“There’s a reason why the pre-Columbian population of Colorado was low,” wild plants author Sam Thayer once wrote me, referring to the relative lack of edible wild plants in this semi-arid land compared to lusher parts of the country. How dare he? I recall thinking—though truth be told, here at 11,000 feet in the Colorado High Country, the new spring growth is still less than an inch tall; meanwhile the rest of the country is happily chatting it up about their bountiful spring forage, whether dock and dandies, redbud flowers and milkweed shoots, chickweed and sorrel, and so forth.
Honestly, though, I’m not sure I could handle the abundance.
Take my recent New England trip for example. I arrived in Connecticut mid-April, just as the trees were newly leafing out. One walk with mom down our old country road renders me speechless. There are so many plants I want to try—plants I recognize from my books, plants that nearly every other forager knows well and uses often, plants that I have not had opportunity to try since Wild Food Girl was born.
I conclude that I need a few years out east, not two weeks interspersed with family visits, to get down and dirty with all these wild plants. Especially when my 7-year-old niece purportedly complained to her mother: “With all the wonderful plants in New Hampshire, how will I be able to get enough time to play with Aunt Erica since she loves plants so much?”
A Survey of Spring Edibles in the Northeast
Instead of going into great detail on any one plant, then, what follows is a survey of some of the edible wild plants I saw and tasted on my April 17- May 1 trip. The range is eastern Connecticut, southern – mid New Hampshire, and Troy, New York.
Understand that I have limited experience with some of these plants. This is not meant to be a guide to identification. It is always expedient to check and double check ID’s in multiple guidebooks prior to tasting. Just the other day a reader admitted to tasting a toxic plant she was unsure about, and then experiencing nausea and dizziness. Heavens to Betsy! Please be prudent! Your safety depends on it!
Parents Enjoy Plants More Than Progeny
My parents have been skeptical of my wild food creations for years, surveying both me and the meals askance, then tasting but the smallest bit and pushing away their plates. In that light it’s all the more surprising that on this trip, both mom and dad enjoyed two wild plants more than I did.
The first was chickweed (Stellaria spp.), the small plant that is so ubiquitous as to have escaped my identification until this trip. Newly aware, I found it in mom’s Connecticut rock garden, my sister’s New Hampshire vegetable garden, and pretty much everywhere else I looked.
The master northeastern forager, “Wildman” Steve Brill, gives some excellent identifying features for this prostrate, spreading plant, including the exhibition of “tiny white flowers 1/8 inch across, with 5 petals so deeply cleft they look like 10,” the “tiny, pointed, oval, untoothed leaves, 1/2 to 1 inch long” which grow in opposite pairs, and the fact that one “fine line of hair extends along the length of the slender, delicate stem.”
He cautions not to mistake chickweeds for “poisonous spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata)” or “non-edible matted doorweed or oval-leaf knotweed (Polygonum arenastrum). See his site for details.
Chickweed is edible raw or cooked—leaves, stems and all. I collected a bunch, chopped fine and boiled for 5-10 minutes, then served with butter and salt as a side dish. I found it tough and hard to chew, concluding that perhaps I had collected specimens that were too mature. Mom and dad, on the other hand, gobbled theirs right up and pronounced it good and not the least bit tough. Am I getting snooty about wild plants in my old age? I who once declared that I’d like every wild plant I ate, no matter what?
Bitter dock (Rumex obtusifolius) was next up. Although I have experience eating curly dock (R. crispus), narrow dock (R. triangulivalvis / R. salicifolius) and what I now believe to be Western dock (R. occidentalis), this was my first trial with bitter dock, and I found it to be—you guessed it—rather bitter.
Bitter dock is distinguished from other docks by its “broad, heart-shaped leaves and the coarsely toothed margins of the valves on its fruit,” according to Thayer (2010). I have also noticed a tendency for the leaf midribs to be reddish.
Following my modus operandi for other docks, I collected only new, unfurling or recently unfurled leaves, including leaf stems, then chopped and sautéed with garlic in olive oil before tasting. Whoa Nelly was that batch bitter! I added chopped carrots to balance the bitter with sweet, but I still couldn’t handle eating it. Undeterred, mom set about flavoring the dish with honey and curry, dancing around the kitchen and exuding real joy over having a new ingredient to play with. I’ll say it’s a wonderful thing to see mom with all this new time on her hands, but I’m not sure how I feel about her upstaging me in the wild plants cooking arena.
Anyway, mom’s curried bitter dock came out decent. I ate some, even helped myself to seconds. My uncle ate some too, and later, upon a second cooking attempt, dad decided it would make a good addition to stuffing.
Don’t Be Fooled By the Pretty Flowers
Don’t be fooled by the pretty flowers, as has been my friend’s mom in Troy, New York who is blissfully happy to let this Eurasian invader spread about her yard, ruining everything. Garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) is a nasty invader that ranges deep into virgin forests and conquers natural habitats, decimating native plants in the process. This stuff is everywhere I looked—all over Connecticut and New Hampshire, even in my parents’ backyard. To prevent its spread, dispose of it prior to flowering.
In his 2006 Conservation in Practice article, “Bon Appetit,” [PDF download], Joe Roman makes a case for encouraging humans to develop an appetite for unwanted invasive species. “Sure, fighting invaders requires a killer appetite, but just look at our track record: Atlantic cod, bison, manatees, and Pismo clams have all but disappeared under the weight of human demand,” he writes. “So why not put our destructive streak to good use for a change?” Based on this idea, Roman created Eat the Invaders, a site that outlines edible invaders for folks interested in joining the “invasivore” movement.
Thayer includes a chapter on garlic mustard in Nature’s Garden (2010). Though he admits to being unable to stomach the mature leaves, he recounts success with steaming or boiling the young, not-yet-flowering shoots. I tried this with our backyard batch, then served it with mayonnaise for dipping. I wish I had gotten a photo of the look on my mother’s face, because it screwed up something fierce before she spit the offending ball of yuck out onto her plate.
I emailed Sam: “The garlic mustard stalks that I ate, although not yet flowering, were icky. Growing conditions I guess. It’s been dry here for a while so I’m thinking they grew slowly and came out extra pungent.”
He emailed back: “Maybe you just don’t like garlic mustard.”
Again my reaction is this: How dare he?
On the flip side, “Wildman” Steve Brill was rather enthusiastic when I bothered him on Facebook about garlic mustard. “It’s very strong-flavored,” he admitted. “I use it sparingly in salads and vegetable recipes, and purée it into pesto and spreads.” He also said that it’s “loaded with nutrients” and invited readers to find out more—both about the plant’s nutritional content as well as cooking ideas—on his Wild Edibles iPhone app, updated April 27, 2012.
Man, I gotta get me one of these iMachines.
In the meantime, maybe I can convince mom to put her cooking skills to work to come up with some use for garlic mustard that she and I will not both detest. After all, if it’s wild, I am committed to liking it.
Okay I’m ending Part I right here at 1,200 words. Thanks for reading and please stay tuned for Part II of WFG’s East Coast Foraging Adventure!
NOTE: This entry updated 5.8.12 with a closer-to-correct version of my niece’s quote. Thanks sis!
Filed under: edible
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