It took a funny long while for me to try elm samaras for the first time. They are the papery, light green, immature fruits that form on elm trees before they start leafing out. If you live in a region where large Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) trees proliferate, the samaras are the green papery bits that get all over everything in spring. From afar you might think they are leaves, but actually they are thick clusters of young fruits—which are not only edible, but delicious.
As Sam Thayer puts it in The Forager’s Harvest (2006): “Elm samaras are simply gourmet.”
We do not get elms here at my home elevation of 10,000 feet in Colorado’s high country, but a trip a couple thousand feet down the mountains, east or west, gets me to Siberian Elms (Ulmus pumila). These were planted across much of the Midwest on early homesteads as windbreaks and simply because they are hardy. So, historic ranching or farming communities are likely to have them.
Though they are not on Colorado’s noxious weed list, they are widely considered invasive.
A couple weeks ago I foraged some elm samaras from the north Denver area with my friend Butter. We gathered them from relatively young trees, and they made for a nice salad ingredient. It continues to surprise me how pleasant the samaras taste, and how nice a texture they have.
I was blown away by the elm samaras we found in the town of Silt on Colorado’s Western Slope, however. The Siberian Elms in town are large and gorgeous and were full of samaras that were easy to collect in quantity.
“They’re actually good,” commented a gentleman who’d stayed after the talk and tour I gave—on historical and modern uses of edible wild plants, for the Silt Historical Park—which is when the samara-eating occurred.
I understand the sentiment behind his statement, because while complimentary to the lovely Ulmus pumila, it is true that some folks really don’t love their initial wild food experiences. Sometimes the dandelions they eat are too bitter, or the acorn flatbreads too dry. And so wild food is written off as inferior to that which can be purchased from the grocery store. If the right part is foraged at the right time, and prepared well, however—wild food is good food, just like “regular” food. If not better.
That day we stripped handfuls of Siberian Elm samaras off the historical society’s huge tree and shoved them in our mouths as we talked. Afterward I asked if they minded if I took some handfuls home with me, and they laughed because as much as elm samaras are a wonderful special treat to me, those things are all over the place there.
Thayer writes that fresh elm samaras are best eaten while light green and not starting to brown at the edges, gathered just as the tree is beginning to leaf out. They can be eaten fresh or cooked in a variety of preparations. Later, seeds can be collected from ground-fallen, dry-brown samaras, the paper rubbed off and the seeds eaten raw or cooked (Thayer, 2006). Other elm species’ samaras are also edible, though he knows of two people who developed an allergic reaction to the small, hairy samaras of the native U. americana.
I have only tried those of the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila)—just a handful of times now, and I adore them. They are the only Ulmus in Colorado, according to Weber & Wittmann (2012), perhaps aside from special plantings.
The bark of mature Siberian Elm trees is distinct from another non-native elm, Ulmus parvifolia, commonly referred to as “Chinese Elm,” though there is some popular confusion between the two trees (Leopold, 1980). That of older Siberian Elm trees is chunky and vertically fissured, in contrast to the flaky bark of Chinese Elm, which peels away to leave mottled oranges, greens, browns, and grays.
It seems as though the samaras of several elm species are worth a try, but I would hope anyone so fortunate as to have invasive Siberian Elm (U. pumila) flashing forth in full-on, golden-green samurai form (samaras, that is) in their yard right now would give one a nibble and see. I’m guessing you’ll be pleasantly surprised, perhaps even motivated like I was to build a fantastic new salad.