The Asian spring crop, common as an ornamental plant in British gardens, has delicious leaves
Spring is in the air! But as any allotmenteer will know, the sad irony with seeing the first signs of new life burst forth is that it is usually one of the leanest months in the British veggie patch. Traditionally known as the “hungry gap”, this period describes the window where stocks of stored autumn and winter veg are running low, but the first spring crops have yet to mature. The term is used so widely to reflect the UK season of growing that you might think it was an inescapable reality of seasonal eating at our northern latitude. Yet in other temperate parts of the world that still eat a much broader range of traditional crops, such as east Asia, this period is not known as a time of leanness but a time of plenty.
As a greedy botanist fascinated with unusual edibles, what I have found most intriguing is that many of these prized Asian spring crops lead secret double lives as common ornamental plants in British gardens. Having munched my way through my fair share, both when travelling to their countries of origin and in my own back garden experiments, I would say that above all my favourite all-rounder has to be the Chinese cedar, Toona sinensis. It is lovingly referred to in Mandarin as xiang chun or “fragrant springtime”, and the young leaves of this stately tree have a deliciously warm, rich flavour and a distinctly bold onion-like aroma. In fact, for those unfamiliar with the plant, it is surprising just how “meaty” or “savoury” a leaf can taste. It’s a world away from the generic “green” or “leafy” flavour of the plethora of other veg that are almost interchangeable with kale or spinach. One of my mates, having been invited to taste the foliage, really hit the nail on the head when he came out with: “Wow! Beef-flavoured crisps!”