I pointed out in my June 21st diary that my favorite time of year for foraging approached. In July and August sweet, luscious fruits are everywhere just begging to be picked. (Right: London Plane Tree by wide eyed lib)
As much as I love its crisp breezes and gloriously colored leaves, the approach of autumn always fills me with a certain melancholy. As the light fades and the nights lengthen, I console myself by looking forward to the bounties of the coming autumn. Fruits like hackberries, persimmons and apples are starting to ripen, nuts are swelling beneath armored shells, and plants like burdock, dandelion and chicory have almost gathered enough energy to make harvesting their roots worthwhile.
In the Northeast where I forage, plants teeter on the cusp of 2 seasons. It's still officially Summer, but every living thing is busily preparing for Fall. Join me for another walk along a salty shore to discover a few plants that thrive on this edge.
Covered: beach pea, plum & autumn olive
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 dark green plant with feather-compound leaves pictured here tangled with marsh grasses is the beach pea. Its leaflets are oval and always paired, with lighter veins. Each leaf begins with a pair of arrow-shaped modified leaves called stipules that clasp the leafstalk base and ends with a curling tendril. The stalks themselves are stout, hairless and often red-tinged. Beach pea shoots begin growing upright but later trail along the ground, causing the plants to rarely reach more than a foot in height. (Left: Beach Pea Leaves by wide eyed lib)
In late Spring to early Summer, long flower stalks support 3 to 6 pairs of pink to purple pea-like flowers. These give way in late Summer/early Fall to light green, hairless pods about 2.5 inches long that resemble garden pea pods, only smaller. Beach pea plants can be found in sandy areas near fresh or salt water in a rough arc around the top of North America that begins in California and extends to Alaska and across the northern shores of Canada before moving down the east coast to New Jersey and across to the Great Lakes.
While the pods are still soft and pliable, you can eat them whole, raw or cooked, just as you would eat snow peas, though you may prefer to remove the strings first. When the peas inside are partially or fully mature, the pods will be too tough, but the peas themselves can be harvested and eaten raw or cooked or dried or frozen for later use. They're quite a bit smaller than garden peas and each pod contains fewer of them, so the harvest tends to be small. I find them best as a beach snack, but a large enough patch and a bit of patience would increase the yield. Some sources claim you can also cook and eat the young shoots in Spring, but toxicology issues (see below) combined with that author's false assertion that beach pea pods are hairy would deter me from trying unless I was in a survival situation. (On the other hand, the idea of roasting the peas and grinding them to brew "coffee" sounds interesting.) Ounce for ounce beach peas contain more protein, beta carotene and B-complex vitamins than their commercial counterparts, which are no slouches in those departments. (Right: Beach Pea Flowers by wide eyed lib)
Important caution: Beach peas are not a plant for beginning foragers. Many legumes, including some quite similar looking plants in the same genus (Lathyrus), are poisonous and can cause paralysis or even death. It's vitally important therefore to know which species grow in your particular area and how to them apart. The best way to learn this information is side-by-side with an experienced forager. However, if you have some foraging experience and wish to seek out beach peas but can't locate an experienced forager, here's what I recommend: (1) Study the Plants database entry for the genus and, using the maps toward the bottom, find the species that grow near you, keeping in mind that plants often grow a bit outside of the indicated ranges. (2) Enter the scientific name of each species in Google Images and study photos of each species, taking notes on the differences. (3) Get outside, look for Lathyrus species and bring back samples and take photos, especially of the flowers and pods, keeping them carefully separated and labeled. (4) Compare your samples/photos to multiple online photos and/or take them to your local Cooperative Extension Office for a positive ID. (5) Finally, if you're not 100% positive of your or anyone else's ID, don't eat it. (Left: Beach Pea Pods by wide eyed lib)
I'm making the process sound a bit more difficult than it is; in truth an experienced forager won't have much difficulty finding the distinctive differences between all 60 species in the genus, especially in the color, shape and size of the flowers and pods. (Leaves alone are rarely proof positive of plant ID.) Despite my relentless pushing of the foraging Overton Window away from the notion that eating wild plants is scary and dangerous, in this case concerns about mis-identification and potential poisoning are justified.
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Now that you've eaten some filling protein, how about some plums for dessert? Like peaches and cherries (the latter of which I covered in earlier diaries here and here), plums are members of the Prunus genus, which also includes almonds and apricots. (As an interesting aside, botanists don't really make distinctions between these fruits the way supermarkets do, just as they don't make distinctions between raspberries and blackberries. Although the cultivars we see in stores look distinct, when you examine all 430 or so species in the genus, you see a continuum where small, red fruits with round pits gradually morph into medium-sized, purple fruits with flatter pits, which in turn morph into larger, orangey-pink fruits with fuzzy skin.) (Above Right: Beach Plum Bush by wide eyed lib)
Plum plants can be tall trees reaching 25-35 feet tall or scruffy bushes that barely reach your knees. Plum bark is silvery-grey with darker horizontal lintels, much like cherry bark. The leaves are alternate and elliptical with sharp teeth. The plants typically flower in early Spring, displaying white, 5-petaled, fragrant flowers on long stalks. These give way in late Summer/early Fall to pink or purple skinned fruits on short stalks that often have a natural waxy bloom. Different Prunus species (either native or introduced) grow wild in a variety of habitats in all U.S. states and Canadian provinces other than Hawaii, Nunavut and the Yukon. Of the native varieties the American plum (P. Americana) has the widest range, but other common native varieties include the chickasaw plum (P. angustifolia) in California and the south, the klamath plum (P. subcordata) in the northwest, and the Canadian plum (P. nigra) around the Great Lakes and in eastern Canada. Additionally, the European plum (P. domestica) is naturalized over much of North America as well. No Prunus species bears poisonous fruit, though some are bitter or not fleshy enough to bother with. (Above Left: Beach Plum Leaves by wide eyed lib)
The variety that I found on the beach is aptly named the beach plum, P. maritima. It's found slightly inland of sandy beaches from New Brunswick to Virginia, and in my opinion it's one of the best plums around. It's distinguished by leathery, more finely toothed leaves (the better to stand up to the salt spray, fierce sun and constant wind); twisty, frequently branching, trunks and purple, waxy-bloomed fruit that's barely bigger than most cherries.
Beach plum jelly is a staple home-spun food in many parts of its range, especially around Cape Cod. However, the crop is highly variable-- some years the bushes sag under their purple burdens and other years they’re largely barren. This year is, sadly, a poor one. If you luck upon a good supply, NPR did a feature on beach plums just last week, and they included recipes for beach plum jelly, beach plum cordial and beach plum cookies. Of course, you can also eat them out of hand or use them in any way you would use conventional plums. When looking for places to harvest beach plums, keep in mind that sand dunes are ecologically fragile. Try to tread lightly and heed any signs that prohibiting walking on dunes or harvesting fruit. (Above Right: Ripe Beach Plums by wide eyed lib)
Beach plums do not, to my knowledge, have specific medicinal uses. However, the American plum does. (But please read the cautions about all Prunus species in this diary before using plum tree parts medicinally, and never eat or make tea from the leaves of any Prunus species.) Here's what Plants for a Future has to say about the American plum tree:
A tea made from the scraped inner bark is used as a wash to treat various skin problems and as a mouth wash to treat sores. A poultice of the inner bark is disinfectant and is used as a treatment on cuts and wounds. The bark is astringent, diuretic and pectoral. It has been used to make a cough syrup. An infusion has been used in the treatment of diarrhoea, kidney and bladder complaints. An infusion of the twigs has been used in the treatment of asthma. Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being. (Ed. note: see original for citations)
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Plums not exotic enough for you? Well, if you're looking for a dessert that you won't find in a grocery story, look no further than the fruit of the autumn olive, a shrub imported to North America from Asia in 1830 and now classified as invasive in parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana and Washington DC. Although it's currently naturalized only in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, it's been sighted in Idaho and the Pacific NW. By eating this delicious fruit whenever you see it, you'll be helping to limit its relentless spread westward. Autumn olives also have some close relatives that grow in other parts of the country that I discuss below. (Left: Autumn Olive Bark by wide eyed lib)
Autumn olive is a bush that ranges from 10 to 20 feet in height, with multiple grey-brown, smooth-barked trunks that arch outward and are sometimes, but not always, thorned. The yellow-veined leaves are alternate, simple, long ovals speckled with silver on top and entirely silver beneath. In mid-Spring autumn olives burst into a profusion of yellowish-white blossoms that hang from leaf axils. The 4 petals are fused at the bottom, forming a tube and looking something like more tidy honeysuckle blossoms. (The 2 plants are distantly related.)
The fruits are single-seeded drupes that are silvery green when first formed but ripen to reddish-orange, silver-speckled balls about a centimeter in diameter. They're densely clustered close to the twigs. They used to begin ripening in late September in this area but have gradually been ripening earlier and earlier.
Because of their nitrogen-fixing ability, autumn olives thrive in poor soils where few other plants can survive, and in fact they improve the soil wherever they grow. (Which is small comfort to the plants they crowd out.) Autumn olives are found in sandy areas near beaches, in thickets and on former farms and other places with depleted soil. Because of their hardiness, speckled silvery foliage and plentiful, colorful berries, they've also been popular with landscapers and can sometimes be found near apartment buildings, office complexes and local parks outside of their naturalized range. (Right: Autumn Olive Leaves by wide eyed lib)
It's important to wait until the fruits are bright, full and juicy because slightly under ripe autumn olives are unpleasantly astringent. Ripe fruit, however, is truly amazing, with a sweet complex flavor balanced by just the right tartness. The taste reminds people of many other fruits. Raw, they taste like granny smith apples to me, and when cooked they taste more like plums mixed with apple, but other people have described them as tasting like pomegranates, currants, raspberries or some combination of these. If you're a connoisseur of exotic fruit flavors, autumn olives are well worth seeking out. The small seed inside is edible, but I personally find it a bit bitter and woody. Autumn olives are very nutritious, with 7 to 17 times more lycopene than tomatoes and high amounts of Vitamins A, C and E, as well as flavanoids and other bio-active compounds. Unusually for a fruit, it's also a good source of fatty acids. (A detailed nutritional analysis of autumn olives can be found here. [Warning: pdf])
Because the bushes are invasive, I have no compunction about cutting off entire branches where the fruit clusters most densely. This makes for fast on-site collection but a great deal of work later. (So many little stems...) The other alternative is to run your fingers through clusters, moving a container below to catch what falls. This method breaks many of the drupes, making them more perishable and doesn't entirely negate the issue of removing small stems. Once rinsed and picked over, autumn olives can be eaten raw or cooked in any number of different ways. Yesterday I made a jam by running the fruit through a food mill, then cooking the resulting mush with pectin. (I recently purchased this mill, and I've been extremely happy with the work it's done on crabapples, black cherries and autumn olives so far-- if you're interested in more info on this mill, just ask in the comments.) That same mush could also be used over pancakes or in muffins, and whole or mashed fruits can be used the same way if you don't mind the pits. (Left: Autumn Olive Fruits by wide eyed lib)
Autumn olives have similar-looking relatives in the Elaeagnus genus that also bear edible fruits and grow all over the U.S. and Canada, excluding only Labrador. The American silverberry (E. commutata) is a native shrub that grows on hillsides and along streams in the west. Its leaves are silvery on both sides, its branches are scaly and its fruits are silvery yellow-green when ripe. It tastes similar to the autumn olive and can be used in the same ways. The Russian olive (E. angustifolia) is a non-native shrub with narrower leaves, yellow flowers and silver-white berries. It grows in most of the U.S. and Canada other than the northern Canadian provinces and the South. I haven't tried the fruits myself, but Steve Brill says they have an unpleasant aftertaste like talcum powder. Still, if I passed a bush I'd certainly give them a try. You may find other species near you (the Plants database lists 6 and there may well be others), and provided you positively ID them as Elaeagnus genus, you can give the fruits a try because none are toxic.
Medicinally, autumn olive flowers have astringent, cardiac and stimulant properties. Oil from the seeds has been used to treat coughs and pulmonary problems. It's been researched for cancer treatments, and studies have shown that eating autumn olives regularly decreases the risk of prostate cancer.
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The next time you’re at the shore, I hope you’ll take a closer look at the unusual and delicious plants that call the seaside home.
See you next Sunday!
If you're interested in foraging and missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 25 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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