Scientific classifications of plants may seem confusing, but they're very useful. The groups (species, genus, family, etc.) are designed to reflect an evolutionary truth. All species within a genus descend from a common ancestor, as do all genera within a family. It's easy to use this information to your advantage. (Right: Rosehip (l) and Crab Apple (r), both family Rosaceae, by Jill Richardson)
Walking in a park, I saw a tall bush that looked like staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), except that the leaflets of its compound leaves were so finely divided they resembled ferns. After looking for other traits, I knew I'd found a Rhus species. As long as it developed upright, reddish clusters of berries, it would make delicious sumac-ade. And it did!
Foraging by genus will expand the range of plants that you can collect as long as you keep in mind which genera have no poisonous species. Today I'll discuss one genus that qualifies and list 38 others.
Covered: Viburnum species (nannyberry, black haw, highbush cranberry & hobblebush)
[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.]
The Viburnum genus contains between 150 and 175 species, many of them native. It is characterized by simple, toothed, opposite leaves and flat-to-conical Spring umbels of tiny, densely clustered 5-petaled white flowers. The pulpy mini-drupes (commonly referred to as berries) ripen in Summer or Fall and each contain a single, flat seed. (Left: Maple-Leaf Viburnum (V. acerifolium) Leaves and Berries by wide eyed lib. The berries are non-toxic but don't taste very good.)
I first became aware of viburnums as a group because I kept coming across bushes full of flat clusters of black berries that somewhat resembled elderberries, except that elder bushes have long, feather compound leaves and the bushes I saw had simple leaves. Eventually I came across a description of some Viburnum species, and instantly I remembered those mysterious bushes. (Given the similarities in their flowers and fruit, it's not surprising that elder bushes and Viburnums are both family Adoxaceae.)
After that I started seeing them everywhere. Their leaves and the colors of their berries vary wildly, but all species have a certain look about them that becomes more and more unmistakable as you examine and identify them. One species or other grows all over Canada and all across the U.S. with the exception of the driest parts of the Southwest. But because viburnums are beloved by landscapers, you can find them around condos and office parks far outside their natural range. (Right: Black Haw Bark by wide eyed lib)
Based on leaf shape, viburnums can be subdivided into 4 groups:
- the maple-leaf group whose leaves each have 3 lobes;
- the wayfaring group with unlobed, double-toothed, oval leaves with deep veins that make them appear wrinkled or creased;
- the arrowwood group with heart-shaped leaves and coarser teeth than the wayfaring group. The berries in this group are unfortunately bitter and dry, though still non-toxic; and
- the black haw group with dull, finely toothed leaves and clusters of relatively larger, bluish-black fruits coated with a powdery bloom. This is also the group most likely to have a single trunk covered with grey scaly bark that displays reddish cracks.
Perhaps the best known of the viburnums is V. lentago, the nannyberry. This tree or tall shrub can exceed 30 feet in height, but is more often closer to 15-20 feet high. Its leaves are 3-4 inches long, shiny, somewhat narrow, finely toothed and pointy. The leaf stalks have a narrow ridge that sticks out on either side, the flower clusters are slightly domed and each individual flower has several stamens that point upward and give the cluster a fuzzy appearance. The fruit is about 1/2 inch long, hangs in large clusters from red-tinged stems, and is bluish-black and wrinkled when ripe. This native shrub can be found in moist, sunny places all across the northeastern U.S. and Canada, plus as far west as Saskatchewan and Montana and as far south as Georgia. (Left: Black Haw Leaves and Berries by wide eyed lib)
The black haw (V. prunifolium) is very similar to the nannyberry, except that it has smaller, wider, more leathery leaves and its fruit clusters tend to have fewer berries. Although the range and habitat of nannyberry and black haw have a great deal of overlap, black haw is more tolerant of shade and ranges a bit more south and west, barely reaching the southern Great Lakes but extending deeper into Georgia and all the way west to Texas.
In the maple-leaf group, the highbush cranberry is worth seeking out. Its 3-lobed leaves are 4-5 inches wide with coarse teeth, and its flower umbels are flat with many tiny, true flowers encircled by larger, sterile flowers designed to better attract pollinators. Its berry clusters are huge and showy, bright red to maroon and somewhat wrinkled when ripe. They're a bit juicy and very tart, like true cranberries (though they're not related). Highbush cranberry greatly resembles another, non-native viburnum called guelder rose or cramp bark (V. opulus). Guelder rose is now naturalized in the northern half of the U.S. and all southern Canadian provinces. Unfortunately, guelder rose's fruit is unpleasantly bitter, and pretty much the only reliable way I've found of telling the difference is by tasting. For what it's worth, both Steve Brill and Samuel Thayer present various methods for telling the species apart, but none of them have worked for me. (Right: Highbush Cranberry Flowers by wide eyed lib)
Finally, in the wayfaring group, the best species is the hobblebush (V. lantanoides). It has large, creased, heart-shaped leaves with a double-toothed edge and flowers similar to highbush cranberry (above right). Hobblebush is generally shorter than the other viburnums discussed here, and its branches arch down, sometimes sweeping the ground and re-rooting where they touch. Its range is largely limited to the eastern seaboard. The somewhat sparse fruits go from bright red to purple-black when ripe, tend to be round and are only 1/4 inch in diameter. They're very tasty but the ratio of seed to flesh makes them nearly impossible to process. As a trail nibble, they're terrific though.
So what can you do with viburnum berries, apart from eating them on the spot? Well, first you remove the seeds and from there it depends on what the berries taste like. Ripe highbush cranberries are soft enough to crush and press through a sieve (or run through a food mill) raw, but nannyberries and black haw berries need to be simmered in a small amount of liquid (about 1/2 to 3/4 as high as the berries reach in the pan) for about an hour before they'll be soft enough to process. Highbush cranberries really do taste a bit like cranberries, so I like to pair them with orange zest and/or walnuts to make preserves or mock cranberry sauce. You can also add water, let it steep for 24 hours, then strain off the solids and sweeten to make a cranberry-like drink. Black haw berries and nannyberries, on the other hand, taste a bit like dates crossed with bananas. I like to stir about a cup of puree into muffin or quick bread batter, but since it's already quite thick after processing, by far the easiest way to use it is to simply spread it on toast, biscuits or pancakes. (Above left: Highbush Cranberry Bush by Peter Coughlin. Note that these berries over-wintered and are more dried out than fresh berries would be.)
Even the least palatable viburnums have medicinal uses. Guelder rose is also known as cramp bark for good reason-- a decoction of the inner bark alleviates menstrual cramps and heavy menstruation and has antispasmodic and sedative properties. Hobblebush leaves can be mashed and applied to the head as a poultice to relieve migraines. They've also been used to increase female fertility. Like guelder rose, nannyberry bark is also antispasmodic, and tea made from the leaves has been used to treat measles (!) and painful urination. Highbush cranberry bark has laxative properties, and the inner bark eases stomach cramps. Some Native Americans used black haw to treat dysentery and uterine hemorrhage. The bark contains some of the same pain-numbing compounds found in aspirin. For additional information on the medicinal properties of more than 40 Viburnum species, see this page from Plants for a Future.
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As a bonus, here's a list of the genera previously covered that have no toxic species, along with links to the specific diaries where I discussed each. There are probably other genera that qualify (like Lactuca, the wild lettuces) but I erred on the side of caution. It's important to remember that not all parts of every species are edible, so please review the individual entry for cautions and caveats before eating anything. Foraging by genus is not for the beginning forager, since it takes time to get familiar with each group of plants. However, if you stick with it, one day you'll look at a new plant and know its genus beyond a doubt. This knowledge will expand the list of plants you can forage exponentially; the genera listed below conservatively represent upwards of ten thousand different species of edible and delicious plants.
autumn olive and related species (Elaeagnus)
bayberry (Myrica and Morella)
blueberry and huckleberry (Vaccinium)
cherry, plum, peach, apricot & almond (Prunus)-- withered leaves are toxic
evening primrose (Oenothera)
garlic and onions (Allium)
greenbrier and related species (Smilex)
green fleece (Codium)
lady's thumb and smartweeds (Persicaria)
oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum)
peppergrasses such as poor man's pepper (Lepidium)
pineapple weed and other mayweeds (Matricaria)
sea lettuce (Ulva)
thistles, including bull thistle (Cirsium)
wild ginger (Asarum)
yew (Taxus)-- red fruit only (the seed is toxic)
Last but by no means least, no plant in the entire mustard family (Brassicaceae, including approximately 3,700 species in 330 genera) is toxic.
I think it's worth repeating that this list represents upwards of 10,000 species of edible plants; all out there, waiting to be eaten. We live on an amazing planet, don't you think?
See you next week!
P.S. I'm still looking for guest diarists to help continue this series over the winter. Please leave a comment or drop me a line at the email address in my profile if you're interested.
If you'd like to learn more about foraging but missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 33 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.
Don Wiss’s website is a treasure trove featuring hundreds of photos of common northeastern edibles.
Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.
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