Name the Mystery Melon

Asian melonDo you recognize this melon? I found one like it at a Vietnamese market in Portland in 2013, saved the seeds, and planted them in 2014. The vines were vigorous and healthy, and the fruits oblong and fairly large, with netted yellow skins and pale orange flesh. These melons aren’t aromatic, but they are extremely sweet and wonderfully crisp. The texture is more like that of watermelon than that of cantaloupe.

Although I’m planning only a small summer garden this year, I’m once again including this melon. If you know what it is, please let me know!

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Olive-Oil Pickles: Q&A

Before the routine use of mason jars or even paraffin in the home kitchen, olive oil was often used, in America as well as Europe, to seal air out of jars of vinegar-pickled vegetables. When you’re canning pickles in the modern way today, oil might seem a superfluous addition—if it didn’t make the vegetables look and taste so good after they’re drawn, unctuously gleaming, from the jar.

Once you’ve pried off the lid and stored the jar in the fridge, though, the oil can partially or totally solidify. That doesn’t make for such a pretty pickle. Here’s how Matt, one reader of The Joy of Pickling, encountered this problem: 

I’m a beginner to this experience, and have made a few pickle recipes from your Joy book. I have a question relating to a recipe I did of the olive oil pickles (page 98). I did as instructed, and opened around 4 weeks after pantry storage. They tasted amazing! After about a week in the fridge, however, the opened jar formed small, white beads at the top. They vary in diameter, but all quite smaller than the mustard seeds.  

The unopened ones do not exhibit this, and I am concerned that there is something wrong. Perhaps this is some congealing of ingredients, but I wanted to see if you’ve encountered similar results. I haven’t eaten them since they’ve been in the fridge (e.g., formed the beads), so am only hoping that the refrigeration is the factor here, and that they are safe to eat.

And here are two photos that Matt sent me:

congealed olive oilcongealed olive oil 2

Sometimes chilled olive oil forms a solid whitish mass; other times it solidifies only partially. The “beads” Matt saw are solidified oil droplets.

The solution to this problem is simple: Take the jar out of the refrigerator a little before serving time, and let the oil melt in the warmer air outside the fridge. In Matt’s case the oil had only slightly solidified, so the melting probably took only ten minutes or so.

There’s something else to remember about oiled pickles: Oil on the rim of the jar or on the lid’s sealing compound can prevent a good seal. So be sure to leave adequate headspace in the jar, wipe any oil off the rim with a paper towel or clean cloth dampened with vinegar before placing the lid on top, and avoid tipping the jars or boiling the water hard during processing.

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Forget the Roots: Radishes for Spicy Sprouts

red-stemmed kaiware sproutsThese are red-stemmed kaiware, radish sprouts, growing in one of my raised beds last September. I thank Judy Gregory for sending me the seeds. She got them from Kitazawa Seed Co., of Oakland, which has been selling Asian seeds in California since 1917 (except for a three-year break during World War II, when the Kitazawa family members were confined in concentration camps).

Kitazawa’s online catalog currently lists eight radish varieties for sprouting, in various colors from all-green to all-purple; two other varieties for their developed leaves (ha daikon); and thirty-seven for their roots, from round to tapered and from small (such as French Breakfast) to monstrous (Sakurajima Mammoth, which can reach 100 pounds). Although kaiware and ha daikon are of the same species, Raphanus sativus, as all of the root radishes, the roots of kaiware and ha daikon do not swell.

Kaiware are so delicate that they are always eaten raw. In the Japanese tradition they embellish sashimi and sushi, and at any table they can add a mildly pungent, crisp element to salads, sandwiches, and soups.

radish seed packetThe kaiware seed envelope said the sprouts would be ready in ten days, but I think I started harvesting in five. I cut the stems with scissors; this allowed me not only to avoid bringing soil into the kitchen but also to harvest repeatedly from the same little patch.

After going away for a few weeks, I had big leaves to harvest. Unlike the prickly leaves of cherry radishes, these were tender enough that we could enjoy them raw in salads. We cooked some, too, just as we might cook mustard or beet greens.

flowering radishAlthough I’ve now started a fresh kaiware patch, the original one lasted through the winter, under plastic. We would still be eating from the same patch, in fact, except that I’m now letting it go to seed. Unlike many of the root radishes in the Kitazawa catalog, the kaiware varieties are all non-hybrids, so I plan to keep the seeds in the hope that we can continue eating kaiware indefinitely. As for the money I’ll save, I may well spend it on seeds of some other amazing vegetable variety from Kitazawa.

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Another Fine Use for Parsnips

Danita’s story about parsnips in her Grandma’s stew made me curious: What about parsnips would turn off a child? Danita remembered the parsnips as bitter. Did the cooking method make them this way, or did it bring out a bitterness that other preparations would mask?

So I boiled a couple of my gigantic parsnips, without salt or any other flavoring, put them through a food mill, and tasted the purée. Danita was right: The stuff was bitter. With some of the natural sugar lost to the cooking water, and without added salt or fat, the parsnips were indeed distasteful.

No matter, though, because I have no qualms about adding salt or fat to my vegetables. I couldn’t think of any way I might use the purée, in fact, without adding both salt and fat. And I decided to try—

parsnip gnocchiParsnip Gnocchi, for Two 

To purée big parsnips, peel them, slice them crosswise into two or more pieces, and cut each piece into four or eight wedges. Stand each piece on the wider cut end, and slice out the core. Gently boil the cored pieces in a little water, as you would potatoes, until the pieces are tender. Then press them through the medium screen of a food mill.

1 cup parsnip purée
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter
Ground black pepper
Grated nutmeg
A sprig or two of rosemary, dried and crumbled or fresh and chopped
Several cloves of garlic, minced
Large bunch of beet, chard, or kale leaves
½ cup grated parmesan cheese 

Put the parsnip purée into a bowl, add the salt, and lightly stir in ½ cup of the flour. Sprinkle a little of the remaining flour over the mass and the rest across a cutting board. Form the mass into a long snake about ¾ inch thick. Cut the snake into ½-inch pieces. Separate the pieces, and roll them lightly in the flour on the board. 

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. In a large frying pan, melt the butter, and add the black pepper, nutmeg, and rosemary. Turn off the heat under the frying pan. 

In the saucepan, gently boil the gnocchi in batches of about a dozen for about a minute, until the gnocchi rise to the top. Remove them with a slotted pan to the frying pan, and turn the heat to low. When all the gnocchi have been added, toss in the garlic. Turn the gnocchi gently as the garlic begins to release its scent. Turn off the heat. 

Steam the greens. (I put them fresh-rinsed and still damp into a wide pan, cover the pan, and cook them just until they are limp.) 

Put the greens into a wide, shallow bowl, and top them with the gnocchi and seasoned butter. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the dish, and put the rest into a small bowl to serve along with the gnocchi. Enjoy!

As I’d hoped, the tender white gnocchi tasted deliciously of parsnips. To me, at least, no bitterness was detectable in this dish—except in the beet greens. And the garlicky butter tamed even that bitterness—enough for the typical grownup, at least. A typical kid might turn down the greens but happily gobble up the gnocchi.

I’m glad to say I have more parsnip purée in the fridge. I could try Graeme’s parsnip pie. Or, how about parsnip ravioli?

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Last-Chance Pickles from Last Summer’s Citron Melon

pickled citron melonI feel ridiculous giving so much attention this time of year to a fruit of hot summer days, Citrullus lanatus—that is, the species that includes both watermelons and citron melons. After all, for nearly half a year I ignored the citron melons I’d harvested late last summer, though they lay in plain view on the tiled floor of our entry hall. But yesterday I noticed a brown area on one, like a bruise, and when I lifted the melon it spilled its guts and fell to pieces. Looking at the mushy melon chunks lying in a spreading puddle of clear liquid spotted with red seeds, I figured it was time to get cooking the remaining melons.

So I cut one in half, sliced it into slabs, cut off the rind, poked out the many seeds, and diced the flesh. This was a time-consuming job, believe me, but when I was done it was easy to pickle the melon. Here’s how I did it.

Sweet Pickled Citron Melon

I’ve based this recipe on one published in the New York Tribune in 1918, but I’ve omitted a treatment with pickling lime. Citron melon keeps its shape without liming, and, besides, I like the natural soft, chewy texture of the unlimed melon. 

This pickle has a clear, lovely look and a pleasant bit of bitterness from the lime—and here, of course, I mean not the white powder but the round, green citrus fruit. Lemon, as called for by the Tribune recipe, is a perfectly good alternative to lime. 

6 cups water
6 tablespoons salt
3 pounds peeled and seeded citron melon, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup cider vinegar
½ cup water
1 cup sugar
¼ cup honey
1 small lime, sliced very thin
2 quarter-size pieces fresh ginger
1 2½-inch cinnamon stick, broken
½ teaspoon cloves

Combine the water and salt in a pot, and bring the brine to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Add the citron melon, and simmer it for 15 minutes. Drain the citron melon, and drop it into a large bowl of ice water. When the melon has cooled, drain it again.

In a nonreactive pot, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, honey, and lime slices. Put the ginger, cinnamon, and cloves into a spice bag, and put the spice bag into the pot. Heat the ingredients until the sugar has dissolved, and then add the drained citron melon. Simmer the mixture for about an hour, until the melon is completely translucent and the syrup has thickened somewhat. 

Ladle the melon and its liquid into pint or half-pint mason jars, including a lime slice in each jar. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath. 

Makes 3 pints

Posted in Fruits, Pickles, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Another Red Watermelon Pickle

Gwen's watermelon pickleI was pleased to find outside the front door yesterday a package from Gwen Schock Cowherd, my cherished advisor on all foods German-from-Russia. Gwen had sent a jar of her prize-winning unfermented watermelon pickles, made in the tradition of Midwestern prairie dwellers whose German ancestors once lived beside the Black Sea in Russia.

Gwen's watermelon pickle 2Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much like mine, but with a strong, fresh dilliness and a striking, appealing saltiness. I especially like the bit of crunch provided by the sliver of white rind showing on one edge of each watermelon piece. And notice how pretty Gwen’s pickle jar looks, with the dill heads and the sliced green pepper.

Gwen kindly sent me her recipe to share with you:

Gwen’s Watermelon Pickles

BRINE:
12 cups water
2½ cups sugar
2½ cups white vinegar
¾ cup salt
1 ounce Schilling pickling spice mix

Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, covered. Stir occasionally to distribute the flavor of the spices. 

1 large seedless watermelon, any variety (better underripe than overripe)
2 small heads fresh dill per jar
1 slivered garlic cove per jar
1 small dried red pepper per jar (optional)
1 or 2 thin green pepper slices per jar 

Peel the watermelon, leaving a thin amount of white rind. Cut the watermelon into 1-by-1/2-inch chunks. Try to leave some white rind on each chunk; this will help to keep it from disintegrating. Drain the chunks in colanders for several hours—overnight is best. 

Pour off the watermelon juice. If you want to use the juice in your brine, that is OK. 

Into each sterilized quart jar, put a dill head, and add watermelon to fill half the jar. Shake the jar so the pieces settle. Then add one small dried red pepper (if you like your pickles hot) and half the garlic slivers. Distribute the garlic among the watermelon chunks. Add more watermelon chunks, again shaking the jar so they settle. Add the strip(s) of green pepper and the rest of the garlic slivers, distributing them in the jar. Put another dill head at the top of the jar. 

Pour the brine, boiling and strained, into the jars. (Save the extra brine for another batch. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.) Add lids and rings, and put the jars in a hot water bath. Bring the water to a boil, and boil it for 5 minutes, no longer. 

Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours. Check to see that they are sealed. Store them in a cool place. 

Makes 7 quarts

Gwen says her pickles improve with age. As you can see in the picture, the ones she sent me were made in 2012. Keep in mind, though, that she stores her sealed jars in an especially cool place: a refrigerator reserved just for pickles.

As the fermentation fad spreads, some people are saying that pickles aren’t true pickles unless the solids as well as the liquid components have been fermented. Gwen’s unfermented watermelon pickles, and my slightly sweeter ones, are very different from brine-pickled watermelon, and if you try all three recipes you may well prefer one over another. But I can’t predict which you’ll like best. All of them are real pickles, and all of them are really good.

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Still Eating Parsnips, and Planning for More

parsnips

The longest root here ended up in the compost; it had dipped below the water table and so was rotting. The others broke off at about a foot below the soil surface, as usually happens with my parsnips.

At last week’s book club meeting, in the midst of a discussion of race and gender in nineteenth-century America and the founding of the U.S. Geological Survey, somebody asked the inevitable sort of question: How do you grow parsnips?

Our husbands think we talk about them at these meetings. We do, sometimes. But more often the talk turns to gardening.

I felt an immediate surge of affection for the new member who asked about parsnips. Parsnip lovers are rarities, it seems. Why is this? Who can dislike that carroty flavor combined with extra sweetness? Is the parsnip just too blandly white next to its sunny cousin the carrot? Or is the parsnip so pricey in the market that most people never even try it?

Why such a humble root should cost so much is puzzling in itself, but at least I could take a stab at the new member’s question. For my big parsnip crops of the past couple of years I must thank my friend Lisa, who told me to toss the seeds onto bare soil in February. This works because parsnip seeds require constant moisture for about two weeks while they think about sprouting. Here in the Willamette Valley, we generally have that constant moisture in February. Our frosts continue until mid-May, but that matters not at all to the hardy parsnip.

This year February was so strangely dry that I wonder whether Lisa’s parsnip seeds have germinated. As for me, I’ve held off planting. As I dig the last of last year’s crop, with roots averaging 8 inches across and 1½ feet long, I’m thinking I’d like this year’s parsnips to be a little smaller.

Most gardeners know that you’re supposed to leave your parsnips in the ground until after the first frost to sweeten them up. This is what I’ve done, though I don’t know that I wouldn’t like a less-sweet parsnip. Usually I leave most of my roots in the ground for much longer still. A virtue of parsnips is that you can store them right where they have grown all through the winter—unless the water table rises into their root zone, which causes them to rot, or unless the weather is so brutally cold that a mound of mulch won’t keep them from freezing.

But when you plant parsnips in February for digging in late fall and winter you’re at least doubling the usual four-month growing period. And when parsnips grow for that long they develop two problems: They get so big they become hard to dig, and they develop a hard core that gets bigger and tougher over time. By mid-winter the parsnips may have as much core as tender flesh, which makes for much effort in the kitchen and a big pile of trimmings. And then in late winter the plants sprout new top growth, because, like their carrot cousins, they are biennial. As parsnips prepare to produce seeds, their roots become entirely tough and inedible. So last week I dug the last of the parsnips that we’ll eat this winter. The rest I’ll till under or let go to seed.

We didn’t talk at book club about parsnip varieties. It may be that the variety I’ve been growing, All-American, is more prone to tough cores than others I might try, such as Tender and True, which is described as “almost coreless,” and Harris Early Model, which is said to have no core at all. Considering the high water tables here in winter, maybe the short- and thick-rooted German varieties would be an even better alternative. (Readers, if you’ve had success with particular varieties I hope you’ll share your comments.)

Regardless of the variety, the best course may be to plant parsnips later, dig them promptly after the first frost, and store them out of the ground. So, here’s how I tentatively recommend growing parsnips: Plant them late spring, around the time of the last frost. Use fresh seeds; old ones won’t sprout. Keep the seeds moist for two to three weeks, until they germinate (Next time I may try covering them with a board, as I do carrot seeds, or I even try germinating them on damp paper towels). Don’t give parsnips too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer; it’s said to make their roots hairy. Let them grow for 105 to 130 days, depending on the variety, to maturity. Start digging them as soon thereafter as you like. If you have time to devise some out-of-ground storage system, such as a clamp or box of sand, dig them all soon after the first autumn frost.

Preparing parsnips for the table is easy when you have no big, tough cores to cut out. Betty Fussel recommends boiling the roots, dousing them in cold water, and then slipping off their skins, but parsnips have no more in the way of skins than carrots, which I rarely peel at all. Just to make sure my parsnips are fully clean, though, I peel them with a swivel peeler. Then I use them in most of the ways you might use carrots. They are especially good roasted, on their own or along with carrots or chunks of squash or wedges of sweet potato, or pureed in soup flavored with nutmeg, as in my recipe here.

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Tomato Report 2014

I’m hurrying to get out this report to you, because here in the Willamette Valley it’s nearly tomato-starting time already.

Our long hot summer last year produced bountiful tomato harvests for many of my neighbors but a strangely scant one for me; apparently, the unusual heat made the plants repeatedly drop their blossoms. My report here is limited to the few varieties that produced fairly well in my garden.

A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper

A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper

Costoluto Genovese has deeply ribbed, meaty red fruits with large seed cavities. The lovely look of this fruit makes the bland taste all the more disappointing. Like most Italian tomatoes, this one has apparently been bred for sauce or drying, not for fresh eating. The low sugar and acid levels call for concentration. 

Tangerine is a medium-large to large, squat, old yellow-orange variety that won brief fame several years ago after scientists showed it to have more absorbable lycopene (an anti-oxidant that may protect against some cancers) than a typical red tomato.  Early in the season my Tangerine fruits seemed to have low acidity and an unremarkable flavor, but after mid-summer, as often happens with tomatoes, they tasted much better. The acid level, in fact, seemed unusually high for a yellow tomato.

Tangerine & Persimmon tomatoes

Tangerine and persimmon tomatoes. The cut one in the foreground is the Tangerine–I think!

Persimmon is an heirloom from the 1800s (says Territorial), from 1781 (says Henry Field’s), from about 1983 (says Gary Ibsen), or from the 1880s (says a Seed Savers Exchange member in Wisconsin).  The tomato is originally from Russia, says Burpee. It was grown by Thomas Jefferson, says Henry Field’s.

Whatever its origins, Persimmon turned out for me much like Tangerine—in the appearance of the fruit, the size of the plant (both are indeterminate), and earliness (about 80 days). But Persimmon’s skin color was a softer orange, truly reminiscent of its namesake, and the fruit tended to develop a navel-like blossom end. The flesh may have been a little less tart and flavorful than that of Tangerine, but Persimmon also had an appealing creaminess. My Persimmon plants were a little less productive that my Tangerine plants.

I had trouble choosing a favorite between these two big, delicious, blemish-free tomatoes. In the kitchen I didn’t try to keep them separate. I can tell you, though, that ratatouille made with Tangerine or Persimmon tomatoes or both is as tart as it should be and at the same time startlingly sweet.

Druzba, a Bulgarian red tomato, is about the same size and shape as Tangerine and Persimmon (Burpee calls Druzba a “mini-beefsteak”) but has bigger seed cavities and apparently even higher acidity. I will certainly grow it again.

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomato

Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes

Striped tomatoes are the rage now, and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, bred by Bradley Gates of Wild Boar Farms, is the best I’ve tasted so far. My friend Wendy, to whom I gave a plant, reported that it was “early, prolific, very attractive, and excellent tasting.” It wasn’t prolific for me, but I have high hopes that it will be this year.

If you’re still not sure which tomatoes to plant this year, you may want to also consult my Tomato Reports from 2012 and 2009-11.

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No-Cooking, No-Canning Black Currant Jam

raw black currant jamIn my intermittent effort to make space in my freezers, I was delighted to come upon a bag of black currants yesterday. Just the day before, while pruning my currant bushes, I’d been dazed by the musky fragrance of the wood—the same intoxicating fragrance that wafts from the fruit and leaves of the black currant.* (And perhaps most of all from the buds, for it’s the buds that the French collect for perfume.) And I’d suddenly realized that I’d neglected to make raw black currant jam last summer.

So I made some this morning, from my recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves: 

Raw Black Currant Jam 

¾ pounds fresh or thawed black currants, stemmed
1½ cups sugar

Briefly blend the currants and sugar in a food processor or blender. Pack the jam into a jar, and cap it tightly. Store the jar in the refrigerator. Makes 1 pint.

Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of sugar called for here unless you plan to eat up the jam quick or store it in the freezer. Provided the currants were free of mold when you picked them, the sugar will allow the jam to keep well—so well, in fact, that for me this jam keeps perfectly in the fridge for a year. And don’t assume the jam will be too sweet for your tastes. Currants are low in natural sugar, and the added sugar is well balanced by the currants’ high acid content.

If you taste the jam immediately, you’ll probably feel sugar grains on your tongue. That’s OK—the sugar will soon dissolve. And although the jam may already seem thick enough to spread on toast, it will thicken more in the fridge, though it will never jell hard, as cooked black currant jam does.

*I mean Ribes nigrum, the European and Asian black currant, which the French call cassis. The yellow-flowered, thicket-forming variety known as Crandall, which was selected from an American species, lacks the cassis aroma.

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Anise Hyssop in the Kitchen

anise hyssop 1My new darling of the herb garden, anise hyssop, is neither anise nor hyssop but a member of the mint family. You can tell this from the square stems and opposite leaves, but the scent might fool you. It’s a bit minty but even more licorice-like, with other, elusive characteristics. One nurseryman compared the aroma to that of root beer. My younger son is reminded of basil, but unlike basil anise hyssop tastes sweet, and to me it’s more refreshing than basil, in the way of wintergreen. The botanical name, Agastache foeniculum, tells you the plant is fennel-scented; it’s the fennel-scented member of a genus with a lot (agan) of wheat-like flower stalks (stachys).

Having decided to plant anise hyssop as a late nectar source for bees, I bought seeds from Nichols and easily sprouted them in the greenhouse last spring. Once I had set out the plants and they had grown a bit, I disregarded the bees and started picking the leaves and little lavender-blue flowers for my own use. Dried, they make a tasty and soothing herbal infusion. You can sprinkle the fresh flowers over a fruit salad, and the leaves are tender enough to add to a salad as well. Some people, I’ve read, use anise hyssop to flavor jelly, and others add the seeds to cookies and muffins.

Native to the upper Midwest and Great Plains, anise hyssop had medicinal uses for the tribes. Some found an infusion of the leaves good for colds and coughs. Others used the herb for bringing on sweat, as a wash for itchy skin rashes, or as a poultice for burns. Anise hyssop was also known as a cheering herb, a remedy for depression and anxiety.

Strangely, this plant gets scant recognition from cooks and herbalists in the Euro-American tradition. In fact, several of my herb books fail even to mention it. This may be because of its confusing popular name, but more likely because neither this species nor any other in its genus is native to Europe. One species, A. rugosa, comes from eastern Asia. It is added to Korean pancakes and stews and is one of the fifty fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine; modern science has proven its antibacterial and antifungal properties. But all of the many other Agastache species are American. Together, the Agastache clan ranges from Mexico to Arctic Canada and from the West Coast to the East.

Ornamental gardeners have long loved these three- to six-foot herbaceous perennials, for their varied fragrances and bloom colors; for their eagerness to thrive, given sun and adequate drainage; and for their favor among bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. When I bought a pretty plant with tubular yellow flowers at a garden sale last fall, I looked at the label and thought, Agastache—the name sounds familiar. I’d acquired ‘Summer Glow,’ a sterile patented cultivar that sadly won’t self-seed. More recently I bought ‘Sangria,’ an A. mexicana cultivar with pink flowers and lemon-scented leaves. Another cultivar, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ is supposed to have bubble-gum-scented foliage! They are all cousins, I now know, of my sweet anise hyssop. Maybe I’ll plant my three Agastaches side by side, so I can easily compare their looks and aromas.

Flower gardeners and breeders have long admired the Agastache species. Perhaps it’s time for more food gardeners to take note?

Posted in Herbs, Wild foods | Tagged , | 6 Comments