On 3rd April 2016 I was on an amazing study tour in Japan to witness first hand the cultivation of perennial vegetables. These are wild native species which were previously wild foraged in Japan but are now cultivated to meet demands for what is collectively known as sansai (mountain veggies). There’s a whole section of supermarkets devoted to sansai. The one we are most familiar with in the west is wasabi, but for most of us it is in name only as it is almost always horseradish, mustard and food colouring which are the ingredients of wasabi sauce offered in sushi bars, rather than genuine wasabi (Wasabia japonica).
The farm we visited was on the Izu peninsula, a popular tourist area. It was one of the most beautiful and naturalistic farms that I’ve witnessed anywhere and could be categorised as a permaculture forest garden with shade-loving wasabi growing in running water diverted from a river into an intricate series of neatly set out beds and intercropped with trees like loquat and other fruit. Most of the work seems to be done manually.
First, a few videos from the farm and below can be found an album of pictures of wasabi and other plants we saw, including at a shrine and associated vegetable garden adjacent to the farm! Wasabi has very narrower ecological requirements to produce well, including shade and running cool mountain spring water.
17th March 2019: I’m adding three pictures at the bottom of a group of “wild” wasabi plants growing in quite a dry shady environment in the hills near to Toyota in Japan!
I’m adding below three pictures of a group of wasabi plants growing in quite a dry shady environment in the hills near to Toyota in Japan:
…and a flowering plant in the Kyoto Botanical Gardens:
Fuki (Petasites japonicus) is a popular spring vegetable in Japan and Korea. It has also been introduced as an ornamental in Europe and in North America as a food plant for the Japanese population there. In Hu’s Food Plants of China it says that it’s cultivated to meet the market demand of the Japanese residents (Shanghai and Nanjing). During my study trip to Japan in spring 2016, the flower buds and young leaf stalks were available in the wild edible (sansai) section of supermarkets! It was a common site to see an area of fuki set aside near to houses!
At the end of February I gave a talk about my trip to Japan for the first time and showed this slide of supermarket leaf petioles, flower buds and fuki tempura which I was served!
At the talk, one of the audience was Ingunn Moslet. She contacted me afterwards as she was sure that she had seen this plant growing in the centre of Trondheim. We therefore agreed that we would meet in the spring to check it out. Yesterday, 3rd May 2018, I met Ingunn in Bakklandet and she took me to the site which seemed to be an old overgrown garden (there were old redcurrant bushes on the edge of the site). Upon seeing the flowering shoots I wasn’t in doubt that this was fuki and not similarly white flowered Petasites albus from the alps which probably has higher levels of bitter alkaloids. We counted 38 flowering heads and 10 more in another location in a nearby garden. As it was at perfect stage to eat, I took one shoot with me to try that evening and a second more developed flower to compare with Petasites albus (grown contained in a pot in my garden for the bees for many years) and my own fuki (from a wild stand in Rogaland). Below is an album of pictures from our visit to the site, the fuki pakora I made last night and comparisons of the flower heads of P. japonicus and P. albus!
Although often treated as an invasive and noxious weed, I would argue it is also a valuable addition to our flora as it flowers early and therefore is a valuable source of nectar for butterflies and bees, as well as being a great perennial vegetable, so instead of spraying it with toxic chemicals like Roundup let’s love it instead and limit it by harvesting it!
See the film below which I took in the Toronto botanical garden in April 2017!
Each day on the trip to Japan had been equally amazing as the day before with new plant and food discoveries all the way!! The venue for my talk in Tokyo was the art/photography studio belonging to a guy called Ken Takewaki. It turned out he’d spent a lot of time in the UK working on organic farms and knew the owner of Poyntzfield Nursery in Scotland well and I’d already planned to try to visit Poyntzfield on my Scotland trip in September! Knowing that I was heading for the mountains after Tokyo, Ken kindly invited me to visit his mountain home! What a place and the food was out of this world! Ken and his lady Masami had made a special effort to feed me sansai!
The next morning it was as if I’d been transported home in my dreams as there was new snow on the ground at the Ken’s home at 1300m. The day before it has been over 20C at 600m! Thanks so much to Tei, who I got to know through Caroline Ho Bich-Tuyen Dang, a member of Norwegian Seed Savers, for showing me so much of her village near Besshou (Ueda) in Nagano Prefecture and sharing all the amazing sansai and sake and for taking me to Ken’s place! More on Besshou later when I get time!Thank you so much too Ken and Masami for your hospitality!
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