We eat seeds everyday. Grains, nuts, beans and, well, seeds, are all seeds. A seed is an embryonic plant covered with a seed coat. A grain is a dried fruit. In this blogpost I’m going to concentrate on true seeds.
Grains are usually seeds from grasses, although there are common exceptions to that rule such as the amaranth below. Seeds contain the magic that makes a plant out of a speck; a towering oak from an acorn. Seeds are highly nutritious for humans as well, but often are just used as a flavoring (think of an ‘everything’ bagel). Many have been used medically for relieving everything from eczema to mental issues. Some seeds such as grains are difficult to prepare for eating on a small scale, such as rice. Separating seeds from chaff takes a lot of steps that may not be practical for the handful of food at the end of the process. However there are many seeds that we commonly eat that are easily grown among the veggies, or even in a flower bed. Here are some that we grow at Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture:
Let’s start with one of my favorite flavors, the sesame seed. Sesame (Sesamum indicum) seeds grow on small upright plants about 2 – 3′ high that have lovely tubular flowers. Bees love to crawl into them. Its a pretty plant and flower, so could easily be incorporated into an ornamental area. There are both black and white sesame seed plants; the white seed is really brownish as it has a seed coat. Sesame is also called benne seed. Once harvested sesame seeds should be stored in a dark cool place or refrigerated. The seeds can be used raw, or better still lightly toasted in a dry pan before sprinkling over your food. So very yum. Tip: sesame pods become tight as they dry and then split with force, throwing the seeds away from the plant. If you want to harvest any then watch the pods as they dry on the plant and then cut and hang in a paper bag to catch the seeds as they fly, or break open with your hands.
Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is a very tasty, easily grown seed that is considered a grain. It was a major food of the Aztecs, and almost completely destroyed by the Spanish after their conquest of that civilization. Amaranth was too sneaky though and survived. It is easily digestible, high in protein and full of other nutrition. It has wild as well as ornamental varieties, but all are edible (be sure what you are eating!) Love-lies-bleeding is the dramatic name of the long red tasseled kind.
All are great for birds as well as humans.
Pigweed and lambsquarter are its weedy relatives. All of them have edible leaves, although some varieties are more tasty than others. Older leaves are better cooked. The tall varieties can grow 8′ tall or so, may need staking, and make good shade plants for others that need sun protection. When you start to see birds on the flowers then the seed should be ready. Another way to check is to gently rub the flowers between your fingers and see if seeds come off as well as the petals. If so, then over a clean, dry bucket rub the cut flowers between your fingers. Winnow the chaff away over a mesh screen or in the wind, or by gently blowing it away from the seed. Now you need to completely dry the seed in the sun, and then store in a dry, dark cool place. Use within six months for best results.
No, not the opium kind, the lemon-poppy seed cake kind, although both are varieties of Papaver somniferum. Look for seeds for Breadseed Poppy varieties. This is another beautiful ornamental with striking seed pods that can be dried and used in flower arrangements. Poppies enjoy poor, disturbed soil. The seeds are tiny so need to be exposed to daylight to germinate. The flowers are beautiful; frail and feminine. The seed pods are rounded and have tiny holes at the top where the seeds come out of, so be careful when you are working around the drying pods or you’ll scatter seeds. Or just let some drop and they will come up next year.Allow the pods to dry on the stem and then carefully cut. Shake the seeds out into a jar and store in a cool, dark place. Use raw or lightly toasted. Be sure not to eat them before taking a drug test, or you’ll test positive.
Basil seeds aren’t well known for their culinary use in the US, but they are nutritious and useful. The seeds of the sweet basil plant (Ocimum basilicum) not Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), when soaked make the water gelatinous, as chia seeds do, so are used to thicken drinks and foods. You don’t have to soak basil seeds to use them though. The flowers are delightfully edible as well. Use them for additional flavor and nutrition by tossing them raw into salads, salad dressing, breads, or just about anything. Letting some of the basil plant go to seed (while pinching other stems to keep it leafing) will attract small native pollinators to your garden. When the flowers dry, the seeds are ready to be shaken off into a clean, dry bucket or bag.
You probably know cilantro or Chinese parsley as the love-it-or-hate-it herb found in salsas and many Mexican or East Indian dishes. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) seed is called coriander. Coriander seed is usually used ground and used in curry mixtures, soups and meat dishes. It is an historical herb, being used in ancient India, China and Egypt. It has a kind of lemony taste that is unique.
Celery (Apium graveolens) seeds are marvelous savory additions to soups, particulary tomato. I grind it up in a mortar and throw it in soups and stews to round out the flavor. We grew celery one year -although I have no photos of it – and because of the warm weather the celery stalk flavor was quite strong. However the seeds were delightful. Celery is a cool-season plant and the stalks should be covered to keep pale green and mild flavored. Or just let them grow for the seed. There is a wild variety that grows in marshlands, but please be very careful if you harvest from it because it looks similar to the very poisonous water hemlock (Cicuta).
If you’ve sipped ouzo, aguardiente or anisette, you’ve tasted the seeds of the fennel plant. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is the brother of anise, and both have escaped gardens to be a troublesome weed. Fennel bulbs are absolutely amazing lightly steamed, and then baked in vegan butter and topped with vegan Parmesan. The leaves are fantastic stirred into eggs or salads, and the seeds are incredible flavorings for baked goods, candies and obviously alcohols. Miranda candied fennel seeds for me. They have been used to try and mask cigarette or alcohol breath, but really… who is kidding who? They do make a great breath freshener chewed. The plants are frondy, tall and have pretty umbels of flowers that native insects love. Grow some for the bulbs (protect them from gophers!) and let others go to seed. Cut and hang upside down to collect the seed in a bag or else you’ll have fennel everywhere. And that may not be a bad thing.
I don’t know anyone who isn’t familiar with sunflower seeds; certainly the shells were routinely spit out all over campus as a cool snack when I was in college and probably still are. At least they are biodegradable. Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are one of the few edible seeds native to North America, and they are protected in an attractive hull. Some varieties are small, multi stemmed and ornamental, and others are grown for their fabulously large seed heads. Birds love eating the green leaves as part of their healthy diet, so grow extra. The seed heads should be left to dry on the stalk, and then cut and shaken to de-seed. Good pollination is important to produce seeds with good ‘meat’ inside.
Eat them raw or toasted; they are full of good things for your body. (Miranda is 5’1″ in the photo, not tiny. I like that one of the heads seems to be checking her out.)
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another double happiness plant. The leaves are tremendous used fresh or dried, and the seeds are fantastic as well. We use the whole seed heads in our dill pickle recipe. It goes well with fish, or in our case vegan fish. Grind them or use them whole, but definitely stir them into sauces, soups, dressings, dips, etc. Dill, like fennel, will reseed, but that isn’t a bad thing. They look pretty much like the fennel plant above.
We’ve grown caraway (Carum carvi) in the past, but I have no picture for you. Just refer to the photo above of the fennel and it will be close, as they are in the carrot family. You’ll find caraway in rye breads, liquors and cheeses, and in some areas the young leaves and roots are also eaten. They are dried and harvested just like the fennel and dill.
There are other seeds that we haven’t grown. We’ve tried to grow cumin and annatto seeds, but have failed to make them germinate; there is always next year. Some seeds are so small, such as chia, that you’d have to grow a lot of plants to harvest just a little seed. Seeds are such a vital nutritional and flavorful part of our diets, and so fun to grow that everyone should sprinkle edible seed-bearing plant seeds throughout their garden. As seeds dry and keep fresher longer than dried leaves (such as basil or dill), that fresh taste of the garden can last through until next year’s harvest time again.