April 23, 2017

Of Frogs and Tumbling Tumbleweed by the Sea

Saltwort

Janine Pineo Photo | Saltwort

• By Janine Pineo •

August is such a nice month.

The regular rain has kept the plants lush this year, and exulting in the moisture is a healthy crop of frogs that startle me every time I step foot into the vegetable garden. Their numbers no doubt were aided by my catching and releasing far, far away more than a half-dozen snakes earlier in the summer.

Those startle me more. And I like them a lot less than I like frogs.

There are also toads about, including an ash-gray one with black spots that can be found in the vicinity of the back deck every summer. Sometimes it will be roosting on a railing, sometimes in a plant pot.

One recent night, I left a sweater drying on a rack on the deck. Come morning, well wrapped up in the magenta folds was the toad. It stayed until the sweater was picked up.

Well, I couldn’t bring it inside, no matter how well-dressed it was.

Yes, August is quite the month.

The garden is full of beans and tomatoes, and a rather enormous batch of (almost) pickles is salted, awaiting its brine atop the stove.

Which brings us to tumbleweed.

Whoa, you say in your best cowboy twang, that’s quite a leap.

(You are getting all of the jumping amphibian references here, yes?)

Actually, tumbleweed has nothing to do with anything aforementioned, but that’s the way August is, hopping from one task to another and your brain not quite keeping up with all the things that need to be done.

So, about that tumbleweed.

This year and last I grew a tumbleweed relative. And ate it, too.

(It would seem that the tumbleweed you see blowing about in Westerns could be eaten by cattle and the like, if the like were desperate, and even we humans could eat it if only we had the wherewithal to give chase to gather the seeds and grind them up into flour. But I just can’t see me haring off after a tumbleweed. How about you?)

On the other hand, I would go to great lengths to grow Salsola komarovii, a plant native to the salt marshes of Japan. According to the Tokita Seed Co. Web site, records in Japan show that S. komarovii was cultivated and used as a vegetable by the 17th century.

The Japanese call it “okahijiki,” which seems to translate to land seaweed if all of the Internet references are true. It is used in salad and sushi.

Here in the States, the common name is saltwort.

I found the seeds for saltwort in the herb section of the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog last year and decided to try it, mostly because the description tempted me: “Long, succulent leaves with an incredibly appealing, crunchy texture.”

It also fascinated me that it likes saline soils but can grow anywhere.

The plant is a vibrant green and does, indeed, resemble something you might see growing at the seashore – another point in its favor for one who loves the ocean. The young leaves are tender and surprisingly crunchy given that the leaves are similar in shape to those of rosemary.

As the plant ages, the leaves become sharp – just last week I grabbed a piece to eat while roaming the garden and it momentarily felt like I’d poked my mouth with a needle – but those can be steamed and served as a vegetable side dish.

And it is quite the vegetable, full of Vitamin A, calcium and potassium.

Next year, I may try another tumbleweed family member. Salsola soda is an Italian variety, called “agretti.” Back in its 16th century day, agretti was burned to make what was called soda ash, which in turn was used to make the famed Murano and Venice glass. In 18th century Spain, S. soda was a major agricultural crop, used in the making of glass and soap.

Agretti is said to taste a bit like spinach. And if I don’t like it, then I can always burn it, gather the ashes and try my hand at glass-making.

For now, I have a batch of pickles to finish.

August. Such a crazy month.

That reminds me; in my next load of laundry, I’d better check the pants for that toad.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in August 2007.