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Wild Flowers: Asphodel

Yanıklar, the village we call home, stretches from the coastline towards the foothills of Çal Dağı, the mountain that sits central to our backdrop. Snow capped it stands for most of the winter, feeding the river which flows down to the sea, carving a valley most of the way. An arterial highway bisects the village, the speed of the traffic a total contrast to the pace of life on either side. The route to our house from this highway involves 700 metres of winding rural lanes which mostly border citrus & olive groves, and whose verges welcome the passersby with a grand display of seasonal wildflowers, blooming in succession as the weeks roll on by.

By early-March the asphodel awakens. A thick-stalked candelabra of icing sugar bloom, with leek-like leaves and a rhizome network buried deep within the rocky earth it favours. Towering above the chamomile, poppies and cow parsley with which it shares the soil, asphodel can reach heights of 150cm, and is native to southern Europe, northern Africa and parts of the Middle-East.

"Snowflake on asphodel, clear ice on rose,

frost over thistledown, the instant death

that speaks Time's judgment, turning verse to prose"

The asphodel has a history as grand, and somewhat ghostly, as its physical form. In Homer’s Odyssey, when describing the Greek underworld, it is said that after death, the souls of ordinary folk were sent to the asphodel meadows ‘where the spirits of the dead dwell’. In Italian, asphodel is named fiori di morti, flower of the dead. For centuries in Greece, Asphodel was planted near tombs as it was believed that the plant would provide food for departed souls.

Others in Elysian valleys dwell, Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel. Alfred Tennyson

Parts of the asphodel are widely claimed to be edible (see disclaimer below before foraging), and for centuries, prior to mass agriculture, the starch-rich tubers were also relied upon as a food source by the living, especially by Greeks and Romans. The tubers (rhizomes) once boiled take on a texture and blandness not unlike tapioca. Pliny the Elder wrote about the asphodel in The Natural History, describing how the Greeks would combine cooked asphodel tubers with figs, considered quite a delicacy . In Spain, the dried tubers of Asphodelus aestivus were ground into a paste and used as glue by shoemakers, and traditionally in the south of Italy, the burrata cheese (a soft cheese quite similar to mozzarella) was traditionally wrapped in fresh asphodel leaves to indicate freshness, as the leaves turned drier and browner, the less fresh the cheese would be. The young stalks, leaves and flowers are also reputed to be edible.

The asphodel’s thick, tough stems have also been utilised by crafters, both past and present. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, now Bodrum, described how Lybian nomads made huts from Asphodel stalks. In the Sardinian towns of Flussio and Tinnura, local crafts people would weave 2-month dried asphodel stalks into ‘Corbule’ baskets, which were used in the bread making process, and often presented as part of a bride’s dowry. The traditional Sardinian craft of asphodel basketry still lives on today.

Asphodel ramosus is the species commonly found around the Fethiye area. There are around 15 identified species of asphodel in the Mediterranean region, though in the past there seems to have been confusion regarding its classification. Formerly included in the Lily (Liliaceae) family, but later re-classified as Asphodelaceae, it cannot be denied that asphodel flowers do bear a visual resemblance to lilies, though on a much smaller scale. I wonder if the Western practice of presenting lilies at funerals somehow stemmed from the Ancient Greek practice of planting asphodels at tombs. I also wonder if in ancient times asphodel was farmed on a large scale. Imagine the beauty, as a living soul, of seeing meadows packed with asphodel, swaying in the springtime breeze.

"The heavy fields of scentless Asphodel, the loveless lips with which men kiss in hell"; "they sleep, they sleep, beneath the rocking trees where asphodel and yellow lotus twine" Oscar Wilde

These threads of thought symbolise my motivation for creating a blog that focuses on Mediterranean coastal life. My asphodel discoveries have been fueled by a curiosity and desire to dig deeper into my rural surroundings. How often do we fail to appreciate nature’s wild floral decoration of our roadsides, passing by oblivious to the remarkable history each plant holds? So much we have forgotten, so much we can re-learn.

A disclaimer: this blog is intended to educate and inspire. Please realise the dangers of wild food foraging without expert guidance, as nature, though beautiful, can be deadly. Allergies and intolerance can occur even if something is recognised as edible. Please also be aware of our fellow critters and beasts who may rely on your catch as a food source.

More reading:

Gerard’s Herbal V.1 page 201. John Gerard

The Natural History Pliny the Elder

I've also discovered a wonderful blog whilst researching asphodel. Mapping the Labyrinth by EV, a writer, dancer, and herbalist living in northern Greece. I urge you to peruse her pages!


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