Recently I ran across a food plant new to me – Salsola soda, also known as agretti to Southern Italians. In reading about it, I noted that it was a plant from the edges of salt marshes, needing a somewhat saline environment to thrive. It reminded me of something I’ve always wanted to try – a productive saline garden. So much of our cropping land is being affected by salinity now, I’d love to try putting useful gardens on the edges of the encroachment, and see if that either gave productive crops, helped manage the salinity or both. I’ve also wondered if it’s possible to do a saline garden in aquaponics, using marine or estuarine fish instead of the usual freshwater varieties, though controlling the salt levels in the water would need close attention. The trick is finding the plants to grow in it. Most of the plants we’re accustomed to eating are very timid when it comes to acceptable growth conditions, and we’re timid about accepting too much variety within even those plants. I have a top four group of plants in mind though that might do very well, and be able to be sold commercially if the growing methods worked. Especially with our growing food culture that is beginning to accept experimentation with novel foods from other cuisines.
My picks: agretti, asparagus, the wild Galapagos tomato species, and warrigal greens. All are (or started as) coastal or marsh-edge plants known for their salt tolerance. All have some likelihood of being acceptable as spring vegetables – asparagus is already mainstream, warrigal greens are a well known bush food, agretti might be attractive to our large Italian community, and Galapagos tomatoes are just a new variety of tomato. Each of these are fairly easily prepared and have a not-too-challenging flavour composition.
In the harder-to-sell category would go pigface, ruby saltbush and saltbush (Atriplex). Pigface has quite large edible fruit, but they’re not sweet and you’d have to convince people that the fruit weren’t some weird alien life form. Ruby saltbush has edible berries but they’re quite tiny and curiously flavoured which makes them a harder crop to harvest, transport, and build an appetite for. The Atriplex bushes are more familiar – they cover a lot of the dry interior of this country – and it’s their leaves that you eat. However they’re not great as a vegetable on their own. Their flavour is slightly salty but otherwise unprepossessing – suitable as a ground herb in herb blends and salt grinders to help space out the stronger flavours. The bushes are too large for an aquaponics setup but they are already grown extensively around salt lakes to combat salinity and to provide stock fodder. Stock fodder might be their best use.