I HAVE A FASCINATION for seeds of unusual edibles from around the world, and the other day on Instagram, I saw maybe the oddest one of all: What about growing a monkey puzzle tree from Chile from seed (like the potted seedling above)? And who even knew that tree produced edible nuts?
O.K., so maybe that wasn’t on the top of your list, but how about carrots that are gorgeous purple inside or a diversity of textural kales from far off places for your fall garden? Those and more to tempt you are our topic today.
It was Nate Kleinman who caught my attention with his social-media post about seed for that unusual conifer, the monkey puzzle tree. Nate is co-founder of Experimental Farm Network dot org, a nonprofit cooperative of growers, whose mission includes the core belief that agriculture can and should be used to help build a better world. I love browsing their online seed catalog for its many distinctive possibilities, including some you can sow in these next weeks for late-season harvests.
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Read along as you listen to the June 28, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
monkey puzzle & more odd edibles, with nate kleinman
Margaret:That crazy monkey puzzle, Nate. Oh my goodness.
Nate: Caught your eye.
Margaret: It did. A lot of the things you do catch my eye because I’m like, what’s that? What’s that? What’s that? But before we get to that one, when I’m browsing the online catalog of Experimental Farm Network, one thing is more fascinating than the next. And I find myself wondering something, which is what does Nate Kleinman grow in his own backyard? How’s it going in your garden so far?
Nate: It’s good. It’s a bit of a mess right now, but I’ve just been cleaning things up, and revealing things that I wasn’t sure were still there hiding under the weeds. Because I spend most of my time at the farm, which is 6 minutes down the road, where we grow a lot of the seeds. But I have a lot of currants around my house and a gooseberry—I love having berries close at hand that I can pick. I have some wild strawberries, ones that I’ve transplanted to the property from various different places. And I love being able to eat those tiny little bundles of flavor and sweetness.
I’ve got a couple elderberries that are starting to take over what was once a bed for vegetables, and they are loaded with berries this year. I’m really looking forward to them ripening. I have a couple of Labrador tea plants that are thriving in the shade of a redbud tree. Labrador tea [Ledum groenlandicum or Rhododendron groenlandicum] grows much further north from here naturally, but it’s a really great plant. It’s a medicinal plant for tea and it’s a sleep aid and good for colds. People use it in the winter as a daily tonic. I’ve got maypop passionfruit climbing all over.
Margaret: My goodness.
Nate: All sorts of things.
Margaret: Yeah, and so are you doing some successions of things to keep harvests coming? Obviously the berries they have their time, most or many of them have their particular season of fruiting. But with other things, are you resowing some successions of greens or whatever?
Nate: Yeah, I just put some Swiss chard in the ground. That’s one of my favorite greens and it’s pretty late if this were my main crop, but because I know they’re going to mature in a month or two, I’m going to have plenty of good greens to eat as we head into the fall. Same with kale, lettuce—I love having a ready supply of fresh greens.
Margaret: You have some unusual kales. You like kale, yes?
Nate: I love kale, yeah. We have quite a few kales. We’ve become pretty well known for our perennial kale that’s a mix of all sorts of kales from around the world that are perennial. [Above, some of the diversity in that mix.]
We have a kale from the Netherlands that’s one of my favorites, the ‘Blauwe Groninger’ kale [below]. It’s “blue from Groningen” the name means in the north of the Netherlands. And we have a population that’s a cross between that Dutch kale and other red Russian type Siberian kales, we call that the Dutch-Siberian Napus Kale Grex. And it’s a really wild mix of kales. They’re absolutely delicious, real cold-hardy so they’ll typically survive the winter very easily and then produce more greens in the spring before they flower. And you can eat the little flowering heads like little kale-broccolis, and that’s a really wonderful plant.
And it’s it’s a great mix if you want to try your hand at breeding. You can select your favorite plants and only save those for seed next year and then eventually within a couple of generations, you’re going to have your own population that that is well-suited to your area and to your taste.
Margaret: And are you sowing some more carrots? Are you sowing carrots for storage or for winter use or whatever?
Nate: Yeah, I love having fresh carrots around, and that’s one of the seed crops that we are excited about and I’ll be making a post on Instagram soon. It might be up already when this airs.
One of our carrots that we sell is it comes from a University of Wisconsin breeder named Claire Luby, who also works with the Open Source Seed Initiative. It’s a purple carrot composite. She’s sort of mixed a whole bunch of purple carrot genetics together and a lot of them are purple on the outside and orange or yellow on the inside. But our friend Clint Freund has been developing… He’s been selecting for the most purple on the inside.
In saving those purple-through-and-through carrots, they’ve noticed out in Minnesota where they’re doing this that some of these carrots they have their Queen Anne’s lace-type flowers—Queen Anne’s lace is just a wild carrot—but instead of being white, they’re purple. They are these gorgeous violet-colored Queen Anne’s lace flowers that was a totally unexpected result of this breeding for a purple carrot.
Margaret: Right. Because if you want to get seed from carrots, you have to let… Well from anything, you have to let it reproduce; you have to let it go to flower, which most of us who are just growing it for the root don’t get that far. But wow, so purple flowers. That’s pretty great [laughter].
Nate: Yeah, they’re really gorgeous.
Margaret: Yeah. Growing carrots and kale is one thing, and then growing a tree from seed is a very optimistic thing to do. And I say that, but I have various trees in my garden—my decades-old garden, trees that are now large—that friends, nursery-people friends, started from seeds. And they’re now grown-up trees. Every time I look at them, I think, “Oh, so-and-so started that from a seed,” and it’s fabulous.
The monkey puzzle: First of all, it’s an oddball tree. And second of all, growing a tree from seed. Where did this come from? How did this come into your life?
Nate: Monkey puzzles [Araucaria araucana] have been fascinating me for a long time since I first encountered them. If you’ve never seen one before, it really will catch your eye. I think the first one I saw was in somebody’s garden in London. They grow really well in wet, humid, temperate areas.
It’s a tree that’s native to Chile and for thousands of years, it’s been a staple of indigenous people there, especially the Mapuche people. It’s a pine relative, but the needles don’t look like regular pine needles. They’re triangular, almost a perfect 60-60-60 triangle. And it’s very sharp at the tip, and the branches are just densely covered in these needles that almost more resemble scales.
And the name monkey puzzle apparently comes from some long-dead British person who looked at the tree and said, “Oh, that tree would puzzle a monkey,” because it would be unclimbable with the sharp needles on the branch.
Each needle can last for 24 years. The tree grows very slowly, but it can reach heights of 100 or 200 feet. We have a long treatise on our website about it, that’s written by the man who collected it, who also is the breeder of that perennial kale, Chris Homanics. He calls it “a tree brontosaurus could not browse.” [Laughter.] That’s really when this tree evolved. It evolved to be able to fend off the giant dinosaurs that wanted to eat it to the ground. [Above, from Wikipedia, a snow-covered monkey puzzle tree at Kew Gardens in England.]
Margaret: Right. Right. It’s a 200-million-year old, at least tree on the planet?
Nate: It’s incredibly old, and they can live for a long time. The oldest one that’s been core-dated was over a 1,000 years old, and it really requires some dedication. If you want to grow a tree like this, you’re planting for future generations.
If you’re a young person and you plant one, you may be lucky to see the tree produce a whole bunch of nuts in your lifetime. But if you’re an older person, chances are you’re just planting this tree for future generations. But one tree can produce tons and tons of food over its lifetime. And if you’re used to a regular pine nut, even if you’ve seen those really large pine nuts that come out of Asia, they are nothing compared to the monkey puzzle.
Nate: A monkey puzzle pine nut can be an inch and a half long. It’s bigger than a cashew. And it’s got an amazing texture. If you roast it, it’s almost like a chestnut. The flavor is not as a piney as a pine nut. It’s quite mild. It can be ground into flour. It can be just roasted and eaten as is. It can be eaten raw or cooked.
It’s a really amazing tree, amazing food, but in its native range, it’s becoming increasingly rare. Its wood is a useful wood so it’s often been cut down for use as lumber and climate change is shifting… Because it’s such a slow-growing tree, it’s hard for it to regenerate a new places where it’s better adapted.
But this tree does incredibly well in the Pacific Northwest, and our seeds this year came mostly from a site in Washington State. They grow really well in Oregon and Northern California. But there are specimens growing all over the country, and they are said to be hardy to Zone 7, but I’ve seen them growing well in Zone 6 as well. There’s one at the New Jersey Botanical Gardens, right by the border with New York State, the far north of New Jersey. There’s a bunch at the Central Park Zoo. Longwood Gardens has them right out in front of their main entrance in Pennsylvania. They’re a tree that will surprise you, if you think it won’t grow there.
Margaret: Yeah. The first one I ever saw was also in England, it was at Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. And I remember someone explained to me, it’s like, it’s a conifer, obviously, as you said, but it’s almost like it’s a broadleaf plant too, the way you explained the needles are not needle-like, they’re more substantive.
And I have read subsequently about—speaking of its need to be preserved or conserved because it’s under pressure in its native land and from climate change—I know in the U.K., there’s at least one substantial project aimed at their preservation.
I don’t know if you’ve visited in Sussex, Wakehurst garden, where they’re developing a monkey puzzle forest from seed collected from an expedition, a Chilean expedition in 2009. And they’re making a whole forest of monkey puzzles grown from seed, in order to try to give it a new home. You’re not the only person who has been captivated by it.
And I’ll never forget walking into the gate, one of the gates at Kew [above photo], and seeing this thing for the first time. And I was like, what in the world is that? It’s an incredible tree.
Nate: It really is. And if you see it with the cones on it, the cones are enormous. They befit the giant seeds that fall out of them. If one of these cones falls on your head, you’re going to get a big bump [laughter].
It’s a plant for growing that has some challenges, including it’s dioecious, so it has seed-bearing trees and pollen-bearing trees. And you need to make sure you have one of each if you want to get nuts. And so people often grow these as specimen trees, and then they might have a 50-year-old tree in their front yard that’s perfectly mature and would be able to produce fruit, but there’s no tree that’s producing pollen nearby, or they just have one pollen-producing tree and there’s none that’s producing cones.
We recommend that people grow at least five of them and we’re selling them by the seed this year. And we urge people to grow them, to plant them whenever, because in my experience, the young trees, despite having these spiky needles, scales on them, they are still susceptible to being ripped up by pest animals.
I’m not sure what was doing it, but I planted a bunch of 1-year-old monkey puzzles in the field and within a day, they had all been ripped up. The only one that was untouched was one that was 3 or 4 years old that was already a small, it was about a foot tall, and they’ve left that one alone. And it survived a couple winters there in the field and is doing really well here in New Jersey. I recommend that people start them in a controlled environment.
I use gallon Ziploc bags with a growing medium filled up to about halfway [above, one of Nate’s bags of seeds]. I just rest the seeds on top of the soil, and I do them sort of head to toe. You have one sprout coming up and then a root on the other side. And they’ll survive in there for even two or three years inside of a bag like that. But you can put them in a pot and grow them in a pot for a couple of years, and get them up to size before you put them in a permanent.
Margaret: Right. Right. Yeah. And we’ll show with the transcript of the show, we’ll show some pictures. I remember seeing picture of some of your seeds in that bag and getting started and so forth. We’ll get some illustration so people can see. And you’re saying to get five seeds, if one wants to try this, get five seeds in the hopes that you’d get a male and a female individual at least, yes?
Nate: Exactly. And really, five is probably the minimum, but probably 10 would be a good place to start. And that gives you a chance. Some of them might not survive and some of the seeds might not be viable. People have been reporting very good germination rates.
Margaret: Oh good. Oh good.
Nate: But it’s always hit-or-miss. It can take a while too so just patience is rewarded. They’ll send down a root usually well before they actually sprout. Once the root goes, eventually the top of the root starts to turn green and then you see this little plant emerge from it.
Margaret: Right. I’m not going to get this exactly right but I think I read when I had read about in England, one of the gardens, the one at Wakehurst and their efforts there, I think one of the issues is that this seed can’t really be put in a conventional seed bank. It needs to be grown. I don’t think it does well in longterm cold storage or something like that. Hence the urgency to grow it, and to create this forest, which really impressed me, that they have dozens and dozens of trees, young trees growing and so forth.
Nate: It’s something like a chestnut, where if you save the seeds for more than a year, they’ll dry out completely.
Margaret: Yes, exactly.
Nate: But if we keep them moist under refrigeration, they will last a while. They can last over a year in storage like that, as long as they’re kept in the proper conditions, but they really want to sprout and they will start. Eventually, they will start.
Margaret: Right. What else besides grown-up monkey puzzles offering nuts, are you dreaming of at the moment [laughter]? Do you have other things that you’re looking forward to or that you have in your sort of nursery-ish area of your own garden that you’re keeping an eye on?
Nate: Yeah. I’m excited about some different seedlings I’ve got going. I’ve got my first-ever seedling of an elderberry [above]. It had never really occurred to me to try to grow elderberries from seed, but we started selling elderberry seeds and I’m excited to see what kind of diversity I get by growing that.
We sell these golden black raspberry seeds. I really love the idea of getting more people to plant perennial seeds, the kind of things that we’re used to propagating clonally, to increase the diversity of what’s available out there. We sell seeds for rhubarb, and I really love having different diversity of rhubarbs. There’s a surprising amount of diversity in forms and colors and even flavors.
Margaret: I think when we spoke one time a year or how long ever long ago, we did a whole about sort of perennial edibles, because that is one of your big focal points. And don’t you grow a perennial chard? Do I remember that?
Nate: Yes. We do. There’s a couple of things that really sort of qualify as a perennial chard, but we have one that we’re selling under the name Gnarly Long-lived Beet Leaf Mix. [Laughter.] These produce really gnarly roots. You wouldn’t really want to dig it up and eat the root, but you can have a really, really long-lived perennial population of chard. This comes from a breeder in Ontario, in Ottawa. It’s very, very cold hardy. And it probably benefits from being replanted every few years, because it’s considered a short-lived perennial. They might live for four or five years, but it’s a really interesting one.
And I also am experimenting at my house here, we don’t have seeds for sale yet for another species of beet, Beta macrorhiza it’s called, that is a perennial leaf beet. And I’m not sure I’m going to be able to produce enough seeds at any point to sell it, but it’s a nice plant in my garden and I do enjoy nibbling on them.
Margaret: Yeah, I have a patch of sorrel, just plain green-leaf sorrel, and honestly, I’ve had it for decades and every year I’m so impressed that it pops right up super-early and provides me with those lemony delicious leaves. And similarly the rhubarb, similarly the horseradish, similarly the asparagus. My asparagus, 30 years old, finally petered out and I reinvigorated it with some new plants, but those perennial vegetables, it’s just so rewarding and so exciting every year, like old friends [laughter].
Nate: Yeah. We’re excited about fennel. We offered a couple of different perennial fennel populations that have thrived for us and perennialized here in New Jersey. And I just planted a second batch of one that we had tilled over because we wanted to plant something else where it had been, but one survived. And so I created a whole new row with that one plant that survived being tilled over. And so I planted seeds for that.
That’s a wild fennel from the Mediterranean. It’s not a bulbing type, but it’s a really flavorful fennel, and great for producing seed or producing fennel pollen that people are really into collecting the fennel pollen and using that as a flavoring.
Margaret: Huh. In the last minute or two, can I just ask you, you grow skirret. What is that? I’ve never grown that. What is it?
Nate: Oh, skirret is a really cool plant. It’s in the carrot family, and it’s a perennial vegetable that produces, it looks like fingers of cylindrical roots coming off the base. And so you can harvest a few of the roots and leave a few and have it as a permanent fixture in your garden. It really loves wet areas.
It’s an old European kitchen garden vegetable. It used to be much more popular back in the day. And in Scotland, they call it crummock. The name comes from a word that means white root. And it’s really just a wonderful perennial in the carrot family. The flavor is somewhere like parsnip, carrot, parsley, something like that.
Margaret: Oh. Well Nate Kleinman, I just have so much fun looking through the Experimental Farm Network site and about the projects you’re doing and the whole mission. And of course, I love the part that’s the “store,” where I can browse and order seeds. Thank you for just having all these wonderful oddities and sort of showing them to all of us, to widen our palates and so forth. I hope I’ll talk to you again soon. I’m glad you could make the time today; I know it’s a busy season.
Nate: Oh it sure is. But thank you so much. Every time we do the show, we get a whole bunch of new people coming to the site and a lot of interest in it.
Margaret: Oh and people are fascinated like I am so that’s why I love to share it. Yes, good. I’ll talk to you soon.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 21, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).