Botanical Basics

Urso Ivkovik gives us the botanical basics of gardening, foraging and herbalism in a new series of articles.

For a decade, botany has been my passion, so let us delve in and learn botanical basics without further ado. There are amazing benefits to consuming the different edible weeds offered by nature. They are free of charge if you only take time to pay attention to our green universe!

As we get further into 2021, some may say we are in a health crisis. I would call it a health opportunity. It would be a positive approach to move towards solution-based thinking, right?

Let’s look at what nature offers us, here in the western Algarve, after three solid months of tropical-like rainfall. First, we all know how winter here assumes spring-like properties. It is now the Algarve’s plant life wakes up and shoots new growth.

The first weed (erva daninha) on our list is both loved and hated. It is the Algarvian omnipresent green Oxalis acetosella, also known as wood sorrel, African wood sorrel, sourgrass, Bermuda buttercup and Batatas de Monchique.

The plant supposedly originated in the Cape region in South Africa. Looking at how other South African plants and shrubs adore the Algarve, it is no wonder this plant found suitable conditions and spreads with such rigour. It makes ornamental gardeners agitated at times, yet leaves others, like me, in total awe. This marvellous little winter companion is both a decorative and edible cover crop. The last time I talked to local bees, they gave it a high-five as well.

People often confuse it with actual clover. Botanically speaking, it has nothing to do with real clover, although we might say it has “clovered” the Algarve right now pretty darn well!

They are known locally as Batatas de Monchique. In times of scarcity, like war times, people would dig them up and collect the small bulbs, and cook them because of their nutritional value and calories. Wild boars (javali) are also looking for their share of free food from nature, so if you are not eating it, drinking it, or weeding it from the edges of your garden then be aware that wild pigs love to indulge in this treat.

It is an abundant crop for edible use, especially as it regrows even after the upper parts are cut. All parts can be used: leaves, stems, flowers, and even bulbs. You can eat the stems, either boiled or raw, which give a delicious lemony flavour. The leaves also make a refreshing, thirst-quenching broth or can be added to salads, soups, sauces. The dried plant can be used as a curdling agent for plant milk, though I have not tried it as a thickener yet.

The leaves contain oxalic acid, which gives them their sharp flavour. Perfectly all right in small quantities, but it would be overpowering in large amounts. It is healthiest and most tasty when mixed with few other wild edibles in your salad or cooked dish, such as mashed potatoes with added wild greens. A perfect winter locally sourced dish, Yummy.

Due to the quantity of oxalic acid in the leaves, people with a tendency to rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones, gastritis, a calculus condition or hyperacidity should take special caution. The acid will, however, reduce if cooked. The gorgeous yellow flowers have a decorative value too, to adorn your dining table, but they can also be eaten raw.

Medicinally this plant should be used in moderation, meaning not every day for long periods. It can be made into a tea that could be used to treat fevers, alleviating the thirst and allaying the fever. The leaves can also be crushed and applied locally to dispel boils and abscesses; they also have an astringent effect on wounds.

If you wish to observe nature rather than eating it, just watch how the flowers open up and stand tall and proud on a sunny day having fun with insects and bees. Once darkness sets in they close up and go to sleep. Most shall disappear by mid-spring, when they put all their inner power into a tiny little brown starchy bulb, in a secure depth of warm humid deep layers of soil. In this way, it protects itself from the harsh dry conditions of upcoming summer, waiting for better days.


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