July 23, 2013

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

‘Tis the season for yamamomo (Myrica rubra), variously known to the English-speaking world as Chinese or Japanese bayberry, red bayberry, yumberry, Asian bog myrtle, Chinese strawberry tree or waxberry. Of these last two names the former comes from a resemblance to the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and the latter because the fruit of other myrica species is coated in wax (from which candles can be made) and therefore they are known as wax myrtles or wax berries. However, despite sometimes being referred to as waxberry, the fruit of M. rubra does not have a waxy coating. A friend who lives without electricity (and thus always interested in potential sources of candle wax) has been wholly unsuccessful, despite her best attempts, in extracting any wax from M. rubra.

The Japanese name, yamamomo (山桃), means ‘mountain (yama 山) peach (momo 桃)’ although there is nothing very peach-like about the fruits of yamamomo. But then neither is there much peach-like about the native plums which are called sumomo (which once meant vinegar, or sour, (su 酸) peach (momo 桃)[1], although in contemporary Japanese sumomo is usually written 李 which obfuscates this older meaning). As far as I can see the only thing these other momo’s have in common with peaches is that they are round, stone fruits and usually red-ish.

The fruits of yamamomo are about 1.5 – 2 cm’s in diameter (there are cultivated varieties that have larger fruits however, according to local growers, the fruit is easily damaged by inclement weather at harvest time). The fruits grow in clusters and are dark red to purple when ripe. The tree is evergreen with leathery leaves and grey bark, reaching heights of 15 metres. It grows on forested mountain slopes (100 – 1500 metres) throughout southern China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Philippines…[2]

yamamomo ​(​Myrica rubra)

The fruits are refreshingly tart and may be eaten fresh though often they are served in a sweet syrup. They also make wonderful wine (and if you can make wine you can, of course, make vinegar too). In both China and Japan they are used to make a medicinal liquor (steeped  in báijiǔ in China and shōchū in Japan). See recipes below.

I have been told that, in the past, the seeds of yamamomo were also eaten in Japan. The seeds are “stones” like those of plums — although rather small they are very hard. I am yet to find out exactly how the seeds were rendered edible but I will surely update this post when I do.

The traditional medicinal uses of M. rubra by the peoples of east Asia include as an antidote for arsenic poisoning, a carminative, an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, dyspesia, nausea, excessive perspiration, psoriasis, and in the treatment of wounds, ulcers and sores.[3]

For the treatment of arsenic poisoning, wounds, sores and skin diseases a decoction of the stem bark is applied externally.[4]

The leaves have long been known to practitioners of Chinese medicine to be anti-inflammatory and recent studies have shown the juice of the fruits is also anti-inflammatory and effective in the treatment of ulcers.[5, 6]


Yamamomo in syrup

yamamomo in syrupThe few recipes for sweetened yamamomo that I have seen recommended cooking the fruit for 5 – 10 minutes in the syrup but I find this makes the fruit too mushy and it loses its wonderful tart edge. They also recommended an equal weight of sugar to that of the fruit – I say half that amount of sugar is plenty. I suspect these people don’t even like yamamomo!

  1. Soak yamamomo in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. This is to remove insects of which there are usually plenty.
  2. Bring sugar (half the weight of the fruit) to a boil in enough water to cover the fruit.
  3. Add the fruit and boil for just a couple of minutes.
  4. Put the fruit in jars and cover completely with the the syrup and screw on lids.

After about 24 hours they should be ready. Kept in a cool place they should keep for a month. If, once filled and capped, the jars are covered with hot water and boiled for 20 – 30 minutes the fruit should keep for up to a year. For more on processing for long term storage see here. I have attempted a batch with raw fruit — the yamamomo was not placed in the boiling syrup but directly in the jars and the hot syrup poured over the fruit — however, it started to ferment within a few days. Still tasted great though.

After finishing the fruit the syrup is used to make a very pleasant summer drink. Pour a little in the bottom of a glass and fill with cold water.


Yamamomo Wine

Yamamomo wineYamamomo fruits are coated in wild yeasts which, if treated right, will happily make alcohol for you. And they’re so easy to please! Place the fruit in sugary water and stir often. As simple as that. How much sugar you use will affect the vigour and length of fermentation and thus the strength (alcohol content) of your brew. For a strong wine, use more. For 2kg of yamamomo I use about 1.25 kg’s of sugar. To make a simple “country wine” to be consumed “green”: [7]

  1.  Do not wash the yamamomo. You want to keep all the wild yeast on the fruit. Yes, there probably will be many tiny insects in the fruit but these will be strained out later. Place the fruit in the bottom of a container – a food grade plastic bucket or large glass jar will do nicely.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in enough cold water to generously cover the fruit (5 to 10 cm’s is good). Pour this mixture over the fruit in the bucket.
  3. Stir. And stir often. The more you can stir your potion the better. I stir my concoctions anywhere from 6 to 10 times a day. At a minimum give it at least four good stirrings every day.Making yamamomo wine
  4. Between stirring keep your bucket covered with a lid, cloth or anything else that keeps flies and dust out.
  5. After a day or two you should see bubbles or froth forming on the top of the liquid. Keep up the daily stirrings until the froth begins to lessen – hopefully this will take a couple of weeks.
  6. When fermentation does begin to subside strain in to bottles and enjoy.


Yamamomo vinegar

Vinegar is essentially wine that has been overexposed to oxygen. Once the yeasts that converted the sugars to alcohol have begun to lose steam through lack of food acetobacter (acetic-acid-producing bacteria who were always present but until now held in check by the vigour of the yeasts) begin to dominate. It is acetobacter that will turn your wine in to vinegar.

So, to make vinegar follow the wine making steps listed above but rather than bottling the finished wine strain it into another wide mouthed container and keep covered with a cloth. Taste regularly and when it reaches the desired acidity (when it tastes like vinegar) bottle and cap. A vinegar ‘mother’ may have formed on top which you’ll need to remove before bottling. But don’t discard this. You can eat it, feed to it to your chickens or compost it.


Yamamomo Koubo

Given that yamamomo is abundantly covered in wild yeasts (kõbo) it can also be used as a yeast source for bread (and probably beer too). Place some fruit in a jar, cover with water and add some honey or sugar. Stir or shake the jar often (if shaking release pressure by opening the lid after shaking). When it begins to bubble vigorously it is ready to use. For bread, just add some of the liquid to your dough mix. A little experimentation may be needed to get the amount right.


Yamamomo shochu

yamamomo (Myrica rubra) ShochuSimply steep yamamomo in liquor for a month or more. Here in Japan shōchū is typically used, in China it is báijiǔ and in Korea soju. These are all white liquors usually ranging from around 35 – 60% alcohol by volume. Vodka would be an obvious substitute. If you’re concerned about little insects in your alcohol soak the fruit in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. Place the fruit in a jar and cover with liquor of your choice.

If your focus is on extracting the medicinal qualities of yamamomo then what you are making is a tincture. Fill your jar with as much fruit as possible before adding the liquor. Let it sit for at least one month and keep it out of direct sunlight. Shaking it around a bit from time to time is not a bad idea either.

If, on the other hand, you just want to flavour some liquor for drinking then less fruit/more liquor can be used.



1. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/スモモ. Accessed 7/19/2013.

2. Flora of China Vol. 4. Available online at efloras.org. Accessed 7/20/2013.

3. Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Accessed 7/23/2013.

4. Plants for a Future, Myrica rubra. Accessed 7/23/2013.

5. Wang, S.J., et al., ‘Anti-inflammatory activity of myricetin isolated from Myrica rubra leaves.’ Planta Med 76(14), October 2010.

6. Alajmi et al., ‘Some pharmacological actions of Myrica rubra.’ African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Vol. 7(9), 8 March, 2013. PDF from Academicjournals.org. Accessed 7/23/2013.

7. For more on making country wines (or any other fermentation technique for that matter) see Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green, 2012.


On the Road

January 3, 2013

Well look at that…The end of the world has come and gone (again) and we’re all still here! With the latest apocalypse/salvation distraction behind us we’re back to the reality of the slow catastrophe daily unfolding and the responsibility for doing something about it.

While the Japanese have just voted in a right-wing, pro-nuclear nationalist “strong leader” to end their woes (not that there was much of a choice – being a modern democracy an’ all) Asako and I have a different idea. In January we’re hitting the road (well, the tracks actually) to propagandize the people and hopefully inspire a little action.


During January 2013 we will be giving presenations in Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Tokyo about our life and work at Shikigami. Through photographs and stories we will discuss our approach to permaculture, deep ecology, forest gardening and gift economics.

Hamamatsu Wednesday January 9, 13:30. Payaka: 4-19-12 Kamoe, Naka Ward, Hamamatsu Permaculture Chubu, Hamamatsu

Nagoya Sunday January 13, 14:00. Tokurinji: Aioi-28-341 Tenpakucho Oaza Nonami, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya Permaculture Chubu, Nagoya

Tokyo Friday January 18, 19:30. One Kitchen: 3-26 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


1月9日(水) 13:30 Payaka(パヤカ) 静岡県浜松市中区鴨江4-19-12  詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月13日(日) 14:00 徳林寺(本堂裏のギャラリー・ハスタクティ1Fにて)  愛知県名古屋市天白区天白町大字野並相生28-341 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月18日(金)19:30 One Kitchen  東京都新宿区 荒木町3−26 サウスウィング荒木町2F奥



November 20, 2012

The end of November is fast approaching and I have a post that I began back in September still in front of me. Sorry to those who have been following the ‘monthly’ report on the wild foods we are foraging. Better late than never, right? Unfortunately, attempting to document our wild diet has come at the expense of writing about anything else. And even then I am barely scratching the surface of our foraging adventures or doing justice to the particular plants of which there is so much more to say. So, following this post I think it will be time for a change in approach. Naturally I will continue to write about wild foods but I will put them back in to the larger context of life at Shikigami.

September saw us looking skyward. The first notes of the mountains autumnal song falling from wild cherry. A welcome fall in temperature too after the long, hot and humid summer. September skies also bring the manna, the kuri, the chestnuts! Like the first irregular raindrops of a coming downpour one or two chestnuts begin falling here and there. Day by day the frequency increases, the nuts get bigger, hitting the earth now with a deep thud and then…the heavens open.

kurinoki_japanese cestnut

Kuri (Castanea crenata), a native of the Japanese forests, in its true wild form is known as yamaguri or mountain chestnut. It was a staple food of the Jōmon (14,000 BCE to 300 BCE) and is still plentiful throughout Japan’s mountainous forests. Yamaguri wood was prized by charcoal makers who maintained extensive coppice woodlands in the mountains until the early 20th Century. In some areas charcoal production continued for much longer (on a very small scale until the present even)  and as yamaguri logs were also used for growing shiitake mushrooms many remnant coppices are still marginally maintained or only recently abandoned. Charcoal production was the primary occupation in the forests surrounding Shikigami hence, we have yamaguri in abundance.

But I get ahead of myself. The wild yamaguri offers up its sweet nourishing nuts last of all. Before the yamaguri we have close to two months of offerings from all the cultivated varieties that are grown in Japan. The sweet nuts of the earliest varieties begin falling around early September and for the remainder of the month and in to October we have the mid and late varieties. Two months of continuous chestnuts! These varieties have been cultivated not only to extend the harvest season but also to increase the size of individual nuts some of which are truly enormous. (The yamaguri nuts might be much smaller but they are exquisitely delicious.) Kuri have been widely planted across Japan and there are many abandoned groves waiting for the wandering forager or minimally maintained groves for the gleaner.

kuri_chestnutsWhat do we do with all these chestnuts? We give away a lot. The chestnut is still a highly regarded seasonal food in Japan and gifts of kuri are always welcome. We dry a lot. By sun drying the kuri we can preserve them for up to a year and they make a wonderful addition to winter soups. We also make shibukawani (chestnuts preserved in a sweet syrup that make for a delicious snack and also will keep for a year or longer) and marron glacé (mouth-watering chestnut sweets of French and northern Italian origin). And we eat generous amounts throughout the season either boiled, roasted or as kurigohan (chestnuts cooked with rice).


Drying Chestnuts

We dry our chestnuts with the tough outer skins on. Peeling dried chestnuts is not so different from peeling fresh ones – a slow process – so better to be peeling small quantities as the nuts are needed rather than devoting a whole day(s) to peeling. The nuts are also likely to keep a lot better wrapped in their thick outer skins.

Pick nice large plump chestnuts without any obvious damage or worm holes.

Place in a bucket and cover with water. Remove any that float. Add a few drops of vinegar and soak the chestnuts in this solution for a couple of days. This should take care of any larvae inside the nut. The first year we dried chestnuts half of them were soaked in the water/vinegar solution and the other half not. We had to throw away almost all of the latter group because of worm infestation while we got to eat all of the soaked chestnuts.

Drain and lay in the sun to dry. It takes time so it’s a good idea to do this when a good long spell of sunny days is likely. When done the chestnuts should be hard, shrunken and thus separated from the outer skin.


Inubiwa (Ficus erecta)

Don’t be mislead by the Japanese folk name for this fruit –  Inu (dog) biwa (loquat) – for it is a wild fig bearing no resemblance in look or taste to either the loquat tree or fruit. The tree itself doesn’t look much like the common edible figs either, at least not the leaves, but outwardly the fruits certainly resemble small figs and split one open and the resemblance is unmistakable. When the Japanese folk name for a plant refers to an animal it usually indicates the plant is not highly regarded as a human food source – food only fit for dogs – but these plants have been important food sources in Japan at one time or another and the Japanese are some of the fussiest eaters around!

Tasting a single fruit you might agree that this fruit does not have the characteristics humans usually enjoy in fruit – sweetness or strong flavour, for example – but taste another…and another. Have a whole handful. Inubiwa is a lucky dip. One in five might be rather bland – but that leaves four out of five which, sufficiently ripe are sweet and juicy with a definite fig flavour. (Sufficiently ripe: a deep purple plump fruit. In the picture below the fruit on the left looks about just right while the one on the right has a while to go yet).

Sitting under a streamside tree enjoying a bowlful of inubiwa with friends we speculated on the potential of the inubiwa as a dried fruit. The consensus was that it would probably make a fine dried fruit as the drying would likely concentrate the sugars and intensify the flavour and, small as they are, it would be well worth experimenting with. As would cooking lightly, mashing and making fruit leathers. As this conversation went on one or another of us would return to the inubiwa tree and refill our bowl. After our third bowl, concluding that indeed the inubiwa would likely make a fine dried fruit, there were no fruits left on the tree to harvest for our experiment! But we have been given a second chance for the inubiwa here seems to be fruiting in waves. There was a first flush beginning some three weeks ago [early September] and now the trees are covered in green immature fruits once again.

Kitsunenogoma (Justicia procumbens) is a very common plant in Japan. At Shikigami it is one of the dominant wild plants of the clearings from August through October. It will often be found in disturbed, fertile areas – carefully manicured gardens, for example.

Kitsunenogoma means fox’s sesame. Again the folk name tells us that this plant has been known as a food plant although not a highly prized one, or, at least, not as highly prized as sesame (by those who bestowed this name on the plant – I do find it curious that the common name for this plant does not reflect its long history of use in Japanese folk medicine). Indeed, the seeds of kitsunenogoma can be eaten but it would seem their traditional use has been a little different from that of sesame seeds for the seeds of kitsunenogoma, according to Tanaka’s Cyclopedia of Edible Plants of the World, are cooked and usually made into a flour. But September, is not the month for gathering and eating the fox’s sesame seeds – here they look to be some weeks away yet – nor is it the time to gather the leaves which can also be eaten – by this time the leaves are a little too tough. Young leaves gathered when the plant first begins emerging are preferable and can be boiled or steamed or eaten raw. However, now is the time to harvest the wonderful kitsunenogoma for its medicine.

kitsunenogoma (Justicia procumbens)

We take the medicine of kitsunenogoma in two ways: internally, we drink water infused with the herb and externally, we bath in water infused with the herb. The folk uses of the fox’s sesame include the treatment of muscle aches, lower back aches (lumbago), nerve aches, arthritis and rheumatism – hence, bathing in a hot steaming infusion. Also traditionally used in Japan for colds, coughs, fevers and sore throats – drinking a hot steaming infusion! In India Justicia procumbens is used in the treatment of opthalmia or, inflammation of the eyes. Here the juice of the leaves is applied directly to the afflicted eye. In China the plant has long been recognized as alterative, anodyne, carminative, expectorant, diaphoretic, diuretic and laxative. In addition to the traditional uses found in Japan and India, in Chinese medicine the herb is used in the treatment of asthma, boils, cankers, swelling, intestinal worms, wasting diseases (marasmus), and for stimulation of the qi and circulatory system. Kitsunenogoma is yet another plant currently being researched for its anti-cancer properties. I wonder if any of those white-coated types will ever research the connection between cancers and our (self)exile from the green world.

Gobō (burdock, Arctium lappa), another superb medicinal food, is now largely considered to be a uniquely Japanese and Korean culinary delight but was also once – and not that long ago – widely eaten in Europe. The long tap roots of gobō are deeply nourishing, packed with minerals and vitamins and phytochemicals that help the body absorb all of the goodness. Gobō’s thick tap root penetrating deeply the good earth is indeed a deep earthy food. 

Being so treasured in Japan gobō has been afforded a special place as a pampered and cultivated garden crop but through the process of domestication the plant has remained close to its wild roots – one of those plants that will never let itself be truly domesticated. Yet still, we prefer wild plants, plants growing where they choose, when they choose. Gobō is a tough and persistent character so if you don’t have it growing wild near by plant some seeds, let it grow for its two-year life cycle until it sets its own seed then let its velcro-like burs (burdock burs were, in fact, the inspiration for velcro) carry the seed to a pleasing location and watch gobō go.

We are yet to harvest the roots of gobō this year. We prefer to wait well into late autumn to get the root at its largest although some folks, harvesting primarily for medicinal purposes, recommend digging up the roots from mid to late summer. During September we harvest the seeds for food/medicine and have also had occasion to use the leaves medicinally. The seeds of gobō are edible, nourishing and medicinal. As a biennial it is best to harvest the root of gobō towards the end of its first year. By the second year, as the energy shifts to the setting of seed, the root will be too fibrous for eating. So, eat the seed instead!

In The Book of Herbal Wisdom Turtle Island herbalist Matthew Wood, speaking of burdock, tells us that “the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste products towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” The seeds have also long been used to reverse “unnatural” hair loss – the hair having an important relationship with the skin, the skin manifesting waste products inadequately processed by the kidneys. But Wood points out that the seeds are associated with the liver also, acting “on an overfull liver, which is incapable of handling all the waste products sent its way for processing.” The seeds are pungent and slightly bitter. We eat a few raw seeds everyday but they can also be added to other foods and, if not being used primarily for their medicinal qualities, roasted or cooked in any fashion.

On a recent visit to Turtle Island Asako came in contact with poison ivy and a couple of days after her return to Japan broke out in terrible blistering sores. Making decoctions from gobō leaves we swabbed the sores and kept her arms wrapped in whole gobō leaves while she slept. This treatment certainly seemed to help speed the process of eliminating the toxins through the skin, drawing out the poison, and assisting in a speedy recovery.

Last but not least this month we have mukago (Dioscorea japonica). Mukago are the aerial tubers of the plant Discorea japonica, known to the English speaking world as Japanese yam and to the Japanese as Yamaimo (mountain potato). Discorea species are true yams – unlike the ‘yams’ of Aotearoa/New Zealand which are actually oca (Oxalis tuberosa) or the ‘yams’ of North America which are really sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas). Yamaimo may be best known and most widely appreciated for their delicious underground tubers but the aerial tubers are a fine wild food in their own right. And, while it takes a good three or four years of growth for the underground tuber to reach a good size for harvesting the plant yearly produces loads of mukago. The mukago are the seed of the yamaimo so while harvesting take the time to press a few good looking mukago into the soil to ensure perpetual harvests.

The mukago have a texture a little like satoimo  (Japanese taro)  and are fantastic in miso soups or as mukagogohan (steamed with rice). They are small (up to 1cm diameter) so getting a decent harvest can be a slow and relaxing process – if you let it be. We have other species of Discorea at Shikigami both wild and introduced. One which grows wild looks very similar to the Discorea japonica and also produces aerial tubers the same size as mukago from the leaf axils but these tubers are extremely bitter. This species develops its aerial tubers a little earlier than Discorea japonica so, generally, by the time we begin harvesting mukago (late September/early October) the bitter ones have already fallen to the ground (whereas the mukago are still on the vines from which we harvest them). Another way we can tell the difference is that the bitter-aerial-tuber Discorea species’ leaves alternate from the vine whereas the leaves of Discorea japonica emerge from the vine as opposing pairs.

The air potato (Discorea bulbifera) is one we have introduced but as yet have not succeeded in growing it as a perennial – our winters are just a little too cold but by replanting in a slightly warmer micro-climate we may get there. You may be wondering, if it is not a wild food and not even a perennial why am I mentioning it? Just so I can show you a photo of the size difference between the aerial tubers of the Discorea bulbifera [left] and Discorea japonica. Air potatoes indeed!

air potato (Discorea bulbifera) and mukago (Discorea japonica)

Summer, in the Shade

August 27, 2012

As the summer rolls on so too does the succession of wild edibles. The height of summer is often thought to be a relatively barren time for foraging but here, wild foods continue to comprise a significant proportion of our diet at this time. It has been hot, really hot, so our preference is for lurking in the cool moist shade of the trees. A preference shared by many of the wild foods to be found at this time of the year.

A couple of weeks back we held a ‘simple living’ workshop at Shikigami [view photos of the event here] with participants wild harvesting ingredients for the weekends meals. They were surprised – as are most of our visitors – at the abundance and diversity of wild edible plants here. We first introduced them to inutade (Polygonum longisetum), a relatively new one for us too and one that has quickly become a much respected and appreciated summer food. (While I think very highly of the Plants for a Future site and use it often the ‘edibility ratings’ on the site should not be taken too seriously. The entry on Polygonum longisetum is a case in point: it is given an edibility rating of 1 (out of 5). These edibility ratings are subjective, of course, but further, plants are often rated on hearsay rather than from the direct experience of the articles authors. Polygonum longisetum is far better than the designation of ‘famine food’ given it on the site. I would give it at least a 3 out of 5.)

inutade (Polygonum longisetum)
(Polygonum longisetum)

Inutade is a mucilaginous herb growing to 50 – 100cm and one of the dominant ground covers at this time of year. We eat the leaves and the tender tips of the stalks both raw and cooked. As you can see in the photograph above it has quite distinctive dark markings on the leaves. There are a number of related species that carry these markings also. There is one species here with leaves considerably narrower than those pictured but very similar in taste to inutade. Another related species, that carries somewhat similar markings but has a very different leaf shape, is mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii) and it is extremely bitter. The leaves of inutade alternate from a single stem which ranges in colour from olive green to red. From the nodes, where the leaf attaches to the stem, fine white hairs grow.

not inutade
Mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii)

We also introduced the workshop participants to wild pesto. (And it is to my dear friends Karin and Cath back in Aotearoa that I have to thank for introducing me to this particular culinary delight.) As the late vegetalista Frank Cook observed, pesto is not so much a specific recipe as it is a genre. So then, what comprises this genre of pesto? Some green stuff, some garlic-like stuff, some nuts, parmesan (optional), all very finely chopped and mixed with olive oil and perhaps a dash of salt. The classic formula of basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan is but one way. On this occasion our pesto contained walnuts, parmesan, ushihakobe (a chickweed), tsubokusa (gotu kola), plantain, aomizu (in the Urticaceae, or nettle family and one to which I shall return later), chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal), clover, oregano…and probably some other plants that I can’t recall right now.

Making wild pesto
Making wild pesto

Wild pesto
Peel and crush the garlic (I use about two cloves for every generous handful of greens but then, I eat a lot of raw garlic. You’ll quickly discover the quantity that suits you). Place a handful of greens on the garlic and begin chopping. As you are chopping keep scraping all the ingredients from the chopping board back in to a pile. Once the plant material is well chopped (does not need to be super fine at this stage) add another handful of greens and repeat the process until all the greens have been added. By this stage, with the repeated chopping as new greens were added, the leaves and garlic should be quite finely cut. Chop the nuts of your choice coarsely, sprinkle them over your pile of finely chopped leaves and garlic and continue to chop. Once the nuts have been reduced to small pieces (but before they have become dust) add grated parmesan (optional) and chop this into very small pieces too. The idea throughout this process is that by chopping the ingredients on top of the previously added ingredients they all get mixed up rather nicely as you achieve the desired fineness for a good pesto (in my humble opinion having it all mashed to a pulp in a blender does not make for good pesto – but as you like). Place your mixture in a bowl, adding salt to taste, then add the olive oil – just enough to achieve the desired consistency if you plan to eat the pesto immediately. If you have made more than you can eat immediately place the remainder in a jar and add more olive oil to just cover the pesto. This should keep for at least a week or two refrigerated (I’m guessing here as I tend to make it fresh each time).

Two attendees of the workshop showed an extreme aversion to garlic and all members of the Allium genus and so experimented further with the basic recipe. Using the same greens they substituted ginger for garlic, sesame oil for olive oil and sesame paste for parmesan. The result…absolutely delicious.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica syn. pumila, Canadian clearweed), one of the pesto ingredients mentioned above, is another cherished summer green, making regular appearances in our salads of the past month. It is a member of the nettle family and the Japanese name aomizu (green water plant) gives you a good idea of where to look for it. A small annual with a preference for shady, moist places. The leaves look and taste very similar to koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), another member of the nettle family that I have written about previously here and here.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)
Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)

Myōga (Zingiber mioga) of the ginger family is a plant native to Japan and Korea that is a popular ingredient in the cuisine of both countries. Its popularity has led to its wide cultivation but it can still be found wild or, once introduced to an appropriate site, let go wild. It is a great plant for forest gardens as it grows well in full or partial shade.

Myoga_Zingiber mioga
Myōga (Zingiber mioga)

In Japan it is often pickled or used in miso soup. The flower buds are the most commonly used part of the plant though the young shoots are eaten too. The flower buds appear at ground level – not on the above ground parts of the plant – so a bit of crawling around on the soil might be necessary. Even if not necessary it is fun and…uhh…grounding.

A stand of myōga left alone will soon fill up the available space with a subsequent reduction in the number of flower buds produced. A bit of disruption to the soil now and then (something the wild pigs usually do a reasonable job of) will increase the number of flower buds produced each year. Here we have summer and autumn flowering varieties.

Myoga (Zingiber mioga) flowerbud
Myōga flowerbud

Myōga pickles
Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Guess the amount of vinegar you’ll need to cover the quantity of myōga you have (when in a jar) and add sugar and salt to taste. Bring the vinegar mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Cut the myōga flowerbuds in half and dip in boiling water for about thirty seconds to a minute, drain and place the myōga in a jar. Cover the myōga, while it is still hot, with the vinegar mixture then let the jar cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Best kept refrigerated or in a very cool dark place.

An Affluence of Sleep

July 15, 2012

Month four in a twelve month journal of the wild foods we are eating. Previous posts in this series can be found here.

Roused from a midday sleep by hunger I grab a bowl, don a wide-brimmed straw hat and head out to gather a salad.

First I make my way to patches of ushihakobe (“cow chickweed”) and tsuyukusa (Asiatic dayflower), gathering generous quantities to bulk up the salad. Then on to chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal) and tsubokusa (gotu kola), passing a nasturtium I pluck a few flowers and a handful of leaves, doing the same with shirotsumekusa (white clover). A few leaves of suiba (sorrel), a good handful of shiso leaves, shiroza (lambs quarters) and  amaransasu (amaranth). Moving from the clearing where I have been gathering these sun loving plants I make my way toward the shady forest edge looking for sumire (violet). Passing oobako (plantain) sprouting new leaves I gather a bunch of the small tender light-green new growth (all the more tender for growing in dappled shade).  After collecting sumire and katabami (wood sorrel) I investigate a patch of myoga – still a little early for the flowerbuds, I move on. Skirting the forest edge I pick young koakoso (nettle family) leaves then back in to the sun I gingerly take a few azami (thistle) leaves – these with prickly spines which I shall trim off with scissors later. Ambling back towards the house I gather some leaves of mint, nira (garlic chives), comfrey, mukuge (rose of sharon), lemon balm and lemon verbena, parsley and oregano.

Back inside, having trimmed the spines from azami, I toss everything in a bowl and top with kurumi (walnuts) pickled in a honey vinegar and dress with yamamomo (Chinese bayberry) vinegar.

wild salad

A cup of suikazura (Japanese honeysuckle) flower tea in hand I return to horizontality and thumb through a book, recently read, looking for a passage in which an anthropologist suggests that one measure of a societies affluence might be the amount of daytime sleep afforded. Unable to locate the sentence I lay the book aside and go back to sleep.


Koakoso (Boehmeria spicata) I mentioned a couple of months back as a pot herb. I was less than enthusiastic about the taste but I have found a new love for this plant as a salad green. The light green young leaves make a really nice addition to a salad – their mild flavour making them suitable for bulking up more pungent plants. Shadier locations will likely yield a greater quantity of the tender young things.

koakosouKoakoso (Boehmeria spicata)

Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica) is a chickweed. It is not the chickweed (Stellaria media) but a closely related species that continues to grow vigorously through summer when hakobe (Stellaria media) is resting.

Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica)Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica)

Mukuge (rose of sharon, Hibiscus syriacus) is a plant of Asian origin (but not of Syrian, as Linnaeus thought when he named the plant). It is a large deciduous shrub (up to 3m x 2m) with edible leaves, flowers and roots. I haven’t seen it growing wild here (yet – hopefully some of our fifteen or so plantings will be happy enough with their locations to go wild – it is a prolific producer of seed so chances are good) but it is a common ornamental plant and therefore one for you urban foragers to look out for. Also, as ours are still small I have so far only tried the leaves which I like a lot: mild flavoured with a pleasantly mucilaginous texture. There is a flowering specimen growing in a private garden in the village but, tempting as it is, I am well aware that every time I cycle through the village there is at least one set of eyes following me (“that strange foreigner who lives deep in the mountains”).

mukuge (Hibiscus syriacus)A mukuge (Hibiscus syriacus) sapling

Katabami (Oxalis corniculata) is one of the many plants known to the English speaking world as wood-sorrel – their lemony tang being reminiscent of sorrel (Rumex spp.).  The intense lemon flavour of oxalis and rumex species, while pleasantly refreshing and uplifting, is due to the presence of oxalic acids and a good indicator that moderation should be exercised. Large bowlfuls everyday are not the way to eat this plant. Some leaves mixed through a salad being more the way to go.

Katabami (Oxalis corniculata)Katabami (Oxalis corniculata)

Shiso (Perilla frutescens) is, of course, the green leaf served as a garnish with sashimi and sushi (lately replaced by pieces of green plastic cut to vaguely resemble patches of grass). A really fantastic herb and all over the place! Don’t be timid with shiso. The flavour is mild enough to eat in quantity, it is nutritious and medicinal. Great as a salad leaf, or pickled in soy sauce and mirin, shiso pesto, shiso tea…. An annual that readily self-seeds to establish colonies and an excellent insectary plant, it’s a good candidate for scattering around in a forest garden, on abandoned land, city parks…. Green and purple varieties are common in Japan – the latter is not normally eaten fresh but is pickled and used in the making of umeboshi (pickled plums). Later in the year I’ll come back to shiso to talk about making use of the seeds.

Shiso (Perilla frutescens)Shiso (Perilla frutescens)

Shiso‘s medicine: antiasthmatic, antibacterial, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, emollient, expectorant, pectoral, stomachic, tonic.

Shiroza (lambs quarters, fat hen, Chenopodium album) and  amaransasu (amaranth, Amaranthus spp.) can be found growing wild throughout much of Japan. The young leaves of both are great in salads. Older leaves of shiroza can be boiled, steamed, added to soups etc. Both shiroza and amaransesu leaves are very nutritious. Both are weedy…let me rephrase that; both are important pioneer plants initiating processes of succession, thus enabling the return of forests – and so are also good candidates for seedballing barren sites or sunny openings of forest gardens.

Shiroza (Chenopodium album)amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)
Left: shiroza (Chenopodium album) and  right: amaransasu (Amaranthus spp.)

The dear old yamamomo (Myrica rubra) up the hill from our house has decided to give the fruit producing thing a miss this year but thankfully produced a good enough quantity last year for plentiful vinegar and wine making.

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)Yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

Yamamomo vinegar:

Mash up ripe fruit (the riper the better) and place in a well cleaned fermenting vessel (glass, ceramic, enamel coated metal but not uncoated metal as the acidity of the vinegar will eat in to it. My preference for cleaning such vessels is a strong antiseptic herbal tea such as sage, juniper, yarrow, kawakawa…). Dissolve sugar in water (about a quarter of a cup of sugar to 1 litre water. Use spring water if possible or, at least, water that has been boiled and let cool to around 40 degrees Celsius. The yeast on the skin of the yamamomo fruits, the beautiful microorganisms that are going to make this wonderful vinegar for you won’t appreciate it any hotter than that. Cover the fermenting vessel with a loose weave cloth and let sit stirring periodically (once a day is good). After about  a week strain out the fruit and continue to ferment. After about a month the vinegar will be ready but leaving it for longer may mellow it out nicely. You can make vinegar from most fruit this way.

Finally this month is himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki), a somewhat scrappy looking tree/shrub with alluring berries which can be eaten raw and are very tasty but every so often one will irritate the tongue and roof of the mouth with a long lasting itchy sensation. The berries have long hairs which are likely responsible for this but it is a little strange that while all himekouzo berries have these hairs only some cause a reaction. There seems to be no way of telling before you put the berry in your mouth either. The sensation is unpleasant enough to likely put most people off playing Russian roulette with the raw berries but there are other ways to use them. I have tried cooking them in a tapioca pudding but ended up with a bowl of itchiness so they need more than just cursory cooking. Although I have not tried making a jam with them yet I suspect the cooking and mashing up of the berries in the process would take care of the problem. Likewise, ( and also so far untested), cooking, mashing and making fruit leathers. What does work is making himekouzochū, that is, soaking the berries in shōchū, vodka or the like. A good vinegar can be made from them also.

himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki)himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki)
(Broussonetia kazinoki)

But the fruits are not the only edible part of this plant. The leaves are good cooked and the really young leaves can be eaten raw. The leaves do have a slight raspy texture but this is barely noticeable and nothing compared to the raspiness the berries can have. The flowers can also be eaten. Himekouzo is a close relative of kazhinoki (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera) and, like that plant, fibre from the bark can be used to make paper, cloth and rope.


Basic Skills for Simple Living

August 11 & 12
A two day workshop on rocket stoves, composting toilets and summer wild foods. Making, using, doing. Participants will camp on site. More info in English or info in Japanese


Open Day

August 18
A guided tour of our site and explanation of our approach to forest gardening, natural farming and various aspects of living simply. For more info in English see here or for Japanese info see here.

Winter Allies

January 6, 2012

This winter I have been making new friends and deepening my relationship with some older acquaintances. Allow me introduce you to a few of them.

The first began reaching out to me some time ago. Exactly when I can’t say. Sometimes I am not the most attentive and the earliest advances were lost on me. Although, not entirely because something vaguely intrigued me. The subtlety of the initial approach changed to a louder, more direct appeal when I thought about removing the plant to let more light in to a particular spot. I started asking around to find out exactly who this was but no one knew. Granted, my survey wasn’t exactly exhaustive, few people with the necessary knowledge are to be found in the mountains these days, but Tsuchiya-san, our most reliable source of local plant information was unable to help. Usually this would indicate the plant wasn’t “useful” but I was developing a strong feeling that this plant was offering something to us.

Without any idea who this was calling me I cautiously tasted its fruit. Beautiful tiny red fruits. A really vibrant, almost translucent, red. Slightly elongated with a pointy end of a darker red or black. Sour, though not unpleasant. Not much flesh – most of the fruits size was given it by the seed inside. I concluded that any usefulness (to me) whatever it may be was not likely to be in eating quantities of the raw fruit. But, rather than disappointment that this was not some new and delicious edible fruit gracing Shikigami (anyway, had it have been Tsuchiya-san would surely have known it), my feeling that this was a plant I wanted to know only grew stronger.

Gamazumi (Viburnum dilatatum)

Some months after this all began I finally got a name. While on a teaching trip to Tokyo I came across what is by far the best guide to edible wild plants in Japan that I have seen so far. In Ikuzo Hashimoto’s Wild Food Lexicon, Japan (for more on this book see Readings) I learnt that it was Gamazumi ガマズミ (Viburnum dilatatum) that had been trying to get my attention. The uses to which it has been put by others include making fruit liquor and jam. It is diuretic and “good for tiredness.” A dye is made from the fruit. Other uses are preserved in one of its English common names; Arrow wood. The long straight shoots of Gamazumi have traditionally been used to make arrows and the older thicker branches to make tool handles. Further, the bark is said to make a good twine.

In the absence of elders we turn to books to gain plant knowledge but, it is not the same. For in personal relationships with plants something that cannot be spoken of flows between plant and person, flows in both directions. When elders teach us from experience this flow of spirit can be felt. The energy, the flow of meaning passing between plant and person radiates out and touches us, inviting us in. From the field guides we learn but one dimension. Elders bring alive the multidimensionality of relationship. And there never really is an absence of elders for the plants themselves, the mountains and rivers, are our elders. No doubt, without a guide speaking a familiar language it is difficult to begin but, in  relearning the language of nature teachers are everywhere, if we are only able to listen.

We humans live in a realm a thousand times faster than plants and rarely do we slow down enough to hear them speak.
– Jonathan Sparrow Miller

So, to let a little more light in to the spot, rather than removing Gawazuni I will likely coppice it (explaining to Gawazumi what I am doing and why I am doing it), harvesting the bark for twine and good straight branches for tool handles. The regrowth producing more straight shoots to ensure a future supply of arrows, tool handles, twine, dye, a reviving liquor and some jam. And, not least the pleasure of simply looking at its long slender branches, its deep green summer foliage and intense red autumnal berries. Now that Gawazumi has finally managed to get my attention I will be listening too. Friendships develop and deepen with time and careful listening.

Sanekazura (Kadsura japonica)

My Tokyo book find also enlightened me as regards another plant I had been curious about ever since its strange fruit appeared. (And, even though a book may not be the same as a living elder, nonetheless, I do love and value books. For plants speak through the written words of their human allies too. Interest sparked from reading about a herb easily develops into deeper relationship when the herb is encountered.) A vine with knobbly red berries. Little flashes of red way up in the now leafless tress offering support to the vine. Having cautiously sampled these too, I had come to the conclusion that any relationship I might develop with this plant was also unlikely to be centred on regular eating of its fruit. Maybe not winter food but winter medicine?

In Japanese the plant is known as Sanekazura (サネカズラ), in Latin as Kadsura japonica. It is a plant used in kampo, the Japanese adaptation of traditional Chinese medicine. Sanekazura is used as a tonic to boost the immune system. The beautifully weird berries are first dried then simmered until gooey, strained and taken as a tea. This decoction is said also to relieve coughs and reduce excessive mucus production. A winter medicine to be sure. Further, the Sanekazura vine is used for basketry and a hair styling gel can be extracted from it!

It does not surprise me that a medicine good for winter strength should be growing nearby, producing the berries that boost the immune system just as the weather begins to get cold. Or that it is growing in a particularly cold frosty spot, where these changes are most abrupt. For this is all rather typical behaviour in a plant: plants grow where they are needed, where their gifts contribute to community resilience and well being. The environment in which they grow tells us much about what they do. In scientific language this is referred to as “ecosystem function.”

We know that plants are constantly adapting to changes in environmental conditions and forming symbiotic relationships, or mutual aid societies, with other plants, fungi, animals, microbes etc. We know too that plants will alter their chemical composition in response to these changes or the needs of their communities, that the same plant growing in different locations can have a remarkably different chemical constitution. Further, plant people, holders of indigenous (from Latin indigena, “sprung from the land”) knowledge, have always told us that this ability in plants is what we are appealing to when we ask for their medicine. And hence the necessity of “choosing” (or being chosen by) the right plant, of offering a prayer to the plant, of making our request and explaining our needs. (This notion has many profound implications, not least of which for the current tendency towards standardization and commercialization of herbal medicines, reducing whole plants to an “active constituent”).

Now, the scientist studying ecosystem functions of plants will likely baulk at my suggestion that plants can and do make internal adjustments in order to assist our needs, even though they readily accept this idea  in relation to other elements in the ecosystem. The magical thinking here, the superstition, is that all we know about ecosystems somehow doesn’t apply to the human species, that we are the sole species on the planet that exists outside of the web of communication linking all life. That the strands that intricately weave this web do not also run through us.

Having withdrawn from our bodies into our heads, locating our consciousness there, and perceiving the world through a particularly anthropocentric filter, some of our most precious knowledge has gone, our most useful abilities atrophied through lack of use. We no longer easily feel the vibrations coursing through the strands that weave the web. We have disconnected ourselves from the medium of communication. But all is not lost. The plants offer medicine for that affliction too. Imbibing the “wild redeemer” we begin the long process of deschooling ourselves and reinhabiting life.

Amazake (fermented rice porridge) with fuyuichigo (Rubus buergeri) and yuzu (Citrus ichangensis × C. reticulata) rind

Fuyuichigo (フユイチゴ), “winter berry,” (Rubus buergeri) is one I have been aware of for some time. It is a dominant ground cover here and can be found throughout the forest and in clearings. But this is my first autumn and early winter here so it is the first time I have had the pleasure of eating the winter berry.

The fruits are generally smaller than  cultivated raspberries (which are of the same genus) although there are many of comparable size. Also, generally, the fruit is pleasantly tart but can be rather sweet, particularly when growing in sunny locations. It fruits copiously and is thornless so regardless of the small size it is relatively easy to collect good quantities of berries.

Fuyuichigo, like other berries in the Rubus genus, amongst other things, is very high in vitamin C, making it another excellent food for fortifying the body for the cold of winter.

Seri (Oenanthe javanica)

From the reds to the greens.

Heading outside to gather greens for a meal I walk towards the “garden” but before reaching it spot some beautiful looking dandelion leaves, tender and intensely green, vibrating in the late afternoon light. Next I see a patch of chickweed, lush again having been harvested from only a couple of days ago. White clover catches my eye next. A handful of tender young clover leaves and a few young leaves of sorrel. I turn to the deliciously nutty plantain leaves then head off in the direction of a wasabi patch to gather some young leaves there passing as I go watercress and water celery (seri セリ) which I add to my basket to complete the wild salad.

Most of these plants will be found within close proximity to your own houses for most of these plants have long followed human camps. Nourishing and delicious herbs that keep us healthful and show a preference for growing close by us. Part of our supportive community, we have, in the past 50 odd years, attempted to banish dandelion, plantain, sorrel, chickweed and clover from our camps with incredible quantities of herbicides. The work of a disembodied head, to be sure, for all of these plants are far more nutritious than the salad plants we work so hard to cultivate.

Water celery, seri セリ, (Oenanthe javanica) also referred to as Japanese parsley or Chinese celery, is a member of the water dropwort family. Seri has a long stem with leaves descending in size from the base of stem to the tip. It has bipinnate, rounded leaflets, with serrated edges. Several species of water dropworts are extremely toxic so it is essential to make a good positive identification of seri before consuming it. Making this easier, here, we only eat seri in the winter and spring when it happens to be the only water dropwort around. In the heat of summer, when the other water dropworts appear, the seri becomes tough and stringy. It will be found in wet places. The photo above was taken near a spring just below our house. As its English common names suggest seri has a taste reminiscent of celery, or, more like something between celery, parsley and carrots. Every part of the plant is edible, leaves, stems, roots and seeds. Edible, delicious and very nutritious. The leaves in particular are rich in minerals and vitamins.

“Let food be your medicine and medicine your food.” Local, seasonal, wild.