Discovering Chinese Water Chestnuts

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Water Chestnut/Planting water chestnuts

I've always liked Chinese food, but I was never really a fan of Chinese water chestnuts ... that is, until I grew my own and tasted them fresh.

The tasteless white discs in cheap takeout are only a pale shadow of the fresh vegetable.

Known in Latin as Eleocharis dulcis, Chinese water chestnuts are NOT the same as the invasive "water chestnut" that's invaded our native wetlands. Chinese water chestnuts are a member of the sedge family and look like a 2-3' tubular grass. At the base of the reedy growth, under a mat of roots, you'll find the edible corms, or "chestnuts."

These roots have a crisp, nutty flavor that's delicious. Unfortunately, most Americans have never tasted them.

Experimenting with Chinese Water Chestnuts

It took me three years to find my first Chinese water chestnut corms and another spring, summer and fall before my first crop was ready to eat. I wasn't really all that sure how to grow them, so I just planted six corms in a recycled bathtub with about 6" of muck in the bottom and another 6" of water over that.

The growth surprised me. Those six initial roots multiplied into a thick mat of roots and reeds that absolutely filled the bathtub. Out of that tub, I harvested at least a gallon of water chestnuts. I would have harvested more - and larger - corms if the tub wasn't so crowded with plants by the end of the season. One little plant can spread to fill up a 6' x 6' water garden in a season. My kind of vegetable!

This spring I decided to grow them in kiddie pools and share a few roots with some of my readers so they could take a shot at growing their own water chestnuts. Thus far, the kiddie pools are working excellently. I have three of them filled with plants, plus I added a second bathtub and a small in-ground pond to the mix. All of them are growing plenty of happy water chestnuts. To grow them in kiddie pools, I fill the pools most of the way to the top with garden soil, then water until it's sopping muck. Chinese water chestnuts don't need to be covered in water; all they need is to be in boggy conditions.

Though Chinese water chestnuts are technically a tropical plant, I've had them come back happily after frosty nights down in the teens. My guess is that you can grow them as a perennial in USDA Growing Zones 8 south, but with protection or a covered pond, they'd likely work further north than that.

Note: if you have Oriental markets locally, you might have luck finding fresh Chinese water chestnuts in the produce section. Plant them and most of them should grow into plants, provided they haven't dried out. (You can also get plants in limited quantities from my little family plant nursery, but it would be totally self-serving to mention that here, so I won't. Oh shoot! I just did! #evilcapitalist)

Chinese Water Chestnuts in a Tub/Young water chestnut plants

Growing Tips

To grow Chinese water chestnuts, plant corms a couple of inches deep in mucky soil or at the edge of a pond and stand back. They grow quickly and will rapidly spread to fill whatever space you give them. Let them grow until the tops start to yellow and die back, then start digging. Be gentle as you harvest: the skins on Chinese water chestnuts are somewhat easy to damage and the roots won't keep as long if they're scratched. As for storage, you can put the corms in a container of water or moist paper towels and refrigerate them until you need them... they keep quite well. Peel, slice and eat them raw or cooked. They keep their crunch even after cooking, adding a great texture to stir-fries and other dishes.

I think there's potential for this easy-to-grow root to be a good staple crop. With enough kiddie pools, anything is possible!

There's a real joy in growing and tasting new plants. In coming weeks, I'm going to share more on a few other overlooked perennial vegetables that are worth trying in your garden or food forest project... stay tuned.

Until then, save some takeout for me. I can dress it up.

For more daily gardening inspiration, plant profiles, rare edibles and homesteading, check out David's website at www.floridasurvivalgardening.com.