I read an interesting passage in The Voyage of the Beagle last night which sent me down a plant-researching rabbit hole:
“During the four succeeding days we continues sailing southward. The general features of the country remained the same, but it was much less thickly inhabited. On the large island of Tanqui there was scarcely one cleared spot, the trees on every side extending their branches over the sea-beach. I one day noticed, growing on the sandstone cliffs, some very fine plants of the panke (Gunnera scabra) which somewhat resembles the rhubarb on a gigantic scale. The inhabitants eat the stalks, which are subacid, and tan leather with the roots, and prepare a black dye from them. The leaf is nearly circular, but deeply indented on its margin. I measured one which was nearly eight feet in diameter, and therefore no less than twenty-four in circumference! The stalk is rather more than a yard high, and each plant sends out four or five of these enormous leaves, presenting together a very noble appearance.”
-Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
When I looked up “Gunnera scabra,” I found it is now commonly known by the Latin name Gunnera tinctoria – and it looks like it could be a good addition to the food forest.
Useful Temperate Plants notes:
“Gunnera tinctoria is a herbaceous, perennial plant forming a cluster of large leaves on long prickly petioles and looking rather like a giant rhubarb plant. Growing from a large, woody rootstock, the petioles can be 200cm or more tall in good conditions surmounted by a large, somewhat thorny leaf that can be 150cm or more wide. The plant spreads (usually quite slowly) by short rhizomes to form a large clump. The plant is harvested from the wild for local use as a food, medicine and source of materials. A popular food in Chile, where it is known as ‘nalcas’, the plant is commonly harvested from the wild and often sold in local markets.”
And, in regards to cultivation:
“Gunnera tinctoria is fairly cold tolerant, especially if a thick mulch is applied to the rootstock whilst the plant is dormant. Unprotected, the roots will generally survive occasional temperatures falling as low as -10°c, somewhat lower with protection. The young growth in spring, however, can be damaged by late frosts. Requires a damp humus rich soil in a sunny position or semi-shade, sheltered from strong winds. Plants can be grown in quite coarse grass, which can be cut annually in the autumn. The top part of the inflorescence is male, the bottom is female and the middle is hermaphrodite. A very ornamental plant with huge leaves, it forms a slowly spreading dense clump. The genus Gunnera is unique in the plant kingdom by acquiring nitrogen through symbiosis with the nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium, Nostoc punctiforme. The structurally unique stem glands of Gunnera function as the conduit through which cyanobacteria infect the host. As the genus Nostoc is cosmopolitan and common, it is likely to be present in the wet habitats in which Gunnera grows. Members of this genus are rarely if ever troubled by browsing deer.”
Huge leaves, nitrogen-fixing, plus it has edible parts. Sounds like a great permaculture plant.
Now I just have to find one.
Featured image: Gunnera Manicata large leafed plant by Debu55y/stock.adobe.com
Thank you – I got it from Singtree!
David, I know the climate is different from what you’ve got these days, but Gunnera is incredibly common in the UK. I just looked and it’s even considered invasive in some parts of Britain. Supposedly, it’s frost hardy, so it should survive the infrequent frosts you’ve got where you are. I used to live in Bournemouth, England, and the plants were massive there. I didn’t realize that it was edible. As an ornamental, it is super impressive since it’s herbaceous and comes up from the roots every year. Even better if it’s useful as well. Too bad it won’t survive the cold weather I’ve got up here in Indiana!
Thank you! I bought one and will give it a try.
I’ve seen them around here before, I had no idea that it’s an edible.
I appreciate your wisdom so much. I live in zone 8b in South Texas. I want to order your gardening books. Thank you for all the great information.
God bless you, Lois. That is kind. Thank you.