Our Edible Roots: Okahijiki
by Makiko Suzuki
In the relentless search for Japanese vegetable seeds I discovered the seed catalogue of Kitazawa Seed Company the oldest Japanese seed distributor in America. During 1917, founder Gijiu Kitazawa applied experience and knowledge gained in Japan to initiate a business in California specializing in domestic and Asian vegetable seed production and distribution.
When USA declared war on Japan the Kitazawa store was closed and the family was sent to a ‘Relocation Camp’. After the war Kitazawa Seed Company restarted at a much-reduced level due to the loss of many Japanese American farms across America. Now based out of Oakland, the company supplies an astonishing 500 seed varieties of dento yasai – traditional heirloom Japanese vegetables.
When the Kitazawa catalogue arrived I was familiar with most vegetables listed. One intriguing vegetable stood out – okahijiki, otherwise known as land seaweed or saltwort (salsola komarovii). Originally harvested from salty coastal marshes in Japan, okahikiji is one of Japan’s oldest cultivated vegetables. The nectar of okahijiki was traditionally used as a medicinal herb (comparable to spinach) as an excellent source of Vitamin A, iron, potassium and calcium.
Later I visited friends in Whitehorse. Assorted market greens were prepared and served at our first dinner. Then … “yikes” – a bright, crisp bite. Everyone noticed my startled look when inspecting what I had eaten. The ‘green things’ appeared as small, succulent pine needles with a delicious and slightly tart taste and a juicy cucumber consistency. Our excursion the next day took us to the source of the ‘mystery green’ – Elemental Farm, an organic farm owned by relatives of my friends. While drought and hot weather had been harsh that summer and fields were suffering there was a ‘happy row’ of greens. It had mounds of the ‘spikey green thing’. The mystery green was saltwort – okahijiki !
Shortly afterwards an order for okahijiki and other wonderful Japanese vegetable seeds was placed with Kitazawa Seed Company. Last year, while busy mentoring new gardeners I finally had the chance to grow okahijiki. The seeds sprouted but the resulting plants struggled under the late start, cooler weather and the highly acidic soil in the test plot at Cougar Annie’s Garden, north of Tofino. As the seeds were a few years old I was happy just to see some okahijiki survive. While bountiful mounds of greens never appeared, the thin patch provided a meal or two with the remainder left to ‘go to seed’ for future crops.
The fun part of home gardening is growing vegetables that are not locally available. West Coast Seeds luckily now carries okahijiki (saltwort MS562). The WCS catalogue description from a field test describes their excitement. Mark Macdonald states: “We harvested it all summer from just two plants. It just kept growing. We had several tastings as a group and ate the salsola (saltwort) raw, salted, stir-fried, and in soup. Pickling it is a great idea because it has such a crisp texture.” Five starter pots of okahijiki are underway in our apartment waiting for warmer soil temperatures to transplant out. Unfortunately, something is nibbling on the new growth – could it have been me? Clue for answer: not “no”!
Cultivation tips to growing this wonderful green
Germination requires daytime temperatures between 20 and 30 C – or late May for direct sowing. A soil thermometer is useful, along with the weather forecast, to determine planting time. A thin layer of soil/compost on top of seeds along with heat and light is required and the soil must always be moist. Seeds can also be started indoors a few weeks before ‘last frost date’ (generally March 31st in Lower Mainland – later in the rest of Canada). When raising transplants a heating mat is recommended to attain higher seed germination. The mat is a great investment for home gardeners as it can also be used to start up your other warm season vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes and squashes. Plant out the seedlings once garden soil has warmed. The plant can be harvested on a ‘cut and come again’ system where tender young tips are sheared off to eat without deterring regrowth. The plant comes armed – be warned that they have small thorns! The plant will bolt late fall sending out small, lumpy yellow flowers. If left to flower okihijiki will self-seed for the next year. During the cooler months Okihijiki can be grown and harvested as microgreens under artificial light to provide delicious, fresh treats.
A visit to Mark, Annie and the rest of the fabulous team at the WCS test garden is called for during the growing season to view okahijiki in action when pampered by professionals. Rumours have it that WCS will be testing other exotic heritage Japanese seeds. I will keep you posted!
Note: Japanese vegetable seeds are becoming very popular – best to purchase your seeds sooner than later to avoid being disappointed.
The month of April gets its name from the Latin word aperio, meaning “to open [bud],” reflecting the growth of plants with increasing light and warmth. This troubled year the meaning could easily refer ‘to open your heart with kindness to others’.
Gardening and sprouting are wonderful ways to manage stress, particularly during unsettling times. Seeing tiny green babies makes the heart sing and lowers blood pressure! Please take time to practice social distancing, phone, email or write to others and don’t forget to smell the spring blossoms!