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.
Wow, I never would have guessed! This is one I’m definitely going to try.
I love elm seed pods. I prefer them hulled
Is there an easy way to remove the papery part from the dried seeds?
Erica M. Davis says
Hi Sharon, sorry, I have yet to try that! I am in need of seeds. Usually seed processing of any type is done by rubbing the fully dried seeds–whether by hand, between sheets of rubber/silicone, or dancing on them in a container. Then they are winnowed (by blowing or throwing the material up in the air so the wind can carry off the lighter chaff). If you want to send me some I’m happy to try and report back! Elm seeds are on my bucket list…
Rita Cistone says
Good Morning Plant Lovers!
I live in Houston,Texas around Downtown Area which,Predominates the Hispanic communities and, Boy! They just Love with Passion all kinds of Plants and have been planting them for a several years including Samaras. My Dogs go Nuts for the Sllipery Elm Samaras Leaves! I had no idea what that Tree was but,at least Dogs as far as concern are conossiers what Plants are good for their Health. Every beginning the Spring,while sweeping my Backyard I find every year lots of these Cute round papery Seeds and happens to be a lot! The Winds blows from the neighbors Trees and falls down in my Yard. I was Curious to find out what they were and Goggled Identify Plants by seeds images and found out what they were and now I am even more Surprised to know that they are Foraging Food for Humans as well.
Brian Miller says
I live in north west New Mexico. When the trees go to seed, I gather them and plant then in good soil. Harvest them just like alfalfa or any other sprout. They are delicious in salad or just to grab a handful and eat them.
Hi, have you heard anything about field elm samaras being edible by chance? They look almost identical but have red in the center.
Erica M. Davis says
Hi Jonathan, I have not found specific reference to field elm (Ulmus minor) being edible. However there is a long list of Ulmus species with edible uses at pfaf.org. My guess is that they are edible, but since there have been 2 recorded allergic reactions to American elm (Thayer, 2009) samaras, if it were me I would just proceed with a small taste and work my way up.
Lynda Meyers says
I just gathered a whole bag of the Elm Samara’s! I always wait for them to appear they are so wonderful and nutty tasting ! I live in Minnesota so they grow everywhere around the red river
Can dry seeds be crushed into a type of flour? And would this flour have nutritional value?
Erica M. Davis says
Hi Craig, I haven’t worked with the seeds before. I’d highly recommend the Siberian Elm chapter in The Forager’s Harvest (2006) by Samuel Thayer. In it he explains that the seeds are edible, but that the texture seems too soft or oily to make good flour. I’m not sure about the nutritional value. Likely yes, but many edible wild plants have not been tested for their nutrient composition.
Laurie M Keefe says
Thanks for your article. I never knew! I have two Siberian elms on my property and following our wet winter, the samaras are abundant. I tried some in a salad yesterday and wow! What a delicious addition. Love finding out about edible plants in my yard. The more we forage, and the less time we spend at commercially grown food markets, the better our health, in my opinion.
Erica M. Davis says
I’m with you! I’m glad you liked them.