by Keith Howerton
What’s in a name? If that name is yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), the answer is a lot of frustration, and a lot of little tubers that really like to snap off in the soil and resprout. Yellow nutsedge looks a bit like a grass, but it is actually related to sedges. This plant grows well in the heat and can tolerate wet, poorly drained sites better than turfgrasses. It is a common weed in many lawns and in agricultural fields. Since it largely spreads and reproduces by tubers, or nutlets, it is often spread inadvertently when people move soil that has these tubers present. Hand weeding, unless you are extremely thorough, is pretty much a lost cause, and most herbicides provide little effective control. No matter what you do (aside from repeated applications of a targeted herbicide), those pea-sized tubers persist in the soil.
Despite nutsedge’s difficult personality, its tubers are actually edible; they have a pleasant nutty flavor and a texture that reminds me of shredded coconut. They’re really not bad. The ones that grow as weeds in my area are just so small that I can’t justify the effort to dig them out and clean them when they pop up in my garden.
I recall hearing in passing during a horticulture class several years ago that these tubers–called chufa in Spanish–are used in Spain to make a drink called horchata. Some people in the United States may be familiar with horchata as a Mexican drink, as was I, but the Spanish version is extremely different from the Mexican version. Mexican horchata is rice-based rather than chufa-based. Spain–and a very narrow region of Spain at that–is the only place I know that actively cultivates Cyperus esculentus and processes it to make a beverage. That’s cool and all, but when the nutsedge plants popping up in our gardens invade the space of our other plants, this doesn’t mean a whole lot. So, its culinary use in Spain remained just a fun fact in the back of my mind.
Until recently, that is, when I took a trip to Valencia, Spain, and uhh….
Now, I know they’re growing it on purpose, but the gardener in me had a mini heart attack at this sight. Nutsedge. Nutsedge as far as the eye can see.
A close friend of mine is from Almassera, a village just outside the city of Valencia, and a few friends and I got to visit her in the Fall of 2021. We all hopped on bicycles and started pedaling toward the city on a beautiful stretch of bike trail that passes through dozens of small farms. The ride is maybe twenty minutes to get to the middle of Valencia.
So, if you are riding with me, it’s about a forty-five-minute ride, because I will stop every five seconds to kneel down and look at the plants.
The farm nerd in me loved every second of the bike ride from the village into Valencia; I made the journey several times just for the fun of it. The intricate, ancient aqueduct system irrigates the brown and green patchwork of chufa, lettuces, garlic, fennel, artichokes, tomatoes, and dozens of other varieties of vegetables, as well as the orchards of citrus and other fruits I couldn’t identify at a distance.
I have never seen anything like it in the United States. A dense urban environment immediately surrounded by small farms growing dozens of different crops with beautiful bike trails frequented by the city’s residents? What? In my own idealistic, sustainability-oriented mind, I couldn’t have dreamed up anything like this. I would have thought it unrealistic. But there it was. Just an unreasonably sustainable local food system in a major metropolitan area, and I had no idea it even existed until I happened upon it by chance.
Anyway, back to the chufas! Horchata is prepared by washing and soaking the chufas, grinding them, pressing the juice out, and then sweetening with sugar before serving cold. It is very similar to the popular plant-based milks prepared from almonds and oats but generally much sweeter.
At the urging of our Almassera native friend, we went to a local shop in Almassera and dipped chocolate-covered pastries in the sweet, nutty drink to finish off our day of biking around the city. Reminiscent of coconut and almond, the drink was refreshing and very unique. The next day, I purchased a small bag of dried chufas just to get a good look at them and keep them as a souvenir.
These chufas must be two or three times the size of any nutsedge tuber I have pulled from my garden, so it began to make a lot more sense to me why this was a viable crop around Valencia. I don’t have a good way to find information on the particular varieties grown, but I assume this size difference is due partly to breeding for cultivation and partly to the loose, fertile soil in which they are cultivated there.
I won’t be planting this jumbo nutsedge in my garden any time soon, but I do enjoy tracing problematic non-native plants back to their origins and getting to appreciate them in the proper context. Which is why I took the liberty of bringing back some tubers and planting them throughout the National Herb Garden at the United States National Arboretum to mix things up a bit.
Photo Credits: 1)Yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) (Blahedo, via Wikimedia); 2) Cultivated nutsedge in Spain (Keith Howerton); 3) Small farms in Spain growing a variety of crops, including nutsedge (Keith Howerton); 4) Horchata and pastries (Photocapy, via Wikimedia); 5) Tubers of Cyperus esculentus (Marco Schmidt, via Wikimedia)
Chufa de Valencia. n.d. Making horchata. Accessed Nov. 22, 2022. Available from http://en.chufadevalencia.org/ver/18/Elaboraci%C3%B3n.html
Patton, A. and D. Weisenberger. 2013. Yellow nutsedge control. Purdue Extension, Turfgrass Management. Accessed Nov. 22, 2022. Available from https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/ay/ay-19-w.pdf
After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum. He has worked with restaurants and hydroponics and now works in urban forestry at Casey Trees in Washington, DC. He is obsessed with all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).