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Shade-loving edible: yuki-no-shita, a.k.a. strawberry begonia

June 5, 2012 | 12:04 pm

Yuki-no-shitaIn Janice Kubo’s backyard garden in West Covina, she has dedicated part of the space to edibles from her native Japan. Some, such as the Japanese mikan (tangerine) and shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) are familiar. But the bed of a ground cover that looks like begonia is not an obvious edible. It’s yuki-no-shita, which translates to "under the snow,” a plant whose slightly furry, scalloped leaves are eaten raw or cooked in dishes such as tempura.

This fast-spreading ground cover (Saxifraga stolonifera) is commonly called strawberry geranium or strawberry begonia, although it’s not related to strawberries, geraniums or begonias.

“As a child we always had it in the garden but we didn’t eat it then as much as we do now,” said Kubo, whose mitsuba we featured last week. She added that some people believe that yuki-no-shita has medicinal properties. Extracts made from yuki-no-shita and related plants are used in skin conditioning creams that promise to smooth wrinkles and improve skin color, as well as in concealers, foundation and other cosmetics.

As the Japanese name suggests, this plant is pretty low maintenance. It likes shady and moist locations and tolerates frosts. It’s often sold as a houseplant, bought for its cascades of flowers, but it does its best outdoors, thriving vigorously for years if maintained. In the 1970s and '80s, saxifrages were a trendy plant for landscapers to use for dark garden spots. In late spring and into summer, the plants send out tall clustered blooms -- white, red and all hues in between.

A group of plants called Alpine saxifrages is responsible for the genus name Saxifraga, derived from the Latin for "rock-breaking." They originated in sub-Arctic areas and are used by rock-garden designers. They can take full sun but are notoriously difficult to establish successfully, sometimes requiring burying within the tight crevasses of stones.

By contrast, shade-loving saxifrages such as yuki-no-shita are easy to grow and produce more richly colored blossoms if kept out of the sun. The plant spreads quickly in spring, sending out strawberry-like runners creeping over the ground, which is why it's sometimes called mother-of-thousands or roving sailor.

This may sound like an invasive pest, but Chris Livingston, who works at Green Arrow Nursery & Garden Center, has grown it for decades and thinks the dangers are overstated. The runners are shallow and softly rooted, so it’s easy to keep the plant in check, he said. Those runners provide material for easy propagation elsewhere, and yuki-no-shita naturally will die back slightly in the heat of summer. Livingston lives in Woodland Hills, which has hard frosts and west Valley heat, and the plant has survived both.

“If it’s shady and watered well, it should do well," he said. "If it gets late morning sun, it does burn a bit.”

Sources for the plant include San Gabriel Nursery & Florist. You also can ask your local nursery to order the plant for you.


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Photos: Janice Kubo's yuki-no-shita.

Credit: Ann Summa