It’s been a while since I’ve trotted out some neat plants, and probably about as long since I’ve written about some interesting edibles. So, in this installment of Three Neat Plants, I present to you a trio of intriguing vegetables.
First up is one I mentioned in my last post. Like many heirloom vegetables, it travels under a variety of names: in this case, Vigna unguiculata ‘Pretzel Bean’, V. unguiculata ‘Ram’s Horn Bean’, or simply pretzel bean or ram’s horn bean. To further confuse matters, it’s in a different genus than ordinary garden beans (Phaseolus). Crops in the species Vigna unguiculata – which used to be known as Dolichos unguiculata – are most commonly known as cowpeas, southern peas, or black-eyed peas, but plants known as asparagus beans, yardlong beans, and noodle beans (like ‘Red Noodle’, below) also belong here.
Well, the names may be muddled, but once you see pretzel beans (or whatever you want to call them), you won’t confuse them with anything else.
According to the 1920 English edition of The Vegetable Garden by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux, “Ram’s-horn bean” was introduced years before that book was released, and it’s also mentioned in the 1881 edition of Henderson’s Handbook of Plants by Peter Henderson (as Dolichos bicontortis),so it’s been around for a good while. After searching for the seeds for many years, I finally scored some from Amishland Seeds this past spring.
The twining vines started flowering when they were less than 2 feet tall, and they kept blooming and setting pods until frost. (At that point, the vines had outgrown their 4-foot cage and had flung themselves onto a nearby currant bush, for a total height of 6 to 7 feet.) The buds turn from green to ivory, and then open to pinkish purple flowers…
…which quickly begin forming pods.
The developing pods start out straight but soon curve downward and then curl back in.
Picked at this stage, the fresh pods have a nice crunch and pretty good beany flavor. (To be honest, I nibbled only on one or two, because I wanted to harvest as many seeds as possible.)
The maturing pods soon turn yellow and eventually dry to brown, so they look even more pretzel-like. Some of the flowering shoots produce only one or two pairs of flowers. Others bear multiple pairs that open in stages, so you get pods in a range of colors in each cluster.
The clusters of pods form on 6- to 8-inch long stems, which makes harvesting the mature pods super-easy. I waited until all of the pods in each group were evenly brown and hard, then snipped off their stem at the main vine and stuck them in a vase to dry.
The pods are sturdy enough that if you crack them carefully, they’ll keep their shape even after you remove the seeds, so you can use them for crafts or general silliness.
The seeds are edible too, but as I’ve given away all but a few of them, I can’t speak to the flavor or how best to prepare them.
My pretzel beans weren’t noticeably bothered by pests, though ants liked to hang out around the flowers. (You can see them if you look closely at the flower pictures above.) A few references indicate that ants pollinate the flowers of another species of Vigna –V. caracalla, a.k.a. corkscrew or snail vine – and as I didn’t notice any aphids on the plants, I’m guessing that that’s what the ants were doing on the pretzel beans.
I’ve written before about some oddball tomatoes, in The Novelty Factor. Normally, you’d grow tomatoes for their flavor, of course, but if you have nothing better to do, you can also try varieties with interesting foliage.
Most tomatoes are “regular-leaf” varieties, with relatively slender, toothed leaflets.
Above is ‘Variegata’; below is ‘Silvery Fir Tree’. These are both regular-leaf varieties.
Other tomatoes are “potato-leaf” types, with distinctly broader leaflets that have smoother edges, like the leaf on the left below (of ‘Galina’s Yellow’).
I’ve been growing tomatoes since I was a kid, so I can’t even remember how long ago it was that I noticed these different leaf types, though it took me a while to find out that they actually had names. What I didn’t know until this year is that there is such a thing as an “angora” tomato: an extra-fuzzy version of a regular-leaf tomato. You can see an example on the right, above.
Last winter, a Hayefield reader (thanks, RH!) sent me seeds of ‘Velue Striée’ (which sounds ever so much more elegant than the English ‘Hairy Streaked’).
The foliage, stems, and buds of this angora tomato are densely covered with short, velvety hairs, giving the plant a distinct grayish cast.
Oh, yeah – it does set fruit too, if that matters to you. The unripe tomatoes are quite attractive…
…and so are the ripe fruits.
The flavor? That’s a good question, but I really can’t answer it fairly. As much as I enjoyed growing and petting the plants, they had one curious trait: the ripening fruits were absolute magnets for leaf-footed bugs. These pests didn’t bother any of the eight other tomato varieties I was growing in the same area, but on ‘Velue Striée’, the fruits were so damaged that I didn’t get to taste any until right before frost, and that one (the one above) really didn’t have much flavor at all.
So, why did I ever bother mentioning ‘Velue Striée’ as a Neat Plant? Well, if you like unusual edibles enough to grow other oddballs, this one definitely qualifies, and maybe you wouldn’t have the same pest problem in your garden (or maybe you’d be willing to take steps to deal with it). Seeds of ‘Velue Striée’ are available from Heritage Tomato Seed. There are also some other angora tomato varieties you could try instead, such as ‘Angora Orange’ and ‘Angora Super Sweet’.
And for dessert, how about a little fruit, in the form of ground cherries?
The name confusion around ground cherries is even more muddled than that of pretzel beans. The first time I grew them was around seven years ago, as ‘Aunt Molly’s’ ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) from Seed Savers Exchange.
They reseeded for a while and then disappeared. A few years ago, I ordered “pineapple tomatillo” from Pinetree Garden Seeds on a whim, and it turned out to be very similar, if not identical, to my old friend ‘Aunt Molly’s’.
For a jump start, you can sow the seeds indoors in early to midspring as you would tomatoes; or, simply sow them directly in the garden. (The plants are likely to seed around, so after the first year, you probably won’t have to think about planting them again for a while.)
Ground cherries start flowering quickly and keep producing fruit until frost. It’s a good thing that they’re productive, because there’s really nothing very pretty about the plants: the light yellow flowers are small and mostly hidden under the leaves. They develop into round fruits inside of a green husk that ages to tan. (Little wonder that ground cherries are sometimes called “husk tomatoes.” They’re not tomatoes, however, though they are in the same family.)
The developing fruits of ground cherry look something like those of Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi), but the latter has orange husks.
Here, the plants usually get 1 to 2 feet tall. As you can see, they’re not very ornamental. And flea beetles love the leaves, so the foliage frequently looks very “holey.”
If you’re thinking that they look a lot like weeds, you’d be right: ground cherries do grow wild in many parts of the U.S.. The flavor is variable, though, so if you want to give ground cherries a try, I’d suggest buying seeds so you can have a better chance of getting a strain that other people seem to enjoy.
Aaaaand, that gets me to the quirky part about ground cherries: the flavor. It’s very hard to accurately describe – maybe a little like a regular cherry, if you use your imagination, or a sweet cherry tomato, but also with a touch of pineapple. The texture is kind of unusual, too: firmer than a real cherry – more like a crispy green grape or a gooseberry – and with lots of seeds. The seeds are soft and tiny, so you just crunch them up when you chew, but they do add a bit of something to the experience.
I don’t suppose all that adds up to a rousing recommendation, does it? But really, I think that ground cherries are worth growing at least once, so you can taste them for yourself and see what you think. You rarely see the fruits for sale in grocery stores, but as they’re pretty popular with the PA Dutch folks in this area, we can sometimes find them in local farm stands. And in late summer to early fall, ground cherry aficionados flock to area diners for ground cherry pie.
I’ve always eaten my ground cherries straight from the plant (or rather, from the ground), so for the sake of research, I bought my first ground cherry pie this year. I can’t say I’m a big fan: one slice was enough for me. But there are lots of different recipes, of course, so maybe it’s just a matter of experimenting. Apparently they can also be interesting in chutneys and jams as well.
As I mentioned, though, my favorite way to eat ground cherries is to wait until they drop from the plant, then peel back the papery husk and eat the ripe fruit right in the garden. You don’t even need to think about cleaning them first, since they come individually wrapped!
If my wishy-washy description hasn’t scared you off, you can find seeds of ground cherries from a number of sources, including Pinetree Garden Seeds (as pineapple tomatillo) and Trade Winds Fruit (as Aunt Molly’s ground cherry). Territorial Seed Company lists pineapple ground cherry and ‘Aunt Molly’s’ ground cherry separately, so you could do a side-by-side taste test if you’re feeling adventurous.
Speaking of seeds…it was so exciting to see the amazing response to the seed offer in my last post. The seeds are now all divided, packed up, and ready to head out to their new homes, so they should be arriving in the next week or two. I did my best to fill all of the orders fairly, and though I couldn’t provide large quantities, and sometimes I wasn’t able to provide all of the seeds each person asked for, I hope you’ll have a good time trying out what you get!