Alison Tindale is here to tell us all about Chinese artichokes for Write Club 2011. Find her on Twitter as @backyardlarder. You may also enjoy her earlier guest post, Easy vegetables from the backyard larder.

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A few years ago I planted my first Chinese artichokes (Stachys affinis), bought from the Organic Gardening Catalogue, in the clay soil of my allotment. Not one of them came up. I reckon they rotted away – they like a rich but well-drained soil but I think I read this after planting and so dolloped some spare sand on top of the soil hoping the worms would take it down for me. Maybe they don’t do that.

Chinese artichokes have many other names including Japanese artichokes, knotweed and crosnes – pronounced ‘crones’ – after Crosnes in France to which village they were brought from Asia in the nineteenth century. They are popular in France but haven’t caught on in England yet, on account, I read, of being fiddly to clean and looking like fat white grubs. This much is revealed in a five minute Internet search and then endlessly repeated on other websites along with some more tantalising snippets.

“Chinese poets compare them to jade beads and give them poetic names such as kan lu, meaning sweet dew”. (I believe this comes originally from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book).

That set me on fire with curiosity and I clicked and clicked in search of that Chinese poet who looked at some knobbly tubers and saw precious jewels. I haven’t found the poem yet but will just have to keep hunting. That’s probably because my reaction today on finally digging up my first homegrown tubers was, “they look like strings of pearls not fat white grubs|. I hadn’t thought that when the tubers for planting had arrived from Poynztsfield Nursery in Scotland. But today I was beguiled: it was raining and the tubers had a fragile translucence about them. So that Chinese poet and I are buddies you see!

I brought them home and washed them. Not fiddly at all, although I made use of a tip gleaned from an allotment neighbour. One day I was confessing to sometimes throwing away tiny potatoes because they were a fiddle to wash. “Don’t do that,” she chided, “Do as we did as children. We were given a bucket of water with a bit of sand or grit in it, all the little potatoes went in that and we swirled them around with a stick until they were clean. They were lovely when they were cooked!” (Ken Fern, I notice, gives the same advice in ‘Plants for a Future’.

We ate some tubers raw (they can be steamed, boiled, fried or eaten raw) and most of my family liked them, the verdict being that they were like firm bean sprouts or very mild radish and that they would be nice in a salad. The surprising thing about them is their crispness – they break easily with a pleasing snap. Jane Grigson enthuses over their flavour and is definitely someone to go to for advice on how to prepare them.

Every garden could have a patch of these in the border (the flowers are quite attractive purple mint-like spears). They are easy to grow and can be dug up as you want them, like Jerusalem artichokes, as they are frost hardy. I think my somewhat neglected tubers were a bit on the small size and probably could have done with some soil enrichment but no pests had gone for them all summer and they formed quite a carpet and kept the weeds down. Just replant a few after you harvest, for next year’s crop. All in all, a perfect candidate for the perennial vegetable garden. I’m keen on easy homegrown food like this, being convinced that many people who don’t have much time for growing annual vegetables could harvest a lot of food from a range of easier perennial vegetables.

If you are interested in growing Chinese artichokes I will have some ready to send out in mid October. They will cost £5 incl. p&p for 15 tubers. I also have the following perennial vegetable plants available at present:

Babington Leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii) £5.00
Tree Onion (Allium cepa proliferum) £5.00
Wood Sorrel (Oxyria digyna) £4.00
Buckler-leaved Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) £4.00
Giant Chives (Allium schoenoprasum sibiricum) £4.00
Pink Purslane (Claytonia sibirica) £4.00.
Red Veined Sorrel – (Rumex sanguineus) £4.00
Musk Mallow (Malva moschata) £4.00
Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) £4.00
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) £4.00

Email to backyardlarder@tiscali.co.uk to check on availability and new plants. I am also on Twitter. 
(Prices include post and packing)
(50p reduction on total price for each additional plant)

Payment by Paypal to backyardlarder@tiscali.co.uk or ask for details for paying by cheque.