Friday, August 17, 2012

Melbourne's wild harvest

Beautiful borage:
Weed or wonderful?
Melbourne's wild harvest

Last week a small Italian lady challenged the way I think about plants. Again.

The first time my brain was botanically challenged was moving to Australia and seeing pristine environments for the first time. Growing up in Europe, every patch of land has been so exposed to such a wide range of human activity for so long that even most remote areas have been altered in some way.

By contrast, the combination of Australia's vast size, the fact it is an island continent, and the Aboriginal culture of living with the land rather than trying to overpower it, has meant it has only subject to minimal mining, agriculture or introduced species over thousands of years.

As a result, I've come to classify all plants in Australia as either 'native' or 'exotic' (i.e. introduced since European settlement) and, while not all exotics are necessarily bad, I have no love for those introduced plants that tend to weediness and have spread rampantly across the country, displacing the original flora. And causing me to spend many hours weeding.

But last week Lina Siciliano from Rose Creek Winery challenged all that.
Mark Dymiotis harvesting mallow

At a Smart Gardening workshop on Wild Greens, led by Mark Dymiotis and held at the Rose Creek Estate in Keilor East, many of the plants that I curse for spreading too rampantly through my garden and the river valley beyond were held up as prized crops to harvest and value. Which I can pretty much cope with - I’ve eaten nettles and purslane and samphire before.

No, the most challenging moment came when Lina kindly picked me a handful of wild broccolini seeds – so I could actually encourage this weed in my garden. As she does. There’s a healthy crop of broccolini, thistles, mallow, chicory and even nettles filling the gaps between her neat rows of mustard, fennel, beans and artichokes, and it isn’t there by accident or because she runs the farm organically and won’t spray weeds; to her they’re not weeds, but part of the crop.

SO REALLY? You want me to actually encourage these plants??

Lina's patch of broccolini
That was a bit too much. I kept the seeds for about a week – the cats played with them for a while and my laid-back family shuffled them from one end of the kitchen bench to the other, without questioning why mum had yet another weird-looking bit of plant material dagging about the house.

But then I couldn’t bring myself to actually spread weeds and I threw them out.

However, I have been down the river gathering some of the ‘weeds’ that Mark and Lina introduced us to – many of which I would never have thought of as food. Some, like mallow, were a bit too moth-eaten to try; the nettles were just too painful to pick after a few attempts (Mark reckons he doesn’t use gloves but my fingers tingled from the stings for about 24 hours afterwards), and others I trimmed off the bits I’d been instructed to use – usually the growing tips or, in the case of wild broccolini, the flower buds – and pulled out the rest of the plant.

I’m not that much of a convert.

Later, I cooked them up using one of the recipes Mark had shown us and it did get eaten, eventually, but the family didn’t embrace it with the gusto I’d hoped for. Still, I’ll try again and sneak some bits in here and there and see how I go.

Mark and Lina cooked us three main dishes to try: a bean casserole, a pastry-lined pie (with rice included to soak up the juices from the greens) and stir-fried greens with a dressing. Lina also sliced up some of her wood-fire oven baked bread and dressed it with chopped parsley, oregano and her best home-made olive oil, and that was the yummiest of the lot! The oil is expensive but nothing like any other I’ve ever tried.
One of the many edible thistles

While Mark is of Greek descent and Lina's family is from Italy, their cooking methods were pretty much the same – except Mark adds lemon to everything! 

The rule Mark follows when cooking with greens is to make the bulk of the meal ‘filler’ greens – silverbeet, nettles, thistles, broccolini, cat’s ear, chicory, dandelion, mallow (on their own or a combination of a few) – and add in a smaller amount of herbs and other greens for taste. These might include mint (good with nettles), fennel fronds (either Florence fennel or the wild plant), parsley, mustard, rape, or the tender shoots of radish or zucchini.

Mustard - great colour; fierce taste!
He showed us a few basic cooking rules but, in most cases, you use them in the same way as you would spinach.

The notes for the talk, with photos, can be found at the Moonee Valley Council website, here

If you decide to give this recipe a try, good luck, but please don’t pick and eat any plants unless you’re familiar with them and are 100% sure of what you’re gathering.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’m happy to go out with Melburnian readers, and we run occasional weed walks during open days at Werribee Park Heritage Orchard (see, and Mark also runs courses via the CAE. For details check with the CAE or visit Mark’s website at:
Bean casserole

1 cup of black-eyed beans, (prepared as per below) or 1 tin of pre-cooked beans
Virgin olive oil, for cooking
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
2-3 handfuls of wild greens, chopped in roughly 2cm lengths

If preparing beans from raw, soak them overnight in salted water. Bring to boil in fresh water the next day. When beans just start to split their skins, drain them and start again with more fresh water. When beans are soft, drain and rinse.
Cover the base of a large, heavy-based fry pan with virgin olive oil and bring to heat. When oil is fragrant, add onions and reduce temperature. When onion is soft add the garlic and cook for a further two minutes.
Add diced tomatoes and cook for a few minutes, then add pre-cooked beans to heat through.
When combined, add the greens (which should be damp from being washed; if not, add a dash of water).
Stir through then cover and allow to cook for 2-5 minutes until soft, stirring occasionally.
Serve warm or cold, on its own or as a side dish.

Marigold flowers are edible.


Rose Creek Estate is next open to the public as part of the Sunbury Wine Festival, on Sunday August 26, from 11am-4.30pm. It's at 2 Craig St, Keilor East. SEE:

My Smart Garden events and notes from other workshops can be found here.


  1. Have you got a botanical name for wild broccolini? I'm not sure I've seen it in Sydney. And eating nettles?! I've heard of nettle soup but the thought of trying to harvest some is terrifying! I have had some Gold Leaf gauntlets that had fine enough leather to withstand the stings but what happens to those stinging bits when you cook and eat it?

  2. Hi Catherine! Mark Dymiotis uses the botanical name Brassica oleracea italica x alboglabra, which is pretty specific (I think you might need a var. in before the italica, checking my Weeds of the South East) but I've seen Lina harvest the different varieties of Brassica rapa as well and there seem to be heaps of hybrids around here too - all edible, I'm sure.
    As for stinging nettles, you only pick the softer tips, which have smaller stinging hairs on, so regular garden gloves should be ok (I was stupid enough to be doing it with bare hands) and the hairs soften and basically disappear once you cook the leaves. A hint of wild femmes was the flavor I liked the most. Let me know how you go!