leaves with seeds

Gardens: eat seeds and leaves

Even the tiniest urban garden or balcony can offer up a larder of edible treasures. One expert reveals her top easy-to-grow ingredients

Viola, pansy, beetroot and ewe’s curd salad. Photograph: Mark Diacono

Viola, pansy, beetroot and ewe’s curd salad. Photograph: Mark Diacono

Last modified on Tue 9 Jul 2019 09.39 BST

Several years ago, I bought a peach tree, anticipating fruit dripping with golden juice come summer. One or two reached a sort of ripeness at times, but even they didn’t taste of much.

I was on the verge of cutting the tree down when a friend mentioned that she’d read that the leaves themselves had a flavour. So when I got home, I boiled some into a hot, simple syrup. The strength of the sweet, almondy scent was astonishing and magical: here was a crop of flavour, not bulk, and there soon followed almond-flavoured liqueurs, panna cottas, rice puddings and ice-creams. The tree got a stay of execution, and the experience made me wonder what other garden produce holds similar hidden depths.

This, a lot of research later, is my selection of the leaves, petals and seeds that turn dishes from ordinary to mouthwatering.


Viola The sweet violet, Viola odorata, bucks the “pretty but flavourless” trend followed by most the spring flowers. Its flowers are strongly perfumed, and the flavour they impart is floral and almost cloyingly sweet. Violets like the same woodland spot as primulas, and look beautiful side by side with them, both in the garden and in the kitchen: they’ve long been used to make a syrup for cocktails, ice-cream, cakes and icing.

The rest of the violas and pansies have more of a savoury, vegetable taste to them, but they work well with both savoury and sweet dishes. Heartsease (Viola tricolor) has pretty little white, yellow and purple faces, and has been cultivated for medicinal uses for centuries.

Braised rainbow veg with nasturtium flower labneh. Photograph: Mark Diacono

Nasturtium Nasturtium flowers are peppery, sweet and crisp. The colours are dazzling in reds, oranges and yellows, and they look stunning in salads. They are annuals but great self-seeders, so you shouldn’t have to sow them more than once. They are sensitive to frost, so your first sowing should be in spring indoors. I like the dark red ‘Mahogany Jewel’, and the jumble of colours you get from a mix such as ‘Whirlybird Mixed’.


Turmeric Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has quickly leapt to the top of my list of must-have plants. You won’t grow anything much in the way of the root-like part (in fact, a rhizome) that you’d normally use in cooking, but you will get plenty of leaves, and these are something really special. They are traditionally used in a Goan dumpling dish called patholi, in which they’re wrapped around coconut and jaggery dumplings, then steamed. Do this once, and you will be hooked, not least because the scent that wafts through the house is truly beautiful, floral and citrussy, with a hint of spice. This flavour penetrates the dumplings, and can also be extracted by gently infusing the leaves in milk or syrup. It is hard to find turmeric plants, so I grow my own from rhizomes bought at a local Thai supermarket. They need warmth and plenty of time to sprout, and I have had best results by potting them up in compost and keeping them warm and moist in a heated propagator over several weeks. Thereafter, treat them as a houseplant, albeit one that has an annual summer holiday out in the garden.

Wasabi The fiery, swollen stems of the wasabi plant (Wasabia japonica) – the traditional accompaniment to the gentle mildness of a piece of sushi or sashimi – have been grown on the stream edges of Japanese mountains since time immemorial: they need these perfect conditions for the swollen stems to bulk up. In the likely event that you don’t have a well-shaded, clean-water stream, grow wasabi for its leaves alone. It fares very happily in a pot of soil or in the ground, and produce good-looking leaves in spring and autumn that turn yellow in the heat of summer and die down in winter. They taste much like wasabi itself, but sweeter and gentler, and make a beautiful salad leaf.

Coriander I used to curse coriander (Coriandrum sativum) for going to flower when I wanted it to produce big bunches of foliage – but that was before I started harvesting the unripe seed. Green coriander seed is soft and easy to bite into, its flavour is a cross between the citrussy, peppery and slightly soapy leaf and the warmer, nuttier, spicier dried seed. It can be eaten raw, sprinkled over bland dals or zingy Thai salads, on Asian seafood broths or blended into a fresh chutney. Light cooking makes its flavour gentler, in a naan bread or used as a final flourish in a stir-fry.

Coriander loves to bolt, so you will have no problem getting plants to produce seed. If you sow at the start of spring, the plants are likely to run to seed in summer, but only on puny plants. Better to sow in autumn and enjoy an autumn, winter and spring of leaves, before allowing these bigger plants to produce flower and seed the following summer. Harvest when green and use straight away.

Blackberry and hazelnut frangipane. Photograph: Mark Diacono

Hazelnut Harvesting hazelnuts is a game of hide and seek: you can see the clusters of nuts only from below, so to start picking you must get under the canopy and look up. Once they have matured, you can scrabble about on the floor where they have fallen, but you will want to harvest some in late summer and early autumn, when they are young and crunchy, before the shell has fully hardened. Use them in salads or just as a snack. Later on, they will harden and can be stored for toasting and chopping over warm salads of winter squash and bacon, or combining with chocolate in every possible way.

Viola, pansy, beetroot and ewe’s curd salad

This is viola in its savoury incarnation, looking pretty and purple among earthy beetroot, peppery rocket and tangy ewe’s curd. If you can’t get the curd, a soft, rindless goat’s cheese will do the job, too. Serves two.

3 beetroots, roasted until tender, cooled and skinned
1 handful each rocket and baby rainbow chard leaves, washed
150g ewe’s curd
1 small handful each violas and pansies
Cider vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Using a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the beetroots thinly and arrange on the plate with the leaves and generous spoonfuls of curd. Scatter the violas and pansies on top, then turn each face up. Sprinkle over a little vinegar and oil, season and serve.

Tempura wasabi with dipping sauce

Tempura wasabi with dipping sauce. Photograph: Mark Diacono

Annual herb leaves are hard to resist when they’re transformed into impressively spiky, crunchy versions of themselves, frozen in the moment. Use larger and older wasabi leaves for this dish, because they are stronger in taste than little ones, and the flavour is slightly dampened by the cooking. Serves four to six.

1 tsp salt
100g rice flour
175ml pale ale
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Wasabi leaves, a few per person

For the dipping sauce
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar

1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp caster sugar

Put the salt and flour in a large bowl whisk in the ale, then leave at room temperature for 10 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk all the ingredients for the dipping sauce.

Even the tiniest urban garden or balcony can offer up a larder of edible treasures. One expert reveals her top easy-to-grow ingredients

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About this book

A unique and beautiful children’s guide to the extraordinary world of plants, from the smallest seeds to the tallest trees.

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Customer Reviews


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