Weeds you can eat

cattails

Peter Dykeman and I are strolling through a sunny field in Rhinebeck looking for food – not garden crops, for which it is far too early, but edible wild plants. I’m expecting that the search will be difficult, somewhat capricious, like the morels that I recently harvested in a local forest (the mushrooms like elms, but cannot always be found under the trees). So it’s a surprise when he gestures towards a weedy bank, parts the thick foliage and cuts the stalk of a fresh shoot of leaves.

It’s a young pokeweed – the plant that later bears drooping, poisonous black berries on a red stalk. But it turns out the plant’s stem is edible: Dykeman peels off the green rind with a knife to reveal the tender white core, which can boiled in several changes of water and eaten. Dykeman cautions that the stem can only be eaten when it’s white, and never should be ingested raw. But otherwise, it’s a scrumptious food.

Another common weed, burdock, whose burrs attach themselves to your pants in the fall, is also edible. In the summer, the young flowerstalks of burdock can be peeled and the white core sliced into salads like celery or cooked in a casserole, he said. The roots of first-year plants can be dug up and peeled, sliced and boiled for 20 minutes until tender. The burdock, it turns out, is a veritable banquet.

A moment later, after peering around, Dykeman picks a leaf off a spindly white-flowered plant that grows everywhere: garlic mustard. (I think of it as a pestilent invasive.) He crushes the leaf in his fingers, sniffs it and offers it to me; the sharp garlicky taste of the tender green would definitely add zest to a salad. Dykeman also likes it on hot dogs.

If you were marooned in this field, unable to leave and without any snacks packed in your backpack, you could survive, so plentiful are the green edible things to be found here. You would need to have the guidebook that Peter Dykeman wrote with Thomas Elias – Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants, which was published in 1982 and is still in print, under the title Edible Wild Plants: A north American Field Guide – to know what to eat, because some plants are toxic and many others are either inedible or just not that tasty.

Timing is key: harvesting leaves, for example, when they are young and tender. Each edible plant yields up its harvest – be it leaf, stalk, flower, tuber, fruit, seed or sap – in the carefully calibrated round of the seasons, starting with the tapping of sugar maple trees in early March and ending with the gathering of black walnut nuts and smooth or staghorn sumac clusters in the fall.

“If you’re too lazy to do a garden, plow it up and leave it, and things that are edible will grow, such as purslane, lambs’ quarters and garlic mustard,” Dykeman said. The edges of ponds or wetlands are particularly productive; he points to a stand of cattails, which offers a wealth of food. He pulls up a young stalk and peels off the rind. The succulent core, white and pale green like a leek and known as “Cossacks’ asparagus,” is toothsome and delicious, juicy as a piece of sugarcane and with a mellow flavor, similar to celery.

When the young cattails emerge, one can cut them off when they are as big as a finger and still in their papery sheaths. Boiled, buttered and seasoned, they can be eaten like a corncob, filled with tiny kernels, Dykeman said. You can also shake out the pollen from the maturing flowering stalk, which “is very rich and high in calories” when mixed with flour, he said. Finally, the small sprouts that form on the roots in early spring can be dug up and eaten raw or cooked; the roots themselves, from the fall to early spring, can be washed, peeled and pounded into flour. “It’s one of my favorites,” he said.

Dykeman, who never goes out into the field without a small knife, digging tool and bag, earned a PhD in Environmental Education at Cornell University and started the educational program at Millbrook’s Cary Arboretum in 1973. The Arboretum, predecessor of today’s Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, acquired seeds from all over the world to increase the diversity of trees and shrubs that could be grown in this area. The director was Thomas Elias, who had written field guides on trees and shrubs. Elias was asked by Time Mirror Books to write a book on edible plants. Euell Gibbons’ classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus had been a hit, and Time Mirror wanted to cash in on the enthusiasm that it had generated. Elias recruited Dykeman as co-author, covering the collection and use of the plants.

Dykeman had been interested in trees since attending high school in Pawling and learned about edible plants while studying with Dr. Richard Fischer at Cornell in the 1970s. “Environmental Studies were big back then,” he said, noting that school districts in New York State were planning to add Environmental Education to their curriculum. Sadly, it didn’t happen. Today, “People are asleep. They’re not reacting to environmental problems like climate change. There’s so much money available to deny climate change and toxicity in foods; the only funds available for counteracting these problems come from donations.”

Heading into the countryside to forage for wild edible foods is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature and a culinary adventure. The art of harvesting wild plants is all about “knowing where they are and when they are ready,” said Dykeman. Some are native and others, like the garlic mustard, dandelion and Japanese knotweed, are invasive. (Japanese knotweed in particular is a harmful invasive, since it produces an inhibitor in the soil that keeps other plants from growing, so the more of this plant that people can harvest, the better.)

Many native plants were integral to the diet of Native Americans (although in the Northeast, most tribes were reliant on agriculture at the time of contact, according to Edible Wild Plants). But Dykeman noted that the early colonists also relied on wild plants, bringing over some of the invasives as food. “The foreigners, particularly the Italians, used a lot of edible wild plants and learned which native ones you could eat,” he said.

One must exercise care in the field, however, since some plants, native or invasive, are toxic. Dykeman and Elias emphasize at the beginning of their book the necessity of adhering to the rule “When in doubt, leave the plant out.” On the other hand, some plants that are toxic are edible in part. Dykeman said that he had gotten some flak from a few readers for including pokeweed in the Field Guide. But the white stalk of the young shoot, which as noted is edible, has a long culinary history, having been collected by the Colonial settlers for use in salads, he noted. The pokeweed stalk should be boiled in several changes of water until tender, then served with butter and seasoning, as you would asparagus or broccoli. Don’t harvest it if it has a purple coloration, and be sure to avoid the root! His book also describes how the shoots can be cultivated by digging up the root in the fall and replanting it in a pot on the windowsill.

The fruit of the May apple, a prolific plant in the woods and shaded roadsides, is lemony-colored, smaller than an egg and practically falls into your hand when ripe. However, the unripe fruit and other parts of the plant contain the poison podophyllin, so one must take care when collecting the fruit, Dykeman said.

He also warns against hunting for edible plants along a busy road, since the residue of rock salt, oil and gas can concentrate in the soil. Dirt roads are okay. “In June along a lightly traveled dirt road, you may want to cut poke or asparagus shoots, or pick common day lily buds,” notes the guidebook. “In fall, you might dig for Jerusalem artichokes or common day lily tubers.”

Areas disturbed by bulldozers or plows, pesticide-free lawns, old fields and forest edges are ideal for foraging. Earlier in the spring, “a field like this” would yield an embarrassment of dandelion riches, Dykeman said: The tender young sour-tasting leaves are delicious in a salad, and the flowers can be pressed into wine or dipped in batter and deep-fried. The delectable fiddleheads of ostrich ferns would likely be found along the forest edge. On our excursion, Dykeman located some cinnamon ferns, whose hairiness makes their fiddleheads less palatable, and noted that the ostrich fern can be identified by the groove in its stalk.

Dykeman also located a clump of broadleaf dock, whose young leaves taste like beet greens when sautéed in butter. The young leaves of chicory – the ubiquitous roadside plant with the blue flowers – are also good in salad, Dykeman said. Plantains – the thin, knotty grass stalks known as “white man’s footprint,” because they sprang up wherever the European settlers went – also have edible leaves, which are thin and oval, though they’re best as filler (and should not be harvested when the stem is stringy).

Other plentiful local wild edible plants are milkweed (after the flowers bloom, boil the small pods, which will become bright green) and day lilies. You can pick the day lily’s tubers from the roots (the plant can be flopped back into the soil) and boil them like potatoes; boil the buds in a couple of changes of water; and drop the flowers, which are gelatinous, into a soup or stew to thicken it. One caution: When eating a new food, go easy at first. Sometimes it takes a little getting used to by the digestive system, Dykeman said, noting that when one neophyte couple collected dozens of day lily buds and cooked them up in a big pot, the food “went right through them.”

Spicebush, a woodland bush with fragrant yellow flowers in early spring and leaves that when crushed smell lemony, produces small red berries that can be chopped up and used as a spice on meat. Jewelweed, whose orange or yellow flowers proliferate along roadsides and waste areas in summer, has edible leaves and stems when boiled. The juice of the stem also helps stop the itching of a poison ivy rash, said Dykeman.

The summer produces a wealth of fruits: Besides raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, consider wineberries, which grow on long, arching amber stalks with tiny salmon-colored bristles, and tiny black elderberries, which are less sweet but delicious when mixed in with other berries or made into jelly or juice (squish them, heat and strain out the juice). The trick is to harvest them before the birds get to them. Dykeman said that he particularly likes black cherries, which are very sweet and pea-sized; they are best harvested by spreading a tarp underneath the tree and shaking the branches.

Also in the fall, look for the red clustered fruits of staghorn or smooth sumac, which make a delicious tea: Pick off the clumps and place in a pitcher, pour boiling water over them and let steep, then add sugar or honey, for a drink that tastes like lemonade.

Another fall delicacy is black walnuts, provided you can pry them out of their tough green pods. When cracking them with a hammer, always hit the nut from above to keep it intact, Dykeman said. Black walnuts are much harder to crack than shagbark hickory nuts, which are also edible, but well worth the effort. Dykeman said that it’s even possible to harvest the acorns from white or chestnut oaks (but not red oaks). Pour boiling water over the acorns until the water runs clear, chop and mix with flour.

His guidebook, which is organized by season, lists the habitat, identifying features, harvest and preparation for each species, as well as any poisonous lookalikes, for more than 200 plants. It continues to be the must-have guide, and the only thing that Dykeman said that he would change is to print the few photos that are in black-and-white in color (it was a cost-saving measure back in the days of the old printing presses that he said was no longer relevant, but he has yet to persuade the publisher). The latest edition is in paperback and published by Sterling Publishers. So pick up a copy and start discovering the new world of flavor found in the weeds, shrubs and trees just beyond your doorstep.

A walk on the wild side with foraging expert Peter DykemanLynn Woods Peter Dykeman and I are strolling through a sunny field in Rhinebeck looking for food – not garden crops, for which it is far too early, but edible wild plants. I’m expecting that the search will be difficult, somewhat capricious, like the morels that I recently harvested in a local forest (the mushrooms like elms, but cannot always be found under the trees). So it’s a surprise when he gestures towards a weedy bank, parts the thick foliage and cuts the stalk of a fresh shoot of leaves. It’s a young pokeweed – the plant that later bears drooping, poisonous black berries on a red stalk. But it turns out the plant’s stem is edible: Dykeman peels off the green rind with a knife to reveal the tender white core, which can boiled in several changes of water and eaten. Dykeman cautions that the stem can only be eaten when it’s white, and never should be ingested raw. But otherwise, it’s a scrumptious food.  Another common weed, burdock, whose burrs attach themselves to your pants in the fall, is also edible. In the summer, the young flowerstalks of burdock can be peeled and the white core sliced into salads like celery or cooked in a casserole, he said. The roots of first-year plants can be dug up and peeled, sliced and boiled for 20 minutes until tender. The burdock, it turns out, is a veritable banquet.A moment later, after peering around, Dykeman picks a leaf off a spindly white-flowered plant that grows everywhere: garlic mustard. (I think of it as a pestilent invasive.) He crushes the leaf in his fingers, sniffs it and offers it to me; the sharp garlicky taste of the tender green would definitely add zest to a salad. Dykeman also likes it on hot dogs. If you were marooned in this field, unable to leave and without any snacks packed in your backpack, you could survive, so plentiful are the green edible things to be found here. You would need to have the guidebook that Peter Dykeman wrote with Thomas Elias – Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants, which was published in 1982 and is still in print, under the title Edible Wild Plants: A north American Field Guide – to know what to eat, because some plants are toxic and many others are either inedible or just not that tasty. Timing is key: harvesting leaves, for example, when they are young and tender. Each edible plant yields up its harvest – be it leaf, stalk, flower, tuber, fruit, seed or sap – in the carefully calibrated round of the seasons, starting with the tapping of sugar maple trees in early March and ending with the gathering of black walnut nuts and smooth or staghorn sumac clusters in the fall. “If you’re too lazy to do a garden, plow it up and leave it, and things that are edible will grow, such as purslane, lambs’ quarters and garlic mustard,” Dykeman said. The edges of ponds or wetlands are particularly productive; he points to a stand of cattails, which offers a wealth of food. He pulls up a young stalk and peels off the rind. The succulent core, white and pale green like a leek and known as “Cossacks’ asparagus,” is toothsome and delicious, juicy as a piece of sugarcane and with a mellow flavor, similar to celery. When the young cattails emerge, one can cut them off when they are as big as a finger and still in their papery sheaths. Boiled, buttered and seasoned, they can be eaten like a corncob, filled with tiny kernels, Dykeman said. You can also shake out the pollen from the maturing flowering stalk, which “is very rich and high in calories” when mixed with flour, he said. Finally, the small sprouts that form on the roots in early spring can be dug up and eaten raw or cooked; the roots themselves, from the fall to early spring, can be washed, peeled and pounded into flour. “It’s one of my favorites,” he said. Dykeman, who never goes out into the field without a small knife, digging tool and bag, earned a PhD in Environmental Education at Cornell University and started the educational program at Millbrook’s Cary Arboretum in 1973. The Arboretum, predecessor of today’s Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, acquired seeds from all over the world to increase the diversity of trees and shrubs that could be grown in this area. The director was Thomas Elias, who had written field guides on trees and shrubs. Elias was asked by Time Mirror Books to write a book on edible plants. Euell Gibbons’ classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus had been a hit, and Time Mirror wanted to cash in on the enthusiasm that it had generated. Elias recruited Dykeman as co-author, covering the collection and use of the plants. Dykeman had been interested in trees since attending high school in Pawling and learned about edible plants while studying with Dr. Richard Fischer at Cornell in the 1970s. “Environmental Studies were big back then,” he said, noting that school districts in New York State were planning to add Environmental Education to their curriculum. Sadly, it didn’t happen. Today, “People are asleep. They’re not reacting to environmental problems like climate change. There’s so much money available to deny climate change and toxicity in foods; the only funds available for counteracting these problems come from donations.” Heading into the countryside to forage for wild edible foods is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature and a culinary adventure. The art of harvesting wild plants is all about “knowing where they are and when they are ready,” said Dykeman. Some are native and others, like the garlic mustard, dandelion and Japanese knotweed, are invasive. (Japanese knotweed in particular is a harmful invasive, since it produces an inhibitor in the soil that keeps other plants from growing, so the more of this plant that people can harvest, the better.) Many native plants were integral to the diet of Native Americans (although in the Northeast, most tribes were reliant on agriculture at the time of contact, according to Edible Wild Plants). But Dykeman noted that the early colonists also relied on wild plants, bringing over some of the invasives as food. “The foreigners, particularly the Italians, used a lot of edible wild plants and learned which native ones you could eat,” he said. One must exercise care in the field, however, since some plants, native or invasive, are toxic. Dykeman and Elias emphasize at the beginning of their book the necessity of adhering to the rule “When in doubt, leave the plant out.” On the other hand, some plants that are toxic are edible in part. Dykeman said that he had gotten some flak from a few readers for including pokeweed in the Field Guide. But the white stalk of the young shoot, which as noted is edible, has a long culinary history, having been collected by the Colonial settlers for use in salads, he noted. The pokeweed stalk should be boiled in several changes of water until tender, then served with butter and seasoning, as you would asparagus or broccoli. Don’t harvest it if it has a purple coloration, and be sure to avoid the root! His book also describes how the shoots can be cultivated by digging up the root in the fall and replanting it in a pot on the windowsill. The fruit of the May apple, a prolific plant in the woods and shaded roadsides, is lemony-colored, smaller than an egg and practically falls into your hand when ripe. However, the unripe fruit and other parts of the plant contain the poison podophyllin, so one must take care when collecting the fruit, Dykeman said. He also warns against hunting for edible plants along a busy road, since the residue of rock salt, oil and gas can concentrate in the soil. Dirt roads are okay. “In June along a lightly traveled dirt road, you may want to cut poke or asparagus shoots, or pick common day lily buds,” notes the guidebook. “In fall, you might dig for Jerusalem artichokes or common day lily tubers.” Areas disturbed by bulldozers or plows, pesticide-free lawns, old fields and forest edges are ideal for foraging. Earlier in the spring, “a field like this” would yield an embarrassment of dandelion riches, Dykeman said: The tender young sour-tasting leaves are delicious in a salad, and the flowers can be pressed into wine or dipped in batter and deep-fried. The delectable fiddleheads of ostrich ferns would likely be found along the forest edge. On our excursion, Dykeman located some cinnamon ferns, whose hairiness makes their fiddleheads less palatable, and noted that the ostrich fern can be identified by the groove in its stalk. Dykeman also located a clump of broadleaf dock, whose young leaves taste like beet greens when sautéed in butter. The young leaves of chicory – the ubiquitous roadside plant with the blue flowers – are also good in salad, Dykeman said. Plantains – the thin, knotty grass stalks known as “white man’s footprint,” because they sprang up wherever the European settlers went – also have edible leaves, which are thin and oval, though they’re best as filler (and should not be harvested when the stem is stringy).  Other plentiful local wild edible plants are milkweed (after the flowers bloom, boil the small pods, which will become bright green) and day lilies. You can pick the day lily’s tubers from the roots (the plant can be flopped back into the soil) and boil them like potatoes; boil the buds in a couple of changes of water; and drop the flowers, which are gelatinous, into a soup or stew to thicken it. One caution: When eating a new food, go easy at first. Sometimes it takes a little getting used to by the digestive system, Dykeman said, noting that when one neophyte couple collected dozens of day lily buds and cooked them up in a big pot, the food “went right through them.” Spicebush, a woodland bush with fragrant yellow flowers in early spring and leaves that when crushed smell lemony, produces small red berries that can be chopped up and used as a spice on meat. Jewelweed, whose orange or yellow flowers proliferate along roadsides and waste areas in summer, has edible leaves and stems when boiled. The juice of the stem also helps stop the itching of a poison ivy rash, said Dykeman. The summer produces a wealth of fruits: Besides raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, consider wineberries, which grow on long, arching amber stalks with tiny salmon-colored bristles, and tiny black elderberries, which are less sweet but delicious when mixed in with other berries or made into jelly or juice (squish them, heat and strain out the juice). The trick is to harvest them before the birds get to them. Dykeman said that he particularly likes black cherries, which are very sweet and pea-sized; they are best harvested by spreading a tarp underneath the tree and shaking the branches. Also in the fall, look for the red clustered fruits of staghorn or smooth sumac, which make a delicious tea: Pick off the clumps and place in a pitcher, pour boiling water over them and let steep, then add sugar or honey, for a drink that tastes like lemonade. Another fall delicacy is black walnuts, provided you can pry them out of their tough green pods. When cracking them with a hammer, always hit the nut from above to keep it intact, Dykeman said. Black walnuts are much harder to crack than shagbark hickory nuts, which are also edible, but well worth the effort. Dykeman said that it’s even possible to harvest the acorns from white or chestnut oaks (but not red oaks). Pour boiling water over the acorns until the water runs clear, chop and mix with flour. His guidebook, which is organized by season, lists the habitat, identifying features, harvest and preparation for each species, as well as any poisonous lookalikes, for more than 200 plants. It continues to be the must-have guide, and the only thing that Dykeman said that he would change is to print the few photos that are in black-and-white in color (it was a cost-saving measure back in the days of the old printing presses that he said was no longer relevant, but he has yet to persuade the publisher). The latest edition is in paperback and published by Sterling Publishers. So pick up a copy and start discovering the new world of flavor found in the weeds, shrubs and trees just beyond your doorstep.

 

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