A Heat-Tolerant Leafy Green Vegetable Disguised as a Flower

A wonderful surprise for us in our 2014 trial garden was Jewels of Opar. Last spring, when I planted a couple of pinches of these tiny seeds in a flat in our greenhouse, I certainly didn’t imagine we would harvest enough seed to put it in our 2015 catalog. My plan was only to evaluate its taste, texture, yield, and other eating qualities, to save and test a bit of seed, and to decide if we wanted to grow a real seed crop of it in 2015.

Soon that little row of seedlings was spread out to cover two seedling flats.  When we were sure our spring frosts were over, we planted 15 bedfeet in our kitchen garden, and then another 30 bedfeet in our high tunnel. The plants started to flower before they got more than 2 inches wide, sending up tiny stalks with pink buds.  I worried that maybe the transplants had needed more care than I had given them, or that maybe something else had caused them to bolt early. I had no real need to worry.

From June until frost, our Jewels of Opar plants sent up panicle after panicle of tiny pink flowers without deadheading. It did well in full sun and in part shade.  In the late afternoons of July the flowers opened in impressive profusion and really did bring jewels to mind. And then I knew why this wonderful green leafy vegetable is better known to flower gardeners than to vegetable farmers.

Each panicle continued making new flowers and buds even as its earlier seeds matured.  The plants also continued sending up new flower panicles throughout the season.  They attracted bees and other pollinators.  The seed pods have a very attractive set of earth tones, and even after they are blackened by frost (as below right), the seed stalks could make a great addition to dried flower arrangements.

I tasted a few leaves as I transplanted the seedlings, and found the succulent greens surprisingly appealing.  It’s hard to find greens that both do well in the height of our summers and have an appealing taste and texture for eating raw in significant quantities. Lettuce requires extra care in summer.  Many succulents such as Malabar Spinach have a mucilaginous texture.  Jewels of Opar is a bit mucilaginous, but less so than Malabar Spinach, and much less so than okra. The small size of the leaves – up to about 4 inches long – was probably the most significant factor limiting my own consumption of this vegetable.

As it continued to flower, our Jewels of Opar also continued to taste good. If lettuces are allowed to flower, they become extremely bitter, so they get harvested long before that. When arugula, mustards, kales, and other plants in the brassica family go to flower, the leaves and stems become tougher, stronger-flavored, and, according to most Americans’ tastes, less palatable. But the leaves of Jewels of Opar remain tender and mild.  And after I cut the plants back in one section of the bed, they sent up a profusion of tender new shoots (below right).

Jewels of Opar often self-sows in gardens, coming up on its own in areas near where it’s been planted. For us, new self-sown seedlings were already coming up by early fall of 2014. Sometimes it even escapes and comes up year after year as a wild plant.  However, most gardeners don’t find it to be problematic even when it self-sows.  Extra seedlings are easy to pull up, and the seedlings that you decide to keep can be a great addition to your summer diet and your garden aesthetic.  Also, Jewels of Opar is listed as a native species in the Caribbean and parts of the Southeast US, which is an advantage if you want to attract native pollinators or if you want to grow native species for any other reason.

Click here to order Jewels of Opar seeds.

I turned the photo below into my personal e-mail backdrop.  Click here for a version large enough to do that.

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Garden Huckleberries: a Fabulous Fruit for Jam

If you want to make great jam, syrup, or pies from annual fruits that you can grow in your vegetable garden, you’ll love garden huckleberries.

We’re planning on starting our pepper crops any day now in Central Virginia, and soon we’ll be seeding other crops in the same family in our greenhouse for later transplanting.  We’ll include several dozen kinds of tomatoes, a few kinds of eggplants, and also a few little-known crops like ground cherries, tomatillos, poha berries, and garden huckleberries, starting and transplanting them along with our tomatoes.

Tomato, pepper, eggplant, and ground cherry seedlings in our greenhouse - all in the same family as garden huckleberry

We grew garden huckleberries for the first time in 2013.  I planted a couple of plants to decide whether we’d want to sell the seeds. The plants were severely attacked by flea beetles but nevertheless bore a heavy crop of easy-to-pick berries that ripened from green to shiny black to dull black.

Ira did some research and decided to make jam, despite the complete lack of sweetness of the berries themselves.  But Ira is very busy, and a couple of weeks went by between the harvest of the berries and the making of the jam.  We were impressed by how well the berries held up.

For every 6 pints of berries, Ira used 4 cups of sugar, a dash of lemon juice, and one box of low-sugar pectin. The jam tasted great – not quite like blueberry jam, but similar enough that, with its dark color, some of our housemates initially thought that was what they were eating.

In 2014, I planted eight garden huckleberry plants with the idea that we could decide later whether to harvest for jam or for seeds or try to do both.  When fall came and the berries were turning black, we had a brief moment of worry when we realized that I really wanted to save seeds for sale and Ira really wanted to make jam.

As it turned out, our eight plants gave us enough berries for a few dozen quarts of jam and enough seed to fill several hundred packets.  We didn’t strain the seeds out of the jam, nor have we found them noticeable.  The berries keep so well both on and off the plants that we got all of our seeds and all of our jam from two harvests.  We could have even done it with one harvest if we’d wanted to.

While the blueberry bushes on our farm are growing to fruit-bearing size, I think we’ll plant garden huckleberry every year (even when we don’t need to grow a seed crop of it) so that we can make jam from the berries.  Even when the blueberry bushes start bearing heavily, we’ll have to hope that the birds in our area don’t devour them before we do, and we might have to protect the bushes with netting.  On the other hand, I’ve already seen our masses of garden huckleberries ripen untouched by birds and other wild animals.  Like us, the critters don’t want these berries in their raw, unsweetened state.

Garden huckleberry is closely related to Black Nightshade.  And the leaves and berries of Black Nightshade may sometimes be poisonous, though they have also been cooked and eaten for centuries — and in diverse cuisines.  But to be on the safe side, in the case of black nightshade, I think it is best that we eat only strains that we know to be safe, and only when they’ve been harvested and prepared in a way that we know to be safe.

In the case of garden huckleberry, I have personally bitten into and tasted quite a few of the raw berries, with no ill effect, but to err on the side of safety, I think it best that we eat only the cooked ripe berries.

Click here to order Garden Huckleberry seeds.

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Growing Rhubarb from Seed

by Ira Wallace

Many gardeners are familiar with growing rhubarb from divisions or crowns, but if you want to start a large rhubarb patch quickly, without spending a lot, growing rhubarb from seed is the answer. The stems of rhubarb grown from seed will not all have that intense red color you might be used to. Some stems will be red, some green, and some in between. But they will all taste the same, perfect for your home-cooked pie. If you want all red stalks, get divisions from a friend or neighbor or buy crowns from your local nursery.

When starting your seeds, remember that rhubarb is a cool-weather crop.

  • In climate zones 6 and cooler, it’s an easy-to-grow perennial (traditionally planted where there used to be an outdoor privy). The stalks and leaves die back with first frost in the fall, but the plants will come right back in early spring.
  • In zones 7 to 8, growing rhubarb is tricky. but it can be grown as a short lived perennial. You will need to be careful to shelter your rhubarb plants from extreme summer heat. Choose a location with afternoon shade in the summer. The north side of a grape arbor, raspberry patch, or asparagus ferns would work well.
  • In areas with very hot summers, where winters are mild (zones 9 to 10), rhubarb can be grown from seed as a winter annual. ECHO ("Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization") in Florida has had good luck with planting rhubarb seed in August and harvesting in March-May. The variety Victoria is noted as a productive late summer/early fall started annual from almost subtropical Florida to semi-arid northeast Texas. Read how to do this in “Growing Rhubarb from Seed as an Annual” below.

Starting Rhubarb Seeds

Rhubarb seeds are encased in a large paper-like shell. To speed germination, soak your seeds in water for 1-2 hours before planting. If you’re starting indoors, plant the seeds in screened compost or other suitable organic planting mixture, 2 seeds per 2 to 3 inch pot. Using peat pots or cow pots makes transplanting easier. For spring plantings a heating cable or mat will speed the germination if the room temperature is below 70°F. Rhubarb seeds germinate quickly when planted in the warmth of late August or early September. Keep your seedlings evenly moist but don’t over-water (the seedlings can die from root rot if the ground is too wet).

Growing Rhubarb from Seed as a Perennial

To start rhubarb in the spring (zones 8 and lower), sow seed in pots or flats under cover 8-10 weeks before your average last frost. Transplant the young plants out into the garden about two weeks before your average last frost, into an area amended with compost or well rotted manure and plenty of organic matter. The plants should be about 4 inches tall. Mulch your seedlings to maintain even soil moisture and keep the roots cool. Harden plants off before transplanting or protect the new transplants with row cover until danger of frost has passed.

Choose a location protected from the heat. The warmer your climate, the more important it is to provide afternoon shade (on the west and south) during the hottest months. A row of tall annual plants (your late summer tomatoes or pole lima beans), shade cloth, or a temporary structure can provide adequate shade that you can remove when the weather cools. Always remember to maintain even moisture. Letting your young rhubarb plants dry out in hot weather is the kiss of death.

Growing Rhubarb from Seed as an Annual

To grow rhubarb as an annual in the fall and winter (zones 9 and higher), start the seeds in a cool location (a bright indoor spot or a shady outdoor place) from late August to early October. Transplant into the garden when the seedlings reach about 4 inches tall. The plants will be ready for harvest in March through early May. Intense summer heat will kill the plants, so harvest all the leaves in late spring. This technique only works where winters are very mild, or if you can protect the plants from damaging frost with a cold frame or row cover.

Harvesting Rhubarb

Harvest rhubarb either by cutting or pulling off the leaf stalks at soil level. When your plants have 10 stalks you can harvest 3 or 4 stems at a time per plant.  If you are growing your rhubarb as an annual harvest the entire plant. Harvest stalks only! DO NOT eat the rhubarb leaves as they contain high levels of toxic oxalic acid.

For perennial plantings let some leaves remain on the plants during summer to generate energy and reserves for the following year. We recommend harvesting a few stems at a time, in spring and fall only. It’s best not to stress the plants during the summer, so avoid harvesting at this time. Frost will kill all the leaves, so harvest all the leaves when frost threatens in the fall.

Break off and discard any flowering stalks at ground level. (The flowering stalks don’t make good eating, and breaking them off prevents the plant from putting energy into flowers and seeds.)

It’s best not to harvest during the first year if you are establishing a perennial bed. For annual beds, harvest all remaining stalks when the weather begins to get too hot in the summer.

Ira Wallace lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where she coordinates variety selection and seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and is a frequent presenter at the Mother Earth News Fairs and many other events throughout the Southeast. Her first book, “The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast,” is available online and at booksellers everywhere.

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