What exactly is an edible plant? Depends who you ask. If you ask Euell Gibbons (or asked him – he died in 1975), it’s anything that doesn’t kill you. I set the bar a little higher. It has to taste good and not kill you.
When plants are only an inch or two high, they all look pretty much the same, and the only way for anyone without world-class botanical skills to find out if something’s edible is to taste it. The problem with this method is that tasting will only tell you how it tastes, and not necessarily if it will kill you. I’m betting my survival on the two-fold assumption that (1) a very small taste of even a poisonous plant won’t kill me and (2) anything poisonous will taste too bad for me to want to eat more. If hemlock tastes like sweet corn, will someone please let me know?
I’ve been out several times, tasting anything that looks promising, and I can report that most of the early spring plants – and I’m closing in on a statistically significant sample – taste icky. They’re all some combination of grassy, tough, bitter, stringy, fuzzy, and woody. So it was with no great optimism that I ventured out in a field in Woods Hole yesterday.
After tasting – and spitting out – eight or ten unidentifiable plants, I was reaching my limit of the nascent little nasties. I was about to throw in the towel when I spotted a patch of something that looked a lot like the garlic that’s coming up in our garden. I pulled one out, brushed off the dirt, and took a bite.
No nastiness! No acrid bitterness, no fibrous chewiness, no nauseous grassiness. It was pleasantly crisp and mildly nutty. I’d go so far as to say it was good. I didn’t have the first clue what it was (it certainly wasn’t garlic), but it seemed eminently edible, so I harvested a bagful and went to find Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen is my go-to gardener. I met her at a Cape Cod Organic Gardeners’ meeting, and she won me over by effortlessly identifying the ground cover we were standing on as ajuga (which I tasted, and which is edible, but only just). I showed her my haul, and she immediately said, “They’re lilies.” Could they be daylilies? Mary Ellen thought they were. I’d heard those were not just edible, but borderline delicious. (Keep in mind that a “delicious” that modifies an edible plant is not the same as a “delicious” that modifies, say, my pecan pie.)
I confirmed Mary Ellen’s identification using the ultimate authority – the Internet – and steamed my daylilies just until they wilted. Served with a little butter and salt, they were delicious. In an edible plant kind of way.
Gibbons undoubtedly ate, and probably relished, foods I don’t plan to incorporate into my diet. You won’t catch me making acorn flour or goldenrod tea any time soon. But there’s something about a guy who’ll try absolutely anything – any plant, any time, anywhere. And, if it’s no good, he’ll boil it for a while and try it again. And, if that doesn’t work, he’ll make an infusion out of it. Euell Gibbons seems to have spent his entire adult life cooking every plant every which way in his quest for edibility.
It may be that I admire single-mindedness because I’m an incurable dilettante. I can get interested in anything, and then, just as easily, be distracted by something new. I know a little bit – a very little bit – about a lot of things, and I’m the world’s leading expert on nothing at all. I would very much like to be the world’s leading expert on something, but I recognized long ago that I am temperamentally ill-suited to specialization.
Luckily, there are the Gibbons of this world to take up the slack. It’s people like him who enable people like me to learn that little bit about a lot of things, and to find daylilies for dinner.