Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pineapple Sage - one of the most delicious and useful herbs

I first heard about Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) on the internet somewhere and I was both intrigued and skeptical.  Everyone who wrote about growing or eating this plant raved about how great it is.  I wanted to try some but did not want to pay a fortune for one through some mail order and then find it did not smell like pineapple, or that it smelled of pineapple but the pineapple smell was overpowered by the smell of sage.  I was lucky enough to find a small plant for sale in a shop somewhere and was able to smell it before buying it.  It smelled delicious, just like sweet pineapple.  After smelling it I had to buy one and try and grow it.  I am happy to say that it was simple to grow and performed rather well even in my harsh climate.

Pineapple sage flowers are sweet and delicious, just like the leaves

Pineapple Sage is quite possibly my favourite herb.  Many herbs are meant to smell like something, and they do if you use your imagination and wish really hard, but pineapple sage is different.  Other things smell different depending on where or how they are grown, how much water they are given or even the time of day that you smell them, chocolate mint is a prime example of this.  Other herbs have faint scents, or they have the scent of its name sake but it has another smell that overpowers it.  Pineapple sage actually smells like pineapple.  It really does.  It is not a faint pineapple smell that also has a sage smell overpowering it, it smells strongly of pineapple and nothing else.

Pineapple sage, like many of the vegetables that are eaten in Australia, is native to Central and South America.  It is less hardy than regular sage, frost knocks it around a bit if not protected, and it needs a little more water than regular sage, but it is still worth growing.  I grow some in the garden, mulch it well and hope that when the tops get burned off by frost that the roots will survive and re-sprout in Spring.  As well as growing it in the garden I always have one or two in pots, that way if we do happen to get an especially hard frost that kills off the garden grown plants I still have one in a pot to start over with when the weather warms up again.  It is simple to propagate via cuttings, but they only seem to take for me during the cooler weather.

I love pineapple sage, after reading about it on the internet it seems that I am not alone in my love for this plant.  I would grow it simply to smell as I walk and brush past it.  Water is scarce out here so I would struggle trying to justify growing a plant that simply smells nice.  Luckily it is not just a nice smelling ornamental, the whole plant is edible and useful in a number of ways.

Both the leaves and flowers of this versatile plant are edible, the leaves are used to flavour meat, poultry and other main meals, it is used in 'herbal tea', used for sorbets as well as a large range of desserts.  The flowers can be added to drinks, jellies, jams, desserts and fruit salad.  My kids and I like to make 'tea' by steeping the leaves in hot water and adding some honey or sugar.  Even my eldest son Igloo, who is rather picky about drinking such things loves the smell and the taste of pineapple sage tea.  Igloo is trying to convince me to let him grow 100 pineapple sage plants in his little vegetable garden, perhaps we will start with one and see how he goes.

Pineapple sage is meant to deter some pest insects, so I grow a few in amongst the vegetables in the garden.  To be honest I do not know if it makes any real difference, but nothing seems to grow any worse by having pineapple sage next to it and it is good to have a few extra plants.  By hiding it in amongst the vegetables they seem to be slightly safer from children who love to steal the leaves to eat them or do whatever it is that kids do with nice smelling leaves.
Pineapple sage grows well in a pot or in the ground

Pineapple sage leaves are a nice shade of green, in Autumn to Winter it will flower with beautiful red flowers.  These flowers smell as delicious as the leaves and are often visited by honey bees and several other pollinators.  We have seen honey bees as well as nine different species of native bees on the pineapple sage flowers, they simple adore it.  By flowering in Autumn and Winter they provide food for pollinators and beneficial insects in a time when traditionally they do not have a lot of food available in this area.  If you can grow it in a protected spot where the frosts will not burn it you will have it flowering most of the way through winter.  This means that come Spring you have a large number of pollinators and predatory insects already living in the garden ready to pollinate flowers and take care of any insect pests that may be around.

According to the internet pineapple sage is extensively used in Mexican traditional medicine, especially for the treatment of anxiety, depression, stomach aches, evening out blood sugar and for lowering of blood pressure.  I can't comment on how effective it is, but Igloo does seem a lot calmer and happier after he has drank some pineapple sage tea.

I have seen a golden leaf form of pineapple sage, apparently it is the same as regular pineapple sage but looks a bit prettier.  Some day I hope to track it down and try to grow it as well, but for now I am happy with the regular pineapple sage.

If you have never grown pineapple sage you should try it. Your kids will thank you for it.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Tree Onions

Tree Onions

Tree Onions are also known as Egyptian Walking Onions or Topset Onions.  They are an old heirloom vegetable dating from back to at least the 1850's but their exact history prior to that has apparently been lost.  Originally thought to be Allium cepa var proliferum but now we know that they are a interspecific hybrid between Allium cepa (the common onion) and Allium fistulosum (bunching onion).

Apparently tree onions used to grow in every backyard vegetable garden in the past, but recently they have fallen out of favor and have all but disappeared in Australia.  Not surprisingly they are not well suited to mass mechanical production, so it is unlikely that you will find them in the supermarket, but they are very well suited to the home grower.

Tree Onions for sale in Australia
Bulbils on a flower stalk which have sent up a stalk of their own
How to grow tree onions

 I have put some notes on how to grow them here.  Basically they grow the same as any other onion, but are a lot hardier and more forgiving if things do not go well.  They prefer a moist but well draining soil with plenty of nutrients and no competition from weeds, but will survive pretty much anywhere that is not too wet.  Raising the pH of the soil is helpful for any onion, this can be done by adding ash from the fireplace or buying some lime.  I have been told to harvest the bulbs when the stalks dry down, but this may or may not happen.  We harvest after flowering when the bulbs look larger, or whenever the bulb looks large enough to bother digging it up.  Sometimes in late summer I stop watering them so that they dry down for me, this seems to work.
Perennial vegetables
Tree onions in less than ideal conditions

How to multiply tree onions

Tree onions reproduce vegetatively, do not  set viable seed and will not cross pollinate any other type of onion you may be growing.  As they reproduce vegetatively they are stable and will always grow true to type, as such they are one of the very few hybrids that I will bother growing.  Just like all the other perennial vegetables I grow, they just keep doing their thing year after year just as long as I do not eat all of them.

Tree onions are kind of like potato onions in that they are edible perennial onions that can divide underground.  The bulbs are a little larger than potato onions, and they do not divide as much underground, and the leaves are much larger than potato onions so they are easy to tell apart.  The underground bulbs of the tree onions normally grow to around the size of a ping pong ball.

They then grow small onion bulbs, called bulbils, on top of the flower stalk.  These small bulbils sometimes then send up a flower stalk of their own which grows more smaller bulbils.  This strain sometimes produces some real flowers as well, but they wither and drop quickly as all the energy is directed to the growing bulbils.

Unfortunately the flowers are only around briefly and only on a few flower stalks, I am always busy when they are around so I have not had a good look at them.  I would be curious to know if tree onions display cytoplasmic male sterility or if it would be possible to remove the bulbils and get the flowers to set viable seed.  If they could produce seed (even with a fair amount of intervention on my behalf) I would love to try and grow some out and see if I could produce some new varieties of tree onions.  But that is a project for Future Damo as I have a lot of other things going on that are more important at the moment.

The bulbils normally reach the size of a marble or a pea as the climate is so harsh here, I have seen them far larger when grown in more mild climates.  If the bulbils touch the soil they grow roots surprising fast.  When I have broken some of the bulbils off and planted them they always have roots by the following morning.  The roots of tree onions grow deep, far deeper than you would expect from such a small plant and certainly a lot deeper than any other onion I know of. 

Permaculture Vegetables Australia
Tree Onion bulbils just starting to grow

What Tree Onions are used for

The entire plant is edible, we use the bulbs in any recipe that calls for onion, if eaten straight away they can be a little insipid, if stored for a while they tend to taste a lot stronger.  The green parts can replace spring onions (we generally use the Everlasting onions for this though), and I am told that the bulbils are good pickled but am yet to try that myself.

The bulbils can be picked before they sprout and stored for many months, so far I don't bother doing this and just plant them when I find time, if I don't find time they plant themselves and I just transplant them when I get around to it.  The underground bulbs are meant to store for up to 18 months, I can't comment on this as I have not tried to store any because we just dig them up to eat as needed.  That is the beauty of perennial vegetables, many of them do not need to be stored and can simply be dug up, broken off, pulled out, or cut down and cooked when they are needed.

As well as being edible, tree onions are a garden curiosity that always attract comments from people who see them.  Children love to grow tree onions even if they have no desire to eat them.
tree onion bulbils
Small tree onion bulbils, they grow far larger than this
Tree onions are very hardy!

Tree onions are very hardy little plants, they have survived drought, flood, severe heat, and hard frosts here and still gone on to produce a decent crop. They are pretty much impossible to kill by mistake.  Last year I lost most of my regular onions (as well as potato onions and a bunch of other things) to the drought and crazy heat, but the tree onions were happy, I put that down to their deep roots.  They can also be grown in pots, the roots seem to either go through the drainage hole into soil below, or the roots stop growing if the pot is off the ground and they they hit air.  If the pot is too small they tend to get very root bound and survive, but they do not often end up giving a large crop.  Even though they are very productive and hardy I don't think they pose a weed threat at all.  If you do not want any more it is simple to remove flower stalks, if you miss some and they happen to touch the soil and grow they are simply to pull up.  If any parts are left in the soil they do not tend to grow unless they have part of the base plate attached to a piece of bulb.

Perennail vegetables - plant once harvest forever
It is too dry for grass and weeds to survive, but tree onions go on strong

They are the cold hardiest of the onions and will survive in frozen ground for quite a long time.  As well as being productive little survivors they are unusual enough to be grown in a children's garden.  I have taught children who do not like onions, or any vegetables, beg me to let them grow these purely as a fun oddity.  I see that as a great way to teach kids about growing food.  Tree onions are very forgiving and will survive and produce at least some food even in the most neglected children's vegetable garden.

I first started growing tree onions when I was barely a teenager, I was fascinated by them, the thought of eating the underground bulb and replanting a small aerial bulb appealed to me.  Unfortunately I lost them when I left home, it took me a few years but I am glad that I was eventually able to track them down again.

I do sell tree onions from time to time on my For Sale page.