Wild thing

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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.

Kevin, coddling

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.

Russ Cohen, edible plant guy

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.

Dreaded purslane

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?”

“Cattails.”

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.

My cattail patch

“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.

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Comments

  1. Cohen’s book is definitely worth having in your neck of the woods. I bought it for my trips to Gloucester, where my family lives now.

    You don’t like purslane? Ever tried the cultivated version? Leaves twice the size, succulent and a little lemony. I fail the purslane test.

    Cattail shoots are only now coming up in California. I ate some bulrush shoots last week in a fried rice. Nice, but unremarkable. You only eat the white part, and cut it against the fibers. It’s a little like bamboo shoot, with a whiff of cucumber.

  2. Funny you should post this. Just this week I asked my “I’m an indoor cat” husband if he would be interested in taking a foraging course with me, and instead of saying no, he asked, “would I have to buy new shoes for it?” like he was thinking about it. I nearly fell off my chair. So we discussed what shoes he could wear (the need for special shoes becomes a consideration when you wear size fourteen) and what shoes I would wear, and the upshot is that now I have to look for a local foraging class or course. Which I think is a very good, if unexpected, turn of events. I’m especially looking forward to mushrooms….

  3. Yes. And. Dandelion greens. If steamed (or boiled – which I think works better). Then drained. Then steamed. Then the steaming water is tasted for bitterness. If bitter, drained and steamed. And so on until the water isn’t bitter… the greens are AMAZING to taste. Might work for other bitter things.

    Another thought…nutrients can’t get through he cellulose of the cell until you cook the crap out of a plant anyway… so I’m thinking we don’t lose much in cooking coooking cooooooking till it tastes good.

    Just sayin’.

  4. Hank, defending cultivated purslane doesn’t earn a Purslane Test fail. I don’t know that I’ve ever had it, but I’m perfectly ready to believe it’s good. That whole cultivation thing does that …

    If you happen to read this, and have an ETA for cattail shoots in New England, let me know.

    Paula — Excellent! Personally, I would never underestimate a man who brews his own beer. I think a course is great, but there are lots of books that can get you started. For mushrooms, I’d go with David Arora. His “All that the Rain Promises …” is a great guide to mushrooms out west.

    OUR Eco — I’m not sure how many times I’m willing to steam my greens. I don’t mind a little bitterness, and I tend to mix greens like dandelions (we have the cultivated kind, catalogna, in our hoophouse) with milder greens.

    As for nutrition, I don’t worry about that. I figure if I’m eating lots of vegetables, all colors, raw and cooked, I’m doing fine. You certainly lose some of the water-soluble nutrients when you boil (or steam), but you also make other nutrients more available. You win either way, I figure.

  5. Hard to say exactly, being 3000 miles away, but I would start looking in a month. You can eat them when they are up to 3-4 feet tall, anyway — just strip off the outer green parts.

    That said, start scouting for late June early July, when the cattail pollen comes. THAT is the key ingredient you want. As yellow as saffron, and is great in baked goods.

  6. When I was younger we had a cabin by a pond with many, many catails. My brother and I would pull them up to get at the white, tender part that is under water and into the muck. After cutting off the tops, washing and peeling the outer dirty parts, we would slice it, sprinkle with salt and enjoy. It has a nice peppery-cucumber flavor.

  7. great article! one of the reasons i love wild foods is because of their tenacity and survivalist method of growing. and they are so much less fussy!! always a bonus for anyone who’s into permaculture. ;)

    nettles is my favorite wild food hands down! i love the taste of the infusions, i love the taste of the greens sauteed and it’s great in just about anything. i even mix it into meatloaf.

    morels would follow second in my list. nothing compares to their taste.

    poke salet is yummy too. tastes similar to asparagus. it has to be boiled several times but it’s well worth it!

    purslane is ok to me, not great but i like adding it to salads along with lots of other greens and flowers. i wouldn’t want to eat a bowl of it exclusively though.

    i think the key is to just get your taste buds accustomed to new tastes by adding a bit to your normal food and increasing the amounts each time. our society is so used to tasting sweet and salty in just about everything we eat so the wild counterparts don’t offer us that so we have to retrain what we consider delicious to be.

    • Or you just might be a person who doesn’t like bitter things… and most wild greens are far too bitter. Purslane is one of the few that is not bitter, so “wild food” people don’t like it while those of use who can actually taste bitter (its a genetics thing, I think there are three? different chemicals that make up “bitter” and some people can’t taste one or more of them. I can taste all three.) fine even many domestic greens too bitter, I can’t stand arugula for example, and the idea of eating dandelions make me gag (I tried, once, but when they are more then about an inch long or a week old they become ineditablely bitter). But I like purslane fine, its one of the better greens available, miner’s lettuce is good too, I haven’t found much else in the “greens” that is editable

  8. Thank you for sharing all the details and photos of your wild plants! I especially like the plant listings w/ details on the plants. I’m striving to someday catalog and map my plants and you guys are an inspiration :-)