Happy Monday everyone! Just like I promised last week in the introductory post for this series, I am very pleased to begin creating ‘Plant of the Week’ posts where I will introduce you to some of my favorite, often less well-known edible, medicinal and otherwise all-around useful plants. Many of these species or genera that I come across I do unintentionally, often in the process of looking up other similar or related plants and they will tend to focus on species that can be found, if not imported and grown, in north-temperate regions, particularly southern Canada including my home of southern Ontario.
So without further ado, I would like to draw your attention to the first of hopefully hundreds of useful plants that I’ll encounter in the future: Bunium bulbocastanum, also known as black cumin or earth-nut. This perennial herb is a member of the Apiaceae, which is a widely diverse family of plants that already includes some of our most familiar and domestic vegetables and spices such as carrots, parsnips, parsley, cilantro, lovage and dill just to name a few.
This species is native to nearly all of Europe, western Asia and southwest into India where it grows in moist meadows, open woodlands, forest edges and in hedgerows. Widely adaptable and hardy, Bunium bulbocastanum is still used throughout much of it’s range as a culinary spice but has fallen out of fashion in other regions, as is the unfortunate fate of the vast majority of plants that were at one point enthusiastically cultivated just as our more well known ‘modern’ vegetable crops continue to be.
The worst fate that a plant could face, whether ornamental or otherwise, is to fall out of favor or fashion, and this is certainly the case with B. bulbocastanum. Centuries ago, the seeds of this plant enjoyed wide employment as a spice, hence the name ‘black cumin’. The flavor is believed to be similar to cumin but yet distinct enough to have it’s own character. Towards the end of the summer, as the bright, sweet-smelling umbel of white flowers has long given way to thin, dark colored curved seeds with longitudinal ridges that can be plucked from the flower heads, dried and ground to be used as a flavoring.
During the summer months the narrow, finely divided feathery foliage can be collected (in moderation, so as not to effect the overall health of the plant of course) and added to salads, soups or used as a garnish to add a unique flavor all it’s own to a variety of dishes. Lastly, if you are even somewhat familiar with the etymology of botanical Latin, then the specific epithet of this species bulbocastanum provides us a hint as to what the third principal use of the plant may be. ‘Bulbo’ rather intuitively refers to ‘bulb’ while castanum refers to Castanea, the genus name for sweet chestnut trees.
As you may be able to deduce from the combination of the words ‘bulb’ and ‘chestnut’ as the species name for this plant as well as from the photo below, B. bulbocastanum has a swollen, bulbous root that varies in size from about the size of a marble to perhaps walnut-sized. This swollen, rounded taproot is rich in carbohydrates and when peeled can be eaten raw or cooked and is said to taste similar to potatoes blended with sweet chestnuts. Each year the root of these plants grows larger and also produces additional bulbs which can be harvested or used to further propagate the species.
It is also likely that in some regions, perhaps those which closely resemble this species’ native range, that the unharvested seeds will also be dispersed and germinate, thereby aiding in the proliferation of this plant without you having to do much of anything. This edible seed, foliage and root producing member of the Apiaceae is hardly unique, as there are many others that can be used similarly including the closely related Bunium persicum and Conopodium majus of Europe as well as a few native North American species such as those in the genus Lomatium, known as biscuit-roots, which are also highly medicinal.
I decided to start off the Plant of the Week series with this particular species because it so perfectly illustrates what sort of plants I believe ought to be in our common knowledge and biological vocabulary, species which are useful for different purposes at different times of the year and therefore make the most efficient use of the space that they may occupy in a garden, meadow or forest designed for their ability to generate food, medicine as well as other ecological and/or anthropogenic functions. Stay curious and I’ll see you next week!