This article originally appeared in North Journal, Issue 8
I've always been intrigued by the place where things converge. The borderlines, the fringe, the blurry space where one thing ends and other begins. Interesting things happen there. As in, awesome plant-y things. One such place is in the coastal dunes, where the sugar-like sand gives way to the loamy soil of temperate forests. There, you might come across some creeping Warrigal Greens.
Considered a native spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides is a green, leafy, wandering plant that some consider a weed, and some say we should be paying closer attention to. Why? Because it's an Australian native, grows easily, and has evolved over tens of thousands of years to our climate and soil conditions. Described as a native spinach, warrigal greens are characterised by spear shaped leaves, which are slightly thicker and crunchier than European spinach, and covered in tiny papillae, giving them the appearance of being lightly frosted. Their preferred habitat is in the sandy soils of shady coastal forests and along the banks of creeks and riverbeds.
Living on this borderline between coast and land lends to their ability to withstand harsh, salty conditions while still being fleshy, succulent and highly nutritious. In fact, you can taste the salt of the ocean in their leaves when eaten raw, although this isn't recommended in high doses. Their leaves contain oxalates, so the best way to enjoy them is to blanch them in boiled water first to flush out the toxins. High in vitamins A and C, and with an optimal calcium to phosphorus balance, blanching them makes their vitamin C content more readily available, ensuring optimal calcium absorption. Yum.
Warrigal greens have become something of a treat in our household, ever since I came across them at a farmers' market. After sampling them from the relative safety of the pre-packaged bag, I mustered up the courage to start looking for these in the wild. Since then, I've noticed them everywhere, on camping trips and even at our local beach. The great thing about warrigal greens is that they self-seed and grow abundantly in their preferred habitats, so there's a good chance you'll find them around.
Now if you don't know already, I get really excited about foraging and finding plant foods and medicine in the wild. It's food! For free! In the wild! Foraging for interesting plants has become somewhat of a 'thing' lately, especially amongst the gourmet chef crew, which is great for all of us willing to try them. Tempura salt bush with aioli, anyone? You might notice tetragonioides popping up not only at farmers' markets but also on menus around the place, however if you really want the full experience you could go and pick your own. Their distinct looking leaves means there's a low chance of misidentification and if found in remote areas, they are pretty much guaranteed to be free of any pesticides. If harvesting from populated areas, check with the local council first to see if any spraying has been done recently, and observe the environment they are growing in.
If you are into the idea of foraging, chances are this is because you love plants and love the idea of harvesting them in the wild. So you will probably be down with the idea of stewardship as well. This basically means that we, as stewards of the land, have a duty of care to look after it and all the plants and animals that live off it. So when foraging, take only what you need and always leave enough so that the plant can keep on keeping on. Even better, you could take some cuttings or seeds and propagate your very own patch of greens in your backyard. Better still, share cuttings with your friends.
It's always a good idea to grow plants that are adapted to the local environment because they waste less resources, and these are the perfect example. They like sandy, poor quality soil, don't require any fertilising and are drought resistant. What's stopping people growing and eating these plants? It's purely a matter of taste. Although some native fruits, nuts and vegetables have made it into our staple diets, so much of what is on offer is left unexplored, purely because of people's accustomed tastes. It seems there is a bit of a stigma attached to Australian natives, or it might be because they are relative newcomers to the game. There is definitely a bit of a shift of focus happening though, and for any keen foodie or gardener you may have just found your new plant best friend.
You can prepare warrigal greens much like any other spinach or kale. They would work great in frittatas, curries, stir fries and the like. Or even better, sautéed with some butter over a camp fire only meters away from where they have been picked. As mentioned, because of the high oxalate levels it's a good idea to sauté them first. Fun fact: raw spinach also contains oxalic acid so it's best not to have too many raw green smoothies or you might wind up with kidney stones. Ouch. Here's a recipe to try the next time you come across these hardy little guys merrily hanging about in the temperate zone.
WARRIGAL GREENS WITH FIRE ROASTED CORN & ASH POTATOES
- 1 x knob of Pepe Saya butter
- 100g of Warrigal Greens (around two large handfuls)
- 2 x cobs of corn, husks intact
- 2 x large King Edward potatoes, skin on
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Build a fire. Wait until the wood has turned to coals and there are some nice chunks of coal smouldering away in a bed of ash.
- Spread some butter onto the corn kernels, then making sure the husks are covering them completely, place the cobs into the ash as close to the flames as possible without fully submerging them. They want to be occasionally licked by flames, but not on fire.
- Wrap the potatoes in aluminium foil, then burrow into the ashes closest to coals which are still smouldering.
- Turn the corn and potatoes occasionally, and continue to cook for around 20 minutes until tender.
- When the corn and potatoes are about 5 minutes away from being ready, boil some lightly salted water over the fire in a billy (or a saucepan if you're being fancy). Blanch the warrigal greens, drain, and place immediately onto plates. Dot with butter.
- Once the corn and potatoes are ready, remove from the fire, and dot with the remaining butter. Season to taste.
Note: If you haven't tried Pepe Saya butter as yet and you balk at the idea of spending $7 on butter, consider it an investment in your health and your taste buds. It's high in probiotics, comes from pasture-fed as opposed to grain fed cows and has a high burning point.