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Common names: black bryony, lady’s-seal, black bindweed.
Features: perennial herbaceous plant with a strong fleshy root, similar to a tuber, where, in spring, erect stems grow, similar to the shoots of the asparagus but with a curved apex; the stems grow twisted on the nearby shrubs.
The leaves are alternate with a long stem and a heart-shaped edge, the apex is sharp, the margin is entire, the young leaves surface is shiny and then becomes opaque; the main veins start all from the base and gather at the apex. Unisexual flowers are grouped in axillary racemes, male flowers are elongated, while female flowers are short. The perianth is pale green, with 6 perpendicular campanulate laciniae.
The fruit, originated from the female flowers, is a red spherical berry containing three to six small round seeds; it can be confused with that of red bryony (Bryonia dioica) and is equally poisonous.
Habitat: woods, vegetation, hedges.
AMSL 0-800 m
Flowering time: April to May
Medicinal properties: emetic, purgative, stimulant. (Drug used: the root).
As a food: poisonous plant; the fruits can be deadly. However, the young shoots are widely used and consumed like those of hops or common asparagus.
BLACK BRYONY (TAMUS COMMUNIS)
BLACK BRYONY, FLOWERS
BLACK BRYONY, FRUITS
BLACK BRYONY, LEAF
Common names: black cumin, blackseed, black caraway, great pignut.
Features: perennial plant characterised by a brown globose tuber at the base with a diameter of 2 to 4 cm. Annual cylindrical stem, 30 to 60 cm high, usually branched, willowy at the base. Two seven times pinnate lower leaves with linear segments, while upper leaves are just pinnate. 10-20 ray umbels; 5-10 pendants or reflected bracts, white petals; elliptical achene with a peduncle slightly dented on the inside.
Habitat: wheat fields, heavy soil.
AMSL 400-1900 m
Flowering time: May to July
Medicinal properties: slightly astringent.
As a food: the tuber, properly boiled and then seasoned to taste, is really great as a food. The seeds and flowers are also used as a sauce as a substitute for cumin, while leaves are used to decorate dishes.
Notes from “Phytoalimurgia pedemontana”, by Oreste Mattirolo and Bruno Gallino: after washing and cooking the tubercles, they become almost mushy. Crush them with a mortar, add salt to taste and mix everything with milk, or better with cream, then knead it with flour and shape the dough as you would do for hardtacks and bake them in the oven. Some also add sugar.
BLACK CUMIN (BUNIUM BULBOCASTANUM)
BLACK CUMIN, FLOWERS
BLACK CUMIN, TUBER
Family: Papilionaceae or Leguminosae
Common name: black locust
Features: deciduous tree 20 to 25 m tall. Erect, often bifurcated trunk with smooth branches and angular and hairy reddish-brown smaller branches, and robust spines on them. Grey-brown wrinkled bark, fissured as it gets older. Compound leaves, unevenly pinnate, 20 to 35 cm long, adorned with stipules transformed into long spines up to 2 cm long; characterised by 4 to 10 pairs of leaflets, slightly petiolate, oval or oblong, green on the upper side and opaque on the lower side.
Flowers: numerous and fragrant, arranged in long, pendulous racemes.
Fruits: sessile leathery legumes, linear (5-10 cm), compressed, reddish brown when ripe.
Habitat: hilly areas. Fast growing, weed.
Medicinal properties: the leaves are purgative and cholagogue.
As a food: the flowers are harvested before they open and are good without the stalks. They can be used to prepare delicious jams, to which it adds a pleasant taste and aroma.
Like elder flowers, but much better, sweeter and fragrant, the flowers of black locust can be dipped in batter and then fried in hot oil to prepare a tasty and delicious dish.
Notes: imported to Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century from the United States, by J. Robin, who took care of the botanical garden of the King of France, it was brought to Italy about two centuries later, but became quite important only a century ago. It is, indeed, a very frugal species suitable for any type of soil. With its extensive root system, it is used to consolidate landslides and unstable slopes. Unfortunately, it is a very invasive tree, which often tends to expand its presence to the detriment of native species. Its white flowers, arranged in fragrant bunches, attract bees, which produce a type of single flower, light, fluid and very popular honey.
Warning: do not use golden chain flowers (Laburnum, see picture), which are similar to those of black locust, even though they are yellow. They are poisonous.
BLACK LOCUST (ROBINIA PSEUDOACACIA)
GOLDEN CHAIN (LABURNUM), PHOTOGRAPH by MARINELLA ZEPIGI, AMINT
Common names: bladder campion, maidenstears.
Features: this plant can reach a height of 50 to 60 cm, with thin and erect floral stems. Its green-ash grey leaves are opposite, oval, almost without a petiole. Its white flowers are arranged on the top of the stems.
Synonyms:S. cucubalus, S. inflata.
Habitat: meadows, wasteland and lawns.
AMSL 0-2800 m
Flowering time: May to October
Medicinal properties: it is not used in herbal medicine, but is great as a food.
As a food: although little known as an edible plant, bladder campion, with its delicate flavour, is one of the most delicious wild plants. Its tender shoots, harvested in spring (length: 5 to 6 cm, must be boiled for a few minutes in water and are great as a side dish along with eggs or other dishes, just like spinach. The same are also used to prepare delicate risottos, omelettes and seasonal soups. To really appreciate the flavour of bladder campion, it must be harvested in time, namely before the shoot hardens. If used to prepare risottos, we recommend cooking the rice in the water where the plant was boiled, this way the dish will be definitely tastier. If used as cooked vegetable, add olive oil and a pinch of salt. Do not add vinegar or you will cover its flavour.
In spring, young cimette (the tips) are used as a food and, if gently rubbed, they make a distinctive noise called “scruscet” in the Piedmontese dialect.
Cutting the plant does not damage it, since it grows and flowers continuously. Once you identify the plant, remember where it is located and do not eradicate it, so as to have always have fresh vegetables.
Recipes 23 - 27
BLADDER CAMPION (SILENE VULGARIS)
BLADDER CAMPION, FLOWERS
Aruncus dioicus (Walter) Fernald
Common name: buck’s-beard; in Italy it is improperly called “wild asparagus”
Synonym: Spiraea Aruncus
Features: robust, herbaceous perennial plant up to 2 m high, with erect and poorly branched stems. The rhizome is woody with brown scales. Simple erect stem. The inflorescence consists of elegant panicles of small white flowers. The large leaves arranged in a triangle and up to 1 m high are petiolate; the leaf blade is 2 to 3 times pinnate with lanceolate segments; the largest is 5-8 cm, serrate on the edge, with a sharp apex. Its fruits are long brown follicles.
Habitat: sub-mountain woodlands; moist lands
AMSL 0-1500 m
Flowering time: June to July
Medicinal properties: expectorant, antipyretic, tonic and astringent.
As a food: its young reddish sprouts are edible and grow in April at the root collar, attached to the base of the previous year’s stubbles. They can be cooked like asparagus; they are pleasantly bitter, great for omelettes and delicious if preserved in oil.
Notes: in some regions, buck’s-beard is included in the list of protected wild plants, while in other areas the consumption of sprouts is part of the local culinary tradition; for this reason, notwithstanding the regional law protecting this species, this plant can be harvested for family use.
Knowing how to recognise this plant when still young is extremely important, because a mistake could be fatal. Only in the summer of 2005, in Val Camonica (Italy), 2 people died and 15 were intoxicated, with kidney damage as an after-effect, after harvesting - and eating - young sprouts of monkshood (Aconitum napellus, a deadly plant for which there is no antidote) instead of young sprouts of buck’s-beard (data from the Poison Control Centre of Niguarda Hospital, Milan).
BUCK’S-BEARD (ARUNCUS DIOICUS)
Fagopyrum esculentum Moench.
Common name: buckwheat
Features: an annual herbaceous plant that can be 60 to 100 cm high, with many ramifications, ovate-triangular leaves, white-pink or red flowers in racemes. Buckwheat goes through its life cycle quickly, so there is little time to make up for delays in development.
Habitat: anthropogenic (man-made or disturbed habitats), meadows and fields.
AMSL 500-1500 m
Flowering time: July to October
Medicinal properties: its fruits are gluten-free, therefore suitable for celiac disease patients.
As a food: not spontaneous and curiously not a grass, as suggested by its common name, this is buckwheat. Its fruits are ground to obtain a flour characterised by a dark colour due to the presence of fragments of pericarp, used for many specialty foods such as dried pasta, sweets, polenta and food products for breakfast.
Buckwheat flour is used for human consumption, normally in mixtures along with corn or wheat, for the preparation of polenta taragna, pizzoccheri and various sweets.
Other products such as hulled buckwheat, to be used as pearl barley for soups, and buckwheat flakes, obtained by crushing the achenes, are now becoming quite popular.
BUCKWHEAT (FAGOPYRUM ESCULENTUM)
Common names: chickweed, chickenwort, craches, maruns, winterweed.
Features: annual, sometimes perennial herbaceous plant, more or less prostrate, rooting at the nodes; fragile stems, sometimes reddish and very branched (the branches can be up to 80 cm long), thin roots.
The leaves are oval-elliptic with a rounded or heart shaped base; the apex is sharpened, the edge is complete; the stalk is short and hairy at the lower leaves, while there is no stalk at the upper leaves.
Its small white flowers have a calyx of five free sepals, a corolla with 5 free petals and two lobes; they close when it is about to rain and at night an then re-open in the morning.
The fruit is an oval-oblong capsule that, when ripe, splits into six parts up to its mid; it contains many reddish-brown or black flattened seeds.
Habitat: everywhere, especially in winter months; weed.
AMSL 0-1600 m
Flowering time: throughout the year
Medicinal properties: astringent, vulnerary, diuretic. (Drug used: the aerial part of the plant).
As a food: raw tops are used to prepare salads. They remain crisp even when cooked.
Notes: among the many recipes of the Lunigiana (Italy) we find a “herbal soup”, whose ingredients include chickweed.
CHICKWEED (STELLARIA MEDIA)
Common name: chicory
Features: perennial plant with a thickened rhizome that reaches the bottom with a tap-root; it can be up to 1,50m high. The genus name is that of the Greek plant, while the species takes its name from a Latin word. The basal leaves, grouped in a rosette, sprout in autumn, last all winter and dry out during flowering time; the shape is not always the same, the contour is elongated and lanceolate with a variously marked edge. The stem leaves are gradually smaller, sessile and amplexicaul. The surface of the leaves can be hairless, like that of many cultivated forms, or hairy, like that of the wild plants.
Flowers arranged in many, sessile or stalked flower heads with a deep blue corolla. The fruit is an achene with a pappus forming a short apical crown.
Habitat: wastelands, ruins and roadsides.
AMSL 0-1200 m
Flowering time: July to October
Medicinal properties: depurative, bitter tonic, diuretic and digestive. The leaves of chicory are used to prepare an infusion that can stimulate the bowel, liver and kidney function, with a depurative and detoxifying effect, also reflected in the skin appearance. (Drugs used: roots and leaves).
As a food: chicory owes its fame to its leaves, used in salads, and its roots, once used as a substitute for coffee.
The same therapeutic properties may also be obtained by using fresh leaves (or cooked) in little seasoned salads, with the advantage of fully exploiting its content of salts and vitamins. The roots of chicory have basically the same properties of the leaves.
CHICORY (CICHORIUM INTYBUS L.)
Common name: chives
Features: perennial herbaceous plant with an ovoid bulb wrapped in brownish-grey tunics. Cylindrical hollow leaves, 20-40 cm long; erect and tubular flowering stem approximately of the same length.
Many pink-purple flowers, gathered in a nearly spherical inflorescence.
Habitat: wet meadows
AMSL 600-2600 m
Flowering time: June to August
Medicinal properties: stimulant, digestive, antiseptic, detoxifying. (Drug used: leaves).
As a food: fresh leaves are used (alone or along with other herbs) to flavour fish dishes, boiled potatoes, salads and soft cream cheeses ideal for delicious canapés. Its flowers are dibble too, and are used to decorate salads, appetizers and so on.
Chives may be substituted for onions, but are definitely more digestible.
Notes: news about its use in medicine as an antidote against poison and to stop bleeding date back to 3000 BC. According to tradition, this herb was also used to get rid of sooty mold affecting roses.
Recipes2 - 27 - 29
CHIVES (ALLIUM SCHOENOPRASUM)
Common names: common bistort, snakeweed, poor man’s cabbage, snakeroot, oderwort, meadow bistort, and many others.
Features: herbaceous plant with simple and erect stems, up to 70 cm high, with horizontal rhizome, usually folded or twice-twisted, hence the name “bistort”.
The basal leaves, up to 25 cm long, have a long stalk, are oblong and lanceolate and the base is often heart-shaped. Cauline leaves are smaller and more or less sessile; the edge is often wavy.
The flowers are grouped in a dense spike inflorescence, up to 10 cm long, placed at the end of the stem. They consist of five sepals, usually bright pink, sometimes lighter and rarely almost white.
The fruit is a smooth, shiny brown achene with triangular sides.
Habitat: wet meadows and pastures rich in nitrates, fresh wood clearings.
AMSL 900-2000 m
Flowering time: July to August
Medicinal properties: astringent, anti-inflammatory, soothing, anti-diarrheal. (Drug used: leaves and rhizome).
As a food: The young leaves are commonly used cooked, as spinach, or raw in mixed salads. In the past, the toasted root was used to make bread.
COMMON BISTORT (POLYGONUM BISTORTA)
COMMON BISTORT, FLOWER
Common names: corn salad, common corn salad, lamb’s lettuce.
Features: perennial plant with herbaceous stems. The lower leaves, spatulate-oblong, are gathered in a rosette, while higher leaves are sharp-toothed. The flowers are gathered in blue, sometimes whitish corymbs.
Habitat: fields and uncultivated grasslands, as well as vineyards
AMSL 0-1400 m
Flowering time: April to May
Medicinal properties: it has antiscorbutic properties for its high content of vitamin C.
As a food: