Mountain Gardens

Sansai ('Mountain Vegetable')

'Beyond Ramps'


towards an American sansai

Sansai means, literally,  ‘mountain vegetable.’  Mountain vegetable implies wild vegetable, as opposed to cultivated (on the plains).  Mountains are high, closer (than plains) to heaven.  Mountain vegetables, because they are wild, because they grow closer to heaven, embody more qi (ch’i) (usually translated as ‘energy’ – this is the energy which flows in the acupuncture channels, and is activated by ‘Tai Ch’i’ exercises).

Furthermore, most sansai are the early spring shoots of various perennial herbs and shrubs, so eating them partakes of the vital, bursting-forth energy of spring.  And they are delicious. In Japan, the arrival of sansai in urban restaurants and markets is eagerly anticipated.  Grocery stores offer commbination packages which might contain, e.g. a bamboo shoot, a few fiddleheads, a bunch of mitsuba, some Hosta shoots and of course kinome, the ‘essence of spring.’

I have found, so far, three lists of plants used as sansai in Japan, and they are included below.  The main interest and relevance of these is that almost every one of plants listed occurs or has a closely related species in Eastern N. America (an exception would be Hosta – there are no American Hosta spp.  But Hosta is well-established in American gardens, and even if only deer eat them at present, that will be changing soon…)

Of particular interest is the fact that most of these are woodland plants.  While our S Appalachian ‘rich woods’ are famous as the source of most of the well-known American medicinal herbs, we rarely think of them as providing food.  And while it is true that the amount of food we can gather, particularly from the spring ephemerals and also the tender early shoots of many woodland perennials, is relatively small, it is also true (or so I and many others hold), that it’s ‘the best food you’ll eat all year.’  (Not to mention that it comes right at the time we are most pining for fresh green plant energy.)

We supply ‘mountain vegetables’ to three nearby restaurants, and their chefs want everything we can bring them.  So we are not looking for more customers for our sansai;  rather, we see our niche as offering seeds and ‘starts’ to folks who’d like to establish these exciting, new (to us) food plants for their own future harvest.  This includes anyone who grows vegetables for discriminating chefs.

So, our project is to develop a repertoire of sansai plants for our garden (and yours). Below are the the plants we are currently working with (more to come): we’ll be adding pix and instructions as time permits. Most of these are available either as seeds or bare-root plants or divisions.

  • first priority:
    ramps Allium tricoccum
    solomon’s seal Polygonatum commutatum
    indian cucumber root Medeola virginiana
    ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris
    HostaHosta spp.
    mitsuba, honewort Cryptotaenia canadensis
    bamboo Phyllostachys spp.
    udo Aralia cordata
    kinome Zanthoxylum piperitum
    woods nettle Laportea canadensis

    next ten:
    Jap. knotweed Polygonum
    Canada lovage Ligusticum canadense
    tall bellflower Campanula americana
    anise root Osmorrhiza longistlis
    aralia / acanthopanax spp.
    crinkle root / toothwort Dentaria diphylla
    Smilax herbacea
    Chinese wolfberry (leafy shoots) Lycium chinense
    arrowhead Sagittaria latifolia
    Oenanthe javanica



from Richard Hosking, A Dictionary of Japanese Food (Tuttle, 1995):

Sansai convey a strong sense of spring and are a great favorite of vegetarians, often featuring in the menus of shojin ryori(zen buddhist cuisine)… The following is a list of the commonest plants used:

lamb’s quarters Chenopodium album var centrorubrum
asatsuki chive Allium ledebourianum
ashitaba Angelica keiskei
Japanese butterbur, unopened buds Petasites japonicus
chive Allium victorialia var platyphyllum
Japanese knotweed Polygonum cuspidatum
water shield Brasenia schreberi
licorice Glycyrrhiza uralensis
dog’s tooth violet Erythronium japonicum
ostrich fern fiddleheads Matteucia struthiopteris
indian plantain Cacalia delphiniifolia, C. hastata ssp. orientalis
sasa bamboo Sasa kurilensis
red garlic Allium grayi
plantain lily Hosta sieboldiana
saltwort Salsola komarovii
water dropwort Oenanthe javanica
green brier Smilax riparia
angelica tree shoots Aralia elata
field horsetail, fertile shoots Equisetum arvense
acanthopanax Acanthopanax gracilistylus
nettle Elatostema umbellatum v. majus
bracken Pteridium aquilinum v. latiusculum
udo Aralia cordata
aster Aster yomena
wormwood Artemisia princeps
royal fern Osmunda japonica