Kentucky coffee beans
It was like coming home with a free CSA box.
In other news, the baby robins have hatched! They're well camouflaged, but 4 of them are huddled above (photo by wide eyed lib). Their exposed nest was worrisome, so seeing them alive was a relief.
This diary is dedicated to my paternal grandfather who was stationed in Hawaii with the Navy during WWII. I was young when he died, but I'll never forget the Naval uniforms, the notes of Taps or the tidily folded flag handed to my Dad. Please take a moment today to honor the sacrifices of our troops.
Covered: burdock, sassafras & lamb's quarters
Previewed: highbush cranberry, juneberry & mayapple
[As always, if you're new to foraging and want to give it a try, please read the first diary in the FFF series for some important information.]
Today's first plant is one I keep forgetting to include. As on a map where the features identified with the largest fonts are often overlooked, so it is with burdock's huge size and profusion. Nonetheless, it's an important and useful plant for the forager. (Above, left to right: Burdock Rosette, Mature Burdock and Burdock Winter Burrs, all by wide eyed lib)
Burdock is a biennial herb that occurs in disturbed soil and overgrown fields with full or partial sun in Southern Canada and 48 U.S. states, with Florida and Alaska being the exceptions. It's originally from Europe and Asia and was brought by settlers. The leaves are dark green, triangular and rough looking with wavy edges, deep purple-tinged veins and copious wool on the reverse. They are also enormous and can reach more than 2 feet long by a foot wide. The first year of its lifecycle, burdock is a basal rosette and remains in that form all year, storing energy in its taproot. The second year it again emerges as a basal rosette, but by mid-Spring it grows a ribbed flower stalk from 2 to 5 feet tall that eventually develops pink-to-purple flowers superficially resembling those of thistles (i.e., miniature old-fashioned shaving brushes). After the flowers die away, the plant develops a terminal cluster of seed-bearing, round, brown burrs that stick tenaciously to clothing or anything else they come in contact with. (Left: Burdock Rosette and Root by wide eyed lib)
Burdock's long, off-white taproot is perhaps its best known and most useful food product. Known in Japan as gobo, it's used in stews and soups and is often cooked with rice. The best time to harvest the roots is in Fall for a 1st year plant and in early to mid-Spring for a 2nd year plant; in other words, you want taproots that have stored up a maximal amount of energy. At this point they can be several feet in length and more than 3 inches in diameter, so dig accordingly. In cross section they have a core much like carrots and parsnips do.
Unfortunately, unless you monitor a patch starting in Spring, it's difficult to tell where particular plants are in their life cycle just by looking. On the other hand, burdock is sufficiently common in most places that if you guess wrong you can simply dig up another plant without guilt. Burdock root should be peeled to remove the woody bark, then chopped and par-cooked for about 10 minutes in salted water before being added to the final dish for additional simmering. Wet preparation methods (soup, stews and boiling) are generally preferable, but particularly tender specimens could probably be roasted. The flavor is somewhere between parsnip and potato, but the texture is somewhat more woody.
Prior to the development of flower buds, you can also strip the flower stalk of leaves, peel it and use it like celery. I've gathered some to give this method a try, but haven't actually tasted it. A few references also mention preparing the center ribs of mature leaves in the same way, but I haven't yet tried this. Finally, some foraging guides will tell you that young burdock leaves are edible, but while they won't hurt you, I've found them bitter and basically dreadful. If I were hopelessly lost in a gigantic burdock field I might eat them in a survival situation, but even then I'd be reluctant. YMMV.
Burdock root is high in fiber, protein and thiamin (and other B vitamins) and contains significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus, potassium and inulin. Tea made from the root is used medicinally for liver and urinary tract problems. It’s also a diuretic and general detoxifier. It’s good for skin problems ranging from bruising to eczema and psoriasis when taken internally or used externally via an infusion of the leaves.
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Another plant with highly useful roots (as well as other parts) is sassafras. (But read the important note below before using.) Sassafras is a deeply fragrant, native tree with vertically furrowed, reddish-grey bark on mature specimens and bright green bark on saplings. It's found in Ontario and most of the Eastern half of the U.S. Most specimens have a tendency to branch like a candelabra, with several branches emanating from the same point. In Spring, sassafras has tiny yellow flowers with 5 petals, and in summer these yield to oval, dark purple fruits about ½ inch long that are grasped by little crowns formed by modified sepals. They look for all the world like purple eggs in tiny green egg cups. Despite a bit of searching, I haven’t found anything definitive about the flowers’ or fruits’ edibility.
Sassafras is also a wonderful scratch and sniff tree; take a small twig, scratch the bark and sniff. It smells like root beer (and in fact safrole, an extract, was used to flavor root beer). You can also chew on the twigs to enjoy their flavor. (Right: Sassafras Bark by wide eyed lib)
The most unusual thing about sassafras is the leaves. They come in three shapes: a pointed oval, a mitten and what I call the bird-foot leaf with three lobes roughly in the shape of toes. Once you identify sassafras in a given location, you're bound to find more. Because this tree has some difficulty reaching the height of other forest trees (and therefore doesn't get enough light to reach maturity), it compensates by reproducing prolifically via underground rhizomes. Any adult tree in a natural environment is going to be surrounded by several saplings, and some are surrounded by a virtual thicket of them. These saplings are unlikely to reach maturity, but just in case the "mother" tree is killed, they huddle around ready to take advantage of the resulting additional light. (Left: Sassafras Leaves by wide eyed lib)
These "extra" saplings are a boon to foragers, because their roots make wonderful beverages. Loosen the dirt around a sapling to a depth of about 8 inches, then grab the bottom of the sapling and pull steadily. The entire root (or at least a decent chunk) should come free. The roots are similar to the branches in their root beeriness, only more so. Cleaned and placed in boiling water, the resulting liquid can be drank as-is for tea or further reduced, sweetened (maple syrup is nice for this if you're feeling rich) and refrigerated for a root beer-like drink. If your mixture is strong enough, you can dilute it with seltzer to make a natural soda.
You can also make tea from the leaves or twigs, but there's a much better use for the leaves. Dried and finely ground, they become filé powder, a seasoning and thickener used in place of or in addition to okra in gumbos and other Creole stews. Although you can find commercial filé powder, much of the time it contains no sassafras whatsoever. Even if you never plan on making gumbo, try it in other soups and stews and you'll learn to appreciate its subtle yet unmistakable flavor. Use about half a cup of powder, stirred in after it's removed from the heat, to add thickness, flavor and body to a big pot of soup. (Right: Sassafras Roots by wide eyed lib)
Medicinally, the root has been used to purify and detoxify the blood, to treat colds, fever, arthritis and high blood pressure and as a Spring tonic. In the 17th Century, it became all the rage in Europe to treat just about anything, including syphilis (on which it apparently had no effect).
Important note: Beginning around 1960, a series of studies showed that enormous quantities of synthetically produced safrole caused cancer in rats. The FDA pulled various forms of sassafras from store shelves but never pulled filé powder or nutmeg, which also contains safrole. (And it's still perfectly legal to own sassafras in any form.) My research has indicated that safrole oil may very well contain sufficient quantities of toxins to be dangerous to humans. I couldn't find much about toxicity from drinking tea in humans other than the following quote:
A 72-year-old woman drank sassafras tea up to 10 cups a day and developed diaphoresis and hot flashes. When the woman "stopped drinking the tea, the diaphoresis and hot flashes promptly resolved." (Haines)
Personally, my symptoms would be far worse if I were to drink 10 cups of coffee or 10 beers a day, and both of those substances are completely legal. I liken this to the difference between chewing coca leaves and snorting cocaine in that the form in nature has mild effects that don't seem harmful if used in a rational fashion but a purified, highly distilled version is dangerous. As always, you should use your own judgment in such matters, but I personally won't be giving up filé powder or the occasional cup of sassafras tea.
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Our final plant for today is lamb's quarters (also known as goosefoot). Lamb's quarters is an annual herb brought here from Europe by immigrants. It features diamond to triangular shaped, bright green, alternate leaves with an irregularly toothed edge. It's widely available all across North America, apart from the most northern parts of Canada. As a shoot (which is the stage it's in right now in my area), it has the unusual characteristic of having a dusty bloom of a protective, gritty wax that's particularly heavy in the top center where the youngest leaves are. The leaves are white on the bottom with more of the same waxy bloom. (Above Left: Lamb's Quarters by wide eyed lib)
In Summer and fall, lamb's quarters will develop ball-shaped, green miniscule flowers in short spikes just above the leaves on the top third of the plant. These dry into a reddish brown color in fall and are filled with incredible quantities of black seeds (some sources say as many as 75,000 per plant).
When the plant is less than a foot high, you can eat the stems and the leaves, but as it grows taller, the stems get somewhat tough though the leaves stay tender and delicious. The buds, flowers and seeds are also edible. (Right: Lamb's Quarters Leaf by wide eyed lib)
Once you learn to identify lamb's quarters, you'll see them everywhere. They love full to partial sun, so they're especially common in fields, on the sides of roads and fences and in forest clearings. They're also extremely abundant, and you'll seldom see one plant without seeing at least 10 more.
Lamb's quarters has many relatives with similar flowers and seeds. From what I've read, these are all edible provided they are scentless like lamb's quarters. Other relatives, like the Mexican herb epazote, have very pungent, medicinal odors, and these should be used sparingly in small quantities. Still, it's best to get to know the different variants one at a time to make sure you're eating the right thing.
Lamb's quarters are delicious, with a flavor much like spinach, only a bit more delicate. They can be eaten cooked or raw and used in any recipe where spinach can be used, though it does shrink more, so plan accordingly. The leaves need to be rinsed thoroughly and gently rubbed to get rid of as much of the gritty bloom as possible. It's easiest to do this is a big bowl of water. I find it an oddly rewarding task despite its repetitiveness; the underside of the leaves are covered in fine hairs that trap air and repel water, creating the illusion, as they swish through the water, that they have been silver plated. It's beautifully hypnotic. (Left: Very Early Lamb's Quarters Shoot by wide eyed lib)
Lamb's quarters leaves take well to being dried or canned, and the seeds can easily be dried. Lamb's quarters plants are high in protein, calcium, potassium, beta carotene and niacin. Both the dried leaves and seeds can be ground for use in breads, and apparently bread from lamb's quarters seeds was a staple for Napoleon's army.
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Still no ripe berries here yet, but here are sneak peaks at some developing fruits I've been keeping my eyes on.
Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) flower and leaf (Above, both by wide eyed lib). It's my understanding that there are 2 similar kinds, one native and one European. The native one tastes considerably better, and I'm hoping that's what I've found.
June berries (aka service berries) are just starting to turn pink. The flowers above were from late April. (Left and above, both by wide eyed lib)
Mayapple's enormous leaves and the tiny developing fruit below. (Above, both by wide eyed lib)
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Finally, last night with part of my bounty I made a terrific green soup. Although it was warm yesterday, this soup is light enough that it didn't feel unseasonal.
Wild Green Soup
1 med onion, chopped
2 Tbs olive oil
2 med potatoes, cubed
2 cups packed chopped stinging nettle leaves
2 cups packed chopped lamb's quarter shoots
2 cups packed chopped curly dock leaves
(I also had 1/2 cup leftover trout lily leaves that I tossed in)
1 Tbs wall pepper or a couple of grinds of black pepper
good pinch of salt
1 heaping tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
1 quart vegetable stock
2 cups water
2 Tbs white wine vinegar
1 Tbs honey
1 Tbs soy sauce
Saute onions on med heat until translucent. Add all remaining dry ingredients (potatoes through hot pepper flakes) and saute just until greens start to wilt (they will shrink). Add remaining ingredients and stir. Taste to correct seasoning. Bring soup to just under a boil, then cover and turn down heat to allow mixture to simmer until potatoes are soft (20-25 minutes). Sourdough bread on the side is nice. Serves 4.
If you're interested in foraging and missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 9 installments. As always, please feel free to post photos in the comments and I'll do my best to help identify what you've found. (And if you find any errors, let me know.)
Here are some helpful foraging resources:
"Wildman" Steve Brill's site covers many edibles and includes nice drawings.
"Green" Deane Jordan's site is quite comprehensive and has color photos and stories about many plants.
Green Deane's foraging how-to clips on youtube each cover a single plant in reassuring detail.
Linda Runyon's site features only a few plants but has great deals on her dvd, wild cards and books (check out the package deals in particular).
Steve Brill's book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places is my primary foraging guide. (Read reviews here, but if you're feeling generous, please buy from Steve's website.)
Linda Runyon's book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide contains especially detailed information about nutritional content and how to store and preserve wild foods.
Steve Brill also offers guided foraging tours in NYC-area parks. Details and contact info are on his website.
Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.
See you next Sunday!