I think it is safe to say that perhaps my favorite of the greens, my ultimate favorite, are Chrysanthemum greens, otherwise known as Tong Hao (in Chinese) or shungiku (in Japanese); Chrysanthemum coronaria in the more familiar Latin. It is often sold as “garland chrysanthemum”.
This is one of those plants that really make you appreciate the East, and their amazing ability to find use and utility where we do not. This species of Chrysanthemum, after all, is native to the Mediterranean. But nowhere there has it been fully realized as food, nor in Africa or the new world where it has naturalized. Only in Asia has it’s true potential been truly tapped, and developed. In China the green is not held in as high esteem as in Japan, and is often called za cui (or as more familiarly known in the west as it’s anglicized “chop suey”) which roughly translates into boiled leftovers. Nevertheless it is a delicious green, full of nutrition–particularly rich in potassium and antioxidants. Actually there is one lone exception I am aware of, in Crete (the large island off of Greece) where a variety of this species is called mantilida.
There are many varieties of Chrysanthemum greens, usually characterized by leaf-type. The more deeply lobed, almost divided-leaf variaties are closer to the wild species, and tend to be easier to grow, though lower yielding and pungently-flavored. The broad-leaf varieties will be more work to grow (though really not difficult) and yield more succulent, delicious greens. There are also many “intermediate” varieties between these two stratified groups that aim for highly producing, but still delicious foliage. I have tried them all and they all are good, but I tend to like the broad-leaf types and have never had difficulty growing any of them.
Occasionally you will find these delicious greens in Asian markets or sometimes in a collection of vegetables found in your CSA box. Most often you see the divided leaf varieties, which are still delicious and last in the fridge moderately well.
Grow from seed. You will probably not find any at the nurseries but even if you did, the choice of varieties would be low. You can start off in small pots if you wish, they do transplant much better than many greens. I direct-seed mine and thin after germination.
They are best grown in full sun though they can take a little shade. Shaded plants tend to get sloppy-looking and don’t last as long into the warm season. They also tend to have problems with insects. These greens are not picky about soil, though the more rich the soil, the more bushy, succulent and happy the plants look. After all they are naturalized all over the world, yes even in Tucson. I have seen the wild Chrysanthemum coronaria growing here and there in weedy plots in the Tucson Mountains, though never as a noxious weed.
Water plants moderately, and feed occasionally with any balanced fertilizer like fish emulsion or kelp. Compost tea is also beneficial to them, as it is to almost any crop. Pinch off flowers when you see them develop. Plants produce the best in the cool weather of Tucson and like mild winter climates. Once the heat starts to kick in you cannot keep plants from bolting, even if they don’t quite bolt in the same way that mustards do.
Sow from seed starting in the early fall, and plant successionally for continued fresh crops. Space out plants about 3-6 inches apart (depending on variety) if you want each plant to reach its potential. However, if you plant very close together, you can harvest as young greens by sheering off tops. This can be done successfully a few times but will need to be replanted after a few sheers (if you want to maintain good quality).
Greens can be eaten fresh or stir-fried. The taste is unique: only a hint of the sharpness found in many other greens, with a nutty and slightly perfumey overtones. When I pick my greens for my daily salad (in the cool season when greens are plentiful) I tend to lean heavy on these because I favor them, especially the broad-leaf varieties. When you cook them, cook them very lightly. They can tend to become more bitter if overcooked, their delicate flavor lost. They can be quickly blanched or steamed but again, just slightly to retain their unique flavor.
The flower petals are also edible and pretty. Try floating a bunch on top of a winter stew, as a garnish. Very pretty.
Evergreen Seeds has a great selection of Chrysanthemum greens.
Kitazawa Seed Co. has also always been a favorite seed source for me, and no exception when it comes to this species.
For more information on growing edible Asian crops and to help you navigate all those unusual Asian market finds, check out Oriental Vegetables by Joy Larkcom. The book does an incredible job connecting the garden to the kitchen, and talks of various ways of growing these vegetables, not only useful for Asian edibles, but as good general gardening tips. A brilliant book and one I use a lot.