe and was so highly valued that its price was often quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.  Nowadays the highest production of cochineal is in Peru, Canary Islands and Chile.
The first time I ate the Cactus fruit was on the Greek island of Anti Paxos when a local boy came on the beach selling cleaned Cactus fruit.   Rather refreshing.  The fruit has to be peeled very carefully to remove the spines and hairy prickles on the outer skin.
Bibliography:  Opuntia – Wikipedia
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Celtis australis

European Nettle Tree – Micocoulier

nettletree with berriesThe leaves of this tree look so similar to the leaves of nettles, hence the name.  It grows 15-20 m tall.  The flowers are rather small, male and female on the same tree, single or in clusters.  The autumn fruits have long been a favourite of the children in Provence and having tried them I can just see them pulling off bunches on their way to school.  They are rather small but, for such a small berry, they have a distinguishing, sweet taste.
Bibliography:  Gabrielle Wellesley, telling us the story about Provençal children; Celtis australis – Wikipedia. 
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Cichorium intybus

Wild Chicory – Chicorée sauvage

Wild Chicory, in summer, is a very common plant here in Provence wild chicory flowersand very easily recognisable with its bright blue flower-heads.   It is sometimes slightly hairy with branched stems, height 30-100 cm.  The basal leaves in rosette form, are pinnately-lobed and make you think of a Dandelion, but they are deep green in colour;  the upper leaves are lanceolate, sometimes toothed, clasping the stem.  The flowers have two layers of florets, the inner ones larger than the outer ones.  From the Wild Chicory, three forms have been cultivated as salad leaves: Radicchio, very popular in Italy with reddish and white leaves;  Sugarloaf, a type of lettuce similar to Cos lettuce;  Belgian endive or witloof with cream and yellow coloured leaves.  The root of cultivated chicory (Cichorum intybus var. sativum) has been developed to form a thick root.  During periods of economic crisis like the ‘Great Depression of 1930’ and ‘World War II’ it was used, and still is, as a coffee substitute.
In the 1970’s it was discovered that the roots contain 20% inulin and oligo fructose.  Inulin is a natural roughage that passes through the digestive system hardly being digested.  Oligo fructose is a sugar substitute.  Inulin as well as oligo fructose play a role in the cultivation of the bifidus bacteria. 
Wild Chicory has a tonic effect on the liver and gall bladder.  It is lightly diuretic and a laxative;  it cleans the liver, spleen and kidneys.  Internally, it is a remedy for liver complaints, rheumatism, gout and haemorrhoids.  
Wild young chicory leaves are bitter.  They are used in the cuisines of many southern European countries;  in Italy, in the Liguria and Puglia, the leaves are combined with broad bean purée.  In Albania they are used as a spinach substitute, simmered in olive oil.  By cooking and discarding the water, the bitterness is reduced, it can then be sautéed with garlic, anchovies or other ingredients.  This goes well mixed into pasta or with meat.
Bibliography:  Cichorium intybus – Wikipedia;  Voedingsleer – Cichorium intybus – Ir. J. Lambrechts;  RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses – Deni Bown;  Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart;  Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson.
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Euonymus europaeus

Spindle Tree – Fusain d’Europe

A native to much of Europe, belonging to the Celastraceae family.  spindle tree berriesIt grows in open woodland, clearings, hedgerows but always close to water.  The tree can reach a height of 3-6 m.  The leaves are opposite, lanceolate to elliptical with finely serrated edges.  The flowers are quite insignificant, very small, yellowish-green in contrast to the really magnificent-looking fruit capsule.  The colour of the fruit capsule varies from red, purple to pink.  When the fruit capsule splits open it reveals orange seeds.  The wood is very hard with a light yellow hue.  It can be cut into a sharp point and was used to make spindles to spin wool, hence the name Spindle Tree;  also to make knitting needles.  In addition, very high quality charcoal, as used by artists, is made from this wood.
All parts of the tree are poisonous but, in particular, the berries.   Internally,  the bark and root bark is used by professional herbalists to treat liver and gall bladder complaints.  Externally, it is an effective remedy to treat scabies, lice infestation (head, body or pubic), ticks and other skin parasites (30 g of fresh leaves, dried fruit or seeds to 1 litre of water).
Bibliography:   Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart;  RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses – Deni Bown; Spindle Tree – Wikepedia   
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Bellis perennis

Daisy – Pâquerette

Here in Provence the first Daisies have come up.  They stay more or less all through the winter till spring.  The flower is made up of white ray florets and yellow disc flowers.  Each little yellow bit in the centre of the flower is an individual flower, typical for the Compositae family.  The leaves are in rosette form and from this rosette the stalks with the flowers emerge.
Daisies have been used medicinally for many centuries.  daisy flowersThe surgeons in the Roman legions ordered the slaves to pick bags of daisies.  From the daisies they extracted the juice, bandages were soaked in this juice and these in turn were used to treat sword and spear cuts.  The leaves and flowers have an astringent effect, can loosen mucus and be used to treat coughs and catarrh;  externally it can be used for ruptures, varicose veins, freckles and slow healing wounds.  A herbal tea made from the flowers, stalks and leaves treats oral thrush;  added to bath water it gives the skin a boost.  The following is a home-made remedy for a cold:

Daisy syrup

Ingredients:  500 ml herbal daisy tea made with 75 g of  leaves, stalks and flowers; 500 g runny honey or 500 g of cane sugar.
Add the boiled water (just off the boil) to a teapot filled with 75 g of daisy leaves, stalks and flowers.  Let it soak for 10 minutes.  Pass the herbal tea through a sieve into a pan on a low flame, add the sugar or honey,  keep on stirring till sugar or honey has dissolved, continue cooking till the mixture has thickened to a syrup.  Leave to cool.  Pour into sterilised bottles closed with a cork.  This will keep for a maximum of 3 months.   The amount of sugar or honey and the amount of herbal tea should be 1:1
The young green leaves of the daisy make a tasty, slightly sour addition to a salad.
Bibliography:  Encyclopedia of herbs and their uses – Deni Bown;  Bellis perennis – Wikipedia; Kruiden geneesmiddelen zelf maken – Penelope Ody
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Saponaria officinale

Soapwort – Saponaire officinale

soapwortWith the mild weather and some rain, a lot of wild flowers are making their appearance.  Soapwort is one of them and very easy to recognise.  Native to Europe and Asia, a perennial 30 – 40 cm tall, with fragrant flowers,  showy with colours ranging from pink to white.  The flowers, 40 mm in diameter,  have 5 petals and grow in clusters.  The leaves are opposite, oval to lanceolate, mid-green in colour, 40-70 mm in diameter, larger at the foot of the plant than at the top.  Soapwort likes damp, but well-drained soil.  The name Saponaria comes from the Latin word ‘saponis’ meaning soap and ‘aria’ referring to the sap in the plant.  The plant could not have a more suitable name as it has been widely used as a soap substitute till the commercial production of soap in the 1800’s.  It is still used in the Middle East and in museums to clean old and delicate tapestries.  
It was once used internally to treat skin diseases (psoriasis, eczema and acne) and was a last resort medicine to treat venereal disease when mercury, which was the traditional way of treating the disease, failed.  It contains saponins, these saponins mixed with water form a soapy froth.  It was also used to treat bronchial congestion, saponins loosen mucus. Nowadays it is rarely used internally as it has an irritating effect on the digestive system.   Externally it can be used to treat skin diseases.  It is not advisable to use it as a shampoo as it can cause severe eye irritation.
The whole plant, including the roots, contain saponins.
Bibliography:  Fleurs de mediterranee – Larousse;  The RHS encyclopedia of herbs and their uses – Deni Bown;  Saponaria officinalis – Wikipedia; The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart
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Portulaca oleracea

Common Purslane – Pourpier commun

Common Purslane is native from Greece to China and has been introduced elsewhere.  It is found in our area in dry, sandy,  nitrogen-rich soil in full sun.  portulaca: container plantIt should not be confused with the ‘Sun Plant’ (Portulaca grandiflora)  native to Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay with bright colourful flowers in any colour except blue.  The ‘Sun Plant’ is a very common summer container plant.   In France both plants go by the name ‘Pourpier’.
photoCommon Purslane has been cultivated for centuries in the Middle and Far East.  A number of varieties have been developed from the wild species, one of them is Portulaca oleracea var. sativa (Kitchen-garden Purslane).   I remember my mother cooking Purslane in the same way as she would  spinach.  It has a special flavour, slightly acidic and salty;  rather nice.  After years of not having seen Purslane, I came across it at a local market.  Then just a few days ago I saw it growing in my garden.  It is hard to imagine this succulent vegetable growing in the gravel.
It is an annual or biennial with fleshy prostrate stems to 15 cm long.  The stems are a little pinkish in colour, the leaves are fleshy, spatulate and stalkless.  The flowers are yellow and quite small (7.5 mm), appearing in late summer, very quickly replaced by seed capsules.
It is a very nutritious vegetable:  a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin A, C and E, flavonoids and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron.  Because of its high Vitamin C content it was used to treat scurvy.
It is crunchy and makes a good summer salad, combined with either rocket, chicory, cress or lettuce.  The best time to eat it is before it flowers.  It can be cooked like spinach with just a drizzle of olive oil, or as they do in Greece: fried in olive oil with feta cheese, tomatoes, onions, garlic and oregano.
Bibliography:  The RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses – Deni Bown; The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart;  Portulaca oleracea – Wikipedia; Sauvage et Comestibles – Marie-Claude Paume;  Plantes de Mediterranee – Wolfgang Lippert/Dieter Podlech
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Ficus carica

Common Fig/Le Figuier 
Taking my dog for his daily walks, I pass five wild fig trees, all of them fruiting at the moment.  I press the fruits to see if they are ripe and eat them as I go along my walk.   The figs from the five trees all taste differently;  from the outside there is no difference, but from the inside the fruits vary in colour.
The Fig tree is native to the Middle East. From there it was introduced all over the Mediterranean and eastwards as far as Afghanistan. By the 15th century it had arrived in northern Europe and the New World.
It is a deciduous tree to 10m tall. The leaves are large, rough and palmately lobed. The flowers are tiny, borne inside a small, green structure called ‘syncap’.  This ‘syncap’ has a tiny opening to the outside for pollinating wasps to enter.  The fruit (fig) is fleshy, pear-shaped, 3-7cm long and comes in a colour range from green to purple.
Fig fruit & leaves in August


It belongs to the Mulberry Family, Moraceae.  The cultivated form has no male flowers and the fruit ripens without fertilization (parthenocarpically).  The wild species bear male and female flowers. Some varieties crop twice a year, some only once. Figs like to grow near water.  It has been an important food source since biblical times.  It was a major crop in ancient Greece, when there were already 29 cultivars.    The name ‘carica’ is derived from ‘Caria’ in Asia Minor which in Pliny’s time (AD23 – AD79) produced the best figs.
The fruit is important as food as well as medicinally.  It is a laxative herb that soothes damaged tissue.  It contains flavonoides (help against infection and free radicals), sugars, vitamins A & C, acids and enzymes.
Figs in late summer are so plentiful, a bumper crop, in fact, and about the easiest thing to do is to just freeze them.  Isabel, our fellow forager, does this every year.  They do become soft but the freezing does not impair their taste.  There are numerous recipes for figs.  The following recipes are very easy to make and quite delicious

Figs, Prosciutto and Gorgonzola

Ingredients:  10 fresh figs;  prosciutto;  Gorgonzola or chèvre;  1 cup of Basmati rice.
Rice:  Soak rice for at least 15 mins, drain and put in bowl.  Pour boiling water over, stir for a few minutes, drain well.  In pan with tight-fitting lid put 1 T of oil, 1 sliced garlic clove, 4 cardamom pods, stock cube with herbs (optional), salt.  Add drained rice and a little over 1 cup of water and boil rapidly for 1 min.  Reduce heat to minimum and leave to simmer until all the water is absorbed.  Remove from heat, place absorbent cloth over the pot and then the lid.  Leave to sit.
Preheat the oven to 180 C.  Figs, prosciutto and chèvreWash the figs and make an incision down half-way in each fig.   Cut small strips of prosciutto and wrap a strip around each fig, pinning it with a cocktail stick.  Then insert a piece of Gorgonzola into the incision.  Place the figs upright on an oven baking tray and bake for about 7-8 mins.  Serve figs on rice, with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (optional) and a mixed green salad.

Baked Fresh Figs with Cointreau

Ingredients:  8 fresh figs; 30 g castor sugar; 2 tablespoons Cointreau.
Preheat the oven to 180 C.  Wash the figs and while still damp, roll them in the sugar.  Place in a baking dish large enough to hold the figs in a single layer.  They should fit snugly into the dish.  Add 1 cm of water to the the baking dish and drizzle the figs with Cointreau.  Bake for 15 minutes, until the sugar is lightly browned.  Serve warm with the juice.

Home-made Fig Jam

Ingredients:  1 kg of fresh figs; 500 g of castor sugar;  rind of 1 lemon in one piece; juice of 1 lemon.
Put all ingredients in a bowl and leave overnight. figs and leaves The next day transfer it all to a pan and over a low heat stir and dissolve the sugar.  Bring to the boil, then cook over low heat, stirring regularly, for about 45 minutes or until the jam is thick and sticky.  Remove the lemon rind.  Mash the figs till they break up.  Cool slightly and put them into sterilised jars.  The jam will keep for 3 months.

Fig and Pear Parkin

100g oats (lightly whizz in a blender);  200g self-raising flour; 1tsp ground ginger; 1tsp bicarbonate of soda; 100g slightly salted butter. 3 small, ripe pears cored and thinly sliced; 4 fresh figs, thinly sliced into crescents; 150g golden syrup (3-4 tbsp); 150g black treacle (3-4 tbsp); 3 pieces Chinese stem ginger, chopped; 50 ml milk;  1 beaten egg;  crème fraîche to serve.
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Grease and line a 28 x 24cm shallow baking tin. Then grease the paper.   In a bowl mix the flour, oats, ground ginger and bicarbonate of soda.  Stir in half of the fresh sliced fruit.   In a pan slowly heat the butter, syrup, treacle & stem ginger just until the butter melts, don’t let it boil.  Take it off the heat.  Stir the milk into the pan, followed quickly by the egg.  Pour the mixture into the bowl of flour, and stir.  Scatter the remaining fresh fruit on the top of the parkin and bake for 40-45 minutes until the centre feels firm to the touch.  Serve warm or cold with crème fraîche.   
Fig leaves make an excellent wrapping for fish and keep it succulent and full of flavour.  Mackerel cooked whole benefit from being wrapped as does salmon:

Salmon Steak in Fig Leaves

Rub salt on to all sides of the salmon.  Using 2 leaves for each steak, briefly dunk them in very hot water to make them wrap more easily.  Then place them one on top of the other facing in the same direction, sliding one forward to minimize the gaps.  Sprinkle with a little olive oil and sprigs of tarragon.  Place the fish on top, skin uppermost, sprinkle with pastis or lemon juice.  Fold the edges of the leaves over the fish.  Take some very fine string, enough to lay down the length of the fish and then to turn back and bind around the fish so that it can be tied to the other end.  Place each steak on a ridged baking pan, not touching.  Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180⁰ for 15 mins for a medium-sized salmon steak.  Place on warmed plates and snip the string.  A hollandaise sauce or äioli go well with this dish, as do sautèed red and yellow peppers and a green salad.
Bibliography: Herbs and Herbalism– Malcolm Stuart;  80 fleurs des iles et du littoral varois – Libris; The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Deni Bown;  A Mediterranean Harvest – Paola Scaravelli & Jon Cohen.

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