Thursday, June 03, 2010

Crop summary: Woodland chervil, Anthriscus sylvestris

(Picture shows black locust canopy with annual garden peas on the left, and woodland chervil on the right, taller with lacy leaves)

I got excited about Anthriscus sylvestris, "Woodland chervil" or "Cow parsley" after reading Patrick Whitefield's "perennial alternative to annual chervil" description in How To Make a Forest Garden. I eventually established some plants in the heavily shaded area under our back yard fence-line black locust trees, where an initial few plants have multiplied into a dense thicket of mature plants and young seedlings. This proves woodland chervil's ability to grow and even thrive in dry shade--their position doesn't get much irrigation water from us, and the locust canopy above intercepts a lot of the scant late spring/early summer rainfall along with casting its dappled shade.

Woodland chervil puts out its carrot family flowers very early in spring, making it (with Myrrhis odorata, sweet cicely) a valuable beneficial insect nectary for that crucial time.

Unfortunately, the leaves, whether fresh and young, or older and mature, have a strong mostly unpleasant taste to my palate. I don't taste any of the aniseed flavor the annual chervil has, and notice that Ken Fern describes the leaves as tasting "somewhat less than wonderful." So although I might throw the leaves into a mixed salad in early spring when I don't have much else available, I don't see myself ever using the leaves very heavily.

I did plant a purple-leaved plant someone gave me, which she called woodland chervil. The leaves look much less divided to me than the regular plants, but otherwise I can believe I have the purple "Ravenswing" variety. The purple leaves taste much better to me than the regular plants, such that I think I could use them in bulk in a salad. But I need to verify that I'm working with the Anthriscus sylvestris species before I eat much of it.

I planted the original plants in the backyard chicken area, but just on the other side of a fence; they would not have established without protection. The mature plants might now coexist with the chickens if I removed the fence, but I'm sure their self-seeding would come to an end with all the scratching disturbance. Our chickens occasionally ate some of the regular green leaves early in the season, but they definitely don't devour the plants. So far my efforts to interest them in the green seeds have failed. I'll keep trying, especially with the mature seeds, in the hope that the plant may provide useful calorie-rich chicken fodder via its seeds.

I have nibbled a little myself on the immature seed. I haven't found any mentions of edibility of the seed, so I've only taken a few tastes so far, but I haven't suffered any ill effects. The seeds have some of the same flavor as the leaves, but not as strong and missing some crucial element that makes the leaves taste bad. I can see myself using the seeds in some bulk as a spice or garden snack. As the earliest seeds have matured, they've developed more fiber, so this use may end once they've passed beyond their green stage. Still, I sampled my first seeds almost three weeks ago, and the plants have more green seeds now and flowers getting ready to produce more seeds from scratch, so the season lasts a long time. Plus even fibrous mature seeds may work OK cooked in a dish.

Today I sampled two tiny roots for the first time, which Plants for a Future and other sources specifically list as edible. I really liked them! I took a couple of nibbles raw (though PFAF only lists them edible cooked), and found they had some of the same flavor as the leaves and seeds, but not terribly strong, and not with the extra unpleasant twist the leaves contain. I tasted some sweetness, too. I cooked the remaining root for a few minutes, then sampled again, and thought they'd lost some of their sweetness leaving them with just their strange but not-too-strong flavor. I don't think I would want to eat a big mess of 'em on their own. But I could easily see mixing them in with other roots or in a dish of some kind. We have a lot of young seedlings growing which will need thinning out for their own good, so I look forward to experimenting more with these and seeing how big their roots become and whether the taste changes.

I think I'll try introducing these into the shady, dry NE corner of our front yard, also under black locusts along the fence line. I'll use the better-tasting purple leaved variety if I can verify the species, since I would have much easier access to these plants in my daily greens-picking rounds than to the plants in the back yard. I haven't really figured out a good way to use that front NE area, but now I'm thinking a combination of woodland chervil; the existing edible rooted money plant (Lunaria annua, though the roots I've pulled out have never seemed very big); ground bean/hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata, already planted there and trying to establish a colony); and the native shoot/root/berry crop false solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum) may fill in the area well as an understory to the tree canopies.