The three edibles from the order Dipsacales (mâche, elderberry and valerian) inadvertently make their way into Jeanne’s evening.
As I added some dried valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root to my bedtime tea mixture, I realized that in doing so I had inadvertently incorporated the only three common edibles from the order Dipsacales into my evening: elder, mâche, and valerian. These three make the Dipsacales a lonely but interesting and delicious branch of the asterid group of eudicots (see our phylogeny page for phylogenetic contextualization of the asterids):
My path to this phylogenetic trifecta began with an elderberry spritzer. Julia Child nursed a glass of wine while cooking dinner; I have my spritzer: something yummy stirred into sparkling water on ice. In this case, the something yummy was a few teaspoons of elderberry (Sambucus spp.) syrup that I made this summer (using Hank Shaw’s excellent instructions), some grated fresh ginger, and a slice of lemon.
Thanks to the Elder Wand in Harry Potter, this member of the family Adoxaceae is now certainly one of the most famous woody shrubs in the Western world. Parents, though, be cautioned: like stone fruit plants, the leaves, seeds, roots and woody tissues in the elder plant contain cyanide-containing glycosides, so if your youngster is determined to have an authentic elder wand, make it out of a dead branch, not a live one, and don’t let him or her chew on any fresh branches. Having said that, though, it’s also true that the hollowed elder twigs were traditionally used in the Northeastern United States as spiles to tap maple trees to harvest their sap for syrup, so the toxicity can’t be terribly worrisome.
Before Harry Potter, you might have known elder as elderflower syrup (available at Ikea!) or liqueur, such as St. Germaine or Sambuca. Elderberry cordials and preserves are occasionally available, mostly in Europe. Whole umbels of the flowers or berries are dipped in batter and deep fried as a sweet snack in parts of Italy.
In the United States, elderberry syrup is most commonly available as a nutritional supplement for treating common colds in health food stores, which charge exorbitant prices for the stuff, so it is far more economical to make your own when the berries are in season. Elderberries grow wild in most parts of the continental United States and are easy to grow in your yard if you have the space. Clinical research is starting to validate elder’s centuries-old reputation among herbalists as an antiviral decongestant. That gives me peace of mind during the winter cold and flu season, but I mostly like elderberry syrup because of its rich fruit flavor and gorgeous magenta color.
The next Dipsacales on my list was mâche (Valerianella locusta) salad with dinner. I like Harold McGee’s description of this member of the family Valerianaceae in his masterful On Food and Cooking: “Mâche, also known as lamb’s lettuce or corn salad…has small, tender, slightly mucilaginous leaves and a distinctive, complex, fruity-flowery aroma (from various esters, linalool, mushroomy octenol, and lemony citronellol), which make is a popular addition to or alternative to a lettuce salad in Europe.” This feisty little plant can stand up to a strongly flavored or creamy vinaigrette. Kept intact as an entire plant, it makes a beautiful salad, although it’s a bit tedious to wash, as sand can get trapped between the leaves and short stem.
Like mâche, the valerian in my tea is in the Valerianaceae, and like elder, its centuries-old reputation in herbalism, in this case as a relaxing herb that promotes sleep, is beginning to receive rigorous modern academic validation. Researchers are actively working to understand the mechanism why valerian works, but preliminary results indicate that it might increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Valium works in the same way, but even though valerian is sometimes touted as “nature’s valium,” the herb is far safer and milder, and there is no relationship between the drug and the herb. Unlike mâche and elder, which should be immediately delicious to most palates, the flavor of valerian root is undeniably medicinal. Some people even say it smells like dirty socks. I don’t think it’s that bad and find that a small amount added to a tea of chamomile, peppermint and fennel just adds a pleasant earthiness.
Elder, mâche and valerian might not be staples in your home. You may only encounter them occasionally. The next time you do, however, whether I’ve inspired you to seek them out or not, I know that you won’t dismiss this trio of ambassadors to our table from a worthy branch on the plant tree of life.