We’ve been cultivating plants for millennia (that’s “we” the human race, not “we” Tamar and Kevin), and have turned the plants that thrive in the wild, which are often bitter, woody, sour, or poisonous, into the sweet, tender, domesticated crops we have come to depend on. In the process, we’ve turned them into sissies.
They’ve been coddled and pampered, fed and pruned, warmed and lit. And now our domesticated milquetoasts can’t survive any other way. They need fertilized soil, full sun, and pest protection. And they need to be defended against their encroaching wild cousins, which can survive without any of those things, but will take them if they can get them.
I have a grudging admiration for wild plants. They’re scrappy survivors, depending on nothing and no one. They make it through cold years and wet years, hot years and dry years. They grow, unassisted, in Carver Coarse Sand. They don’t succumb to the animals that eat them – they turn getting eaten to their advantage by sending seeds through the digestive systems of their oppressors intact so they can extend the family.
One of their strategies for world domination is to get a head start. Early in spring, before most of us have a green thing in the garden, when our cold-weather crops are still in the seed starter and our warm weather crops are a dim prospect, wild plants are already well on their way.
Take chickweed (please!). Chickweed isn’t like chick lit or chick flicks – there’s nothing frothy or ephemeral about it. It’s more Terminator – uproot it as often as you like, but it will most definitely be back. I’ve been pulling it in my hoophouse for weeks now, and I found a specimen today that was actually flowering. Flowering! In March!
To my mind, the best revenge we can take on wild plants that invade our personal space is to eat them. And every year since I’ve started getting my food first-hand, early spring has found my thoughts turning to the little green shoots coming up all over Cape Cod.
I will admit that my foraging efforts have, thus far, been lackluster. I love the idea of eating wild plants but I have not found all that many wild plants worth eating. Once you get used to the sissified domesticated plants, it’s hard to go back.
When you find an edible wild plant, you want it to be delicious. You went outside with your guidebook, you searched through the woods or along the beach, and through some combination of luck, fortitude, and cunning, you found something you could eat – right there! Ta-da!
You bring it home in triumph, and prepare it according to instructions from Euell “Try Anything” Gibbons, or maybe the Internet. You plate it, and serve it to your husband, who tries valiantly not to look skeptical. You take a bite. He takes a bite. It’s not terrible, but it’s not green beans. Or strawberries. And it’s certainly not a beautiful, high-summer Brandywine tomato.
Still, every spring, I get the foraging bug. So the foraging lecture, put on at Highfield Hall in Falmouth this past Thursday, and featuring edible plant maven Russ Cohen, was timed well. I went, I listened, I took notes.
Russ Cohen has been eating the landscape for almost four decades, and he whipped through photographs of edible leaves, roots, flowers, and mushrooms for over an hour. He was clearly knowledgeably and openly enthusiastic. And he passed the Purslane Test.
To my mind, purslane is to foragers what litmus is to pH. What someone says about purslane is the key to his mindset about wild plants. If he says it is edible and ubiquitous, and that you can put some of it in a salad, he is a reasonable person, and it is safe to conclude that you can trust his judgment on other wild plants.
If, on the other hand, he tells you purslane is delicious, he has clearly drunk the elderberry Kool-Aid, and you should walk away.
Purslane is certainly edible. It is certainly ubiquitous. It is certainly, emphatically, unequivocally not delicious. It tastes like grass clippings, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not to be relied on.
Russ Cohen passed the Purslane Test, so I bought his book.
And yesterday I went out to see if I couldn’t find me some cattail shoots.
I told Kevin I was going on a foraging junket and asked him if he wanted to come.
“What are you going for?”
He got this look on his face, a kind of cross between skepticism and incredulity. “Cattails? What do you want cattails for?” Kevin has been on the receiving end of enough foraging trips to be entitled to a little doubt.
“The shoots,” I said. “They’re supposed to be good.”
His face didn’t brighten at the prospect of cattail shoots, and I told him he didn’t have to come.
“Oh, I’m coming,” he said, in a tone that suggested he wanted to be there not so much for the adventure (such as it is), but to make sure I didn’t bring home some other abomination that he would then have to eat.
We drove out to my designated cattail patch, which is along the shore of Cotuit Bay. Turns out it’s too early for cattail shoots here on the Cape, but it was a nice day – cold, but sunny – and we had a lovely walk along the shore. Maybe the best possible foraging outcome is an excellent walk, without the necessity of pretending that your wild harvest is as good as green beans or strawberries.
While there are wild plants that are genuinely tasty – we’ve had day-lily shoots and hen-of-the-wood mushrooms that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the grocery store – I think our natural landscape has somehow cottoned on to the idea that being delicious is not in its best interest. Word gets out, and next thing you know humans descend and devour – and the seeds that pass through us are unlikely to do it any good.
If you’re interested in world domination, you can’t be going extinct.