Obscure Edibles: Growing a Radical and Delicious New World

I like variety. I like to try new flavours, I like to drive different routes to familiar places, I like to mix up my music playlists, I like weird plants. My partner, a delightful human, is slightly more fixed. He likes what he likes what he likes. He’s not a gardener, thankfully, because we’d probably have a few disagreements over plant selection. He’d be firmly committed to the old favourites, and I’d be petitioning for the new and obscure.  

As I have free reign, and as there are over 20 000 edible plant species in the world, it seems negligent to stick to the tomato-zucchini-bean situation when I could be playing around with thousands of others like black turmeric, midym berries and Turkish orange eggplants.

I started thinking about growing more edible diversity as I (actually, my dad) re-built my vegetable garden cage last month. It now looks like a plant prison rather than a den of thriving chlorophyllic life, but so far there’s been no break-ins from our resident wallaby, possum, rat, mouse, bandicoot and antechinus populations.

Another reason I began to think about obscure edibles – aside from it being spring, and aside from my new animal-proofing engineering feats – is because growing food is a particularly empowering pursuit that I need to get better at. Many years ago I interviewed Nick Ritar, co-founder of Milkwood Permaculture. Something he said has stuck in my mind ever since. Every meal we eat, every mouthful of food we swallow, is both an ethical minefield and an exercise of power, he told me. We choose what kind of world we want, what kind of systems – agricultural and otherwise – we’re willing to support, by what we eat. We, very literally, put our money where our mouth is, three times a day. Or five, or six, in my case.

New worlds need imagining right now – on political, community and personal levels. All are intertwined, all require reflection, interrogation and action. On a personal level, I know I can be a better food grower, and it’s really important to me that I try. And so, I’m imagining beyond past failures and current inexperience. I’m imagining a vegetable kingdom/prison that’s wild and radical and mad and diverse and fertile and delicious.

In order to indulge my love of horticultural curiosities and my desire to expand my vegetable growing enterprise, I consulted two queens of the vegetable patch for guidance on their favourite obscure edibles – horticulturalist and serious veggie gardener Olivia Caputo, formerly of CERES organic farm in Melbourne, and Sydney based Laurie Green, founder of Crop Swap Australia. Here’s a collection of the pair’s favourite obscure edibles for consideration in your own radical, edible, garden world.

Laurie Green and Olivia Caputo’s top ten obscure edibles

Prickly Currant Bush
Coprosma quadrifida

Thanks to the ancient knowledge of Aboriginal Australians the prickly currant bush has become a popular item on the bushfood menu. Small birds love to hide and snack on the berries in it’s prickly foliage, safe from predators and bully birds. I ate hundreds of these berries on a summer canoeing journey down the Glenelg River in through Victoria and South Australia. While it loves the sclerophyll and cool-temperate forest it will also grow in backyard settings provide it is given a bit of shade and plenty of water. The fruits are slightly astringent but are full of vitamin C and make a great addition to chutneys and relishes. – Olivia Caputo

Source from: Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-Operative, St Kilda Indigenous Nursery Co-Op, Otways Indigenous Nursery, CERES Nursery

Pepino. Image by Laurie Green.

Pepino
(
Solanum muricatum)

With a subtle rockmelon taste and a hint of cucumber-y freshness, the purple-striped, egg-shaped Pepino has an air of Dr. Seuss whimsy. Native to South America this hardy perennial fruits for many months of the year (in temperate regions) and like most edibles, does best in a well drained soil with a pH of 6.5 – 7.5. Be sure to provide support for the wandering woody stems. Fruit is ripe once the purple markings appear and the flesh is a very pale yellow-orange in colour. Pepinos rarely make it inside our back door whole, but they can be used in fruit salads, sauces or chutneys and pair well with prosciutto and goats cheese. – Laurie Green

Source from: Diggers Club or through Crop Swap Sydney. Easily propagated and shared by cuttings.

Blue Butterfly Pea
(Clitoria ternatea)

These edible flowers are the unrivalled heroines of our Summer garden. Not only for their prolific and unique blooms, but because of their versatility, resilience and ability to improve soil quality. Originating from Asia, the perennial vine has since been introduced to parts of Africa, Australia and America, where it thrives in full sun, with room to climb. A fast grower, the Blue Butterfly Pea is famed for its intense blue dye and antioxidant properties. Fresh or dried flowers are used to make tea, gin or cordial, and to tint dumplings, sourdough, sushi, jelly, or whatever else your heart desires. On occasion they’ve been found in our bathtub, because who doesn’t love the novelty of blue water before bedtime. The young, tender pods are also edible. For a sustainable show stopper add 12 flowers to a heat proof glass and cover with boiling water. Once the petals become colourless, gradually add lemon juice and watch as the water changes from blue to pink. – Laurie Green

Source from: Laurie’s seeds were originally found in a green manure mix(!) but are now available within the Crop Swap Sydney community.

Blue butterfly pea. Image by Laurie Green.

Chilean guava. Image by Sciadopitys, sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Chilean guava
Myrtus ugni syn. Ugni molinae

In a garden I worked in I had a generous Chilean volunteer who gifted me the most delicious liquor called Murtado made from this Christmasy little evergreen. The berries are bright red and have a spicy strawberry-like flavour with a slight clove aftertaste. I try to encourage people to grow Chilean guava in place of plants like English box or privet if they are after a formal hedge. It’s shiny, bright green leaves make it a great alternative and you get berries to harvest. It’s a very hardy little plant, easy to propagate from cuttings, and is happy in a pot or in the ground. – Olivia Caputo

Source from: Daley’s Fruit Tree Nursery

Black Turmeric
(Curcuma caesia)

Containing more curcumin than any other plant on earth, this rare herb is highly sought after for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. When sliced, the rhizomes display a deep-blue or bluish-black colour and have been used for centuries to treat ailments such as arthritis, asthma and epilepsy. For the bold, the root can be consumed in small quantities, but be prepared for a pungent, camphor-like smell, with a bitter, earthy and hot taste. It can also be crushed to make a salve, similar to tiger balm, for applying to bruises, sprains or to relieve migraines. Grown in morning or filtered sun, black turmeric prefers fertile soil, a tropical climate and should be harvested biennially for maximum yield. The leaves are highly ornamental with a central red flush, which clearly distinguishes it from other varieties. Keep your eyes peeled for this one. – Laurie Green

Source from: This plant is hard to find. Laurie has only ever been able to access this in Sydney via Crop Swap.

Black turmeric. Image by Laurie Green.
Tomatillo. Image by Abrahami, sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Tomatillo
Physalis ixocarpa

This is the stuff of salsa verde dreams: a tart, green, cherry tomato-sized fruit wrapped in a papery purplish-green husk. These beautiful little lanterns grow on a fairly spindly annual bush throughout the summer. They are in the nightshade family and have a lovely little pale yellow flower with a blueish centre a bit like the more familiar Cape gooseberry. There’s a bit of confusion about whether you need two plants to get fruit and the truth is you don’t, but they are what we call “partially self-infertile” which means if you have two plants and they share pollen you’ll get more fruit off each plant. Fresh tomatillos are an essential ingredient in the delicious Mexican salsa verde, roasted along with green chilis. – Olivia Caputo

Source from: Green Harvest Seeds

Blue mini popcorn
(
Zea Mays Everta)

Popcorn is a lunchbox staple, but many kids (big and small) seldom consider its plant based origins, and that it hasn’t always come from a packet. The kernels are actually a variety of maize that can be found in all shades of the rainbow, including blue. Easily grown in a suburban backyard, a minimum of six plants are needed for pollination which is achieved by wind (or a paintbrush if you really love your popcorn). Once formed, cobs are left to dry on the plant, then brought inside to dry further (approx. two weeks for us) before the kernels are removed prior to cooking. For optimum popping, kernels should have a moisture content of 14%. A little tricky to measure at home, but just test a few in the pan first and dry further if required. – Laurie Green

Source from: Eden Seeds

Blue mini popcorn. Image by Laurie Green.
Turkish orange eggplant. Image by Laurie Green

Turkish orange eggplants
(Solanum aethiopicum)

‘NOT TOMATOES’ is the unofficial name of Turkish Orange Eggplants in our house. Although they are a member of the Solanaceae plant family, and share many of the same attributes as tomatoes, it can be a challenge to imagine eggplants as anything but purple. Both love full sun, are hungry, thirsty, and this variety is also round, though slightly more bitter than its more conventional cousin. Try them in a warm salad paired with Haloumi, roasted tomatoes, chargrilled capsicums, wilted spinach and lentils. Best served with fresh sourdough, in the garden with good friends. – Laurie Green

Source from: Mr Fothergills

Cucamelon
Melothria scabra

Imagine a mouse carrying a mouse-sized watermelon and there you have a cucamelon, only when you cut it open or bite into it you get a delicious lemony cucumber flavour. I love these little fruits because they are so easy to grow and so prolific. The plant is a gorgeous little annual climber/sprawler with mini-cucumber leaves and tiny tendrils reaching for any bit of wire or string nearby. I’ve often grown them up another plant that needed a bit of shade through the summer. They establish easily from seed or you can buy them as seedlings in the warmer months, and they are getting easier to find. Pickle them and pop them in your martini or have them fresh in a salad. – Olivia Caputo

Source from: Seed Freaks

Cucamelon. Image by Tigerente, sourced from Wikipedia Commons
Midyim Berry. Image by Zaareo, sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Midyim Berry
Austromyrtus dulcis

If you’re lucky enough to go for a bushwalk in the Noosa National Park in QLD you’ll see these beautiful perennial bushfood plants growing in their natural habitat and being feasted upon by small birds. The sweet berries appear in autumn and winter and resemble tiny quails eggs. Being in the Myrtaceae family they have a slightly aniseed flavour and the leaves have also been used as a tea by Aboriginal Australians. Grown in a backyard situation they can sprawl over the top of a rock wall or be worked in with other small shrubbery. I’ve had great success growing them in large pots or hanging baskets. The fruit is best eaten fresh in the garden in the company of your local birds and butterflies. – Olivia Caputo

Source from: Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Co-Operative, St Kilda Indigenous Nursery Co-Op, Otways Indigenous Nursery, CERES Nursery (Victoria); or, Sydney Wildflower Nursery, Harvest Seeds and Native Plants (NSW)