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Saturday, August 6, 2011


Asphodels have always fascinated me since I read Homer and I bought many of them, which had been dyed through osmosis to blue, green and violet when I lived on a Greek island. Of course they also grow wild in Greece especially on the island of Crete where they have the yellow ones, Asphodelus lutea as well as the more common white variety,   A. fistulosus, which has leaves that give rise to its name of onion-leaved Asphodel. Asphodels are member of the lily family of plants, Liliaceae and although native to the shores of the Mediterranean and Central Europe are also in Asia.
Pakistani asphodel
  In Pakistan the rather straggly –looking asphodel (Asphodelus tenuifolius) is a common weed in wheat fields in the same way as the poppy and cornflower are in Western Europe. This one is native to Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
   The ancient Greeks planted Asphodels near tombs as they believed that they were a favourite food of the dead. Homer describes the asphodel meadows (άσφοδελόν λειμώνα The Odyssey 24:12) in Hades, the Greek Underworld and some have mistakenly thought that this was a happy place so have though that it was the yellow asphodels to which he was referring. However a closer reading of the text shows that he was talking of the white, somewhat ghostly asphodel, so William Carlos Williams, the American 20th century poet got this right in his poem “Asphodel that Greeny Flower.”
   “Of asphodel that greeny flower
                        like a buttercup
                               upon its branching stem-
     Save that it is green and wooden
                        I come, my sweet,
                               to sing to you
     I had a good collection,
                        The asphodel,
     among them.”

The flower had associations with Persephone, who was condemned to spend six months of the year in the underworld because she had been tricked into eating six pomegranate seeds while she was captive there.
  Hesiod clearly held the asphodel in high esteem as he wrote in his poem, “Works and Days”
    “Fools, they do not know by how much
      the half is greater than the whole,
      nor what great advantage there is 
      in mallow and asphodel.”
He meant that the mallow and asphodel were cheap, plain foodstuffs which had many health benefits, but the wealthy had no time for these foods as they considered them food only for the poor.
  The English Romantic poets and Milton misunderstood the meaning of Homer’s asphodels and in Paradise Lost book 9 line 1,039 Milton has this to say of the asphodel, implying that it was a flower associated with the sensual plants of hyacinth and violets:
  “Flowers were the couch pansies, violets, asphodel and hyacinth, earth’s freshest, softest lap.”
  In early English and French poetry the name asphodel was given to the flower we now call the daffodil.
  Asphodels can grow to around 3 feet tall and if they are cultivated it is for their roots, which can be dried and boiled in water to produce a mucilage which is something like reconstituted Gum Tragacanth (gond katira). The roots contain inulin, a starch and although the root contains some bitter substances, these are removed by boiling. Glue can be made from the bulbs by drying and pulverizing them and then mixing with cold water.
  The bitter roots have been used in traditional medicine to help remove obstructions which prevent the menstrual flow being normal, and they are also a diuretic and have antispasmodic properties.
  Asphodels are related to asparagus and asparagus racemosus, and scientific studies have found that the asphodel (racemosus) has antimicrobial properties which can prevent secondary infections occurring in cancer patients.
  The asphodel, along with horta (wild edible greens such as the mallow and dandelion) helped the Greeks survive the harsh years of the Second World War, as their starchy roots saved many from dying of hunger.
  Both Hippocrates and Dioscorides advocated that the asphodel roots should be roasted in the embers of a fire and then eaten mashed with figs and the shoot eaten fried; like a pakora.
  In Britain there is the Bog Asphodel, which is yellow, Narthecium ossifragum.
  Here is a Greek recipe for asphodel shoots, which is a kind of omelette.

1 cup tender shoots, 1½ inches long
1 small onion, very finely chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsps cream or evaporated milk
salt to taste
olive oil for frying

Make a cut in the asphodel shoots and blanch them in boiling water for 2 minutes.
Mix the eggs and milk beating until well mixed.
Fry the shoots with the onion for a few minutes and then pour the egg mixture over them.
Cover the pan and cook over a low heat until the eggs are set.
Serve as you would an omelete.
This has Taste and is a Treat.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this information. I came across a field of asphodels in bloom last year and have been fascinated by them ever since. I am always looking for new information on wild edibles, so I'll spend some time with you.


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