From the roots to the leaves, tendrils and fat, fleshy fruits, there is so much goodness to be found growing outdoors. Plant and food fundis Margaret and Sandy Roberts dissect the bitter melon, gooseberry, blueberry and perennial marigold…
Words and Pictures: Julia Lloyd
Production and Styling: Sandy Roberts
Sheep are not what Margaret Roberts counts at night when she can’t get some shut-eye. It’s the water tanks on her farm at De Wildt near Hartbeespoort. All 94 of them. And what with the water crisis of the present she’s been doing quite some counting into the wee hours, as she worries about her land, with all her beloved plants that are entirely dependant on what falls from above.
“Just one really good rain and the tanks are full,” she says, showing me the rows that line up at the back of every building on the farm. An example of rainwater harvesting at its best. “We had next to nothing out here so were desperately rushing around, checking on basins and trenches around plants, watering with the little we had and piling on leaves as mulch to conserve every last drop.”
And then, just before my visit, the heavens opened and the tanks filled – all 94 of them – and the garden recovered to look as good as new, offering us a bumper harvest of superfoods for the table.
1. Bitter Melon
“This intriguing annual vine from India and parts of Africa is a great favourite as a medicinal plant and much-loved food.”
- Momordica charantia is extremely rewarding and easy to grow. Sow seed (available nowadays in the seed racks) in spring about 50cm apart alongside a fence or trellis and in no time the vines and tendrils will appear.
- In summer the yellow flowers will be followed by the rather strange-looking fruits that have an astonishing inside as they ripen – bright-orange flesh with a red spongy placenta that holds the brown seed. The green melons (20-25cm long) turn pale yellow as they ripen but are usually eaten when young and green.
- The vine tips, young leaves and big yellow flowers are also edible. Gather seed – gently remove them from their brilliant casing – for next season.
- It’s rich in vitamins A, C and E, as well as folic acid, potassium and pantothenic acids, copper, manganese and magnesium, and is a much-respected remedy for diabetes, coughs, bronchitis and other chest infections.
- Use the cooled tea as a wash to treat skin infections, sprains, strains and insect bites.
- The melon is very bitter but some of the bitterness can be removed before cooking by packing the sliced melon in salt for 2 hours (keep the salt asa scrub in the bath for detoxing and for rough skin) and then soak in salt water (½ cup salt to 1 litre water) for 30 minutes. Rinse well and parboil for 5 minutes. Strain. Boil again in fresh water until tender and add to a rich curry or stir-fry with potatoes, onions, tomatoes and chilli.
- Ongoing research into the bitter melon, as a fighter against leukaemia and other cancers, looks promising. Use the melon only every second day, and not when pregnant, as it is very powerful.
- ¼ tsp lavender essential oil.
- (preferably green)
- 1 large sliced bitter melon
- 1kg coarse salt crystals
- Mix well and use by massaging the salt onto dry areas with warm water and a sponge, or encasing the salt in a cloth. It cleanses toxins from the system, allowing the salt to gently work through the skin.
Bitter Melon Tea
- Use ¼ cup fresh leaves and vine tendrils to 1 cup boiling water. Stand for 5 minutes, strain and slip slowly, on alternate days.
- It’s a remedy for diabetes, drunk only once every two days. Use the cooled tea as a wash to treat skin infections and insect bites, and ease sprains and strains.
2. Gooseberries and Blueberries
“No garden should be without them, the real superfruits that appear year after year just aching to share their goodness.”
In the Garden
- Gooseberries (Physalis peruviana) must be one of the easiest plants to grow, and self-sow at the drop of a hat. Where you see little seedlings appear, water well first before transplanting them elsewhere, which they take to readily.
- An easy way of keeping seed for the following season is to squeeze some ripe fruit over absorbent paper (or a double layer of kitchen towel), spread it thinly, let it dry and then store in a cool, dry place.
- Break off pieces of the towel and plant as is, in spring, and keep moist until the plantlets have popped up. They love a rich soil and full sun, and can be kept tidy by cutting back older branches.
- Not as easy to grow, the blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosun) needs an acid soil and cannot bear long periods of heat and drought. Nevertheless, it’s hard to beat the fresh blueberry and, if you can’t buy them, no harm in trying to get them to grow, particularly if you live in a place blessed with cool temperatures and steady rainfall (wishful thinking these days).
- Rich in vitamins C, B and E, as well as beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium and phosphorous, the gooseberry is a gift-wrapped treasure on a branch. Fresh fruit acts as a laxative, a diuretic and a treatment for kidney and bladder disorders and to reduce fever.
- Place the leaves in hot water to warm them and then use as a poultice for rheumatism aches and lower back pain. Add the fruit to fruit salads, ice cream, cordials, syrups and jams. The fruit freezes well without its husks.
- The blueberry has the greatest of health in each tiny little fruit. Rich in vitamins E and A, but particularly C and K, they also contain beta-carotene and calcium, manganese and phosphorus.
- Their natural chemicals are effective against hardening of the arteries and varicose veins, and improve blood flow to the skin, eyes and nervous system. They also combat diarrhoea. The blueberry and the blackcurrant contain natural chemicals that have proven lethal to certain harmful bacteria (even E.coli).
- It is delicious in tarts and pies but, hot or cold, makes an excellent, health-giving drink. Blueberries also freeze well. Just let them thaw slowly at room temperature.
Blueberry and Gooseberry tart
- 1 cup cake flour
- ½ cup fresh cream
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 dessertspoon sesame or flax seeds
- Mix together and flatten the mixture directly into a well-greased 26cm pie dish, prick a few times with
- Bake at 180°C for 10 mins until golden brown.
- Filling: In a pot add: 2 generous cups gooseberries, 2 generous cups blueberries, 1 cup of water with 1 dessertspoon cornstarch (Maizena), 1 sprig of fresh stevia or alternatively 2 dessertspoons honey, 3-4 mint leaves, and ¼ tsp lavender seeds.Stir continuously over medium heat until the mixture thickens and pour over the baked pie crust, ready to serve.
In a blender or smoothie-maker mix the following ingredients until smooth, and serve with a few whole berries on top.
- ½ cup gooseberries
- ½ cup blueberries
- 1 cup strawberries
- 1 cup plain fat-free yoghurt
- 1 tsp fresh mint, finely chopped
- 1 tsp fresh fennel, finely chopped
- 2 crisp celery sticks, deveined
- 1 generous slice of peeled cucumber
3. Perennial Marigold
“This is a must for the garden, particularly for anyone interested in organic or companion planting, as it contains powerful insect-repelling agents. It has so many uses. It is a plant collector’s treasure.”
In the Garden
- Tagetes tenuifolia or bush marigold reaches about 1m and seeds, and grows, very easily in full sun.
- It has a super-strong frangrance and oil that repels aphids, flies, mosquitos, fleas and ticks and works wonders when planted among or near spinach, peas, beans, lettuce, cucumbers and cabbages.
- Grow it with tomoatoes and you won’t see a white fly. On its own it makes a happy, showy summer border, and is easily propagated from cuttings or seed.
- Here is a plant of great value when it comes to companion planting. It is vital in between vegetables, worth its weight in gold for its remarkable medicinal and insecticidal properties. It also works wonders with dogs – make a drench (2 cups fresh leaves and flowers to 2 litres water, and simmer for 20 minutes) or mix it into their bath water. It will also chase away fleas and ticks.
- The intensely tasty petals are high in vitamins and beta-carotenes and can be added to flavour sauces, soups and stews, even salad dressings.
- The tea is made from ¼ cup fresh petals, buds and leaves to 1 cup boiling water, with a little lemon and honey if you wish. It eases digestion, and can be used as a wash to treat skin infections and rashes.
- Preheat oven to 180°C.
- Prepare 3 sheets phyllo pastry. Brush with melted butter between each layer, then place them on top of each other.
- 2 cups breadcrumbs (any sort),
- 1 cup pie apples, unsweetened
- ½ cup black strap molasses
- 1 cup dates, chopped
- 125g butter
- ¼ cup marigold petals
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp cardamom seeds
- Mix all ingredients together until roughly binded and place on a phyllo pastry sheet. Fold over the edges into a closed rectangle and brush the top with butter.
- Place on a greased oven tray and bake until golden brown.
- Serve hot or cold with a generous dollop of cream.
Marigold Insect-repellant Spray
- 1 bucket fresh sprigs of leaves and flowers
- ½ buckets boiling water
- ½ cup eco-friendly soap powder.
- Submerge the sprigs in the boiling water, cover and leave overnight.
- Strain and discard sprigs on the compost heap.
- Pour liquid into spritz bottle and spray indoors for mosquitos and flies. Or wipe it over windowsills and problem areas (even the dogs).
- Outdoors, dissolve the soap powder in the mixture to help it stick to the plants.
Plants for Sale
Organically-grown seed and plants are available from the Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre. Seed can be posted to you.
- Contact: 012 504 2121, [email protected], www.margaretroberts.co.za
- Note: Never use plants as medicine before consulting your doctor