Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Mystery Plant

Last autumn I was the lucky recipient of a stack of dahlia bulbs from one of my colleagues. She heard of my love for their blousy blooms and offered to grab me a couple of tubers when her mum was digging up and dividing at the end of the growing season. Her mum is a good Greek gardener and has been growing dahlias for years so I was most excited to unwrap my plastic bag of dirty, potato-like tubers. Dahlias, in the daisy family (Asteraceae), are originally from Mexico and hate to have wet feet so I popped them into a spare pot of dirt to overwinter away from the soggy marshland of the winter plot. 

Come spring, the bulbs started to shoot out dark green leaves. They had to languish in their pot, poor things, until our plot change when I finally popped them into the ground around the corners of the veggie beds. All but one rocketed away and are just now producing stunning red-black, lion headed blooms. I love them.

However, there was one dahlia that never looked quite like the others. It was always smaller, the leaves were more divided and much paler. Never having grown dahlias before, I guessed it was perhaps just a different variety. I popped it into the ground with the rest of them and it sat at the front of the garden, not doing much, while its former pot-mates turned into leafy towers of deep green.

It wasn't until just after Christmas that Sean asked what it was, this strange little plant, a few leaves, no flowers. I shrugged but my true love, despite having no formal botanical training plucked a leaf and did what I had failed all those months to do, he sniffed it.

It was ten years ago, when I worked in the alps with a couple of crazy botanical nerds that I learnt the power of sniffing a leaf, for identification purposes. The oils in the leaves of plants evolved primarily as a defense against herbivores; they are distinctive and can give you a serious clue to the family, even the genus, to which a plant belongs. A sniff of a leaf lets you know that the weedy little sharp leafed thing growing by a bushland creek is in fact in the same genus as the mint growing in your garden. It tells you which tough leafed Aussie plants belong with the might myrtles and which are, strange as it may seem closer relatives of the citrus. It is one of the easiest ways to distinguish those elegant Eucalypt sisters, the Spotted and Lemon Scented Gums. 

Even no scent is a clue. In an instant it rules out thousands of species that belong to the sharp scented Rutaceae (the citrus family), the antiseptic tang of the Myrtaceae (Eucalypts, Melaleuca, allspice and myrtles) and it cancels out the delicious culinary waft of the entire Lamiaceae (Mint, Lavender, Basil to name a few). 

Anyway... botanist or not, Sean was on the ball. The mild mannered little mystery plant in my garden was, with one sniff, transformed in my mind. It had a pungent, spicy but fresh aroma, reminiscent of ancient Grecian gullies. Familiar but strange. The closest thing we could come up with was celery, and now that we looked, the leaves were similar but the smell was like no celery Sean or I had ever known. I was thrilled - what a wonderful mystery!

So I picked a leaf and took it into work to ask my Greek colleague. She barely glanced at it before saying with a shrug, "It's celery." 
I countered, "It can't be, celery doesn't smell like that. Not even the garden variety, I've grown it."
She seemed surprised at my ignorance. "No, it is. Greeks use the whole plant to cook, the stems, roots and the leaves. It's celery."

Even more mystified I went home and consulted google. Could it be that there was some mysterious Greek variety of celery, unavailable at the Ceres nursery, unseen in Diggers catalogues, grown and cherished since the 1950s only in the gardens of Greek migrant families?
Turns out, yes. Yes indeed. Selino translates as celery, it's also know as cutting, mountain or wild celery. It's the same species at regular celery but vastly different in a culinary sense. It's not the stems that are eaten so much but the pungent leaves, used for their powerful flavour in Greek and Macedonian soups and stews. It's in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and it produces a fat taproot (also used in cooking) which perfectly explains how it came to be mixed up with my dahlia tubers.

So there you have it. Mystery solved. From garden nobody to cherished garden gem in one sweet sniff. Our darling little selino now gets plenty of love and its leaves added an extra authenticity to our silverbeet spanikopita. I can't wait to use it in winter to make the classic, hearty Greek bean soup masterpiece, fassolada. And best of all, it's a delightful, constant reminder that you can never know everything. You sit there thinking there's nothing new to discover in the world of gardening but the next mystery plant is sitting there, just waiting for you, to turn over a new leaf.

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