Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Garland Chrysanthemum

I first encountered this unusual edible while trying to occupy myself at a rather thankless job. Thirty years ago I occasionally substituted as a care provider for an elderly Japanese man. He resented having a “babysitter” and made a point of not speaking to me, unless it absolutely could not be avoided. Once I got him fed and settled in his favorite chair, I entertained myself on the other side of a screen door--out in the family’s garden.

They grew all kinds of Japanese vegetables, from very long thin cucumbers and beans to bitter melons with interesting textured skin. I weeded and watered their garden every day. When Amy, the lady of the house, came home from work I always asked her to tell me about one of their plants.  I had noticed a type of chrysanthemum growing alongside their giant black radishes. I didn’t understand why it was growing in their vegetable garden. Unlike my bio-diverse plantings, their vegetables and flowers were grown in well defined, separate beds.

Amy, who hired me to look after her grandfather, explained that the plant was not grown as an ornamental, that it was an edible chrysanthemum. She told me its Japanese name, shungiku, which she said translated as chop suey green. The next time I came to their house she had made chop suey with shungiku for me to taste.  I liked it then, and I still do. I think you will like it too!

Shungiku is most commonly called garland chrysanthemum in this country, and it is much more common place in American gardens and cooking than it was 30 years ago. It is often included in the micro salad mixes that are now available almost everywhere. Even though you may have never heard of chrysanthemums being edible, it is fairly likely that you have already tried them. There are several varieties available, some more tender and mild and others with more robust flavor. The one I grow in my garden is called round leaf. It has a mild flavor that is best described as a subtle smoky imitation of cilantro, with undertones of mint and anise. 

Garland chrysanthemum originated in China, where it has been grown since at least 1400 BC. It made its way to Japan by the year 900 AD, and was so esteemed that it soon became associated with royalty. In Japan, the greens are used to flavor soups and “hot pots,” by chopping and adding the leaves and tender stalks in the last few minutes of cooking. They are also tasty in stir fries and other mixed vegetable dishes, and their flavor combines well with tomatoes. I have been known to tuck a few chopped leaves into my spaghetti and salsa, where it tastes divine.

 Unlike many of the ornamental chrysanthemums we grow in our flower beds, edible chrysanthemums are annuals. They thrive in cool moist climates and are very adaptable to fall, winter, and early spring gardens. Garland chrysanthemum is very easy to grow from seeds or young starts. You are most likely to find seed available through specialty mail order sources or very well stocked seed counters. 

Seeds germinate best when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees, making our mild falls an excellent time to get started. They can be started in six packs, flats, on paper towels in plastic bags, or right out in the garden (if slugs are not a problem). The seeds should be barely covered with potting soil or sand, as they germinate best when exposed to natural daylight. Seeds should germinate in two to three weeks. If you don’t start them right out in the garden or in six packs, they should be moved to small separate containers as soon as they push up their first green leave. Keep a mister handy.  These little guys don’t like to dry out.

When your young plants are a few inches high, they are ready to be transplanted out in the garden. They will benefit from some shade until the weather cools off. They will tolerate light or part shade through the winter. If you have a bright spot where they might get some sun during the rainy season, they will be most happy to sink their roots right there.  Garland chrysanthemum plants are not overly particular about soil. They will survive in clay, as long as drainage is adequate. In gravely and sandy soils special attention will need to be paid to keeping the soil moist until the rains start.

The only pests that have ever bothered my garland chrysanthemum are those sneaky and slimy slugs. Frogs, turtles, and hand picking nights and mornings are the best defense. But if your slug population isn’t too bad just waiting until the plants are a few inches high before you plant them out, might be all the defense you need. 

You can start harvesting young leaves and shoots once your plants reach about four inches high.  Simply pinch the plants back by about half, making sure to leave at least four leaves behind.  They will send out new tender shoots from the buds at the base of each of those leaves. Those shoots can also be pinched when they have grown to about four inches. By frequently pinching your plants you will eventually get a stocky productive plant that will keep you in savory greens straight through the winter and into early spring.

Once the weather warms up your garland chrysanthemum will insist on making flower buds.  You can pinch them out and toss them into salads and soups just the same as you did the young leaves and shoots. By spring your taste buds will probably be ready for a change of pace, and the bright yellow medallion flowers definitely brighten up the spring garden.  They can be picked for bouquets, or left in the garden to attract butterflies and predatory insects.

Once the flowers fade you can either remove the plants or let them develop seed. Garland chrysanthemum has been in cultivation for so long that it has lost its ability to disperse its seed. It is not very successful at self sowing. Keep an eye on your plants, when the seed heads are dry firmly rub your thumb across their tops while holding a pie pan below to catch the seeds that fall.  Let the seed air dry inside out of direct sun until they feel crisp. Then store in a jar, envelope, or plastic bag in a cool dry spot until next fall. Then you will be all set to start all over again.

If you can’t find garland chrysanthemum at your local nursery or in your favorite catalog check out  (714) 637-5769. They offer five different varieties favored in different Asian cuisines.  They also have a fabulous selection of other oriental vegetable seeds.

Copyright 9.19.07 Harvest McCampbell, previously published in the Hoopa People Paper.  Please contact me for permission to reprint or post.

Update:  5.27.15  There are many varieities of garland chrysanthemum, which is also sometimes called chop suey greens. The variety we have at Growing Together Community Garden in South Bend WA is particularly flavorful!  Garland chrysanthemum does not produce nor survive over the winter here, even though it is known to do so in much colder climates.  The angle of the sun and the shortness of the day during our winters is a huge challenge for the winter gardener.  However, garland chrysanthemum can be grown here early spring through late fall.


Karen Joy said...

I'm wondering if Shungiku/Garland Chrysanthemum is effective at repelling garden pests, as well? Many natural pesticides are made out of chrysanthemum extract. I received Shungiku in a CSA share, and when I have my full garden up and running, I think I will plant these! I love the taste, and having them repel (at least potentially) "bad" bugs AND be an ornamental later in the season are all really appealing reasons to grow it.

Harvest said...

I have grown these over many of their generations, and I personally rather doubt that they are insecticidal, at least not to any great degree. Slugs and snails will eat them with relish. If earwigs or sow bugs are overpopulated--they will devour them also. I grow a rather bland selection however, and I do understand there are more robust flavored and scented varieties which I suspect might be better as pest repellants. However, the flowers do attract beneficial insects and that is a boon to the garden environment.

Generally speaking, I would suspect that plants that are strongly insecticidal (as opposed to simply being repellant)might not make good choices for our personal diets--outside some minor medicinal use or occasional use as a flavoring. A substance that is actually poisonous to one species is likely to have at least some unwelcome affects on other species, possibly including ourselves . . .

Anonymous said...

hello - we use chrysanthemum in sukiyaki and other cook-at-the table hot pot dishes. It really is delicious and makes a nice change from the usual western greens.
I have found seed packets for them in most large asian supermarkets.

Harvest said...

Thanks for the tip on finding seeds! I love browsing the seeds in specialty ethnic markets! So many lovely fun things to try!

Unknown said...

Very interesting post, thanks for the information! One note: some varieties of garland chrysanthemum do self-seed exceptionally well, and the species is actually colonizing disturbed areas and open spaces here in California and many other states. It can form dense stands of individuals and crowd out native annuals (such as our beloved poppies and other wildflowers) due to its fast growth rates. Like fennel, we would recommend that gardeners who live close to wild, natural areas manage the seeds carefully so that they don't escape and become invasive.