I seem to have an obsession with prickly plants. First there are the roses, though I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that obsession, with many a sonnet, or Shakespearean play making reference to the rose. Probably the most well-known being, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – William Shakespeare “Romeo and Juliet”. Indeed many plants which are not actually roses are called roses in their common names. Some well known examples being the rock rose (Cistus spp.), winter roses (Helleborus spp.) and peony roses (Paeonia spp.).
New Zealanders are not immune to the rose either, with at least 23 branches of the NZ Rose society, plus branches of the Heritage rose society. There are also at least ten nurseries specializing in rose plants. Though I can further justify my obsession as roses are not only edible, think Turkish delight or rosehip jelly, they are also medicinal. Roses are extremely high in vitamin C, plus they have vitamins K, E, and B complex as well as calcium, iron, selenium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, silicon, and zinc. Old fashioned or heritage roses (the ones I love best) are also attractive to bees, butterflies and a range of beneficial insects.
Another prickly obsession is the Litchee tomato (Solanum sisymbriifolium). This perennial plant is slightly hardier than tomatoes and requires similar feeding requirements. The flowers vary from white to purple, looking like the flowers of eggplants. The fruit look like small bright red cherries and are surrounded by a prickly husk. I love snacking on these but the prickles do make picking a challenge.
A favourite prickly plant is the Zanthoxylum spp which have the most divine smell, both citrusy and peppery. These are the trees which produce Sichuan pepper, so again will be very useful one day, though harvesting the seed will require good sturdy gloves. These trees buzz with bees when in flower, another bonus! They are warm temperate to subtropical plants and would do best with a little shade from the afternoon sun. They have potential as a great small tree for the food forest.
I also like to have plenty of stinging nettle plants around, both the annual (Urtica urens) and the perennial (Urtica dioica). I do try to keep them away from main thoroughfares, otherwise I let them do their own thing. Nettles are the main food plant for the caterpillars of our native yellow admiral (Vanessa itea -Kahukowhai) and endemic red admiral (Vanessa gonerilla -Kahukura) butterflies.
Nettles are also very nutritious, being high in protein (15-20%) and Iron. They also contain good levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, plus the vitamins A, C, D, K, riboflavin and E. Its medicinal uses are far too numerous for the purposes of this article, but certainly make it worth growing a patch in your garden. Check out our Nettle soup recipe for a bowlful of goodness.
When it comes to natives, my favourite would have to be the lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius) though it only marginally qualifies as a prickly plant and only during the juvenile stage. The reason why I love it so much is because when it flowers it becomes a bee magnet for several weeks in late summer. I also particularly like the beautiful patterns on their trunks.
Other prickly plants in my collection are Kei apples (Dovyalis caffra), Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica), and Hawthorne (Crataegus spp). All have edible fruit, and most have great flowers for bees too. Maybe ‘Prickly’ plants are quite a useful obsession to have.