Friday, 15 May 2015

Fishy smell herb

Either the plant, or the photographer was swaying at the time. It’s a very windy site.
This handsome devil is Houttuynia cordata. There is a rather showier cousin, ‘Chameleon’, the same green, cordate (heart-shaped) leaves with an overlay of a creamy yellow and scarlet pink variegation, but I rather like this, slightly more sensible but just as beautiful for all that. Look at that gorgeous deep, burgundy red on the underside of the leaves and the stems, starting to marble its way through the surface of the lamina. If that’s not precisely like the wing of a dragon, then I don’t know what is.

Just have a look at what this is growing through
Both the species and the variety have similar infloresences; a pale yellow central cone of tiny flowers, rising 2-3cm above the four white, petal-like bracts. And both are utter stinkers.

I’m not saying you can’t make Houttuynia work in your garden, it’s a fine ground cover plant, but vigorous doesn’t even begin to describe it, and it takes quite a bit of work, to the extent that you might wish you hadn’t begun. It definitely comes into the category of beautiful-plants-to-give-to-people-you-don’t-really-like, in which group it can rub shoulders with such rampant lovelies as alstromeria, golden rod, Lysimachia puncata, and that nice variegated ground elder of which I’m actually quite fond, especially in the gardens of other people.

It’s the rhizomes that do it. They can creep for yards under the surface of the soil, migrating their way from the original planting site and pushing up through lawns and even concrete drives. (I was quite impressed when I saw the latter, thinking the plant must have self-seeded into the gravel. But upon examination, no - it was growing up through the concrete below. It’s nowhere near as beefy a plant as, for example, Japanese knotweed, which eats tarmac and roadstone for breakfast, so I imagine it had exploited a weakness in the material that it found. But hats of to it, all the same.)

Houttuynia will revel in a damp soil, but also romp away quite happily in the dry. Should you fall out of love with it, mechanical extraction is nigh on impossible due to the brittle rhizomes, the tiniest piece of which will inevitably give rise to a new plant. Translocated herbicides seem to have limited efficacy too – you might think you’ve got the upper hand, but it’s been known to make a reappearance after several years of absence. Here’s Johny!

While hoiking it out by the handful – a necessary task, even if you’re a fan, or have resigned yourself to coexisting with the thing – you’ll notice another of houttuynia’s key attributes – its scent. Native to southeast Asia, its Chinese name translates literally as “fishy smell herb”, and a common name within these islands is fishwort. The scent reminds me far less of fish than very potent coriander. Which leads me to introduce a thought that runs on a fairly constant loop inside my head – if a plant’s vigour is held against it to the extent that it’s often considered a nuisance, then, by all the cosmic laws of fairness and karma, surely one should be able to harvest it in handfuls and eat the stuff? It’s a working hypothesis, and I’m understandably slightly wary that I might not survive long enough to publish the full thesis, but I’m counting on careful research before dinner to see me through.

It turns out, you can eat houttuynia, indeed it’s quite popular in the cuisines of China, India, and Vietnam. Both leaves and roots are used, either cooked or raw. I’ve not done it yet, but I’m sorely tempted to start to use it in place of fresh coriander stems, for example in a kind of salsa verde marinade I use for a fish curry (with ginger, garlic, tomatoes and chilli). Ask me in a few weeks how I got on. If you don’t get a reply, please send help.