June 27, 2012
The spectacular beauty of the Japanese spring forest in flower has given way to a million shades of green. And from within the folds of lush green foliage the early summer fruits call. Breakfasts are no longer cooked but simply plucked.
Momijiichigo (Rubus palmatus var. coptophyllus) appears first. Golden yellow berries hidden under the leaves which give this plant its name, “maple leaved berry.” In the Rubus genus and thus related to raspberries and blackberries (there are at least 43 species in the Rubus genus growing wild in Japan, all edible!). When thickets are dense, canes scrambling over each other, the berries are generally small and few in number. At the edges, canes reaching upwards and into surrounding vegetation, larger berries may be found in greater numbers. But all too fleetingly.
The next to appear is kuwa (Mulberry, Morus spp.). Watching closely the slow transformation from hard tart red berries to delicious soft sweet black berries. The first few that ripen are never as good as what is to come but do an excellent job of whetting the appetite. Over the weeks the light smattering of berries turns into a downpour. The use of mulberry leaves for feeding silkworms has left a blessed legacy of mulberries everywhere! The road down to the village turns black at this time of year as the soft ripe fruits fall from overhanging trees.
The fruit and bark of Morus alba (the preferred species for feeding silkworms, commonly called white mulberry – a name that does not refer to the fruit colour for its fruits are usually black when ripe) has long been used in Chinese medicine (constipation, diabetes, coughs, edema, fever, headaches, sore eyes, anti-bacterial, blood tonic) and now elicits much interest amongst modern medical researchers (anti-microbial activity against carcinogenic bacteria, anti-oxidant, neuroprotective, treatment of gout, food supplement for diabetics). Often referred to as “super-foods” (aren’t all natural foods super?) dried mulberries sell for premium prices in health food stores around the world. Of course, one of the underlying themes of this blog is that it is precisely by not being part of the planetary-work-machine that we access the good things in life. As I said, there are mulberries everywhere. Squashed in to the road by cars carrying workers.
Hot on the heels of kuwa we have biwa (loquat, Eriobotrya japonica). Also with a long and illustrious history of use in traditional east Asian medicine. Prized for its efficacy in healing a great variety of ailments, loquat was once a common planting on temple grounds in Japan serving as a sort of living community apothecary. Widely cultivated in Japan for at least the past one thousand years the tree was probably introduced from south-eastern China a lot earlier, finding its place amongst the forest mantle where it continues its wild existence today.
Monkeys love loquats and will patiently keep an eye on trees until the fruits are perfectly ripe (see my post Monkeys at 5). When golden-yellow, at their most succulent and sweet the monkeys will swoop down from the forest and gorge themselves. A small band of monkeys will ravage a whole tree in a matter of minutes – so you may have some stiff competition. (Deer also like loquats a lot but not being such great tree climbers will only browse low hanging fruit.)
If you gather a lot of loquats at one time you might try making some loquat wine, vinegar, or jam. Keep the seeds to make a medicinal tincture (see below). If you’re not interested in making a tincture from the seeds then toss them around in places where young seedlings are unlikely to be cut in the vegetation mowing frenzy that grips rural Japan in the summer months. The edges of forests, abandoned farm land, in thickets of pioneer plants, around established trees etc. Loquats grow easily from seed (although not true to type – not so good if you’ve only got space for one tree in a small yard but a very good trait for continued vigour in the wild) and, as they offer medicine particularly needed in these times we would do well to encourage them. Loquats everywhere!
In Japanese folk medicine loquat fruit, seeds and leaves have long been used in the treatment of a wide range of disorders including the treatment of cancers. Unsurprisingly, modern research has found that the various parts of the plant contain many chemicals of great benefit in overcoming cancer. The activities of these chemicals include:
Apoptotic (selectively programs cancer cells to die)
Protease inhibitor (inhibits tumour growth, possibly killing tumors)
For a complete list of loquats known chemical constituents, activities and ethnobotanical uses see James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases.
The fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants so simply eating the fruit in season will help maintain good health. As the Chinese say “A person is not sick because they have an illness, they have an illness because they are sick.” The seeds are usually used in the form of a tincture (steeped in alcohol). Simply fill a jar with fresh loquat seeds (some sources recommend cutting the seeds in halves or quarters while others use the seeds whole) and cover with white liquor such as vodka or shõchu (30 – 35% alcohol by volume). Ideally the seeds should steep in the alcohol for one year before use. This can be taken internally or used externally. As a treatment drinking a small amount (15 – 20mls) daily is often recommended. It tastes pretty good so even if not being used to treat a specific problem a glass now and then goes down a treat (I am enjoying a little nip of medicine as I write). Externally, apply the tincture to bruises or sore areas, burns, scars, bites etc.
The leaves are the most commonly used part of the loquat plant for medicinal purposes. In moxabustion a burning stick or cone made of ground mugwort (yomogi, Artemisia vulgaris) is pressed into a loquat leaf laid against the skin. Even without the moxa stick the leaf can be used for many complaints simply by laying it against the skin (shiny side in contact with the skin) and applying a little heat, from a container filled with hot water, for example or, just letting your own body heat do the work. Use the leaves in this way for the treatment of internal problems. For example, leaves laid against the kidneys can help relieve urinary tract infections, leaves placed over the eyes or on the forehead can relieve sore eyes and headaches.
Another great way to use the leaves, both as a regular tonic and as a specific treatment, is in the form of an infusion or tea. The two most common ways of producing loquat “tea” are the simple drying of leaves or fermenting slightly before drying. Use older leaves as the young leaves contain small amounts of toxins. They can be harvested at any time of the year although the preferred harvest time for leaves in Japan is mid-summer. To dry: wipe the leaves clean with a damp cloth and spread them out to dry slowly in shade. Leaves can be cut after cleaning to speed up drying although in very humid environments this may result in some fermentation. To ferment: chop the cleaned leaves roughly and leave sitting in a bowl covered with a clean cloth for two or three days before spreading out to dry in shade. The fermented leaves have a deeper more robust taste which I prefer as an everyday tea but for medicinal purposes either method is satisfactory – as is using fresh green leaves without any drying. If whole leaves have been dried crumble them in to the teapot before covering with hot water.
Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is yet another plant highly valued in Japan both as medicine and food. While it is usually the root of kudzu that receives the most attention all parts of the plant have their uses and at this time of year kudzu leaves are one of our main leafy green vegetables. The leaves are very nutritious with high antioxidant activity. Being a little on the tough side we usually cut the leaves into strips and boil them. Try kudzu leaves chopped and briefly boiled then sauté with cumin, garlic, salt and olive oil. The leaves are a little fuzzy but this fuzz wilts when cooked. To wilt the fuzz for eating the leaves raw dip them in boiling water for a second then dip in cold water. The tips of the vine can also be eaten either raw or cooked.
Another leaf we have been eating plentifully of this past month is tsubokusa (Centella asiatica). Back in May we had a visit from Ladia and Amy of Permaculture Perak in Malaysia and while we were out foraging for our dinner Ladia spotted a herb familiar from their tropical forest home. It was not one I recognized and neither the botanical name, Centella asiatica, nor the Malay or English common names, daun pegaga and Indian pennywort, rang any bells. It was only later when looking the plant up that I came across one name by which this plant is known of which I was very familiar. The name given this plant by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is gotu kola. Now, if you too are familiar with that name you are probably also aware that this is yet another highly considered medicinal plant. It is an important herb in traditional African and Chinese medicine as well as the Ayurvedic tradition.
When Ladia first spotted tsubokusa the plants seemed to be quite few and far between – we had difficulty finding enough to contribute much to the meal – but over the past month great patches of it have started to appear and one right at our front door! We have mostly been eating the young leaves and stems raw in salads although on occasion cooked – usually boiled or steamed briefly. But experimentation is called for. For inspiration we have the cuisines of India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam….
If you’re interested in the medicinal uses of this plant again I suggest looking at James Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. A search of the ethnobotanical uses will likely provide enough information. However, if you’re really interested you can then wade through the list of the hundreds of identified chemicals and their known activities.
Tsuyukusa “rainy season flower” (Commelina communis, Asiatic dayflower) is another green we eat often through the start of summer. The plant spreads horizontally growing close to the ground with upright tips. It will often be found on exposed soils such as cultivated garden beds. It likes sunny spots and often appears at forest edges and around paddies or other wet areas.
The leaves are smooth when stroked from the stem towards the leaf tip but raspy when stroked from tip towards stem, have parallel veins and are slightly mucilaginous. Pinch off the tips of the plant with young leaves, shoots, little blue flowers, and stalk and eat raw, lightly steamed or boiled.
Azami (Cirsium spinosum), or thistles, have all that spiny protection for a reason: to protect a soft succulent, nutritious and delicious stem. Cut the thistle a little above ground level (the lowest parts of the stem tend to be too tough and the bigger the plant the higher you may need to cut), then peel off the thick skin to get to the tender hollow stalk. The very outer layer of tough skin comes off easily but there is a second layer of fibrous skin that requires more patience to remove (food meditation). Once down to the soft stalk it can be eaten raw or cooked. Raw it has a really nice texture somewhere between a crunchy cucumber and celery.
The youngest leaves can also be eaten. At the very top of the stalk the leaves will likely contain no spines yet and can be eaten as is. A little lower down the spines, with cooking, will soften to become unnoticeable when eaten. Experience will teach you how low you can go. As far as I am aware all thistles (Carduus, Cirsium, and Onopordum spp.) are edible though the palatability of different species may vary widely. What I can say for sure is that Azami (Cirsium spinosum) is not only palatable but delicious. All parts of the plant are edible too and I will surely write about them when the time for harvesting comes around.
In my last post I talked about eating the young leaves of sanshõ. Right at the end of May we were also harvesting the immature seed pods for making sanshõ no tsukudani. They should be green and still relatively soft when squeezed. The immature seeds/pods, like the young leaves, are rather intense so a small quantity will go a long way. To make sanshõ no tsukudani: Boil the green sanshõ seed pods for a short time, remove from heat and leave to soak in the cooking water for a while. After soaking strain the seed pods and discard the cooking water, return to the pot and cover with soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking sake). Bring to a boil and simmer gently until until the liquid has almost completely evaporated. Refrigerated sanshõ no tsukudani should keep a long time.
Another seed we are currently gathering is shazenshi, the seeds of oobako (Plantago spp., plantain). Although small shazenshi can be gathered quite easily in quantity. Bend a mature seed stalk over a container holding seed stalk in place with the same hand that holds the container and with the fingers of your other hand gently comb or rub the stalk. All the mature seeds should drop easily from the stalk into the container. The seeds are easily winnowed by pouring between bowls in a moderate breeze. The chaff is soft so it is not even necessary to winnow thoroughly.
Being small seeds shazenshi will likely pass straight through the body if eaten raw so, to get the nutritional benefits of shazenshi they are best roasted a little, ground or baked – for example, added to flour when baking bread. The seeds are mucilaginous and can be used as a thickener for soups and stews. (The whole seed stalk and flowers can also be used for this purpose).
All parts of oobako (Plantago spp.) can be used medicinally and as food. The plant is astringent, demulcent, emollient, cooling, vulnerary, expectorant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antitoxin, and diuretic. I often use it on cuts to speed healing and prevent infection. Simply chew up a leaf or two and apply to the wound as a poultice. Probably also quite effective for treating sores, blisters, insect bites and stings, hemorrhoids, burns, rashes, skin irritations etc. The leaves have a delicious nutty flavour and are a great addition to salads. We eat them almost throughout the year but through May and June, as the seed stalks emerge and the seeds form and mature, the leaves become rather tough.
As always there are many other plants we have been gathering this month but I shall leave it at that for now. Food and medicine everywhere!