by Dr. David Trinklein, University of Missouri Division of Plant Sciences and Cathy Bylinowski, Horticulture Instructor, University of Missouri Extension
One of the joys of gardening is to try something new each year. Most vegetable gardens center on the gardener's favorites. Yet it can be both interesting and educational to try less common, unique vegetables to test your gardening skills and expand your culinary horizons.
Arugula- Gardeners who want greens quickly may select a few plants which normally can be harvested about six weeks after seeding. These include arugula, also known as roquette or garden rocket. Arugula grows best in the cool weather of spring and fall. Leaves of arugula add a spicy, pepper-like taste to salads and is prized for its health benefits as well as its unique taste. High in dietary fiber, arugula also is a good source of antioxidants and glucosinolates, which have been shown to reduce the risk of developing certain forms of cancer.
Malabar spinach, or basella, produces shiny green leaves somewhat similar in appearance to spinach. Unlike spinach, it is very heat tolerant and can provide salad greens throughout the summer. It is a vigorous climbing vine that may achieve a height of six feet when allowed to grow on a trellis. Plants can be started from seeds indoors, but should not be planted outdoors until the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has past. Its taste has been likened to that of mild Swiss chard.
Romanesco- One of the more interesting vegetables in appearance, Romanesco appears to be a cauliflower altered by aliens. Its inflorescence is chartreuse green in color and "self-similar" in morphology. The latter refers to the whole having the same shape as its parts. Closely related to broccoli and cauliflower, its buds (or curds) are comprised of smaller buds arranged in a logarithmic spiral. Like other members of the cabbage family, it prefers cool growing conditions and has a flavor described as delicate and nutty.
Roselle- A vegetable that might be making a reappearance in the U.S is roselle. Also known as the Florida cranberry, the fleshy sepals make a bright purple-red colored drink called Jamaica in many Latin American Market and restaurants. Farmers and gardeners from Burma and other countries in Southeast and Central Asia use the fleshy leaves of roselle as a cooked green similar to spinach, but with a tasty sour taste.
Other unusual vegetables have been around for a long time but, because of changes in availability or consumer preference, they disappear only to return later. Two examples are Black Aztec corn and French horticultural bean. Black Aztec corn can be eaten as corn on the cob when immature. However, when the kernels mature, they turn a deep blue-black color. This type of corn was prized by the Aztecs for making corn meal and is gaining popularity.
French horticultural beans are semi-vining in growth habit, but usually are grown as a bush. The pods are splashed with red and yellow flecks. The beans themselves are speckled with white and red, making them very colorful. French horticultural beans usually are consumed as young, immature beans shelled from the pod. They also can be used as dry beans and are said to have a nut-like flavor.
While scanning seed companies who advertise on the internet or checking seed racks in stores, you are sure to find other unique vegetables that you might be tempted to try. Spaghetti squash, banana melon, ground cherry and many types of Oriental vegetables are being planted more and more. While gardeners should not ignore their old favorites, giving new vegetables a try can be rewarding and create new flavors for you and your family.
Get your cool season vegetable gardens started this month. Plant onions, lettuce, potatoes, cabbage, kale, and other cool season crops. It is also time to get ready for warm season crops. If you want to start tomato, eggplant, or peppers seeds on your own in a greenhouse or under lights, it is time to do that now.
Contact Jackson County University of Missouri Extension in Blue Springs, MO for more information on spring gardening and landscaping- 816-252-5051, firstname.lastname@example.org.