Each spring, I eagerly anticipate the perfect formula of patience and warmth to produce a succulent, slightly sweet tuber beneath my garden beds. That’s right – the time is coming to harvest the bountiful Florida Betony, aka Florida Radish, Wild Artichoke, or Rattlesnake Weed.
I first learned of Betony from my dear teacher Peggy Lantz, and the moment I first tasted them in a wild salad in her garden, I was hooked. As a child, I had grown up digging these prolific and oft-labeled “pesky weeds” out of the garden with my grandfather, marveling at the grub-like shape of their tubers. If only Gramps knew how delicious these delicacies were, he’d likely have grumbled far less in his quest to eradicate them from the turnip patch!
Perhaps the most famous Betony among the Stachys genus is Stachys officinalis, or Wood Betony, which grows heartily in climates to the north. Our local variety, Stachys floridana, can also be used herbally in similar ways to its temperate cousin – aerial parts used for headaches, anxiety, and nervous system health in tisanes and tinctures – with a slightly more mild effect than the European herb. I favor the leaves of our Florida Betony in a daily tea to give my body and mind peace and a sense of grounding.
But today, we focus on the tubers of our local species, for we are fast-approaching the few weeks of the year that these uniquely shaped below-ground fruits present themselves. Anytime from late March to mid-May, one is likely to find a few of these snake-rattle-shaped tubers hiding an inch or two beneath the surface of the soil where Betony grows aboveground. For years, I simply sprinkled these tasty treats on salads, used them to scoop hummus or guacamole, or ate them right out of hand. A related species, Stachys affinis, bears the common name Crosnes and can fetch $150 a pound, according to my friend Green Deane, in restaurants in Europe and Asia. No wonder – the tuber has a crisp, watery nature to it, much like a radish, but without the peppery bite. Think a lighter, crisper water chestnut.
Having such a deep love of this tuber, but losing patience in the process of hunting and pecking for stray radishes throughout my yard in the spring, I did an experiment one fall. I let an entire garden bed, formerly colonized with annual vegetables, be overtaken by Florida Betony. As the glorious patch filled in, there was nary another weed that could compete, and I found myself daydreaming of the bounty of betonies I’d be harvesting in a few short months. Bonus to this thick colony – a few gallons of tincture of the leaves on the ready, as much daily tea as I could drink down, and, I hoped, a bumper crop of these blissful tubers.
And a bumper crop it was! Last spring I harvested nine and a half pounds of tubers from that small garden bed. Now, the thing about Florida Betony is that the tubers have a limited season. If the summer waxes on too long, the crisp, paper-white radishes begin to tan and turn to mush. This lent an urgency to my harvest — but what was I ever going to do with NINE pounds at once?
No sooner had I pondered the conundrum did the answer hit me – PICKLES!
A quick Google search showed me I was not the only one who had stumbled upon this inspiration. Gainesville’s Green Basket blogger herself had posted a delightful recipe for Bread and Butter Betony Pickles. These are the refrigerator version of pickles, meaning no pressure cooker is needed. I highly recommend trying her recipe for the ease of preparation, and the beautiful spice blend she suggests is super tasty, but also offers enough room for your own experimentation. Feeling the herbal impulse myself, I substituted much of the seasoning she suggested in my first batch of pickles for the Great Kosmic Kitchen‘s Kosmic Kitchari blend, and an extra few dashes of delightfully fresh turmeric from my garden.
My nine pound harvest yielded about four quart size jars of pickles, plus three quart size jars of fresh betony radishes to keep on hand for snacks and salads – if you don’t count all the yummy radishes I ate while picking and cleaning, which could have easily numbered another quart or two on top of that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that I am STILL rationing about a third of a jar of pickles in the back of the fridge, enjoying a tasty treat now and again until our local tubers come back in and I can put up a new batch.
Here in Orlando, Betony radishes are just coming in, so dig your fingers in the soil over the next few weeks to find these glorious garden gems. But don’t wait too long! The heat of summer will wilt them quickly, so be sure to harvest while they are still fresh. And don’t forget – avoid harvesting from areas where pesticides and herbicides are sprayed, or you’ll get a hearty dose of toxins with these snacks, too.