Corn salads — also known as mâches — are unusual salad crops because they are very cold-hardy and grow best during the fall and winter. Two features of golden corn salad elevate it above the common mâche now sold in many supermarkets: its intensely nutty flavor and its ornamental possibilities for edible landscaping. The nutty flavor suggests a hint of toasted peanuts or even tahini; some people detect a trace of walnuts or hazelnuts.
The first time I saw this intriguing plant was in a southern England garden on a frosty January morning. There it was carpeting the border of a pathway, intermingled with variegated winter cress and Viola labradorica. The contrast between the brilliant chartreuse-green of the corn salad and the dusty purple leaves of the viola was stunning, more so since the viola was in full bloom. Better yet, both were edible — a winter salad waiting to happen.
Golden corn salad is a plant indigenous to much of the Mediterranean, and it can be found in the wild even in Switzerland. Botanically speaking, golden corn salad (Valerianella eriocarpa) is a “first cousin” of common green corn salad (V. locusta or V. olitoria).
In France, the golden type is generally referred to as mâche d’Italie (Italian corn salad).
It was not until the early 1800s that people began to cultivate it in gardens. We call it corn salad not because it is related to American corn, but because in England long ago, wheat fields were called “corn fields,” and that is where the plant often grew.
In the 1920s, French horticulturist Desiré Bois was one of the first to give this plant more than passing attention, recommending it highly and noting that there is a subvariety called “lettuce-leaved” golden corn salad because it resembles a dwarf head of lettuce.
Unfortunately, I do not think this lettuce-leaved golden corn salad is available in the United States. But you can push the more common golden corn salad to grow larger. If individual plants are placed about 6 inches apart, rather than planting them by broadcasting the seed, you will get nice, large and bushy salad greens of the most succulent texture.
The leaves of golden corn salad are much longer and larger than the common mâche leaves, so when the two are side by side, there is no mistaking one for the other. Because of the greens’ nutty flavor, I recommend using cold-pressed peanut oil or a sesame oil, or even pricey hazelnut oil in any dressing you prepare.
Growing it is fairly simple, although I would consider it a bit too tender for overwintering in any part of the United States colder than Zone 6. The most common method of cultivation is to broadcast the seed on a plot of well-prepared ground in mid-August or early September.
By October, young plants should be well-established and able to survive the rigors of winter, which they do very well in my Zone 6 Pennsylvania garden. The salad then can be harvested all winter long. Late the following spring, the plants bolt and run to seed.
After the plants are mature and begin dropping their tiny white seeds, just pull them up and stuff them upside-down into brown paper bags. Date and label the bags and set them aside in a cool, dry place for a month or so — until the plants are brittle. Then shake the seeds loose into the bottom of the bag and put them away in envelopes in a tightly closed jar.
Date your seeds carefully — if you store them in a cool, dark closet, they should remain viable for up to three years. In early spring or fall, you can plant the seeds the same time you would plant spinach; make additional sowings every two to three weeks. Since it is more heat tolerant than common corn salad, the golden corn salad does not bolt as quickly either. Thus it can be planted later in the spring for a harvest of greens well into early summer.
The Cook’s Garden
Ask for ‘Piedmont’ corn salad
P.O. Box C5030
Warminster, PA 18974
Ask for golden corn salad
4260 Weston Road
Weston, ON M9L 1W9 Canada