Growing minari, an exotic addition to the herb garden
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Considering how popular the bitter herb minari is among Korean gardeners, it’s surprising how difficult it is to find nurseries that sell it. The demand for the plant (botanical name Oenanthe javanica) stems from its use as flavoring for kimchi and fish soups and as a daily tonic.
Minari can be hard to find, but it’s easy to raise. It’s a cut-and-come-again plant, a fast grower in sun or shade as long as its footing is kept damp, even boggy. At Jardín del Rio Community Garden in the Elysian Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles, some gardeners have dedicated an entire 10-by-5-foot plot to minari.
Gardener Woo Chul Chong said they mostly use the stems of the plant for juice. ‘We like other plants, but this is what we started off with,’ Chong said through an interpreter. ‘It cleans the liver.’
Another gardener, Lily Kim, added: ‘You only drink a little bit every day.’ Minari grows slowly in the winter, but in summer it rises fast. ‘It grows itself,’ she said.
In Japan, minari is known as seri and used in sukiyaki. In the West, a common name is water dropwart. It’s a cousin to a type of hemlock (Oenanthe crocata), the toxic herb. Some people call minari by the name water celery; that’s how you may find it labeled at stores selling pond fish and water garden supplies.
Seeds are available from the Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Co. Specialty stores such as Sunland Water Gardens may have the plant in stock. Fish apparently love to nibble on the leaves. A bonus: Like other water plants, minari acts as a natural filter. In a water garden, the plant can be kept potted in decomposed granite, so it makes less of a mess than if it were in potting soil. A clay-heavy medium also can work. If fish are in the pond, the plants won’t need feeding, a store clerk said. Fish waste serves as fertilizer. Out of the water, minari is easy to propagate. It spreads fast -- so fast that it should be contained and grown by itself, lest it become invasive. One method is to place it in a pot with no drainage holes, and submerge the pot in water that rises about six inches above the soil line.
A variegated version called Flamingo has pink-tipped leaves, but most minari is deep green. It tastes a bit like celery and can substitute for watercress in recipes, delivering the same crunch.
-- Jeff Spurrier
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Minari grows at the feet of Soon Ja Chong, left, and husband Woo Chul Chong at the Jardín del Rio Community Garden in Los Angeles.
Lily Kim waters her minari at Jardín del Rio.
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Top photo: Jung Son Cho grows minari and chives for use in Korean pancakes, which she shares with other gardeners at Jardín del Rio Community Garden. Credits: Ann Summa