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PhotobucketWhen you think about foraging, what comes to mind? For some, the first thought is of selfish, uncaring harvesters of plants and fungi, the kind of people who:

  1. harvest plants on private property without permission; or
  1. rake up virgin forest duff in order to get every last mushroom; or
  1. imperil the general area through their gathering methods; or
  1. severely endanger native populations of plants like wild ginseng.

From my perspective, anyone who commits such acts is not deserving of the name 'forager'; such a person is merely a thief or irresponsible profiteer. (Right: Mossy Path by wide eyed lib)

Foraging implies a responsible stewardship of the land. While it's sometimes necessary to kill plants, this isn't done lightly. Foragers keep in mind that their harvesting impacts far more than the target plant itself.

Covered: purslane, epazote & lemon balm

Updated: mullein, wild lettuce & mulberry

Photobucket This wide circle of impact is one of the reasons I normally mention whether a plant is native or introduced. Introduced plants are often invasive and some, like the notorious garlic mustard, have crowded out native Spring wildflowers and ground covers throughout the Eastern half of the U.S. Luckily, many of these plants are also edible, and by eating them foragers can help restore native habitats. The problem with garlic mustard is so severe that I always uproot the entire plant when I harvest it, and I often uproot more than I need, leaving the remainder slung over a tree branch so that the roots can't re-establish themselves. (Left: European Beech by wide eyed lib; in Fall, beech nuts can be pried from their spiny hulls and eaten, though they do contain a small amount of toxin and shouldn't be eaten in quantity.)

I also make a point of stressing the importance of getting to know the entire life cycle of edible plants. By watching a plant through the seasons, you get a sense of its overall place in the environment. You learn how quickly it grows, how abundant it is in your area, how successfully it reproduces, and what animals and insects eat it, pollinate it or use it as ground cover or nesting material. (Incidentally, the USDA plants database sometimes provides information about the importance of various plants as food and ground cover.)

I'm not going to reiterate all the ways in which foragers deserving of the name can and should work to strengthen rather than weaken the ecological balance of their harvesting areas; I covered many of those considerations in depth in the first diary in this series. If you haven't read that diary, I urge you to do so, especially if you have any intention of foraging beyond the bounds of your backyard fence.

Now let's celebrate DK GreenRoots Week by learning about a few gourmet herbs that are free for the taking if you know what to look for and where to look.

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PhotobucketToday's first edible is purslane, a plant anyone looking to increase their intake of Omega-3 fatty acids should know about. It has the highest amount of Omega-3s of any land-based vegetable with 300-400 mg in 1 cup of leaves; this amount is exceeded only by certain algae and some fish. It's no slouch in other nutritional areas either, containing high amounts of Vitamins A, C and some Bs, as well as calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium. (Right: Purslane by wide eyed lib)

Purslane is a ground-skimming, non-native, red stemmed herb that rarely grows taller than a foot in height and has succulent, fleshy, paddle-shaped, often concave leaves that grow alternate along the stems but opposite toward the tops, which is where the majority of the leaves are Photobucketlocated. The leaves can be as short as half an inch or as long as 3 inches and the entire plant is hairless. Under the right conditions (namely plenty of space and sunshine), purslane can form dense mats that look a little like inept crochet. Beginning in mid-Summer, it develops small, 5-petaled yellow flowers that are partially concealed under the leaves and only open for a short time each day. By Fall, the plant develops tiny green fruits about the size of a pencil eraser. These are hollow and designed so their tops will fall off and allow the tiny black seeds to spill on the ground or be blown away. (Left: Purslane Closeup by wide eyed lib)

Purslane and other members of the Portulaca family have been cultivated in India and Persia for thousands of years, and as a result there are many similar-looking species and varietals, all edible. Purslane thrives in sunny, somewhat sandy soil. It's found in lawns, vacant lots and disturbed soil across the United States and Canada, excluding Alaska and the northern Canadian Provinces.

Mini Purslane ?Purslane does bear a superficial resemblance to a poisonous plant called spotted spurge, also known as prostrate spurge. Although the two plants have some similarities and sometimes grow side-by-side, spotted spurge has thinner, woody stems that exude white, milky sap while purslane's stems are succulent with clear sap. Additionally, spotted spurge tends to be much smaller than purslane, with leaves more easily measured in millimeters than centimeters or inches. (Right: Spotted Spurge by Anonymous Bosch; Note that the bricks are standard sized)

Purslane has a wonderful bright sourness and is slightly mucilaginous. All above-ground parts, including the seeds, are edible. The leaves and stems make a delicious salad green but are equally good in soups (where they provide some thickening) or sautéed or steamed. The stems can be pickled or breaded and fried. The seeds make a good addition to hot cereal or breads, and they can be dried and ground into flour. The rest of the plant, because of its succulence, cannot be dried, but it can be parboiled and frozen. If you need more specific ideas, a slew of interesting sounding recipes can be found here.

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Continuing in the vein of gourmet herbs, our next entrant is epazote (pronounced eh-puh-ZOE-tay and also known as Mexican tea or wormseed), a plant with the unusual distinction of being famous and yet somehow invisible. Steve Brill said it best in Identifying and Harvesting...Photobucket:

[E]very few years the New York Times food section has an article on Mexican cuisine, touting epazote as an indispensable ingredient for authentic Mexican cooking. New Yorkers race past Central Park, ignoring volumes of epazote choking the walkways, and buy the same plant, imported from Mexico, at Macy's gourmet basement for $4.99 an ounce.

(Right: Epazote by wide eyed lib; Note the epazote seedling on the top left and the lamb's quarters leaves on the top right and bottom left)

Epazote has long, teardrop-shaped, alternate, raggedly toothed leaves that are broadest in the middle and taper at both ends. It consists of a single stem with smaller leaves on the top and larger leaves on the bottom. If you look closely at the stem of a more mature plant, you'll see a plethora of miniature leaves. The entire plant smells resinous, like pine or turpentine. In mid-Summer, epazote's leaf axils will sprout long, slightly floppy flower spikes covered in small whitish-yellow flowers. These give way to tiny seeds.

Despite being used culinarily for many centuries, epazote is toxic. It is filled with an anti-parasitical substance called oil of chenopodium that protected it from parasites in South and Central American jungles.  

Allow me to digress for a moment and talk about toxicity (aka poisonousness). Most people think of toxicity as a duality: things are either toxic or they're non-toxic. But in reality, toxicity levels are on a continuum with substances that will kill you with a few molecules on one end and substances that you can safely ingest in near limitless quantities on the other. PhotobucketNative people all over the world understood this continuum as it applies to the plant world much better than we do now; it took "modern" science a long time to realize that some very powerful medicines can come from toxic plants. Toxicity is very often tied to dosage. Small amounts of a substance may be fine even if large amounts cause all kinds of nasty effects (cf. sassafras). (Left: Epazote Leaf by wide eyed lib)

Epazote falls somewhere in the center of this continuum. Small amounts are fine (not to mention delicious) as a seasoning, but you wouldn't want to use it as the main ingredient in a salad or soup. If you've ever tried to replicate authentic Mexican refried beans (lard and all) and felt there was something missing, epazote is probably the answer. It also makes an appearance in bean dishes and is sometimes paired with avocado (like in this yummy-looking recipe for Shrimp and Avocado Enchiladitas). A leaf or 2 is all you need for most dishes. You can mince it finely or, in liquidy recipes, you can put the leaves whole in a tea ball or tie them into a bouquet garni for later retrieval. It's hard to describe the flavor, but it's like a happy marriage between lemon and pine. However, like cilantro, some people have an aversion to epazote, so proceed lightly until you're sure you're not one of them. As an added bonus, it aids in the digestion of the component in beans that causes gas.

Not surprisingly given its toxicity, epazote was used medicinally by the Aztecs and Mayans for centuries, especially for expelling worms and killing bacteria and parasites. Essential oil extracted from epazote repels insects and has been used internally; however, this oil should be used internally only under the care and supervision of an experienced herbalist because the toxicity of the oil is considerably higher than the plant. Additional information on epazote’s medicinal uses can be found here.

Epazote grows in most of the United States and southeastern Canada with the exceptions of Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and New Brunswick. It's native to South and Central America and has become invasive in the majority of its adopted range. In other words, it's become the garlic mustard of early Summer's sunny places. It loves disturbed soil, but apart from needing sun, it's not picky. It thrives equally well in sidewalk cracks and backyard gardens.

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Today's final herb is lemon balm, yet another member of the prolific mint family that also includes ground ivy and catmint, both covered in earlier diaries in this series. Like all mints, lemon balm has opposite leaves, square stems and Photobucketsmells minty, but lemon balm's leaves are more heart-shaped, toothed and sometimes faintly yellow, and its scent contains tantalizing hints of citrus. (Left: Lemon Balm Field by wide eyed lib)

In late Summer, lemon balm will develop white, deeply fragrant flowers sometimes tinged with pink that encircle the stem right above the leaf axils on the top half of the plant. These later give way to small brown seeds.

Lemon balm, like all mints, propagates both via seeds and by sending up new shoots from its roots. It can create dense stands and is classified as invasive in some areas, including Oregon. A non-native perennial, lemon balm grows best in sun but can also tolerate some shade, something few other mints are capable of. Under ideal conditions, lemon balm can grow 3 feet high, but in most places it doesn't exceed 2 feet. It's found in most of the eastern half of North America and along the west coast including British Columbia, as well as in Montana and Idaho.

Lemon balm contains many of the same scent compounds as citronella, which is why it smells citrusy and repels bugs. For cooking, its mild flavor is welcome anywhere lemon or orange are welcome (including pastas, salads, salad dressings, lemonade, fruit salads and ice creams), and terrific variations of classic dishes like roast chicken with lemon can be made by Photobucketreplacing some or all of the lemon with lemon balm. (An interesting idea that just occurred to me is to roast duck and serve it glazed with a lemon balm jelly as a play on both lamb with mint and duck l'orange.) As with the other herbs covered today, doing a search for "lemon balm recipe" yields more than enough material to keep a serious cook busy for a lifetime. This is but one enticing recipe collection among many. (Right: Lemon Balm Leaf by wide eyed lib)

Lemon balm essential oil has been used in products as diverse as insect repellant, furniture polish and perfume. Medicinally, lemon balm has noted calming effects and has been used to treat anxiety, insomnia and digestive disorders. A scientific study found that a standardized 600 mg dose of lemon balm increased positive mood, calmness and alertness. It's been used in Europe in conjunction with St. John's wort to treat SAD (seasonal affective disorder). It's also been demonstrated to speed the healing of lip sores from the herpes simplex virus. Lemon balm has at various points in time been used for conditions as diverse as Alzheimer's, ADHD and hyperthyroidism. In addition, initial laboratory studies have shown it to have antioxidant and anti-HIV properties.

Last but by no means least, lemon balm makes one of the best herbal teas available anywhere. Although it can be easily dried for out of season use, the dried herb, while still fragrant and lovely, cannot hold a candle to fresh lemon balm.

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I'll end with a few updates of plants I've already covered in the series.

PhotobucketPhotobucket Mullein (originally covered in this diary) has sent up its flower stalk and developed buds. Each bud will open to reveal a 5 petaled yellow flower with orange stamens. The flowers can be used to make a color-fast yellow dye or a tea to treat migraines. Oil extracted from the flowers has antibacterial and antifungal properties and has been used to cure earaches. (Above Left: Mullein Flower Stalk; Above Right: Mullein Buds, both by wide eyed lib)

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As mentioned previously, wild lettuce is a family whose members have vastly different leaves. Their leaves range from being gently toothed and non-lobed to deeply lobed with no teeth. Two things they all share are yellow, dandelion-like composite flowers and a white, milky sap. The unopened buds resemble Russian onion domes. Although the leaves are now much too bitter to eat (unless you boil them in a few changes of water), the flowers and buds are edible, though I haven't yet tried them myself. (Above Left: Lobed Wild Lettuce; Above Right: Wild Lettuce Flower and Buds, both by wide eyed lib. Note the differences between the leaves in the photos and compare with the photos here to get a sense of the leaf variations.)

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PhotobucketPhotobucket White mulberry is an Asian import and close relative of the native black or red mulberry (originally covered here). White mulberry trees are distinguished by white to pinkish fruits and hairless leaves, while black and red mulberry leaves are somewhat hairy on the reverse. White mulberries are both sweeter and more insipid than their red and black cousins but greatly improved with a squeeze of fresh lime juice whether for eating out of hand or use in a recipe. (Above Left: White Mulberry; Above Right: White Mulberry Closeup, both by wide eyed lib)

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As a final note, I keep meaning to mention a fantastic resource for viewing photographs of various wild edibles.  Don Wiss attended a large number of Steve Brill’s NYC area foraging tours beginning in 1999 and ending in 2005. He carefully documented with his camera all of the plants covered on each tour and generously shared the results with the world via his website. I often use the site to refresh my memory of what the flowers or seeds of a particular plant look like.

If you're interested in foraging and missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 14 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.

Samuel Thayer’s book The Forager's Harvest is perhaps the finest resource out there for the 32 plants covered. The color photos and detailed harvest and preparation information are top-notch.

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!

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Originally posted to wide-eyed wanderings on Sun Jun 28, 2009 at 02:28 PM PDT.

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