Salad burnet is a little-known, but delightfully tasty, culinary herb. Here, you will find out how to grow, harvest and use the leaves at home!
More and more people are deciding to grow herbs at home, and there are plenty to choose from. Besides the popular classics, like chive (Allium schoenoprasum) and parsley (Petroselium crispum), less known, but no less tasty, garden herbs, like salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) are waiting to be tried. Read on to find out where the plant comes from, how to cultivate it and how to use it.
Salad burnet: flowers, characteristics and origin
Salad burnet, or garden burnet, is a lesser-known garden herb, with a slight cucumber flavour that is perfect in drinks or, you guessed it: salads. Belonging to the genus Sanguisorba, in the Rosaceae family, this perennial, herbaceous plant comes from Southern and Central Europe, but has since spread across Scandinavia, Afghanistan and North Africa. It grows in lowlands and highlands, and requires so few nutrients that it is used as an indicator for nutrient-poor soil by some.
Reaching 20 to 100 cm tall, salad burnet produces shoots that grow in a rosette shape from the base of the plant. Eleven to thirty-one leaflets arrange themselves in pairs along the plant’s stem, and tend to remain green throughout winter. However, these leaves may well die above ground in autumn. Have no fear, though, the plant will live on, and sprout again in spring.
Between May and August, salad burnet forms a spherical flower of up to 3 cm in diameter. The structure of this flower is particularly interesting, because it comprises three parts: a red, female section sits atop a hermaphrodite section, which in turn sits above a final male section, which displays prominent anthers. Because each section of the flower ripens at a different time, burnet salad avoids pollinating itself.
Despite this, salad burnet is very easy to pollinate, and makes good use of the wind and bees to disperse its seeds. Interestingly, these seeds sit inside small nuts that use their surrounding flower cup to glide through the air or float on water. And because the nuts hibernate, they can safely remain on the plant throughout winter.
Just like the closely related great burnet (Sanguisorbar officinalis), salad burnet does have some medicinal properties. For this reason, both plants were used in medieval medicine and are still part of modern home medicine and homeopathy. What is more, because the plant is often used in silage for animal feed, it is no danger to pets.
Growing salad burnet
With the right location, growing salad burnet is simple. In nature, the perennial grows in sparse, rough and semi-arid grassland, under the sun. As such, a low-nutrient soil is ideal – in fact, if the soil is too nutrient-rich salad burnet displays soft shoots, pale leaves and reduced growth!
Pick a sunny location, with dry, chalky, loose soil, or nutrient-poor, loamy soil. Loamy soil is great, because it stores plenty of water. However, you can improve the water storage of most soils by adding pumice sand or zeolite.
For a perfect start, try our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, which has a low nutrient content, preventing salad burnet from over-fertilisation. What is more, the compost promotes healthy plant growth without peat, which reduces its carbon footprint.
- Perfect for herbs as well as sowing, propagating & transplanting
- For aromatic herbs & healthy seedlings with strong roots
- Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition
The best time to sow salad burnet is from the beginning of April to mid-June. Sow the burnet seeds directly into your flower bed, roughly 5 cm apart, and press down lightly. Salad burnet is a light germinator, so there is no need to cover the seeds with soil. At 15°C, and with regular watering, the seeds will germinate after two to three weeks by themselves. After germination, thin out the crop so there is a distance of about 20 cm between each plant.
Salad burnet plant care
The best thing you can do for your salad burnet is water it regularly. During the warm, summer months, it is important to keep the soil permanently moist. However, do not overwater your plant, otherwise it may waterlog and suffer from root rot.
Since salad burnet enjoys nutrient-deficient soil, fertilisation is generally not necessary. However, it is a good idea to hoe weeds around your burnet, especially for young plants, to prevent competition for light and water. And remember to remove flower heads regularly when they appear, to encourage the growth of young leaves.
Salad burnet does not grow well in a plant pot, as it requires lots of space (at least 40 cm deep) to accommodate its extensive root system. However, if you do decide to grow your plant in a pot or raised bed, apply a small amount of fertiliser to the soil each year. This will ensure a long-term supply of nutrients.
Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is a great choice, because it releases nitrogen and other essential nutrients into the earth slowly. For herbs, 40 to 60 g per square metre is enough for the growing season.
Is salad burnet a hardy plant?
Since salad burnet is native to the UK, it is fine during winter. It will survive as a so-called half-rosette, and resprout again in spring. Just like other half-rosette plants, salad burnet’s leaves die so slowly, the plant should remain green throughout winter.
If you want to use burnet as a culinary herb, however, do resow it every two years, or propagate it from cuttings, as the aroma of older plants fades, and their growth becomes increasingly stunted.
Propagating salad burnet
Propagating salad burnet is easy; the rhizomes (roots) tend to do it by themselves, acting as runners through the soil. To have more control over this propagation, however, it is a good idea to dig up the rhizomes, carefully divide them and then replant each one individually.
Alternatively, you can sow burnet seeds by distributing the nuts. To do this, collect some of your salad burnet’s nuts at the end of the year, and store them in a dark, dry place. They should be ready for sowing the following spring.
When and how to harvest salad burnet
Harvest your main salad burnet crop using a sharp knife (scissors can bruise the plant) between May and September. You can also continuously harvest the young, feathery burnet leaves throughout the year. But do use the leaves immediately, because they tend to lose their flavour quickly.
Using salad burnet leaves
Both the leaves and flowers of salad burnet are edible. They are spicy and nutty, but also reminiscent of cucumber. You can use them in smoothies, salads, marinades and sauces, or as a seasoning for poultry and fish. It is important not to cook salad burnet, however, as the flavour weakens at high temperatures.
Salad burnet is closely related to great burnet (Sanguisorbar officinalis), which grows to 120 cm tall, and displays striking, deep red flowers. In the Middle Ages, the two species were indistinguishable, and used as medicine. Their tannins and bitter substances were said to treat stomach and menstrual pain, inflammatory skin diseases and sunburn.
Unfortunately, much of salad burnet’s historic medicinal uses have been lost to time. What we do know, however, is that both the leaves and roots of the plant were used to make tea, which is said to stimulate digestion.
Scientists have yet to confirm whether burnet truly benefits digestion. However, we do know from in vitro lab experiments that the plant’s cells stimulate enzymes and can affect cancer cells. Though this has not been tested in living patients.
Drying and preserving salad burnet
To preserve burnet leaves, you can dry them. They will not be as flavourful as when fresh, and so cannot be used as a herb, but they will still work in tea. Alternatively, freeze them! Freezing salad burnet leaves preserves their flavour for up to a year, and you need only chop them, finely, before placing them in a container or freezer bag.
Thinking of starting your own herb garden? Then it is a good idea to know which herbs grow well together!