Grow a herb the Italians consider an essential salad ingredient – one that tastes quite like cucumber. Words Marilyn Wightman
Salad burnet is a tasty herb that is a member of the rose family. Fortunately, the herb does not have sharp and scratchy thorns like its cousin the burnet rose (Rosa spinosissima), though both share the same oval leaves that are deeply toothed.
Rather, salad burnet (Sanguisorbia minor) is native to Europe and grows naturally from Sweden and Norway right across the continent to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where it is named pimpernelle or pimpinella. In Italian folklore, ‘L’insalate non e buon, ne bella, Que non e la Pimpinella!’ translates to ‘The salad is neither good nor fair, if Pimpinella is not there!”
This herb was also once used in ancient battlefields. A proven haemostatic, salad burnet helped stop bleeding when applied to wounds and blood flows. These days, we just enjoy its flavour.
Salad burnet is a perennial herb that grows in New Zealand all year round. It is hardy and grows in all parts of the country. Preferring light, well-drained soil, it is best planted in a prepared area with plenty of good manure and humus. It does need sun for at least half the day, but it is fairly wind-tolerant.
With warmer weather, it quickly puts on a growth spurt and reaches 40cm high and round. Preferring well-worked, fertile ground, salad burnet provides plenty of soft, lush foliage ready for picking and eating. A single plant grows with a deep taproot, so it is not possible to dig up and divide the plant. Rather, let it go to flower at the end of summer and harvest the seeds.
The flowers are unusual, being green and reddish-brown in colour and forming a clumped, cylindrical head. Look closer, and the female flowers are at the top and the creamy male flowers are at the base, nearer the stem. Just let a few mature and gather the seed, otherwise all the flowers will deplete growth and the plant will be small, with tough and leathery leaves. Tidy the plant with an all-over trim in autumn.
The cucumber-like flavour of the leaves, which can be used in a variety of tasty dishes, is the special feature of this herb. Pluck a few stems, strip the rounded leaves off the stalk and add them to the salad bowl. Some people react to cucumber and have digestive issues. This herb (and borage too) gives the crisp flavour of cucumber without any accompanying burps. Also, it is great to use when the cucumber season is over. Use the herb fresh in pasta, bean, potato and lettuce salads. Try using it as a parsley substitute and add it to soups and dips as a garnish.
• 1 cup cider or white wine vinegar
• 1 cup chopped salad burnet leaves
To make a creamy dressing for any type of salad: place 3 tbsp burnet vinegar, 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tsp mustard powder, 1 crushed garlic clove and pepper to taste in a lidded jar and shake until combined.