Golden Corn Salad

Golden corn salad is a great choice for winter salads.

| August/September 2005

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.

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