[This is an updated version of an entry posted at etmarciniec.com]
Quite a few people have told me that “bluebells” are edible, and yet, despite my growing collection of books on wild edible plants, I’ve only found one reference to them as a food source.
“The leaves are awesome,” my friend Rachel Sowers, a gardener by trade, told me as we rode up the chairlift near the season’s end at Arapahoe Basin. “If you’re camping in the backcountry you can add the leaves to a salad. They’re super tasty.”
And, a friend of Gregg’s sister “goes gaga for bluebells,” as she put it, but has also, on occasion, eaten enough of the bright bell-shaped flowers to become sick.
Last summer I tasted a few bluebells at Gregg’s behest because he, too, recalls eating them, although he was unable to remember when or how he came by the knowledge of their edibility.
I found information on bluebells only in Gregory L. Tilford’s Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West–which happens to be one of the books that Samuel Thayer (The Forager’s Harvest, 2006) lists as having “numerous statements of questionable accuracy” before describing the book as “highly useful” nonetheless.
Tilford refers to the plant as “chiming bells” rather than “bluebells” in a stated effort to distinguish between Mertensia species (which he says are edible) and “dozens of other unrelated plants, such as Campanula species” which are also referred to as “bluebells.” Even within Mertensia there are quite a few different species, including M. ciliata, M. paniculata, M. oblongifolia, M. longiflora, M. bella, and M. perplexa. Tilford’s edibility suggestions apply to Mertensia as a genus, of which he says that the flowers and leaves “are an excellent trail snack, but lend themselves best to a good stir-fry dish.” He cautions that they may contain “alkaloids and other constituents that can be toxic if consumed in large quantities.”
Let’s think about this for a minute. Even if we trust Tilford’s account of Mertensia and assume it does not contain “a statement of questionable accuracy,” how do we know how much Mertensia is a “large quantity,” and why is there only one reference to its edibility in the ten or so edible wild plant identification guides I own?
The lack of corroboration was troubling, especially since I had found a field of Mertensia bluebells and already collected about 70 small leaves with hopes to cook them up in a stir fry for dinner.
Common sense dictates that in this scenario a person should play it safe, try just a few leaves or flowers, and then wait 24 hours to see how he or she feels. But I had 70 leaves in my possession already (about 1/2 cup), and the last thing I wanted was for those wild treasures to wilt in the refrigerator. In the end, therefore, I threw caution to the wind and fried up all 70 leaves with chicken and udon noodles for dinner despite my better judgment.
Bluebells are also called “oyster leaves” for their purported oyster-like flavor. I found them to be flavorful and distinct, although my experience with actual oysters is too limited to make a comparison. Gregg smiled wistfully upon tasting a raw leaf and said that the taste reminded him of the Poconos and “the smell of the woods in the summer in the mountains.”
Tilford describes the leaves as ”somewhat succulent in texture.” As such, they did not disappear into the stir fry but instead enhanced the flavor nicely. I think I’ll use more next time, seeing as my portion of the 70 leaves produced no ill effects.
“This year is different,” Gregg told me on the way home from our most recent edible wild plant harvest. “Last year we tasted things in small quantities, like they were spices. This year we’re getting enough to make actual dishes.”
It’s true. I’m getting bolder as my experience with wild edible plants grows–bolder, or possibly a tad more reckless. Thus far, however, the rewards have been worth the risk.
Nonetheless, the old adage to “Do as I say, not as I do” is good advice for the would-be forager, particularly those of you who are just starting out in the sport.
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!