Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris)

Bladder Campion, or at least the Common Bladder Campion, Silene vulgaris, is a perennial herb with attractive, light-green leaves, occasionally flushed purple, and with a noticeable bloom, which gives them a glaucous appearance. Delicate white (or occasionally pink) flowers, with deeply notched petals, appear in Summer and into early Autumn, gently nodding at the top of its numerous, slender, branching stems. Once acquainted with these, they become instantly recognisable because the petals are attached, at the base, to a distinctive, inflated calyx, made up of fused sepals, with a pattern which one of the sources that I consulted referred to as ‘anastomosing’, a technical way – so I learnt – of saying that it resembles an interlocking web of veins. (Rautenberg et al., 2012. p. 233).

It is this inflated, beautifully reticulated, ampullaceous structure, that gives this plant, and its close relatives, the ‘Bladder’ part of their common name. There are two different accounts of the second part of the name, Campion, which is used collectively for Silene species and for some of their close relatives in allied genera (e.g. Lychnis). According to one account, it is either an old variant of champion. or an anglicised version of the Italian campione, but in either case an allusion to their use in the chaplets or garlands with which the winners of ancient public contests or games were crowned (Britten & Holland, 1878. p.85). According to another, it is  reference to a mythological eponym, the youth Campion, who was transformed - like the more famous Narcissus whose metamorphosis into a Daffodil (Narcissus) was immortalized by Ovid - into this flower, by the Goddess Minerva. There's a little more to this story, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

For the time being, Silene vulgaris seems to be restricted to the Northern Hemisphere. It is particularly widespread in Europe, including the British Isles, but can also be found across Asia, North America, and the northern-most parts of Africa, in a range of habitats. Like the last plant we featured, Buck’s Horn Plantain (Plantago coronopus), the Bladder Campion in which we’re interested here – as there are several plants which go by the more general name – has a rich history of use for food. It also happens to be one of our favourite plants, which is why I've chosen to write about it here.

 As with the previous profile, I’ll say a bit (ok, more than a bit) about the plant itself. After doing this, I'll giving a summary of the ethnobotanical literature, and end by sharing some of our experiences and some of the recipes we've tried so far.

As well as S. vulgaris, the Common Bladder Campion, several other species within the genus have also been called 'Bladder Campions', for example, S. alpina, S. glareosa, and S. uniflora. The first of these, S. alpina, is now considered a subspecies of S. vulgaris. The second, S. glareosa, was considered a subspecies of S. vulgaris, but is now regarded as a subspecies of the third, S. uniflora (also known by the synonym S. maritima), which is found primarily in coastal habitats, and is nowadays more commonly known as Sea Campion. I’ll say a little more about Sea Campion below.

In her A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic, ecologist Evelyn Pielou (2012) tells us that the genus Melandrium are also known collectively as 'Bladder Campions'. The species she mentions - M. apetalum (The Nodding Bladder Campion) and M. affine (the Three-flowered Bladder Campion) - have since been moved to Silene and assigned the names S. uralensis subsp. arctica and S. involucrata, respectively. 

Although each of these plants - and perhaps others, as there are several more that posses inflated calyces - have a legitimate claim to the name 'Bladder Campion', in what follows I’ll reserve this name for S. vulgaris (unless otherwise stated).

While we’re on the topic of names, it’s probably worth noting that our Bladder Campion is also known as Maiden’s Tears, particularly in the US. This seems to be the only other name widely used in the Anglophone world.  However, in the second volume of the Thesaurus of Agricultural Organisms, you can also find the names White Ben and White Bottle (recorded for S. cucubalus, a synonym of S. vulgaris)(p.1111). In their Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, Merritt Lyndon Fernald and Alfred Charles Kinsey, also use the name Snappery (193). And in his Wildflowers of Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, Leonard Adkins records what he describes as several common (i.e. vernacular) but ‘fanciful names’, including ‘Rattle-Bags, Fairy Potatoes, and Bird’s Eggs’ (42). One of these, Fairy Potato, is more commonly applied to the diminutive, tuberous Claytonia species, which produce small, edible roots that look a bit like knobbly potatoes. Whatever inspired someone to apply this name to Silene vulgaris, it wasn’t the fact that they produces tubers (let alone edible ones), because sadly they don’t. On an aside, we recently bought a couple of C. virginica plants from Pottertons Nursery, after failing to grow them from seeds bought elsewhere. By all accounts these Fairy Potatoes are delicious, so with any luck our plants will multiply and we’ll be able to try them in the near future (and post about doing so here). Perhaps we’ll even be able to offer them in the shop, but I’m getting ahead of myself... and off topic!

The Pink Family

Bladder Campion is a member of the Pink or Carnation Family (Caryophyllaceae), a large, widely-distributed family of flowering plants that includes many familiar ornamentals (e.g., the eponymous Carnations (Dianthus spp.), Gypsophilia/Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila spp.), Ragged Robin (Lychnis spp.), and a number of excellent edibles. For example, the petals of the common Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), taste similar to cloves and be candied or used as a flavouring. The young shoots of Sea Sandwort (Honckenya peploides), make an excellent pickle - sadly, I can't find a photograph of ours, but I intend to collect some more soon, so watch this space. And the leaves of the common Chickweed (Stellaria media) – which grows across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and both North and South America (USDA, 2019) - are mild flavoured, available most of the year, and great for bulking up salads. The young shoots of its close, but less widely distributed relative, the Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) - which incidentally are in season at the moment - also make good eating raw or lightly cooked.

I could go on, but rather than doing so, let me mention just one more - simply because we’ve wanted to try it for quite some time, but have yet to source - and leave it at that.  The plant in question is the Tuber Starwort (P. jamesiana), in the neighbouring genus Pseudostellaria, which supposedly has tasty edible roots – if you happen to grows this plant, or if you can easily collect seed from an established (read, ‘not vulnerable’) population of wild growing plants, we’d be very interested to hear from you.

Some Pinks are also exceptional for other reason, such as their tolerance of extreme conditions. For example, some species (Arenaria musciformis and Thylacospermum rupifragum to mention a couple), are known to grow at the very highest elevations (c. 7000 masl in the Transhimalaya) occupied by any seed bearing plants (i.e., spermatophytes - this includes all angiosperms and gynosperms) (Bittrich, 1993). And one, the low growing Colobanthus quitensis, is one of the very few flowering plant species that occurs in Antarctica.

Many members of the Caryophyllaceae are also rich in saponins (specifically, triterpenoid saponins), a class of naturally occuring compoinds characterized by their ability to form foam or a lather when mixed with water. In fact, many are so rich in these compounds that they can be used to make soap. For example, both the leaves and roots of the aptly named Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) produce a lather when soaked, boiled or crushed in water, which can be used like regular soaps / detergents. The roots of several Silene species have also been used traditionally, by simmering them in hot water, as a soap substitute for washing clothes (e.g. S. latifolia, S. acaulis, S. kumaonensis, and S. conoidea) (Mamadalieva et al. 2014).

As a family, the Caryophyllaceae is also interesting for at least two other reasons. Firstly, they use hyper-efficient C4 photosynthesis – as opposed to the C3 photosynthesis used by over 90% of angiosperms – to accumulate and fix the atmospheric carbon (which is necessary for almost all of its vital processes) in their cells. Secondly, they produce anthocyanins. In and of itself that isn’t particularly remarkable – the majority of flowering plants do. However, they belongs to an order, the Caryophyllales, in which they are otherwise absent, replaced by another class of chemicals structurally related to alkaloids, called ‘betacyanins’. The intense Red/Purple colour of some Beetroot varieties, for example, is due to betacyanin rather than anthocyanin.

Silene

Like the family to which it belongs, the genus Silene is known for containing a number of valued ornamentals  (e.g., S. acaulis, S. multifida, S. multiflora, and S. regia), as well as a number of attractive, widely distributed and easily recognisable wildflowers here in the UK, such as the widely distributed Red and White Campions (S. dioica and S. latifolia respectively) and the more sparsely distributed Variegated Campion or Windmill Pink (Silene gallica syn. S. quinquevulnera). 

Several other members of the genus are also documented as have been used for food, including S. acaulis, S. aegyptiaca, S. burchellii, S. conoidea, S. csereii*, S. dichotoma subsp. dichotoma, S. dioica, S. diversifolia, S. drummondi, S. firma, S. italica, S. latifolia, S. longipetala, S. secundiflora, and S. uniflora** (Fernald & Kinsey, 1958; Turril, 1954; Koçak & Özhata, 2013; Abbasi et al. 2015; Arı et al. 2015; Martin & Ruberté 1979; Anschuetz & Merlan 2007. Tardio et al. 2006; Dreon & Paoletti, 2009; Dogan 2012; Thayer, 2017. PFAF).

*Samuel Thayer actually says that this species may make for better eating than S. vulgaris, so needless to say we'd love to grow it if anyone knows of a source.

** No published ethnobotanical sources (inclusion here explained below).

With the exception of the African species, S. burchellii, which is said to produce 'large, more or less ovoid, tuberous roots... [which are] said to be edible' (Turrill, 1954), it is the leaves or young shoots that have been used most commonly.

Unfortunately we don't have much experience of eating other Silenes. Although I've often passed S. latifolia (White Campion) and S. dioica (Red Campion) while out walking, but to date I’ve never picked any for eating. We do, however, grow both S. uniflora (Sea Campion) - of which we have both a while and pink flowered form - and S. acaulis (Moss-leaved Campion). Our Moss-leaved Campion plants (also from Pottertons) are still quite small, so we have't tried them yet, but we have tried both of these Sea Campions, and a couple of wild ones. Although the leaves are generally smaller, and can be a little bit tougher, in their raw state, than those of the Bladder Campions we've tried, there is only slightly more bitterness than in the latter, and cooked they soften up nicely and make for quite pleasant eating.

Of all the above mentioned species, however, Sea Campion is the only one for which I could find no record of its use for food in the published literature – one paper mentions its use as a medicinal herb, but without further information. Despite this, there are quite a few online sources – particularly foraging blogs – that suggest S. uniflora can be used in all the ways that Bladder Campion is (see, for example, the excellent Galloway Wild Food page run by Mark Williams here). And in most cases, their authors report have used it in at least some of these ways themselves. 

As well as the collective name Campion, Silenes are also known as Catchflies – because the leaves, stems and sometime flowers of some species (although not S. vulgaris) are covered in tiny glandular hairs which secrete a clear, viscid substance in which, as one source put it, ‘flies of the smaller kind are numerously entrapped’ (Rennie, 1834, p.57). Erasmus Darwin dedicated a verse of his The Botanic Garden: A Poem in Two Parts to just this:

“The fell Silene, and her sisters fair,
Skill’d in destruction, spread the viscous snare.
The Syren-band ten lofty bravoes screen,
And, frowning, guard the magic nets unseen.
Haste, glittering nations, tenants of the air,
Oh, steer from hence your viewless course afar!
If with soft words, sweet blushes, nods and smiles,
The three dread Syrens lure you to their toils,
Limed by the art, in vain you point your stings,
In vain the efforts of your whirring wings!
Go seek, your gilded mates and infant hives,
Nor taste the honey purchas’d with your lives!”

Both common names, Campion and Catch-fly, are also joined in the myth I mentioned at the start of this post. So the story  goes, Campion, the youth, was employed by Minerva to catch flies for her owls, so that they could eat during the day, as their sensitive eyes are more adapted to hunting at night-time. Instead of fulfilling his duty to the Goddess of wisdom, however, Campion decided to have a nap. Incensed at his neglect of her wise birds, Minerva punished the youth by changing him into a flower with an infalted bladder, recalling the vessell in which he formerly kept his flies, and generally supposed to be a Silene. Moreover, the flower in question is said to droop its flowers at night, when Minerva's birds are most active, in fear or in shame (Cundall, 1866. p.216; Loudon 1846. p.76). Oddly, neither of the two accounts of this myth that I came across, imputes to Minerva any intention of condemening Campion to catch flies in his newly passive state, by suffering the indignity of having them adhere to him. Anyway, moving on...

The generic name, Silene, it seems, is of somewhat disputed origin. In his 1914 work, British Flowering Plants, George Simonds Boulger notes that Silene is a name ’dating from Theophrastus in the fourth century B.C., [and] is said to be derived from the Greek σιαλον, sialon, saliva’ (1914, p.313). This seems to be a reference to one of two things. Either, the sticky glandular hairs I mentioned a moment ago, or the so-called “Frog’s-spit” or “Cuckoo’s-spit” that is common on some members of the genus - S. latifolia was at one point known by the common names Frothy Poppy and Spatling Poppy on account of this. If you haven’t come across this phenomenon, let me briefly explain. A group of sap-sucking insects - known collectively as Froghoppers or Spittlebugs -  will typically attach themselves, when young (nymph-stage), to a plant and then create a kind of 'nest', by exuding a frothy liquid that looks like, you’ve guessed it, saliva, as a form of defence against various forms of biotic and abiotic stress. Lots of plants are affected by this – RHS list chrysanthemum, dahlia, fuchsia, lavender, rosemary, rose and willow as other common host plants – but although it can be unsightly, it rarely causes damage.

In his Glossaire de Botanique, Alexandre de Theis suggests the name comes from Silenus (sometimes spelt Seilenos) a forest spirit and minor deity, in Greek mythology, who according to some versions also became foster-father and later tutor to Dionysus. De Theis himself suggests that Silenus in turn derives his name from sialon, because like his ward and companion, he is often associated with wine, intoxication and revelry, and is  thus sometimes represented, in his drunken state, couvert de bave (i.e. covered with drool or slaver). That derivation is controversial, but in any event, the connection between Silenus and the Campions may be simpler. Cundell (1866), tells us that '[t]his god of the [215] heathens', is often represented, 'bearing wine skins on his shoulder', which 'the bladders of the Campion are supposed to represent' (p.216).

Staying with the theme of Greek mythology, in her Beauty in Truth: The Botanic Art of Margaret Stones, Irena Zdanowicz, suggest that the genus was named, ‘for the moon goddess’, Selene, on account of the fact that some species bloom at night or in the evening, in order to attract nocturnal and crepuscular moths (Runyeon & Prentice, 1996. p.183).

Whatever the source of its name, the genus is the largest in its family. In 1869, Paul Rohrbach divided it into two subgenera, the smaller subg. Behenantha and the more inclusive subg. Silene, with Bladder Campion falling into the former (Eggens, 2006). There have been several attempts since to impose meaningful subdivisions upon the genus. Many of these grouped species on the basis of their morphological features (e.g., growth habit, anatomy, etc.).  On one such attempt, by P. K. Chowdhuri (1957), in his influential, Studies in the Genus Silene, S. vulgaris is placed in section Inlfatae, one of the smallest sections of the genus. Other members of this section include, S. caesia, S. cserei,  S. fabaria, S. fabarioides, S. procumbens, S. uniflora, and S. variegata (ibid.). However, the consensus now seems to be that morphology is only a weak indicator of phylogeny, because as Ghahremaninejad et al. (2014) notes, the ‘characteristics that have been considered to be of major taxonomic value in Silene’, now appear to have ‘evolved several times independently’ (p.130).

However, more recent molecular analysis has enabled taxonomists to infer the relationship between species within the genus with greater confidence, and several well supported subsections are now recognised (e.g., Conoimorpha, Physolychnis). Unfortunately for our purposes, the studies I found focused more upon the relationship between species within these sections, treating S. vulgaris as an outgroup for their analyses. Rautenberg et al. (2012) do refer to the ‘Silene vulgaris group’, but unfortunately they don't specify exactly which species belong to this. In an earlier study, Rautenberg (2009) does, however, explicitly connect two species with our Bladder Campion, namely S. uniflora (Sea Campion) and S. pendula (Nodding Catch-fly) (see also Desfeux and Lejeune, 1996). And of these, Sea Campion is the more closely related species - phylograms constructed on the basis of analysis of the ITS region of nuclear ribosomal DNA, three regions of mitochondrial DNA and three regions of chloroplast DNA suggest that S. vulgaris and S. uniflora are more closely related to each other than to any other species within the genus.

It's worth saying a little bit about the relationship between S. vulgaris and S. uniflora, because at one point the latter was considered merely a subspecies of the former (see, for example, Harry Godwin's 1975, The History of the British Flora (2nd Ed.)). Before that it was suggested, by Negodi (1928) that both were subspecies of S. angustifolia Marsden-Jones & Turrill, 1929b), a name that has since fallen more or less into disuse (although not before it was applied to another species).

Although very similar in appearance, Sea Campion generally has a more prostrate growth habit, and flowers which are a little larger than S. vulgaris, borne in smaller clusters or singly (hence, uniflora). In some populations, however, the differences are much  less pronounced than in others. One reason for this is that, where their habitats overlap, the two species are known to hybridize freely, and it is thought that there has, therefore, long been geneflow between them. However, hybrids are relatively rare in the wild as Sea Campion has quite specific ecological requirements, and populations of the two are usually segregated. And even when there can be no question of hybridization, populations often exhibit, as Marsden-Jones and Turrill  report, considerable 'character parallelism' (1946, p.103).

Despite the fact that 'natural' hybrids of S. vulgaris and S. uniflora are somewhat uncommon, there has been some research on hybridization between these two species. The most extensive studies were conducted by the authors I just mentioned, Edward M. Marsden-Jones and William B. Turrill, on 'artifical' hybrids produced at Kew and at Marsden-Jones' home at Potterne, Wiltshire. They record the results of their studies - and of their broader research into Bladder and Sea Campion -  in a series of papers, published  between 1928 and 1960 in the Kew Bulletin (although when the first of these appeared in print it was known as the Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew). Among other things, they showed 'that both F1 [i.e. first generation crosses between S. vulgaris and S. uniflora] and subsequent generations are fully fertile, as also are backcrosses' (1946, p.103). This is particularly interesting as Sea Campion can tolerate  much lower temperatures than Bladder Campion, and it has shown considerable resistance to some diseases which affect the latter (e.g. Marssonina)(ibid.).

Bladder Campion

It's only taken me a few thousand words to turn directly to the focus of this post. What is left to say about it in its specificity?  Well, in addition to Silene vulgaris, the currently accepted name, it has also gone by S. cucubalus, S. venosa, S. inflata, S. latifolia (a name that is now applied to another species), and S. angustifolia.

It might seem odd that it has been known by descriptive names which mean both 'broad-leaved' (latifolia) and 'narrow-leaved' (angustifolia), but this is likely testament to the fact that it is, at least in certain respects, quite variable - leaf size and shape being one of these. In fact, several subspecies have been recognised based upon morphological differences between populations. Kew currently accept subsp. aetnensis (native to Sicily), suffrutescens and vourinensis (both native Greece), although they also hold records for subsp. commutata, macrocarpamegalosperma, and prostrata.

The Plant List, on the other hand, only records aetnensis, angustifolia, commutata, suffrutescnes as accepted infraspecific taxa. S. vulgaris subsp. vulgaris is also sometimes used in the literature, apparently to refer to plants (or populations of plants) which do not fall under one of the other headings.

To complicate matters, some authors (e.g. Marsden-Jones and Turrill) referto  'Silene vulgaris (s.l.)' (1937d, p.491) - where the letters in the brackets stand for Sensu lato, a latin term which means 'in a broad sense' - and 'the aggregate species Silene vulgaris' (1960, p.242). When people talk about an aggregate species what they usually mean is a group of sub- or micro-species that are (by common consent) typically refered to as a single species. Other examples include the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and the European Bramble (Rubus fruiticosus). In this instance, Silene vulgaris understood broadly, or as an aggregate, includes several taxa that have been considered subspecies (e.g. S. alpina), several that are still regarded as such (see above), and some hybrids with S. uniflora, where these are morphologically closer to S. vulgaris. However, the ethnobotanical literature which discusses Bladder Campion - which I'm sure you'll be glad to hear I will turn to in just a moment - isn't generally sensitive to these distinctions, so I'll leave it at that.

If only because we sometimes offer this plant in the shop - so that not mentioning it seems dishonest - I will say one last thing about S. vulgaris, which is that by pure coincidence, individuals of S. vulgaris - like those of the last plant we profiled, Buck’s Horn Plantain (Plantago coronopus) - can be hermaphrodite, male-sterile (female), or partially male-sterile (some flowers hermaphrodite, some male-sterile). Having one plant in your garden, therefore, might mean you also get a steady supply of seeds for multiplying your plants (or for growing it as a microgreen as we sometimes do), but this isn't guaranteed, as any given plant may not produce pollen (or viable pollen). Anyway, with that, let's turn to the ethnobotany of Bladder Campion.

Ethnobotany

Bladder Campion seems to have been held in the highest esteem in Europe. In fact, it ‘is one of the most appreciated leafy vegetables in the traditional gastronomy of many Mediterranean countries’ (Molina et al., 2016. p.87). But there are also records of its use for food in parts of Asia, Africa, and more recently, North America.

It is widely used across Italy (including the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia) where it is sometimes sold on market stalls or grown in gardens (Pieroni 2001; Rivera et al. 2006; Ghirardini et al. 2007; Dreon & Paoletti 2009; Idolo et al. 2010; Barstow 2014; Bellia & Pieroni 2015; Ranfa & Bodesmo, 2017; Geraci et al. 2018). It goes by a number of regional names in Italy - as many wild gathered plants do - including Carletti (which seems to be the most common), Strigoli (or Stricoli), Bubbolini, and Sculpit. For some reason the latter seems to be one of two names prefered by UK seed companies, the other being 'Stridolo', which sounds very nice, but doesn't appear to be in particularly widespread use.

It is equally, if not more esteemed, in Spain, where it is known as Collejas, and has become so much a part of the traditional cuisine of some regions that, as well as appearing on the markets and in gardens, it is also used in local restaurants (Tardío et al.  2006; Rivera et al 2007; Tardío 2010; Molina et al. 2014; Chandra & Jain 2017; Benítez et al. 2017).

Bladder Campion has also been used in France (including French Corsica)(Rivera et al. 2006), Germany (Laghetti et al. 1994), Austria (ibid.), Switzerland (ibid.) Greece (and at least some of the Greek Islands, where it sold in local markets and cultivated on a small scale) (Della et al. 2006; Kavroulaki, 2012), Poland (Łuczaj, L. 2010), the Czech Republic (Simkova & Polesny, 2015), and the former Yugoslavia (Luczaj et al. 2014), and since at least the 19th Century, in parts of Norway (Barstow 2014). Historically it has also been used in the UK. In fact, the English botanist Charles Bryant wrote in his 1783 work Flora Dialectica: or, History of Esculent Plants that, ‘our kitchen-gardens scarcely furnish a better flavoured salad than the young, tender shoots of this plant, when boiled’ (cited by Thayer, 2017). In the intervening years it seems that we have, once again forgotten an excellent esculent.

It has enjoyed particular favour in Turkey, where its use is widely documented (Ertug, 2000; KOÇAK & ÖZHATAY 2013; Özdemir & Alpınar 2015; Dogan, & Tuzlaci, 2015; Kurta et al. 2018). The Ministry of Agriculture for Lebanon, also report its use in the Shouf-Aley area (Noun, 2006). Heading further east, its use seems to become less common, but it is eaten as a vegetable where its range stretches across the Himalayas, e.g., in the colder, alpine regions of Himachal Pradesh, in the Northern-most parts of India (Kaur et al., 2017).

Prefering cooler climes, Bladder Campion becomes less common as you move closer to the equator, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that I found evidence of its use only in the Northern-most parts of Africa, specifically, Morocco (Rivera et al, 2006).

I couldn't find any record of its use for food in Australasia, or South America, but it is apparently cultivated on a small scale in North America. In the US, specifically California, it is grown on a small commercial scale to supply Italian markets (Barstow, 2014, p.79). But despite being common in all but the southern-most states, it seems to be little known as an edible in the US. It is, however, included in some foraging books, including Samuel Thayer’s excellent Incredible Wild Edibles. Bladder Campion is also mentioned in Harriet V. Kuhnlein & Nancy J. Turner’s Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples – Nutrition, Botany and Use.

That about covers the 'who' of its use, but what about the how? The most common uses for Silene vulgaris involve the young leaves and shoots which are eaten either raw or cooked. In their 1844 work, An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy Thomas Webster and Frances Parkes (credited as Mrs. Parkes, and in later editions, Mrs. William Parkes), place it in the class of 'Asparaginous' vegetables (p.470), in reference to an older use of the term 'Asparagus' for any edible emerging or young plant shoots.

The flowers are also edible, and while they are not very substantial, they make an attractive garnish. Apparently, Italian children have also found enjoyment squeezing them to make the little bladders pop (Ranfa & Bodesmo 2017).

In both Spain and Italy the leaves and young stems are eaten in omelettes or with scrambled eggs. The Spanish also use them in a traditional dish called Potaje, often consumed during Lent. In the La Manca region, Potaje de garbanzo y collejas (Chickpea and Bladder Campion Stew) is apparently very popular (Chandra & Jain 2017).

Potaje de garbanzo y collejas

The Italians add them to misticanza – a salad made from seasonal greens – use them to make pistic – a dish made from wild collected plants that are first boiled and then sautéed, or in risottos, or add them to vegetable soups. In North-west Tuscany, both S. vulgaris and S. latifolia are used in the wild greens soup known as minestrella  (Luczaj & Pieroni 2016).

In Sardinia, particularly the mountainous region of Barbagia, Bladder Campion is used in the descriptively named, ‘Minestra delle 18 erbe selvatiche’ (Soup of 18 wild plants/herbs), a mixed vegetable dish prepared with Borage (Borago officinalis), Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris), Sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritime),  Italian Thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus), Field or Perennial Sow Thistle (Sonchus arvensis), Wall Rocket (Diplotaxis muralis), Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis), Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Clustered Dock (Rumex conglomerates), French Buckler Sorrel (R. Scutatus), and up to eight other wild gathered food plants (Rivera et all 2006).

Soup seems to be the favoured method of consumption in Corsica as well where it is used alongside French salsify (Reichardia picroides), Three-cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum), Borage (Borago officinalis) and Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella). Another local soup (often prepared with rice or with bread crumbs), Suppa d’erbiglie, is prepared with carrots, onions, potatoes, and beans, and a selection of other wild gathered plants, including, Bladder Campion, Wild Leek (Allium ampeloprasum), Fennel (Foeniculum  vulgare), French Salsify (Reichardia picroides), and Sow Thistles (Sonchus spp.)  (Rivera et al, 2006).

Silene vulgaris is one of several wild greens use for a Provençal country salad, dating back to the French Revolution – others include Sorrel/docks (Rumex spp.), Wild Celery (Apium graveolens), Wild Salsify (Tragopogon pratense), Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), Prickly Golden-Fleece (Urospermum picroides), Cut-leaf Scorzonera (Scorzonera laciniata), and Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor)(Rivera et al. 2006).

In Crete the leaves are apparently browned in olive oil or cooked with meat or salted cod, an include in vegetable pies (Zeghichi et al. 2003; Kavroulaki, M. 2012)

One modern German source, Geliebte Wildkräuterküche: Die schönsten Rezeptideen ausgewählter Köche, by Ria Lottermoser-Fetzer and Brigitte Klemme, give a couple of recipes for using the young shoots of Bladder Campion. As we're only just approaching the season for eating Silene, we have yet to try these. My German isn't spectacular, but I have translated both below to the best of my ability.

Zucchini carpaccio mit leimkraut (Courgette carpaccio with Bladder Campion)

A Carpaccio is usually a dish of thinly sliced or pounded meat or fish, served as an appetizer, but there are also vegetarian adaptations, like this one, which uses Green and Yellow Courgettes. Although not a meal we make regularly, we have done so in the past.

Ingredients:
250g Mixed Green and Yellow Courgettes
60 g Pine Nuts
1 tbsp Lemon Juice
2 tbsp Olive Oil
Salt
Ground Black Pepper
1 Handful of Bladder Campion Shoots

Preparation:
Wash the Courgettes, then slice as thinnly as possible [N.B. if you have one, a mandoline slicer would make this easier] then arrange on a plate. Toast the pine nuts in a pan, with a little salt, but no oil. Drizzle the lemon juice over the Courgettes and season with salt and black pepper. Then wash the Bladder Campion shoots, and scatter them, and the toasted pine nuts over the Carpaccio. 

Notes:
When we've made Carpaccio in the past, we've added olives, capers, and sunblushed tomatoes, and garlic inflused oil for extra flavour, but in this case I'm inclined to think that Lottermoser-Fetzer and Klemme have the right idea keeping things simple to let the Bladder campion shine. That said, this recipe would also work well with Sweet Potato (cooked and then plunged into cold water to cool) as the base, or with a mix of Courgette, Carrot, Radish, and Beetroot. You can also substitute sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds, for the pine nuts, or for a nuttier flavour, use crushed walnuts, roasted hazelnuts or sliced almonds.

Wähe mit Leimkraut und Feta (Wähe with Bladder Campion and Feta)

A Wähe is a bit like a quiche, but they come in sweet as well as savoury, and sometimes (as in this recipe) they use puff pastry in place of shortcrust.

Ingredients:
300g Leeks
2 tbsp Sunflower Oil
450 g Frozen Puff Pastry
3 Eggs
200g Crème Fraîche
Salt and Pepper
Freshly Grated nutmeg
100 g of Bladder Campion Shoots
200 g of Feta
1-2 Tomatoes

Preparation:
Precook the leeks for 10 - 15 minutes, while the overn heats to 220C. Line a springform pan (or quiche dish, or similar) with baking paper, and mold the dough so it forms an edge about 2cm in height. Then pierce the bottom of the dough several times with a fork. Whisk the eggs and crème fraiche and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Wash the Bladder Campion shoots, and spread them, with the leeks (which should now be a partially cooked), evenly over the dough. Then add the eggs etc.. crumble in the feta, slice the tomates and add them too. Finally, bake in the pre-heated over, for 30-40 minutes.

Notes:
There are a number of variations on this recipe that you could also try. Bladder Campion pairs excellently with Bruscandoli (young hops shoots) - which are also available at this time of year - and both pair well with eggs. Throw in a handful of chopped Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) or Ramps (A. tricoccum), or another seasonally available Allium, such as the Three-Cornered or Few-Flowered Leek (A. triquetrum and A. paradoxum respectively), and you can make a delicious Wild Wähe. In one of our recipes (below) we substitute tofu (and a secret ingredient, which I'll reveal in a moment) for eggs, so if you don't (or can't) eat the latter, you might still be able to adapt this recipe (see, for example, the Spruce Eats' Vegan Broccoli Quiche -
here).

In Morocco, Bladder campion is combined with Nettles (Urtica spp.), Sorrels/Docks (Rumex spp.) and Poppys (Papaver spp.), which are parboiled and then fried, to make a dish called, Îggdîwen. Or with Mallow (Malva spp.), Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), Poppy (Papaver spp.) and other non-cultivated greens, which are also par-boiled and then fried, and served with preserved lemons and olives, to make Bqûla (Rivera et al, 2006).

If you’re going to try making either, the best poppy species to use is probably the Corn Poppy (P. rhoeas). They have pleasant, relatively mild tasting leaves, and while they are mildly sedative in large amounts, they are commonly used for food in the Mediterranean, and only contain small amounts of some the less pharmacologically active alkaloids found in Poppy species more generally. Young Opium or Bread-seed Poppy (P. somniferum) leaves are also edible in small amounts, as are those of Icelandic poppies (P. nudicaule). It's probably worth mentioning that lots of sources advise against using two of the most commonly grown species in the UK, the Persian poppy (P. bracteatum) and the Oriental poppy (P. orientale), and having not looked into the phytochemistry of either, I'd err on the side of caution and avoid these. Likewise for three other common  members of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae), the Welsh, Himalayan Blue, and Californian Poppies which belong to a different genera – the first two to Meconopsis, the latter to Eschscholzia.

Finally, Cornucopia II, by Stephen Facciolo - an encyclopedia (although the subtitle says 'source book') of edible plants - adds that it is sometimes used in herbal cheeses (although it doesn't say where, or by who), and that 'A purée made from the boiled shoots is nearly equal to the best purée of spinach'. And that completes the survey, and leaves only our own experiences to share.

Before I share our experiences with Bladder Campion, a word of caution about wild collected plants. Although this has been, by far the most common way of accessing this excellent edible plant, there are some precautions you should take if you wish to do so, over and above the precautions you’d usually take when foraging for other plants. Silene vulgaris is a facultative metallophyte, i.e., a plant which can tolerate (but does not require) soil that has high concentrations of metal or metallic compounds. Although not essential for its growth, some populations actually seem to have adapted over many years to "prefer" soils that are rich in heavy metals over other soil types. Moreover, where some plants can tolerate specific heavy metals, Bladder Campion has shown multiple tolerances and co-tolerances (Miras-Moreno et al. 2014) - those that were reported in the studies I consulted include Iron, Nickle, Copper, Aluminium, Selenium, Zinc, and Cadmium (ibid.; Bringezu et al. 1999.). This feature makes it an attractive option for the revegetation of contaminated soils (Miras-Moreno et al. 2014).

Bladder Campion is also capable of phytostabilizing heavy metals in soils, because it has only a limited ability to translocation some of these heavy metals from its roots to shoots. And while that might sound like good news to someone interested in eating the latter, on heavily contaminated soils, they have nevertheless been recorded in moderate amounts even in these otherwise edible parts (Miras-Moreno et al. 2014). 

The bottom line is that before you forage for it, you need to do a bit of research into your area (there's a good review of some of the major sources of contamination here). 

Our Experiences

The youngest leaves are sweet, with hardly any bitterness, and taste bit like green peas. The older leaves lose their sweetness and develop a slight, but pleasant bitterness. However, this is reduced by cooking, or by cutting plants back and excluding light for a week or so with a large overturned pot (or similar). They don't need much cooking, as they quickly soften. You'll also find that another flavour develops, which I can't quite describe, but find delicious.

One of the reasons I chose to profile this species is that we've used it a lot, but we're also still experimenting with it. They're excellent on top of bruscetta, with finely chopped onions and tomato, with a splash of extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. It has made its way into several mixed leaf salads over the last few years. And when I want something green in my food - be that pasta,  stir-fries, curries, or whatever - Bladder Campion is one of the plants from which I will often grab a few leaves, or shoot tips. 

Last summer we made Bladder Campion pesto, which was excellent - particularly stirred into Tagliettele with a few Sunblushed Tomatoes thrown in for good measure - but sadly I didn't have the foresight to take any photos. If memory serves, it was made by simply blending the Bladder Campion with Walnuts, Cheese, Garlic and Salt, and then gradually mixing in Olive oil until the consistency was right. Maybe I'll have another crack at it again this summer!

A quick Google search will give you plenty of recipes for risotto con scolpit/carletti/stridolo aka. Bladder Campion, but here's one we came up with.

Bladder Campion, Butternut Squash, and Chestnut Risotto

Ingredients:
A Bunch of Spring Onions
2-3 Cloves Garlic
A Large Handful of Bladder Campion
200g Arborio Rice
75g Cheese
750ml Stock
175ml Dry White Wine
100g Chestnuts
1 Medium Butternut Squash
Oil/Butter
Pumpkin Seeds

Preparation
Cube Squash and roast for 30 minutes, add chestnuts after 15 minutes. Heat some oil in a pan – start with a low temperature. Finely chop the onions and garlic, and add these. Once soft but not brown, add rice. Fry for a minute, then add the wine, and let this evaporate/soak in. Turn the temperature up to a medium heat. Mix the stock, then add just under half to your pan. As this disappears, gradually add more until the rice is soft – takes about 20mins. If the rice isn’t quite soft enough after all the stock has soaked in, add a little extra hot water. As the rice approaches being done, sit the Bladder Campion on top of it, and let it wilt. When the rice is nice and soft, stir in the Bladder Campion and grated cheese, and once the latter has melted, mix in the roasted Butternut Squash and Chestnuts. Toast the seeds, and serve.

Another meal in which we recenlty enjoyed Bladder Campion was Scrambled Tofu

Scrambled Tofu with Bladder Campion and Red Pepper

Ingredients:
200g Medium to Firm Tofu
1 tbsp Gram / Chickpea Flour
Butter/Olive oil
1 Red onion
1 Red pepper
A handful of Bladder Campion
A pinch of Himalayan Black Salt*
1 tsp Turmeric
1 tsp. Paprika (or Cayenne for a little bit of bite)
1 tbsp of water

To Serve:
Sourdough Bread
Avocado
Sunflower Seeds

*Also known as Kala namak, a kiln-fired rock salt used in Southern Asia. In its rock form it is a very dark purple, bordering on black - hence the name - but ground it is pink, meaning it could be confused with Himalayan Pink Salt which is something different. What makes Kala namak unique is a distinctive sulphurous taste and smell, that is tastier than it sounds in any recipe that would typically have egg in, but you only need a little bit. 

Preparation
If the tofu is packed in water, drain it and press it dry in some kitchen roll. Heat some oil in a pan, then chop the Onion and Pepper. While you let these fry lightly, mix the spices with a little water to form a paste. Once the Onion and Pepper are soft, push to one side of the pan and crumble in the tofu. Turn it so that it heats up, then stir in the spice paste, making sure all the tofu is covered. Once it's thoroughly heated, sit the Bladder Campion on the tofu and let it wilt (alternatively plunge it in boiling water and then drain immediately), then mix it, and the onions and peppers, into the tofu. Toast your Sourdough and Sunflower seeds - we have a sandwich press which means we can just throw the seeds in with the bread, but you can also turn out the tofu onto your plate, turn up the heat on the pan and toast them on there. Cut the avocado, and serve.

Hopefully that gives a nice – albeit quite wordy – overview of this excellent little plant. And while we will no doubt share more recipes for Bladder Campion through the blog over the next couple of months, for now, adieu!

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Image Credits:
Silene Vulgaris (Flowers) – by Udo Schmidt (Wikicommons) - here
Dianthus caryophyllus – by User Valérie75 (Wikicommons) - here
Honckenya peploides – by User Bjoertvedt (Wikicommons) - here
Colobanthus quitensis – by Liam Quinn (Wikicommons) - here
Saponaria officinalis – by Muriel Bendel (Wikicommons) here
Lychnis flos-cuculi – by Gail Hamshire (Wikicommons) here
Silene secundiflora – by Denis Barthel (Wikicommons) here
Silene dioica (Wikicommons) – by Aneli Salo here
Silene latifolia (Wikicommons) – by User 4028mdk09 here
Silene aculis - by Jerzy Opiola (Wikicommons) here
Silene regia – by User Peganum (Wikicommons) here
Silene multifida – by C. T. Johansson (Wikicommons) here
Silene uniflora – by S. Rae (Wikicommons) here
Cuckoo Spit on Lavender – by User Orangeaurochs (Wikicommons) here
Mosaic of Minerva (Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington) by Elihu Vedder – Photographed by Carol M. Highsmith (Wikicommons) here
Silene nocifera catching flies – by Stefan Lefnaer (Wikicommons) here
Sculpture of Silenus Holding the Child Dionysus by Charles Soulier (Louvre Museum, Paris (Wikicommons) here
Selene (from Selene and Endymion) by Ubaldo Gandolfi (Wikicommons) here
Silene uniflora – by User Chilepine (Wikicommons) here
Silene uniflora – by User Jutta234 (Wikicommons) here
Silene uniflora – by User Jutta234 (Wikicommons) here
Silene uniflora – by User Ceridwen (Wikicommons) here
Potaje de Garbanzo y Collejas (Chickpea and Bladder Campion Stew) – by User Xufanc (Wikicommons) here
Silene vulgaris – by D. Gordon E. Robertson (Wikicommons) here
Silene vulgaris – by Michael H. Lemmer (Wikicommons) here


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