My pantry is stocked with yucca flowers again, thanks to one intrepid boyfriend who took it upon himself to harvest some on his way home to the mountains from Denver. We often try to pick some up on our way back from parts lower, seeing as the yucca doesn’t grow up here above 11,000 feet. But usually the yucca-gathering is not a solo mission–so Gregg deserves much thanks for coming home with some more of the sweet, fleshy goodies that I like to serve with eggs, in stir fries, soup, or fresh on salads.
Know the Regs
One of the difficulties we’ve encountered in foraging for wild food is what can seem like a lack of available grounds on which to do so. Signs announcing hefty fines for the removal of flora and fauna are common at the entrances to many public parks and land. (It is important, therefore, to keep an eye out for posted regulations and make sure to only forage where it is permitted).
Depending on where you live, you might be fortunate enough to have access to a national or state park that allows you to forage freely for personal use or to buy a foraging permit. Some parks permit the removal of invasive or unwanted weeds, for example, but definitely no endangered species. It’s worth looking into rules and regulations if you plan to forage for wild plants in your area, since they vary even among different jurisdictions of the U.S. Forest Service. The local ranger station is a good place to start; you can find out any regulations on protected plants and harvesting methods (no root vegetables, for example) while you’re at it.
For the recreational forager to whom access to public land is limited, however, the only other option is privately-owned land. But who has that much private land? Certainly not I. The right thing to do in this case is to find a friend or two with land (that has not been chemically treated) who will let you forage on his or her property. This is the ideal scenario.
Guerrilla Foraging the Suburbs
Now, as for me, I would be lying if I said that I never took advantage of an opportunity to forage discreetly on land I did not own. But there are shades of gray, of course. I’d never go picking flowers from somebody’s lawn, for instance. Here’s what I do:
First, I scope out the wild edibles in a given landscape from the passenger seat of a car. You’d be surprised how much you can identify at 35 to 60 mph once you’ve a trained eye for it–tall spires of bulbous white yucca flowers, big pale green rosettes of furry mullein leaves next to the tall, dried stalks of last year’s plants, and so forth. Then I consider factors such as who owns the land and whether or not I feel it is necessary to ask his or her permission to sustainably harvest, say, a handful of dandelion greens or a few mullein leaves here and there.
On a recent trip to the Denver suburbs, then, after staring hungrily out the passenger window at field after field of juicy yucca flowers ripe for the picking, I found what I was looking for–a large, open field, uncrossed by pollution-generating roads, and literally covered with yucca. Upon closer inspection, Gregg and I observed that not only was the field surrounded by cookie-cutter housing developments, but that former cattle-grazing grounds in question were slated for similar construction in the not-so-distant future.
Is it fair to justify trespassing based on one’s own abhorrence of the urban sprawl that gated communities constitute? Perhaps not. But one thing I know for certain is this: It is common practice for builders to completely raze any and all vegetation on a development site prior to constructing said housing, and to later re-plant the land with lush, chemically-treated dandelion-free lawns and picture-perfect landscaping.
So that was my justification. We drove around until we found an obscure place to park and then disappeared up over the hill with our scissors and bags.
Yucca Bugs, Yucka!
The yucca was plentiful, although the bugs had gotten to some of it already. In the Lone Pine Field Guide to Plants of the Rocky Mountains, Kershaw et. al. (1998) talk about a yucca moth that lives symbiotically with yucca, pollinating the flowers as she flies from plant to plant, boring into the ovaries to lay her eggs. “Ripe yucca pods almost always have a tiny hole, where the grub ate its way out,” the guide states. That’s great for the yucca and all–but yucka!
So we steered clear of any bug-infested yuccas and were fortunate to find a number of seemingly bug-free plants. We harvested only a few flowers from each one, despite their impending doom, in the hopes that the next time we visit there will still be yuccas, perhaps by then sporting the green fruits with which I experimented initially last year.
On such occasions I always have a hard time keeping myself from looking over my shoulder repeatedly, worried that I’m doing something wrong. I found a similar sentiment, although in a very different context, in a recap of a study of Hmong people foraging on public and private lands near St. Paul, Minnesota. As Simple Good and Tasty blog writer Rhena Tantisunthorn explains, “the Hmong face intimidation by land owners who will use tactics such as sending out their dogs to scare the foragers away.” According to David Bengston of the USDA Forest Service, a Hmong person is quoted as saying, “Gathering was a way of life back home. But here it’s like stealing,” (qtd. in Tantisunthorn). As a result, some Hmong now refer to wild edible plants as “timid” or “embarrassed” vegetables.
“No one is coming,” Gregg asserts to me repeatedly upon witnessing my paranoid foraging, ”and it isn’t even trespassing.” Personally, I don’t see how he can reach that conclusion after we pass a “No Trespassing” sign in front of a different entrance to the same field. Timid vegetables, indeed.
Sweet Yucca Flower Petals
When you fry or boil yucca flower petals, they turn light green, causing me to sometimes refer to them as ”leaves” by accident, to which Gregg always replies, “I don’t want to eat yucca leaves; they’re sharp and pointy.” Which brings up an important point of caution when it comes to harvesting yucca: In addition to the bug thing and the possible consequences of trespassing, watch out not to get poked by the leaves–as they will most certainly draw blood. The flower petals are yummy, sweetish and succulent. They make a good addition to stir fries and soups, not to mention an attractive garnish. I also like to fry them up in olive oil, with wild greens or alone, salt lightly, and serve as a side dish.
In Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate, Cathy Wilkinson Barash says that when eating flowers, one should remove the pistils and stamens and only eat the flower petals, although I have yet to discover exactly why. I tend to eat the yucca petals separately from the thick pistils myself, but I do eat the pistils and stamens, usually boiled in soups or cut up and fried sufficiently. (Readers should keep in mind that there may be some variation in the edibility of different species of yucca in different areas of the country, so it is always good to test a small amount first before eating an entire plant by oneself. )
Wildlife in My Yucca Flowers
We finished our ill-gotten Denver yucca pretty quickly, which is why Gregg underwent a subsequent mission near Bailey, Colorado, for this latest batch. It was getting late when he got there, however, and because of the fading light he was unable to distinguish the bugginess of the flowers he snipped. As a result, I found myself washing a few tiny egg nests and little aphid looking babies (I presume) along with their mothers out of some of the flowers, where they were hunkered down near the base of the pistils. (Animal rights people, please don’t hate me.) And may this be a lesson to all of you as to why you just don’t harvest yucca at night.
UPDATED 4.13.13 to include the “shades of gray” point so that the reader does not think I’m advocating raiding garden beds or snooping around other people’s houses for wild goodies.
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