We have an abundance of low maintenance, perennial and self-seeding annual greens through most of the year. I eat salads and cooking greens almost every day as my primary veggies. We have a much more limited selection of other veggies, though--relatively few shoots, stalks, and flower buds. So I really appreciate fuki (Petasites japonicus) as a low maintenance, shade and chicken tolerant, leaf stalk and flower bud crop.
Fuki, also known as butterbur, hails from Japan, where people sometimes cultivate it for its edible flower stalks with flower buds, and 2-4' long leaf stalks. We planted a one gallon pot in 2007 in the back yard chicken free-range area, in the north quadrant of our Hollywood Plum tree circle. Before the existing mature trees on our property line leaf out, the fuki gets almost full sun in early spring, but by late spring receives only a few hours of afternoon sun. We also planted the native coltsfoot, Petasites frigidus, in the east quadrant of the same tree circle. (The coltsfoot has fared poorly, hanging on but not spreading, even with some fencing to partially protect it from the chickens. Another coltsfoot patch in the front yard has done a lot better.) Both plants prefer moist but well-drained soil with partial to full shade. I also placed a non-draining pot with the semi-aquatic plant sweet flag (Acorus calamus) in the west quadrant, with the plan to frequently top off the pot and water the Petasites species through the summer.
In practice, we find it too inconvenient to water consistently through the summer. Although the area lies more or less in zone 1, adjacent to the path we travel twice each day to the hen house, the garden hose moves around the yard, making it more difficult to water the moist zone as often as the plants would like. We probably give them water two to three times a week through the heat of the summer, more than the rest of the yard receives, but less than the daily watering they would prefer.
as shelter from rain and sun
Despite near daily wilting for months in a row, full-time chicken access, and our harvesting modest amounts of leaf stalks in past years, the fuki patch has lived up to its reputation as a rampant spreader! It now covers about 30 square feet, the maximum area I'd like it to occupy. Over the last few weeks we've harvested heavily from the edges to keep it in check, about 2-4 large leaf stalks every 2-4 days, averaging 3.25 ounces per day. The fuki keeps growing new stalks, and last year we harvested stalks til the end of July, so we have plenty more crop ahead of us. If we can't eat enough to keep up, we can propagate some for sale, and use it as a cut mulch, taking advantage of the large leaves for soil protection while knocking back its vigor.
After we planted our one gallon pot, we waited a year before harvesting. The first harvest in 2008 gave us a poor impression of the plant; it tasted very strong, very medicinal. We could only envision using it as a small addition to dishes, though I did find a mixture of fuki/angelica/rhubarb palatable enough in an interestingly flavored sort of way.
Fortunately, for the last three years (2009-present), the fuki has had a much milder flavor, very edible in larger amounts, especially with adequate cooking. In 2009 and 2010 I generally steamed the stalks for about 10 minutes without peeling them, and found them pretty good, but quite fibrous. This year I've taken the time to peel them fairly well before cooking, and I've increased the cooking time to 20-25 minutes, which makes them much more tender and very enjoyable in large amounts. I can eat about 3 stalks, or 9-10 ounces, as the veggie side dish to a meal. Fuki doesn't provide many calories--only 4 per ounce--so it definitely serves as a standard vegetable, providing the micronutrients vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and manganese, but not the macronutrients of fat, protein, and carbs.
We've eaten a few of the flower buds with stalks, which have a similar flavor and expand the season by appearing in February and March, a month before the leaf stalks come up and two months before the leaf stalks grow to full size. We have had some trouble with the chickens breaking off the flower stalks by scratching them, and kicking dirt onto the buds, which tend to trap the debris. We didn't have our rotating chicken paddocks implemented in time for the fuki flower buds, so the chickens may create less of a harvest problem in future years when they only visit the fuki one week out of three or four.
As always, see the Plants for a Future entry for lots more useful information!