bitter greens

bitter greens

This time of year, I think of Rapunzel. I think of her mother, pregnant with her, so desperate for the taste of a particular salad green, thought to be Valerianella locusta, known as corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, mâche, but also perhaps parsley, ramps or rampion, that her husband was willing to give her unborn babe to the woman whose garden he’d been caught plundering for the sake of his wife’s health.

In Philip Pullman’s wonderful edition of the Brothers Grimm, it’s lamb’s lettuce growing in a neighbouring garden owned by a powerful witch:

One day the woman was standing at that window, and she saw a bed of lamb’s lettuce, or rapunzel. It looked so fresh and green that she longed to taste some, and this longing grew stronger every day, so that eventually she became really ill.

I also long for greens in early spring. Not the spring mix from plastic clamshells — somehow all those tiny leaves taste exactly the same and that taste is innocuous — or the bagged arugula, a most beautiful herb redolent of pepper and walnuts that needs sunlight and a bit of chill to really come into its own. I grow a couple of kinds but my favourite is one of the Diplotaxis spp., a wild-ish green with ferny leaves and a delicious spicy flavour. There are some 12th c. Italian texts called the Trotula, possibly the work of a woman doctor, that are considered the first specifically gynecological treatises and the wild arugula appears in them as a treatment for dysentery. So maybe arugula is a contender for the green that Rapunzel’s mother longed for? The garden her window overlooked, tended by that witch, was very likely a medicinal garden, and the witch was probably a herbalist.  There was wisdom in the growing of a variety of greens. Science now “tells” us what gardeners have always known: these plants contain so many important vitamins and elements necessary for heart health, muscle health, digestive function, vision, and more.

Yesterday I planted a bed of early greens. I have kale already and some miner’s lettuce —

miners lettuce.jpg

— as well as a blood-red sorrel. There are dandelions appearing by the garden paths and I planted their wild cousin, Cicoria selvatica da campo, for a reliable source of those bitter leaves. A newly-planted bed looks both plain and hopeful. Tiny seeds lovingly strewn in a shallow furrow, soil pressed over, labels tied onto bamboo sticks, a daily visit (or maybe even hourly) to see if anything has sprouted yet, and then one day, this:


And the greens are easy to grow. Many self-seed. That miner’s lettuce is growing in a tub on a deck by my kitchen so I can snip leaves for small dishes and there are seedlings coming up in neighbouring pots too. I also planted a row of it so we can have larger amounts of it in salad. The arugula self-sows and that Diplotaxis is a short-lived perennial in my garden; I’ve planted more because I never know how many of last year’s plants will have survived the winter (and this winter was severe). Kale — well, it’s everywhere. I’d like to grow watercress but I don’t have a damp enough area. I do know several places to gather it though. And it’s another contender for the plant Rapunzel’s mother craved. Which makes me wonder by Rapunzel’s father didn’t have a small garden patch of his own?

2 thoughts on “bitter greens”

  1. Yes, I’ve heard that! Also pennyroyal…And of course all of is true, isn’t it? A story always has at least a few dimensions. Perhaps the baby wasn’t wanted. And why was the husband so willing to barter away the child? (Maybe it wasn’t his?) Maybe the woman simply craved healthy greens. Maybe she was ill. Or crazy. And you never hear about the parents again. The Brothers Grimm had their fingers on the pulse, that’s for sure…

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