John Kallas, a Portland-based forager, recently published Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Although the book only covers 15 edible greens (all of which are widely distributed), it does so in the greatest detail I've ever seen. (Left: Milkweed Flowers (Asclepias syriaca) by wide eyed lib. This plant has edible parts, but unfortunately it closely resembles toxic spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium).)
Every entry features plentiful photographs so each plant can be recognized at any stage of growth. Kallas also gives detailed harvest and preparation methods, including numerous recipes and tips on how to grow these plants in your own garden.
An experienced forager might find the level of detail unnecessary. But this book is geared toward beginners; it's perfect for those who may have been intimidated by plants guides in the past. It's a personal trainer for foragers, filled with extremely explicit step-by step instructions and lots of encouragement. I highly recommend it.
Covered: white lettuce & salsify
(As always, if you're new to foraging and want to give it a try, please read the first diary in the series as well as the linked diary to the fuller discussion of each plant. For a complete list of all plants covered in the series, click here.)
White lettuce, also known as white rattlesnake root or Prenanthes alba, is a native plant of shady forests that mostly goes unnoticed for the majority of its life. As Sam Thayer wrote in Nature's Garden,
Prenanthes is a simple and unassuming plant for much of its life: a root with a leaf. Later, if it enjoys some economic success, it might even grow a second leaf.
Officially classified as a perennial, its single or double leaf dies back to the ground year after year until it finally gathers enough energy in its taproot to flower, usually after about 6 years. (Right: White Lettuce in Flower by Gerard Stafleu, courtesy of Flickr.)
The leaves of white lettuce are highly variable, to put it mildly. They range from unlobed and triangular with curves at the base to deeply and irregularly lobed with uneven, widely-spaced teeth. All leaves but the youngest tend to have a long stem that slants at a 45 to 60 degree angle to the ground. The leaf itself, however, is parallel to the ground and usually 4 to 6 inches high. The leaf variability makes it difficult to recognize this plant with certainty when the leaves are at their tastiest.
In Spring of its final year, white lettuce extravagantly sends up 3 to 5 leaves. As Spring turns to Summer, the plant will slowly grow a tall, unbranched flowerstalk that can reach 6 feet in height. The leaves on the flower stalk generally get smaller and less frequently lobed as they near the top. In August, the leaf axils on the upper third of the stem will develop flower stalks topped by clusters of white to pinky-purple trumpet-shaped flowers with very long stamens. This is the easiest time to recognize the plant, but at this point the leaves are somewhat tough and bitter. When you see a flower stalk, take the time to study the leaves carefully and try to find several non-flowering specimens nearby so you begin forming a search image for the plant in your mind. Although the leaves of the non-flowering plants are edible at any time of year, they are far better in Spring, and it's worth coming back the following year to harvest them at their best. (Left: White Lettuce Leaves by wide eyed lib. Other than the blades of grass on the left, every leaf in this photo is white lettuce.)
You can also eat the tender tops of the flower stalks raw or cooked before the flowers open, but doing so will prevent the plant from reproducing. Because white lettuce is threatened in some places and takes so long to reproduce, it's very important to harvest responsibly. Only gather where white lettuce is common and always let at least some plants set seed each year. (Also see the caution below.)
Young white lettuce leaves make an excellent salad green with just a hint of bitterness. They taste a bit like frisee, but without the annoying frilly texture. Older leaves are best when boiled briefly and drained to eliminate the bitterness.
White lettuce is found in the Eastern half of the U.S. and Southern Canada. However, other species in this genus, distinguished mostly by larger or smaller flower clusters and/or more or less lobed leaves, are common in the Western U.S. and Canada, most notably western white snakeroot, P. alata. Once you have learned to recognize one species in the genus, you'll know another when you see it, and all are edible and can be used in the same ways. Caution: P. Alba is endangered in Kentucky and other species are threatened or endangered in other areas. Please do not harvest any plant in this genus without first checking its status in your area.
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I own a fair number of plant guides, and I've located every plant covered in most of them. However, the larger guides contain a small handful of plants that I've never found in the wild. Over the years that number has gotten smaller, but the plants that remain have become absurdly important to me, like my own personal holy grails. Some, like passionflower (Passiflora species) don't grow this far north, but others, like coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), stubbornly elude me year after year. I open my books to the pages featuring these as-yet-unfound plants several times each season in the hopes that one day I'll stumble upon one them and have that unmistakable "ah ha!" moment.
Last Saturday I was walking in a park that hadn't been mowed for a week or 2 when I spied what looked like a giant dandelion seedhead. I hurried over, thinking for a second or 2 that I'd found some mutant plant. The seedhead grew ever larger as I approached it, and instead of the little seed parachutes being mostly flat at the top, these were deeply concave. Now the gears in my head were spinning, and I was feeling hopeful that this was a new plant. I parted the high grasses surrounding the seedhead and got my first look at the sword-like leaves with parallel veins.
Ah ha! It was salsify, also known as oyster plant or goatsbeard (Tragopogon species). This group of mostly non-native, sun-loving plants has escaped from gardens and is still uncommon in the wild in some of its range (which is most of North America). Worse, even where it's common it's often difficult to distinguish its leaves from those of the many inedible grasses it typically grows with. But distinguishing it is well worth the effort. (Right: Salsify Leaf by wide eyed lib. Note that most of this leaf is bent at a right angle and pointing straight down.)
Salsify is a biennial plant that begins life its first Spring as a basal rosette, sending up a circle of sword-like leaves that can easily reach a foot in length. Depending on how crowded the plant is, the leaves will grow upright, flat along the ground or somewhere inbetween. Unlike similar grasses, salsify leaves are deeply v-shaped with a much lighter midvein that exudes an off-white latex that turns brown as it dries. No grass has all those characteristics. Underground the differences are even more stark. While grasses have threadlike roots that form a mat close to ground level, salsify has an off-white to beige taproot that reaches up to 8 inches into the soil. (Left: Yellow Salsify Flower by esmaa_bucket, courtesy of Photobucket)
In its second year, salsify grows a stalk between 2 and 5 feet tall. The stalk often branches and is punctuated with opposite leaves. Each branch will be topped by a yellow (or sometimes purple) composite flower that, in its yellow form, resembles a somewhat larger and more scraggly dandelion flower. Salsify blooms in late Spring or early Summer, and its flowers open each morning and close each afternoon before forming a giant seedhead that can be distinguised from a dandelion seedhead by its larger size, golden to light brown color and concave seed parachutes (officially called pappi [singular pappus]). This is by far the easiest time to recognize salsify (and help spread its seeds, if you're so inclined), and finding one at this time of year will tell you where to come back to locate rosettes next Spring. All 10 species found in North America look similar, with the differences primarily being in size and color of flowers, bracts and buds. (Right: Salsify Seedhead by wide eyed lib. My fist below the flower gives you an idea of just how big the seedheads are.)
All species also have the same edible characteristics. Starting in late Fall or early Spring, the taproot can be dug and eaten. Once cooked, the roots have a mild flavor that some compare to oysters. They have a wonderful mild sweetness but also a hearty meatiness, and can be used any way you might use parsnips or potatoes. The still tender leaves, the tops of the flower stalks and the unopened buds all make wonderful edible greens. The most tender bits can be eaten raw and slightly tougher parts can be steamed, sauteed or boiled until tender. All have a wonderful green flavor with a slight sweetness.
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As I expected, I haven't really found enough to write about this year to sustain a weekly series. To avoid waiting fruitlessly on Sundays or missing entries, you might consider subscribing (which you can do by clicking on the word 'subscribe' next to my name at the top of this diary). After you subscribe, any new diaries by me will automatically appear on your Hotlist.
If you'd like to learn more about foraging but missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 46 installments, and here for RonV's 4 part mini-series on medicinal plants and how to use them. 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. His second book, Nature's Garden, is just as good. For an autographed copy of either book, order from Sam's website.
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.
For well-sourced info on the medicinal uses of plants, Plants for a Future is a site I turn to time and time again.
Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.
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