Unusual Vegetables – Mike Day

Picture1 (2)The wet and windy October night did not deter the vegetable growers in Biddenham who turned out in good numbers to hear Mike Day.  Mike grew up on a vegetable growing farm and after reading for a degree in agriculture spent 42 years at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge where he specialised in vegetables.  He is now a member of the RHS Vegetable Trials Panel and the RHS Trials Advisory Committee.  So who better to talk to us about unusual types of common vegetables, minor vegetables and oriental and overseas vegetables …

Mike began by illustrating the ways in which our common vegetables have evolved and developed over the years. Carrots, for example, come in a variety of shapes – some shapes are better for canning – when canning was important, round ones are easier to grow in heavier soil or in pots.  Mike gave examples of the change in the colour of carrots – the orange ones being the most recent introduction some 300-400 years ago.  Before that purple, red and yellow were more common.  Each colour has different properties in terms of nutrients and can be absorbed more easily when eaten cooked rather than raw.  Onions, on the other hand, are better eaten raw and the red onions have a milder flavour than the white, have been a big success and now constitute 20% of all onions sold.  Some vegetables can reach an enormous size and these tend to be grown for the processing industry, for example large cabbages are used in making sauerkraut or coleslaw on a commercial scale.  Size, taste, shape and colour are all characteristics which are trialled and assessed.  Vegetables will be recommended for health, performance and weather endurance.  Mike gave as an example lettuce.  The butter head was in vogue for many years, then the crisp head and latterly the lettuces which produce the leaves used in the processing trade for making up the bags of lettuce leaves which are now so popular.

Mike then went on to talk about minor vegetables.   He mentioned kohl rabi, mostly grown in Germany, kale and black cabbage which looks like kale but has a milder flavour.  The Americans use a lot of ornamental cabbages but these have now been crossed with edible varieties and will soon be appearing in the seed catalogues.  Mike went on to talk us through shallots, Egyptian tree onions and aerial onions which produce onion bulbs on the stem.  Various squashes were illustrated with information on those most flavoursome and easy to grow.  Mike mentioned again the salad packs – a big recent development and the fact that radicchio and chicory once thought too bitter are now included in the bags of leaves.  Mike showed many slides including globe and Jerusalem artichokes, cardoons, sweet potatoes, sea kale, okra, celery and celeriac.  Most of the vegetables were recognised by the audience but we were baffled by scorzonera which is like salsify and is known as the vegetable oyster.

Mike’s last section was on oriental vegetables. In the past he has travelled to China to collect vegetable seeds which have been trialled in this country and are now more familiar to us in Britain.  Chinese cabbage is a staple in China and can be eaten raw like lettuce or cooked like cabbage.  Pak choi and tat soi, again, can be eaten raw in a salad or stir fried, Komatsuna is like spinach, and kailaan is a broccoli eaten when in bud.  The mooli radish is known to us, but less familiar are burdock roots, used like a parsnip, the edible chrysanthemum – very hot and spicy and the stem lettuce grown, not for its leaves, but for its stem and eaten like a cucumber, and did you know that China produces 60% of all garlic in the world?

This was a fascinating talk and we learnt a lot from someone who is a real expert. Mike concluded by suggesting that whether we were growing, shopping or eating out we should be adventurous when it comes to vegetables and perhaps he has persuaded us.

A selection of Mike’s photographs : 

Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 18th November when Michael Abel will talk about Fruit Growing – Planting, Pruning and Caring for Fruit Trees.  We look forward to meeting new and established members on that evening.

Linda Truscott

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