There’s nothing like accompanying your boyfriend to a work meeting expecting to sit idly by and instead being invited to forage the back yard.
“I’ll weed your garden while I wait,” I offered to his new web client, glancing hungrily at the carpet of young goosefoot (Chenopodium sp.) decorating the landscape.
“Oh, you don’t need to weed it,” he told me, “but feel free to graze as much as you like.” Seriously? Hell yeah!
We apparently got there just in time too because the landlord would be coming by shortly to spray the weeds. I found a plentiful and diverse trove of edibles there in Kittredge, Colorado, including several that I have not yet had the opportunity to collect. Among them was an inconspicuous wild mint mixed in among the other weeds on the bank of the creek that abuts the property.
“If it has a square stem and smells like mint, it’s an edible mint,” Cattail Bob Seebeck told me on a recent foraging adventure. Not all squared-stemmed mints smell or taste like mint—for example, wild oregano (Monarda fistulosa) and horehound (Marrubium vulgare)—but there are a few wild ones that evoke the commercial variety, making them as palatable to the masses as they are to obsessive wild food foragers like yours truly.
Keep in mind Kershaw’s warning in Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (2000), however, that wild mint and spearmint should not be used by pregnant women as their pulegone content stimulates the uterus, and care should be also be taken feeding mint to children.
I collected the Kittredge batch prior to the plants’ flowering, making differentiation between the various mint possibilities–like field mint (Mentha arvensis) and escaped peppermint (Mentha piperita) difficult. Gregory Tilford (1997) writes in Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, “field mint looks, tastes, and smells like its cultivated relative, peppermint.” Both are found in “moist soils, especially along streams.”
The Kittredge patch was relatively small and Cattail Bob has pointed out even smaller patches to me—including just a couple of isolated plants hanging out at the water’s edge—so in my experience, finding wild mint involves careful inspection of streamside locales.
In some places, of course, “ditch mint” is fairly prolific. I have fond memories of sipping wild mint mojitos a couple years ago at the GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, New York—after which, incidentally, we were pulled over for “dazzling” by a crazy, wild-eyed police officer. What can I say? I like to dazzle.
Wild Mojitos Made Wrong Are Marvelous Nonetheless
Back in Fairplay, I sent Gregg to the liquor store for rum, club soda, limes and instructions on how to make mojitos. He came home with 7-Up telling me we didn’t need any limes. Later I mixed two tall glasses of crushed mint with ice, 7-Up, and rum. Though we later discovered this not to be the most gourmet way to make a mojito, I still melted into my chair upon tasting it. I love wild mint and I love mojitos. My favorite part is chewing up the minty leaves after the drink is gone.
Good as they were, however, I did end up digging into the fridge for a lime to squeeze into our drinks about halfway through. “Oh! That’s good!” Gregg exclaimed before pulling up a WikiHow that said to use club soda, ½ lime, mint, 2 tsp of sugar, and rum to make the genuine Cuban mojito that Ernest Hemingway enjoyed. Lacking club soda, we stuck with the 7-Up later that evening when Gregg mixed himself a second wild mojito—a testament to their tastiness despite the lackluster preparation. “I’m gonna be a drunk bdman,” he garbled. Apparently!
Minty Skunkbush Sauce
Two mojitos later, I served up the next wild mint experiment—a minty, sweet and sour skunkbush or three-leaved sumac sauce served with batter-fried fish. “This is amazing,” Gregg opined emphatically, helping himself to more, though I’m not sure how much of that was the rum talking.
Three-leaved sumac (Rhus trilobata, Rhus aromatica) is related to the other edible sumacs like R. typhina and R. glabra, and bears similar fuzzy, red-orange fruits with a strong, lemony flavor, hence the common use of these related Rhus species to make a lemonade-like drink. I collected the berries the week prior in Mesa, Colorado. The plant has three distinctive “broad-tipped lobed leaflets that taper to wedge-shaped bases,” as described by Kershaw et. al. (1998). In her 2000 book, she warns that “people who are hyper-sensitive to poisonous members of this genus (e.g., poison-ivy) may also be allergic to this ‘safe’ sumac.”
“Since sumac is related to cashews and mangoes, anyone allergic to those foods should avoid it or proceed with caution,” Sam Thayer writes in The Forager’s Harvest (2006).
I made the tart, minty sauce by simmering a handful of berries in water to release their lemony flavor, then adding sugar and finely chopped mint and cooking down to a sauce-like consistency. Later, I read in Steve Brill’s book (1994 ) that hot water “destroys vitamin C and washes undesirable quantities of tannin into your drink,” so he recommends swishing the berries or berry clusters in cold water for a couple of minutes instead.
Nevertheless, it made for a very good sauce that I will definitely make again, although I might take a page out of Brill’s book and see if I can release the tart essence into cold water the next time around.
Creamy Wild After-Dinner Mints
Mint is good for digestion, hence the popularity of the after-dinner mint. And, while Gregg can attest to the fact that I am no confectioner (my horehound candies, for example, either failed to reach or overshot the hard crack stage and instead sat drying into “bark” on a cookie sheet for several months), I decided to attempt mint candy creams with the remainder of our foraged bounty.
Proportions be damned, I mixed up a few ounces of cream cheese, a tablespoon of butter, and several cups of confectioners’ sugar. Standard recipes call for peppermint extract, so after a failed attempt at creating an extract by simmering mint in a small amount of water (which ended up tasting nothing like mint), I surrendered to the strong aroma of fresh mint in the kitchen and stuffed a batch of the raw stuff into the food processor before adding it straight to the candy mixture. Then I rolled it into small balls with plenty of confectioners’ sugar to keep them from being too sticky to handle, pressed flat with a fork dipped in more sugar, and let them dry for a couple hours, storing them afterwards in the refrigerator because of the raw mint.
Upon tasting, Gregg emitted two big “wows” one after the other as he was hit first by the unexpected creamy texture and second by the strong “minty blast” of these flavorful mints.
Who says I can’t be a wild confectioner?
UPDATED 5.13.14: In the previous version of this post, I had followed other wild edible authors in using the term “squawbush” to refer to three-leaved sumac. But I did not realize that the word has negative connotations. This post has been updated with different common names.