Winter Purslane, Claytonia perfoliata

Winter Purslane, Claytonia perfoliata

Winter Purslane, Claytonia perfoliata, growing along Christchurch Road in Norwich

Winter Purslane, or Miner’s Lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata, is an attractive edible plant which can be found in winter and spring in many parts of Norfolk. I grow it on my allotment, where my plants are the self-seeded descendants of plants grown from a bought packet of seeds about ten years ago. In the countryside you can find it growing on sandy, disturbed ground, including under hedges on sandy soils, in places that are too dry in summer to support many other plants. This winter I also found it growing at the bases of Lime trees along Christchurch Road in Norwich.

Winter Purslane comes originally from North America, and its alternative name of Miner’s Lettuce comes from its use by miners in the Californian Gold Rush as a preventative of scurvy. In the UK, the plant was introduced into cultivation in 1794. It was first recorded in the wild in 1849 and by 1853 was the most troublesome weed in the Chelsea Physic Garden. It is an annual and it certainly seeds prolifically, but it is shallow-rooted and very easy to weed out by hand. Its leaves turn yellow as temperatures rise in late spring and you will find no sign of it in summer and early autumn.

Winter Purslane’s small white flowers look rather like those of its distant relative Chickweed (Stellaria media, Caryophyllaceae) but Winter Purslane is in a different family, the Montiaceae. (In older floras it is classified as Montia perfoliata, in family Portulacaceae.) The other member of the Montiaceae naturalised into the British Isles is Claytonia sibirica (Pink Purslane or Siberian Spring Beauty), which has pink flowers and comes from from Siberia and western North America. It can be found in damp woods and has a more northern and western distribution than C. perfoliata.

Winter Purslane is hardy but you can have fleshier, larger leaves a month or two earlier if you grow it in an unheated greenhouse.

Winter Purslane has a mild taste with a mucilaginous texture but I enjoy it raw in mixed salads, where it provides a contrast to stronger flavoured ingredients such as Land Cress, Garland Chrysanthemum or Coriander leaves. (I also allow these three plants to self-seed around the allotment.) I include the flowers in my salad too – they taste just as good as the leaves and look interesting. The Plants For a Future website says that the roots can be eaten too, and taste of chestnuts. They must be peeled first, which would be very fiddly. The leaves can also be cooked too but I haven’t tried these last two methods of preparation.

As well as providing Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, the plant has mild diuretic and laxative properties and can be used as a poultice to treat rheumatic joints. The Californian Superfood Evolution website describes more possible health benefits and has some good photographs of the plant, plus some harvesting tips.

By the way, I don’t recommend harvesting the Christchurch Road plants: they are next to a road and pavement, so the probablilty of contamination by motor vehicle and canine is very high. But seeds are readily available, with instructions, if you want to grow the plant yourself, from Sarah Raven, for example. I think I bought mine from The Organic Gardening Catalogue or Kings Seeds.

Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea

 Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea

In mid March we visited Wayland Wood, near Watton in the Norfolk Brecks. This beautiful wood is managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust and is linked to the story of Babes in the Wood.

In past years we have visited the wood in early May to see its Bluebells, or in winter when we have taken part in coppicing work parties. (Coppicing is a traditional form of woodland management and involves broadleaved cutting trees down to the base and allowing them to regrow. It allows extra light to reach the woodland floor, which encourages the growth of woodland wild flowers.) However, this year we went at a slightly different time, mainly to see the Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea. This was a plant species we had read about, but had never seen.

Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem grows in moist, shady habitats on basic soils and, although it occurs from Spain and Norway across Eurasia to Siberia and Japan, including Finland, it is restricted in its distribution in the British Isles. In Norfolk, Wayland Wood is the spot to see it.

Our visit was a success. We found a small patch of the plant beside a main path, but there was a much bigger stand further into the wood.

 Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea

Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem is often described as being “shy-flowering”, so our sighting of the plant exceeded our expectations. A friend visited last week and it was still in flower, but Stinging Nettles were growing fast and threatening to engulf the plants. In another few weeks the Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem will die back for the year as the woodland canopy closes overhead and it will seem like it was just a lovely dream.

Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem is a perennial and, depending on the location flowers from March to May. It is a member of the Lily family, the Liliaceae. The plant arises from a bulb and the flowerheads form an umbel-like cluster of 1 – 7 flowers and each tepal has a band of green on its back.

Thanks to James Emerson for letting me know that the plant was in flower.

Chilean Nasturtium, Tropaeolum tricolor

Tropaeolum tricolor

The Christmas Box that I wrote about last month has finished flowering but mild spring weather has brought more plants into flower in our garden, including Primroses, Lungwort, Mirabelle Plums, Perennial Wallflowers, Chocolate Vine, Daffodils, Mediterranean Spurges and Lesser Celandines.

Indoors, the current star attraction is the Chilean Nasturtium, Tropaeolum tricolor, in our north-facing conservatory. Also known as Three-coloured Indian Cress, it is a beautiful perennial climber, which grows from small tubers. In summer the plant is completely dormant but in late autumn (usually November), thin wiry shoots start to appear and gradually start to climb up any support, often reaching out to embrace nearby house plants. If kept frost free, the plant starts to flower in mid March and more and more lovely flowers are produced until mid or late May, when the whole plant starts to die back, before disappearing below ground by June. I use a good quality peat-free compost to grow my Tropaeolum tricolor, such as New Horizon or Fertile Fibre, and I keep the compost in the pot slightly moist during the growing season, then allow it to dry out completely during the summer.

Tropaeolum tricolor can grow to 3 – 3.6 metres (9 – 12 feet) tall if it is allowed to climb high enough. My plant grows to about 1.5 metres (just under five feet) tall, but that is because my plant supports are that height, and next year I plan to use taller supports.

The Chilean Nasturtium’s leaves are bright green, lobed and peltate – that is, the leaf stalk connects to the middle of the leaf. The flowers grow singly on long wiry stalks arising from the leaf axils. Each flower is about three centimetres (1.2 inches) long and the majority of the flower consists of its five reddish-orange sepals tipped with a purple band, extending backwards in a red spur. In contrast, the petals are small and greenish-yellow, but the overall effect is lovely and the three different colours give the plant its name of “tricolor“. The Strange Wonderful Things website says that the flowers “swim like schools of tropical fish throughout winter”, which I think is a lovely and very apt description.

Although it is sometimes called the Bolivian Nasturtium, the name Chilean Nasturtium is more appropriate as Tropaeolum tricolor is a native of Chile, where it grows in cloud forest, 300 to 900 metres (980 to 2,950 feet) above sea level. Further south, it will grow at lower levels in temperate forests. Here it can endure up to 10 months of drought in the summer, when it is dormant. It is generally classed as half hardy, tolerating cool conditions down to about freezing point and the RHS gives it a hardiness rating of H2. The USDA hardiness zone is 8. In its native habitat, well buried tunbers are hardy to – 8 Celsius, and this year I found a plant growing (albeit slowly) in a pot outdoors in the garden, where temperatures had reached – 3 Celsius or lower at night.

In Chile, the flowers are pollinated by a hummingbird, the Green-backed Firecrown, Sephanoides sephaniodes. But not in Norwich – I will just have to listen to their call and use my imagination when I look at the plant.

Tropaeolum tricolor can be grown from seed, but this is said to be quite tricky. It is easier to grow the plant from a tuber and I bought mine from Hethersett Plant Fair a couple of years ago. (The fairs are organised by Norfolk Plant Heritage twice a year, and are well worth a visit). Every year, new tubers are formed, so you should have a gradually increasing stock of plants. If you have any spares, you can always eat them.

The genus Tropaeolum (family Tropaeolaceae) also contains the better known Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, as well as the beautiful Canary Creeper, Tropaeolum peregrinum and, my favourite, Tropaeolum speciosum, known as the Scottish Flame Flower. This appreciates damp, acidic soil and it likes growing up hedges in Scottish gardens, where its fiery red flowers contrast with dark evergreen Yew foliage.

Tropaeolum tricolor

Christmas Box, Sarcococca hookeriana

Sarcococca hookeriana 'Winter Gem'

Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Winter Gem’

Winter flowers are very precious and scented winter flowers are doubly so. I’ve already written about Winter Heliotrope, a winter Honeysuckle, Witch Hazel and Viburnum bodnantense. Christmas Box, Sarcococca hookeriana, is another of these lovely winter pick-me-ups.

Christmas Box, also known as Sweet Box, is a compact, evergreen shrub. Its leaves are more pointed than true Box (Buxus sempervirens), though both are in the same family, the Buxaceae.

Several varieties of Sarcococca are grown in gardens. These include three natives of China: Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, which grows to 60cm tall, the larger Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna (to 1.5 metres tall) and Sarcocococca confusa, bigger still (up to 2 metres tall). S. hookeriana spreads slowly by suckers but these appear close to the plant, so aren’t a nuisance; S. confusa doesn’t produce suckers. After flowering, S. hookeriana and S. confusa bear attractive glossy black berries.Their close relative Sarcococca ruscifolia has red berries.

The variety of Christmas Box that I grow is Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Winter Gem’, which will reach about 60cm tall after about six years. It is a hybrid between S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ and S. hookeriana var. humilis.  In my north-facing garden in Norwich it flowers in February. On a warm day (like early last week) the smell of the flowers drifts several feet away from the plant but when the weather is cold you may need to cup your hands around the flowers and breathe on them to release the scent, as with Witch Hazel. I would describe the perfume as  a spicy honey, less sweet than Winter Heliotrope and most similar to Witch Hazel.

Christmas Box are reliable and easy to grow. They are happy in full or partial shade in a variety of soils and our plant copes well in our sandy soil in semi-shade. (I added garden compost when I planted it just over two years ago.) Unlike the true Box, they aren’t affected by the dreaded Box Blight.

Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca / Ruby Elfcup, Sarcoscypha coccinea

Scarlet or Ruby Elfcup

“Oh good”, I thought. “A nice and easy fungus to identify.”

We were walking through the woods at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Reserve on Tuesday when we spotted a beautiful red cup fungus, growing on pieces of dead, moss covered Rhododendron wood.

I was pretty certain that this was the Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca, and I thought I’d confirmed this when I consulted my copy of “Collins Complete Guide To British Mushrooms & Toadstools” by Paul Sterry and Barry Hughes (one of the best general fungi identification guides at the moment).

It was only when I looked on the internet when researching this blog post that I found out that, as so often with fungi, life isn’t quite so simple. As well as the Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca, there is the Ruby Elfcup, Sarcoscypha coccinea. Both species can be found on dead logs and twigs in damp, shady places, usually partly buried in moss. They can be found from early winter into early spring: a real treat to discover when various shades of brown are the norm.

In the species accounts on the First Nature website, Pat O’Reilly describes the two species as “macroscopically almost identical”. The colour of both species can vary from pale orange to deep red and although Scarlet Elfcups are sometimes bigger than Ruby Elfcups, there is a great deal of overlap in size, so neither of these characteristics is a reliable way to separate the two species. But help is at hand

If I had examined the outer surface of the cups, I might have been able to tell which Elfcup I had found. The Ruby Elfcup (S. coccinea) is covered in a matted felt of tiny uncoiled hairs, while the Scarlet Elfcup (S. austriaca) has hairs that are coiled, rather like a corkscrew. Under a microscope, the spores of both species are elongated ellipsoids but some of the spores of the Ruby Elfcup (S. coccinea) have a hammerhead appearance at the ends (the conidial buds). As with many groups of fungi, DNA sequencing has been used in recent years to reveal previously unknown relationships between members of the genus Sarcoscypha [see note 1, below]. 

Elfcups are Ascomycete fungi – part of the family Sarcoscyphaceae in the Order Pezizales, the Cup Fungi. Other well-known Cup Fungi include the Orange Peel Fungus, Aleuria aurantia, which grows on disturbed ground and bears an uncanny resemblance to a piece of discarded orange peel.

Both the Scarlet Elfcup and Ruby Elfcup are generally reckoned to be edible, though they must be cooked first. I haven’t tried them (and, if they are growing in a nature reserve, neither should you).

WildFoodUK describes the taste as “mild, mushroomy”, which is only a faint recommendation, but the colour would add drama to the plate. There are several recipes on the internet, including Roast turbot with garlic shoots and scarlet elf cups, Fillet of sea bass with scarlet elf cup, wild garlic and spring herbs and Elf Cups Stuffed with Egg and Three Cornered Leek. (All three use other seasonal ingredients and use either Wild Garlic or Three-cornered Leek to give a bit of Allium flavour.)

The colour of Elfcups is due to five different carotenoid pigments, including betacarotene (also found in carrots and many plants) and plectaniaxanthin. It is the latter compound that is mainly responsible for the red colour.

Elfcups have sometimes been used to make table decorations. The fungus was also used as a traditional medicine by Native Americans, ground up into a powder and used as a styptic to heal the navels of unborn children.

Or you can just leave them where they are, to brighten up woodland and bring cheer to the darkest months of the year.

Note 1 – See, for example, “Relationships among Sarcoscypha Species: Evidence from Molecular and Morphological Characters” (Francis A. Harrington, Mycologia Vol. 90, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1998), pp. 235-243) and “Phylogenetic Relationships within Sarcoscypha Based upon Nucleotide Sequences of the Internal Transcribed Spacer of Nuclear Ribosomal DNA” (Francis A. Harrington and Daniel Potter, Mycologia Vol. 89, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1997), pp. 258-267).