‘Into The Wild’ Author Tries Science To Solve Toxic Seed Mystery
Once the roots of the Eskimo potato got too tough to eat, Christopher McCandless started collecting the seeds in a plastic bag, says author Jon Krakauer. Photo courtesy of McCandless family hide caption
Once the roots of the Eskimo potato got too tough to eat, Christopher McCandless started collecting the seeds in a plastic bag, says author Jon Krakauer.
Photo courtesy of McCandless family
In August 1992, Christopher McCandless died in an abandoned bus in the Alaska wilderness after living mostly on squirrels, birds, roots and seeds for 113 days. Hunters found his body weeks later. Alaska state coroners declared starvation as the cause of death.
But a mystery lingered: What exactly did him in? A scientific paper published this spring by the journalist who’d been doggedly following the story offers another big clue.
Jon Krakauer, the author who enthrallingly told McCandless’ story in the book Into the Wild (which was later made into a movie), has been pondering the question of his death for almost 23 years. And he’s circled back again and again to one thing: McCandless’ diary.
Christopher McCandless chronicled his 113-day journey in the back pages of a book on plants. On day 94, he writes: “Extremely weak. Fault of pot. seeds. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great Jeopardy.” Courtesy of Dominic Peters hide caption
Christopher McCandless chronicled his 113-day journey in the back pages of a book on plants. On day 94, he writes: “Extremely weak. Fault of pot. seeds. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great Jeopardy.”
Courtesy of Dominic Peters
“There’s one passage you just can’t ignore, which is ‘Extremely weak. Fault of potato seeds,'” says Krakauer. “He didn’t say much in that journal, and nothing that definitive. He had reason to believe that these seeds – and not all these other foods that he had photographed and catalogued – had killed him.”
The journal entry, referencing the seeds of the Eskimo potato plant, has nagged Krakauer enough to inspire a series of hypotheses about the toxicity of the said seeds, a protracted debate with Alaskan chemists and multiple book revisions.
After a tip from a writer named Ronald Hamilton with a grim story about poisonings in Nazi concentration camps, Krakauer decided to test the seeds for a neurotoxin called beta-ODAP. He took a crash course in organic chemistry, teamed up with a chemist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hired a company to analyze seed samples.
When Edible Plants Turn Their Defenses On Us
By September 2013, after sending samples to a lab in Michigan, Krakauer thought he’d closed the case. Results showed that the seeds had a lethal concentration of a compound called beta-ODAP that has caused gradual weakening and paralysis in famine victims relying on a certain pea.
But after more back and forth from the scientific and non-scientific community in Alaska, Krakauer realized the only way to prove his point was to jump into the world of academic peer-reviewed publishing. Obsessed? Maybe.
He sent the seeds back to the Michigan lab, Avomeen Analytical Services, for more thorough tests. About nine months and some $20,000 later, Krakauer published results in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine in March showing that the seeds did indeed contain a toxin. But it wasn’t beta-ODAP. It was another amino acid, L-canavanine.
Plenty of legumes store this toxin in their seeds to ward off predators. The compound is similar an essential amino acid, arginine, and it tricks the body’s cells into thinking it’s good for them. “And then it wreaks havoc,” says Krakauer. “It screws up your ability to metabolize, so you essentially starve. It short-circuits your metabolism.”
The plant in question is the Eskimo potato, also known as alpine sweetvetch, or Hedysarum alpinum. The hardy little plant grows across Alaska and northern Canada. McCandless, along with plenty of Alaska natives, had relied on the carrot-like roots as a staple. But Krakauer could find no record of people eating the seeds. The L-canavanine toxin could be why.
“Once the roots became unpalatable in midsummer, the natives did not eat these seeds,” Krakauer explains. “So, they knew something that we didn’t.”
Krakauer had a co-author on the paper: Jonathan Southard, a biochemist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“Through all these twists and turns, now, finally, I think we have figured out what is in those plants,” says Southard. “There’s millions of plants out there, and they make lots of strange compounds that we don’t know about yet.”
A paper from 1960 had found the same toxin in a few species of the plant. “So, scientifically, it’s a really small finding. We’ve confirmed something that was already in the literature,” adds Southard. The controversy, he says, “has to do with the story, not with the science. And people in Alaska seem to have very strong viewpoints about this.”
The Alaskans who’ve questioned Southard and Kraukauer’s paper fall into two categories: state residents who’ve long grown tired of the McCandless saga and chemists.
Thomas Clausen is an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and an expert on toxins in Alaskan plants who did the original tests on the seeds in the 1990s. “I admit that I very well could have missed this compound in my earlier study,” he tells The Salt. But he also says he’s holding out for an independent analysis to confirm the Avomeen results.
The debate about how this young man died will likely continue. There’s no way to know exactly how many of the seeds Chris McCandless ate in that two week period leading up to his death. And there isn’t much research on what eating the seeds does to the human body. But Krakauer’s research confirms the presence of this toxin in the plant. It’s the same toxin in alfalfa and jack bean, which, Krakauer writes, may have permanently paralyzed 100,000 people in the 20th century.
The real lesson people should take away from this, Krakauer says, is that “there are many, many species where you can eat one part and will die if you eat another part . You gotta be careful out there.”
And regardless of exactly the mechanism that killed this young man, there’s this: “What he did was not easy. He lived for 113 days off the land in a place where there’s not a lot of game,” says Krakauer. “And he did really well. If he hadn’t been weakened by these seeds, I’m confident he would have survived.”
Correction May 4, 2015
An earlier version of this story referred to the University of Fairbanks. It is the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In addition, an earlier version said hunters found Christopher McCandless’ body months after he died. In fact, it was weeks later.
Wild Thailand Feminised Seeds
Wild Thailand is a pure sativa land-race strain that comes from the Ko Chang archipelago in Thailand. It has been in-bred for many generations by local farmers thereby fixing its properties into a stable and reliable marijuana strain. It is often smuggled to Bangkok to be sold there despite the harsh penalties that they risk in Thailand.
Wild Thailand has a relatively short flowering period for such a pure, tropical sativa but it is still quite a productive plant. It is very resistant to mould and also has good pest resistance too. Indoors it should only be given a very short period of vegetative growth to control the stretch in flowering, it can even be put into 12/12 as soon as the cuttings have rooted or when still little seedlings with only two or three sets of leaves. It will need plenty of room for the roots to grow though and so larger pots will be needed if its yield potential is to be reached. Indoors flowering lasts for 75 – 90 days with yields being about 300 gr/m2. Outdoors plants are ready to harvest in late November, so only suitable for Mediterranean-type climates, with yields being in the range 450 – 500 gr/plant.
This wild Thai weed has a smells strongly of delicious citrus fruits and this is complemented by a sweet citrus flavour. Its THC (including THCV) has been measured at a very high 22.3%. The effect is extremely euphoric and will have you on a trip to Thailand in no time.
This medium sized to tall tree, which grow throughout the northeastern US, has warty, light gray bark and messy-looking twigs pointing in all directions, the result of a non-fatal fungus disease.
The tree grows in parks, fields, floodplains, along fence rows, and in wastelands.
American Hackberry Branch
The simple (undivided), alternate (configured singly), pointed, finely toothed (serrated) leaves’ bases are distinctly uneven: one half is always longer or shorter than the other. The leaves are usually infested with galls, which contain insect larvae.
American Hackberry Twigs, Leaves, and Berries
Orange-brown when ripe, each spherical berry, which contains a hard, inedible seed arises independently from the twig via a long, slender stalk. Berries ripen in autumn.
American Hackberry Fruit
The sweet berries taste like the candy coating of M & Ms. Their small size and the hard seeds make it impractical to cook them, but they provide a superb trail nibble.
Relatives of the American Hackberry, also in the genus Celtis, grow throughout the US, all with edible berries.
American Hackberry Twig in Flower
Tiny, inconspicuous, wind-pollinated flowers bloom in early spring, while the leaves are developing.
American Hackberry Flowers
Long, fuzzy male flowers (on the right), produce pollen, which fertilizes the greenish-white, rounded female flowers (on the left) which become the berries.
Apples and Crabapples (Malus species)
Apple Blossoms – Watercolor pencil illustration by “Wildman”
“An evil soul, producing holy witness,
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.”
Shakespeare—The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3
Description: Medium-sized trees with coarse, oval leaves and familiar fruit; flowers pink to white, 5-petaled, radially-symmetrical, 3/4 inches across, fragrant, in early spring; fruit familiar apple or smaller crabapple; familiar brown apple seeds in sets of 5 around core’s circumference; leaves oval, pointed, slightly toothed,fuzzy underneath, 2 to 3-1/2 inches long; bark gray, scaly, cracked.
Cultivated Apple Tree
Everyone recognizes apples, but how many can spot the tree without the fruit, or identify a crabapple with certainty? An apple tree is a medium-sized tree that looks bushy, with a scaly, gray bark. It has pointed, oval finely-toothed leaves about as long as a chap-stick. They’re alternate—emerging from the twigs separately, not in twos or threes. The tree bears medium-sized, sweet-smelling, 5-petaled blossoms in the early, which soon fall to the ground.
Of all the months that fill the year
Give April’s month to me,
For earth and sky are then so filled
With sweet variety!
The apple-blossoms’ shower of pearl,
Though blent with rosier hue—
As beautiful as woman’s blush,
As evanescent too.
On every bough there is a bud,
In every bud a flower;
But scarcely bud or flower will last
Beyond the present hour.
—L.E.L., Apple Blossoms
Apples ripen in late summer or fall. Some trees bear familiar large fruit, often bumpier and less perfect-looking than commercial apples. Because they’re not sprayed, an insect may bite into the skin, and the skin heals, leaving a bump.
Wild Apple – This discolored, bumpy apple was uneffected inside — crisp, sweet and delicious.
Some apples contain larvae, wrongly called “worms”—really immature insects. These maggots leave brown, rotten trails inside the apple.Eating a “wormy” apple won’t poison you, but it’s bitter-tasting and disgusting. I always bite open an apple and look inside before I chew or swallow any. Keep the good ones, and recycle the bad ones.
Unfortunately, commercial apples get sprayed with dangerous insecticides. It may take years of eating sprayed food to get you sick, but many scientists blame much illness on the many man-made chemicals in our food, water, and air. What is really more dangerous, the insects you can see, or invisible chemicals? I’d rather bite into a wild apple any day.
The smallest apples are called crabapples.
Crabapples – Watercolor pencil illustration by “Wildman”
To make sure it’s an apple and not a different fruit, imagine that it’s the Earth, and slice it in half along the equator. The seeds and the holes that hold them will make a 5-parted circle. Other similar-looking fruits don’t have seeds in five’s.
Apple Split Along “Equator” – Notice the star-like 5 sections for the seeds, unique to apples and crabapples.
Many crabapple varieties aren’t good to eat until they start to get soft and reddish brown, in late fall.
Ripe Crabapple- This tiny, soft, red-brown crabapple packs the punch of a large lemon.
Before they ripen, they’re hard and bitter.
This fruit is very sour, like a lemon. If you like sour flavors, you’ll love eating them. You also may remove the seeds by pressing the fruit through a sieve or food mill, and use it like apple butter.
Crab-apples, Crab-apples, out in the wood,
Little and bitter, yet little and good!
The apples in orchards, so rosy and fine,
Are children of wild little apples like mine.
The branches are laden, and droop to the
The fairy-fruit falls in a circle around;
Now all you good children, come gather them up;
They’ll make you sweet jelly to spread when
One little apple I’ll catch for myself;
I’ll stew it, and strain it, to store on a shelf
In four or five acorn-cups, locked with a key
In a cupboard of mine at the root of the tree.
—Cicely Mary Barker, THE CRAB-APPLE FAIRY
If you don’t like crabapples, you can use the tree for firewood. It makes better fires than any other kind of wood. (Follow safety precautions so you don’t burn down your home or a forest.) Look for apple and crabapple trees in cultivated areas, thickets, and fields across the U.S.
William Blackstone, an Episcopalian minister, first brought apples to the U.S. in 1623. When his wimpy congregation, afraid of Indians and our cold winters, sailed back to England, Blackstone made friends with the Indians and stayed on. But his apple trees hardly produced any fruit. The Puritans solved this problem in 1630 by bringing European honeybees to pollinate the blossoms. Today, in the mid-1990’s we’ve come full circle: Honeybees are dying of parasitic diseases. Beekeepers are being forced out of business and wild honeybees are declining, so wild apple crops may decline again.
Wild Apples with Foliage
Scientists call all fleshy fruits with thin skin and many seeds in a core pomes, after Pomona.
In ancient Rome, people dunked for apples to honor Pomona, a Halloween tradition to this day. In Scotland, a maiden would partially peel the apple she bobbed, pass it counterclockwise around her head three times, and toss it over her shoulder. When it landed, the skin was supposed to form the first letter of her true love’s name.
Apples inspired many other myths and superstitions: if you plant apple twigs upside-down, they’ll bear apples without cores. The apple blossom is the symbol of preference, but if a blossom blooms while the apples are ripe, it’s an omen that someone will die.
In Apples are also the symbol of temptation because of the bible story of Eve tempting Adam with the forbidden apple. In Newfoundland, if you put an apple pricked with pinholes under the left arm, and give it to the person you love, that person will love you. In the early days of ancient Greece, apples were so rare that it was a great privilege for a bride and groom to share one apple on their wedding day.
IDUNA AND THE MAGIC APPLES—A Scandinavian Myth
Ever since the gods ruled the earth, Iduna, daughter-in-law of the chief god, Odin, tended the Tree of Immortality, and guarded a box of its magic apples. The gods ate these apples to stay eternally young until Loki, the god of mischief, kidnapped Iduna and stole her apples. The gods began to age and lose their ability to govern the world. Fortunately, the gods were able to catch Loki and threaten him with punishment, forcing him to set things right by restoring Iduna and her apples.
People used to believe the heavenly bodies were magical, as were the day the sun rises highest in the sky (the first day of summer), and the day the sun rises the least (the first day of winter). At the start of winter, the England would wassail their apple trees. (Wes hál, means “be in good health” in Old English.)
On dusk of New Year’s Eve, they brought guns, kettles, pans, and cider to the apple orchard. They drank to one tree, poured cider over its roots, and fastened cider-soaked toast to a branch. Then they’d shoot guns through the branches and make noise to chase away demons and to rouse sleeping spirits. This guaranteed more fruit the following year. And they’d toast their best tree with cider:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree!
Whence thou may’st bud and whence thou may’st blow ,
And whence thou may’st have apples enow
Hats full, caps full!
And my pockets full too! Hurrah!
Stand fast root, bear well top,
Pray that God send us a good howling crop.
Every twig, Apples big.
Every bough, Apples enow.
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarters, sacks full.
Here’s a Christmas carol-wassail the England would sing after knocking on the door of a farmhouse:
“Wisselton, wasselton, who lives here?
We’ve come to taste yer Christmas beer.
Up thu kitchen, and down thu hall,
A peck of opples ull serve us all.
Holly and ivy and mistletoe;
Give us some opples, and let us goo;
If yer ant got any opples money ull do.
My carol’s done, and I must be gone,
No longer can I stay here.
God bless yer all, both great and small,
And send yer a happy new year.”
Wild Apple Tree
People believed apple seeds, also called pips or pippins, could reveal who loved you. Have a friend name the seeds. Put them in a hot pan. The seed that pops first has the name of the one who loves you best. A noisy burst means a faithful lover. Recite:
If you love me, bounce and fly.
If you hate me, lie and die.
Girls also stuck apple seeds onto their cheeks, naming each after a possible mate. The last seed to fall off would be her husband. If you squeeze a pippin between the thumb and forefinger until it pops away, it will fly toward your true love’s house. Just repeat:
Pippin, pippin, paradise,
Tell me where my true love lies;
East west, north, or south,
Pilling brig or cocker mouth.
Maidens also tied strings to apples and whirled them over the fire. She who’s string burned first would marry first. She who’s string burned last would be an old maid, never to marry.
APPLE DOLLS AND ACTION FIGURES
This craft comes from the American pioneers and country folk, long before stores sold dolls and action figures.
Peel and core an apple. Carve it into a face, with eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and chin. Prevent oxygen from browning it by rubbing it with vinegar diluted half-and-half with water, or lemon juice. Speed dry by rubbing salt over the surface and core. Run picture wire (available in hardware stores) or floral wire (available in flower shops) through the core.
Hang the apple head to dry and shrink for a few weeks. Glue beads into the eye sockets and wool or cotton on the head. You may paint the face and make the body’s skeleton with wire and pipe cleaners. Use paper maché, cloth, or aluminum foil, which you can paint, for the body and clothes.
APPLE SEED MICE
Making mice with apple seeds is easy: The seed is the head and body. Glue a thread to the narrow end for the tail. Cut out paper ears and stick them in place.
A pomander is a fragrant, preserved apple you can hang in a closet to keep your clothes smelling sweet, and to repel moths: punch holes in a peeled apple with a nut pick or awl, and stick a clove in each hole until the entire apple is completely covered. Mix together any powdered spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, coriander, or anise with orris root (powdered iris root —a fixative). Roll the apple in the spices to cover completely. Allow it to dry, shrink, and harden at room temperature for a few weeks, then tie it in a ribbon and hang in your closet. It will last for years. You can also use a lemon or orange instead of an apple
PEACH AND NECTARINE (Prunus persica)
Wild Apricot Blossoms
The peach is a small tree with slender, curving branches. The finely toothed, narrow, curving, lance-shaped leaves are 3-5″ long, tapering to a sharp point. The five-petaled, radially-symmetrical, pink flowers are 1/2ó2″ across, appearing in early spring, before the leaves open.
The wild peach is like the commercial version, yellow with red blush, downy skin, and gently grooved. It ripens from mid- to late summer. Like all members its genus, there is one large pit. The inner kernel closely resembles an almondóa close relative without the fleshy fruit. The peach has been cultivated for millennia in Europe and Asia. Peach sculptures and porcelains date back to ancient China, when the fruit was cared for under glass.
Peaches grow throughout the United States, wherever they’ve escaped cultivation. Soon after purchasing my first wild food field guide, I explored an overgrown empty lot to look for asparagus. There was neither asparagus nor anything else I could identify, although subsequent explorations turned up a peach tree. Later on, I was amazed to find others in out-of-the-way places in city parks, in fields, thickets, and disturbed areas such as roadsides. People eating peaches probably threw away the seeds, which grow quite readily.
Unfortunately the fruits I find are usually infested with insects. I had better luck with wild nectarines. I was leading a tour in Central Park late one summer, when I spotted a peach tree. After announcing my find, a student reached under the foliage and pulled out a delicious, ripe nectarine. There was plenty for everyone.
In actuality, nectarines are smooth-skinned peaches, and peaches are fuzzy nectarines. Thatís why I was fooled. The foliage is identical. A genetic mutation, like that which creates albinos, makes the difference. Sometimes the two fruits grow on the same tree, and you may even find fruits that are half nectarine and half peach. The popular idea that nectarines are hybrids of peaches and plums is simply erroneous.
These wild nectarines were smaller and less juicy than the peaches, but these were sweet and delicious, with no insects. This is the only nectarine tree Iíve ever found. It taught me that wherever you live, nature is full of surprises.
Soon after, I found another unexpected close relative of peaches and nectarines, in an overgrown field near the seashoreóa wild apricot tree (Prunus armeniaca). Itís a small tree, with medium-sized, simple, alternate, wedge-shaped, finely-toothed leaves. Apricot pits litter the ground under it all year, and the fruit is identical to commercial apricots (but much tastier), so itís easy to identify. Apricots arenít supposed to grow wild in the North (the blossoms open so early in the spring, theyíre vulnerable to frost), but they donít seem to realize it. I donít know how common they are, but keep your eyes open for them. You may find them escaped from cultivation in sandy fields and thickets across the country, where apricot-eating people tossed away their pits.
Peaches contain large quantities of beta-carotene and potassium, as well as calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin C. Virtually everyone eats or knows how to prepare peaches, but few people know that the peach is an important medicinal plant. Peach leaf infusion or peach bark decoction is a demulcentósoothing to the mucus membranes. Herbalists use it for stomachaches and digestive disorders, and to clear out the intestines and the kidneys. It also has sedative, diuretic, and laxative properties.
Peach pit decoction is also very soothing and stimulating to the stomachóa good stomach tonic to take before or during mealsóto stimulate enzyme activity and relax the nervous system. Caution: Donít eat the raw kernel inside the pit. It contains hydrocyanic acid, a gastric irritant (destroyed by heat) which could potentially release toxic cyanide.
Beach Plum (Prunus maritima)
Branch with Leaves and Fruit
This is the tastiest plum species on Earth. Enjoy the ripe fruit raw, straight off the bush, or cook the plums with a sweetener and thickener, strain out the seeds, and use in virtually any dessert.
Beach plums are large shrubs that grow in thickets near the seashore from Maine to Delaware. They bloom in early spring.
Twig with Flowers – The showy, radially symmetrical, white petals bloom as the oval, pointed, finely toothed leaves are developing.
Flower Cluster – The clusters of white flowers create a showy display for insect and human eyes.
Flower Cluster and Leaves – Note the flowers’ protruding stamens, and the shrub’s reddish-brown bark.
Closeup of Flower – The yellow-brown anther at the tip of each stamen produces pollen, which insects transfer to the single, yellow pistil (female organ) protruding from the center of the flower.
Twig with Fruit and Leaves- Spherical, grape-sized, short-stalked fruit cluster on slender twigs, ripening in late summer and early fall.
Branches with Fruit – In a good year, the fruit can be quite abundant, sometimes even weighing down the branches.
Unripe Fruit – Unripe fruit is red, hard, and bitter. Note the branches’ reddish-brown, somewhat warty bark.
Ripe Fruit – Ripe fruit is sky-blue. Avoid overripe, deformed plums.
5 Plums – Note the whitish, powdery coating, called a bloom, on each plum. Typical of plum, this protects the fruit from drying out.
Plum Closeup – Note the ripe fruit’s perfectly spherical shape, the short fruit stalk, and the scratches on the powdery bloom.
Wild Blackberries (Rubus species)
Common Blackberry Branch – In the second half of the summer these superb berries ripen successively over a period of weeks.
Description: Tall, thorny, arching cane with palmate-compound leaves, white, 5-petaled flowers and familiar fruit; flowers white to pinkish, 5-petaled, radially-symmetrical 3/4 inch across, with many bushy stamens, in loose clusters; fruit aggregate, black, elliptical, faceted, 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches long; leaves palmate-compound, up to 7 inches long, 3 to 7-parted, leaflets sharply toothed, up to 2 inches long; stem biennial cane trailing or up to 9 feet tall, arching, reddish-brown, sharply thorny; roots perennial.
Wild blackberries are like the ones you buy, but better. Among the best-known berries in America, you can find them wherever you live. The toothed leaves are compound —divided into segments, called leaflets. Since the leaflets, like your fingers, originate from a point rather than a line, the leaves are called palmate-compound. Each leaf usually has 3-7 sharply-toothed leaflets.
Common Blackberry in Flower – These open flowers are available to any nectar-seeking insects, whether or not they’re effective pollinators.
In the spring, sweet-smelling, white, 5-petaled, radially-symmetrical flowers about as wide as a quarter drape the bushes.
Common Blackberry Flowers – Note the many bushy pollen-containg (male) stamens surrounding the central (female) pistils.
The fruit, which ripens from mid-summer to early fall, goes from green to red to black.
Common Blackberry with Ripe and Unripe Fruit
Note: On the upper left, unlike raspberries, there’s no receptacle protruding from the stem after the fruit has been removed.
The berry is really made up of lots of tiny, round, shiny berries stuck together—an aggregate fruit. Each tiny berry in the cluster has its own seed, so one animal eating one fruit spreads many seeds.
Common Blackberry Branch With Berries – Beware of the sharp, curved thorns, and of poison ivy, which has similar leaves and often grows along with blackberries.
People sometimes confuse raspberry fruits with blackberries. A raspberry is hollow. When you pick it, it leaves a cone-shaped receptacle behind.
Wineberry (a species of raspberry) Receptacle – Note: Blackberries lack these.
The receptacle comes off along with the blackberry, so it’s never hollow. Blackberry branches’ edges are flattened, not round like raspberries. Along with the very sharp thorns, this makes them easy to recognize out of season, so you’ll know where to collect the following summer.
Mulberries, also edible, resemble blackberries, but they grow on thornless trees, not thorny canes, in late spring and early summer.
Look for blackberries in thickets, along roadsides and the trail edges, in fields, on mountains, in young woodlands, and near the seashore.
Blackberry Picker in a Thicket
Some species grow taller than an adult, others trail along the ground. Even thornless species grow cultivated in some parks and gardens.
Cut-leaf Blackberry – This tasty European species is commonly planted in urban and suburban parks. It has more deeply-cut leaves than the American common blackberry. The ripe fruit is large and sweet.
Dewberries – This blackberry species, which comes into season weeks earlier than its relatives, trails the ground. The fruit is wonderful!
Dewberry Flower – This flower is very similar to that of the common blackberry.
These brambles bear such sharp thorns, people used to plant them, along with hawthorns, along boundaries:
Go plough up, or delve up, advised with skill,
The breadth of a ridge, and in length as ye will,
Then speedily quickset, for a fence ye will draw
To sow in the seed of the bramble and haw.
Pick berries that come off the bush easily. These are the ripest and tastiest. Eat as is, add to cereal, drinks, pies, cakes, fruit sauces, or fruit salads. Try creating your own blackberry recipes.
Caution: Kids who race recklessly for the best berries often get scratched. Wear old clothes when you collect. The thorns may tear them, and the berries, which are good for dyeing, may stain clothing.
Poison ivy often grows near blackberries, and they looks somewhat similar, but poison ivy always has three leaflets, no teeth on the leaf margins, and no thorns.
My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.
I’ll tear your dress, and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hand and arms and knees.
I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace.
But when the bramble-jelly’s made,
You’ll find your trouble well repaid.
—THE SONG OF THE BLACKBERRY QUEEN by Cicely Mary Barker
Black Birch (Betula lenta)
Growing in forests throughout eastern North America, this common native tree’s cambium (the green layer under the bark) contains the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory oil of wintergreen, which you can smell if you scratch-and-sniff the twigs or bark.
Chew on the delicious twigs like chewing gum (this also alleviates bad breath), or steep them for tea. A strong cup may be the equivalent of 1/4 to 1/2 an aspirin.
Black Birch Twig – Note the alternate (unpaired), elliptical, short-stalked, finely toothed (serrated), pointed leaves, the slender twigs, and short, pointed leaf buds.
Black Birch Leaves and Twigs – Note the prominent, evenly spaced veins forming the letter “V” on the leaves.
Black Birch Catkins, Male catkins appear in the winter, before the leaves develop, and release pollen into the wind in early spring. – Pen-and-ink drawing by “Wildman”
Black Birch Bark – The smooth, grey bark is puncuated by horizontal lenticels, which let the tree breath. Unlike cherry trees, the bark isn’t riddled with cracks.
Black Birch with Female Flowers – The female flowers appear in early spring.
Violet Brill Chewing on a Black Birch Twig – Chewing on the twigs tastes great, and it reduces the pain of teething.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Growing throughout eastern North America, this common native fruit is great raw, or cooked with herbs or spices, thickener and sweetener, to use in sauces, pies, cakes, puddings, and ice cream.
Black Cherry in Flower – Note the alternate (unpaired), long-oval, shiny, finely toothed (serrated), pointed leaves. Small, white, 5-petaled flowers cluster along long stalks.
Black Cherry Flowers – Attractive to flies, rank-smelling white flowers, with their protruding stamens, bloom, clustered on long stalks, in early spring.
Black Cherry Leaf Underside – The similar choke cherry lacks the rusty gold fuzz on the midrib of the black cherry leaf’s underside.
Black Cherry Branch with Fruit – Globular, black, stalked fruit, each with 1 seed, alternate along a long fruit stalk, from mid- to late summer.
Slim Pickings – Trees with small, hard, sparse fruit, such as this one, are very common. The fruit isn’t tasty, and this accounts for the tree’s undeserved bad reputation.
Look at the Difference! – Only about 1 out of 15 trees, like this one, have relatively large, juicy, delicious fruit. You’re most likely to find them in full sunlight, and in old fields, thickets, and parks that support many of these trees..
Black Cherry Fruit – The black, shiny, smooth, globular fruit of the best trees has an unusual bittersweet, cherry-grapefruit flavor—somewhat strange at first, until you realize that you can’t stop eating them!
Black Cherry Cut Open, With Seed – Half the volume of the fruit consists of a hard, round seed. You can cook the cherries in fruit juice with a sweetener, thickener, and sweet herbs, before straining out the seeds, to make a wide range of exotic-flavored desserts and sauces.
Black Cherry Bark – The smooth, silvery grey bark of the mature tree is fractured with cracks and adorned with horizontal streaks—lenticels, that help the trunk breath. Black birch bark is similar, but without all the cracks.
Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
Black Raspberry Cane
Black raspberries are among the best of the brambles, and the earliest to appear. Like other brambles, they’re arching, thorny shrubs with palmate-compound leaves (leaf subdivisions originate from the same point).
Black Raspberry Cane in Flower – A waxy, blue green bloom you can rub off with your finger covers this sparsely thorny shrub. The three sharply double-toothed leaflets are white underneath.
The white to pink flowers appear in mid- to late spring, in flattish clusters of 3-7 individuals.
Black Raspberry Flower – The hollow (blackberries aren’t hollow), purple, black faceted berries, which are 1/2 inch across, appear in early summer.
Black Raspberry – Look for these tasty berries in thickets from the East Coast to the Rockies, but not in the Deep South.
Black Raspberries – Of course, if black raspberries don’t grown in your area, you can substitute your local raspberries for black raspberries in recipes.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
Black Walnut Leaf and Nuts – Pen and ink drawing by “Wildman”
This native tree grows from 50 to 120 feet tall, with dark brown, deeply furrowed bark with flattened ridges.
Black Walnut Tree
The alternate, feather-compound leaves consist of 12 to 24 lance-shaped, finely toothed, narrow leaflets 3-1/2 inches long on both sides of a midrib 1-2 feet long.
Slender catkins of inconspicuous, green male flowers hand from the branches in the spring.
Black Walnut Leaves and Catkins
Black Walnut Catkins – Short, even less noticeable female flowers grow at the branch tips.
Black Walnut Female Flowers – V-shaped stigmas capture pollen, and the pear-shaped ovarys becomes the nuts.
Walnuts resembling green tennis balls 2-1/2 inches across fall to the ground in autumn.
Black Walnuts in Branch
This tree and its edible close relatives grow in the northeast, across the south, and into California.
Black Walnut Leaves with Nuts
Stomp on the nuts with old shoes over pavement to remove the green husks.
Black Walnut and Husk – Note the stain on the pavement.
Black Walnut Removed from Husk – Wear rubber gloves or your hands will get stained (the stain fades after a few days). Let the nuts dry and mature in their shells a week or so on newspapers, eliminating the stain effect.
Black Walnut in Shell, Dry
Crack the shell with a heavy-duty nutcracker, a vise, heavy hammer, or large rock.
Black Walnut in Black Walnut Cracker – You can purchase this nutcracker from C.E. Potter, Sapula, Oklahoma 74066, (918) 224-0567.
Black Walnut in Black Walnut Cracker, Close-up
Black Walnut Being Cracked
Black Walnut Cracked Open – Remove the nutmeat with a nut pick.
Black Walnut Nutmeat
Enjoy these nuts raw or cooked. Black walnuts have a strong, rich, smoky flavor with a hint of wine. Use them any recipe that call for nuts, but unless you’re featuring the black walnut’s flavor, use it sparingly, or it will overpower everything else. I often combine one part black walnuts with three parts commercial (English) walnuts.
Black Walnut Tree, Bare – The black walnut is one of the first trees to lose its leaves in autumn.
Burdock (Arctium species)
Burdock Rosette and Root – Pen and ink drawing by “Wildman”
This major wild food has long-stalked wedge-shaped leaves reminiscent of elephantsí ears, 2 feet long and 1 foot across. Unlike similar leaves, theyíre white and fuzzy underneath.
The basal rosette of leaves stays close to the ground the first year and the beginning of the second.
Burdock Basal Rosette – Then, in mid-spring of year 2, a central flower stalk 2-9 feet tall arises.
Second-year Burdock with Immature (Edible) Flower Stalk
The flowers resemble purple shaving brushes.
The fruits that follow are brown globular burrs that stick to clothing and anything else.
After thus dispersing its seeds, this biennial dies.
Burdock Seeds – These crescent-shaped black seeds fall to the ground when you remove the burrs from your clothing.
Look for burdock in disturbed habitats, roadsides, vacant lots, and fields. It grows throughout North America except in the Deep South.
Burdock leaves are delicious too, but only if you’re a goat!
You can harvest the large, deep, beige taproot from the basal rosette form (as soon as the flower stalk appears, the root becomes tough and woody) from early spring to late fall. Its hearty flavor is a little like that of potatoes, although itís related to artichokes.
Scrub the root with a coarse copper scouring pad, but donít peel it. Slice it razor-thin on a diagonal, oriental-style, or use the finest slicing disk of a food processor.
Simmer 20 minutes or until tender. You may also sautÈ it, but add liquid and cook it in moist heat another 10 minutes afterwards, or it may not get tender.
You may also harvest the immature flower stalk in late spring, before the flowers appear, while itís still tender and very flexible.
Peeled and parboiled for 1 minute to get rid of the bitterness, it tastes like artichoke hearts, and it will enhance any traditional recipe that calls for the heart of artichokes. Cook this for another 5-10 minutes.
Immature Burdock Flower Stalk
Carnelian Cherry (Cornus mas)
The national fruit of Turkey, a member of the dogwood family, this shrub grows cultivated in parks and backyards throughout the US.
A good source of vitamin C, it even contains chemicals that may fight diabetes.
Carnelian Cherry Branch with Fruit – Let the sour fruit ripen at room temperature until dark purple, eat raw, or cook with herbs or spices, a sweetener and thickener, and use in pies, puddings, and cakes.
Pen-and-ink drawing by “Wildman”
Carnelian Cherry Bush in Flower – Small yellow flowers blooming on this shrub are among the first signs of spring.
Carnelian Cherry Flower Cluster – The tiny, odorless flowers grow in globular clusters.
Carnelian Cherry Flower – White-tipped pollen-covered stamens surround a cylindrical stigma, the pollen’s destination.
Unripe Carnelian Cherry Fruits – Each fruit hangs from the twigs from a slender fruit stalk.
Ripe and Unripe Carnelian Cherries – The fruit, which ripens off the bush, is ready to eat when soft enough to crack, and dark purple-red. This usually happens in the second half of summer, although some bushes wait until fall. The fruit on the top right with the crack is at its peak.
Cattails (Typha species)
Cattail Shoot, Immature and Mature Flower Heads – Watercolor pencils by “Wildman”
The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. Whatever you call it, a stand of cattails is as close as youíll get to finding a wild supermarket.
You can easily recognize a cattail stand: White, dense, furry, cigar-shaped overwintered seed heads stand atop very long, stout stalks, even as the young shoots first emerge in early spring.
Cattail Seed Head
The immature sword-like, pointed leaves, with parallel veins, resemble other wetland plants, but last year’s stalks provide positive identification.
By late spring, the light green leaves reach nearly nine feet tall, forming a sheath where they tightly embrace the stalkís base. The leaves hide the new flower head until it nears maturity. Peel them back to reveal it. The plant is so primitiveódating back to the time of the dinosaursóthat male and female flowers are separate on the stiff, two-parted flower head: the pollen-producing male is always on top, while the seed-bearing female is forever relegated to the bottom. Clearly, this species evolved long before the Sexual Revolution. (Biological speaking, this arrangement is effective because the male part withers away when its job is done, whereas the female part must remain connected to the rest of the plant until the seeds have matured and dispersed.)
Mature Cattail Flower
Once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown “cigars”óalso called candlewicks, punks, ducktails, and marsh beetlesóconsisting of thousands of tiny developing seeds. They whiten over the winter after the leaves die, and the cycle repeats.
Cattails grow in dense stands. Like most colonial plants, they arise from rhizomesóthick stems, growing in the mud, usually connecting all the stalks.
A cattail stand is like a branching shrub lying on its side under the mud, with only the leaves and blossoms visible.
Once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown “cigars”óalso called candlewicks, punks, ducktails, and marsh beetlesóconsisting of thousands of tiny developing seeds. They whiten over the winter after the leaves die, and the cycle repeats.
Cattails grow in dense stands. Like most colonial plants, they arise from rhizomesóthick stems, growing in the mud, usually connecting all the stalks.
The two most widespread species in the United States are the common cattail (Typha latifolia), which is larger and bears more food, and the narrow-leaf cattail (Typha augustifolia), also quite good.
People sometimes confuse cattails with the very common grass-like non-poisonous reeds (Phragmites species), which form dense stands twelve feet tall. But reeds have flag-like flowers, and leaves originating along the stalks. When the two species compete, reeds tolerate more salt, and wins out on land. But they can’t grow in shallow water, like cattails.
The reedís young shoot is barely edible in early spring. After lots of peeling, the small yield tastes so bad, youíll be glad thereís no more. When this was one of the few plants I could identify, I also wasted time and effort trying to extract very scant starch from reed rhizomes, and searching for the “edible” seeds as rare as henís teeth. Following the advice of authors who hadnít tried their own suggestions, I learned the hard way to leave the reeds to the wildlife and woodwind players.
Caution: Young cattail shoots resemble non-poisonous calamus (Acorus calamus), and poisonous daffodil (Amaryllidaceae) and iris (Iris species) shoots, which have similar leaves. If a stand is still topped by last year’s cottony seed heads, you know you have the right plant. In spring, the cattail shoot has an odorless, tender, white, inner core that tastes sweet, mild, and pleasantóa far cry from the bitter poisonous plants, or the spicy, fragrant calamus. None of the look-alikes grows more than a few feet tall, so by mid-spring, the much larger cattail becomes unmistakable, even for beginners.
Cattails grow in marshes, swamps, ditches, and stagnant waterófresh or slightly brackishóworldwide. Finding them is a sure sign of water. Military survival specialist and author, Tom Squier, once found them completely out of habitat, in a dry, sandy pine forest. A short search revealed an open manhole from an abandoned storm sewer system, full of water.
The cattailís every part has uses. Itís easy to harvest, very tasty, and highly nutritious. It was a major staple for the American Indians, who found it in such great supply, they didnít need to cultivate it. The settlers missed out when they ignored this great food and destroyed its habitats, instead of cultivating it.
Before the flower forms, the shootsóprized as “Cossackís asparagus” in Russiaóare fantastic. You can peel and eat them well into the summer.
Heart of Cattail – The result of peeling the shoot
They’re like a combination of tender zucchini and cucumbers, adding a refreshing texture and flavor to salads. I love mixing them with pungent mustard greens to balance their mildness. Added to soup towards the end of cooking, they retain a refreshing crunchiness. They’re superb in stir-fry dishes, more than suitable for sandwiches, and excellent in virtually any context. I love sliced cattail hearts, sautÈed in sesame oil with wild carrots and ginger.
Harvest cattail shoots after some dry weather, when the ground is solid, in the least muddy locations. Select the largest shoots that haven’t begun to flower, and use both hands to separate the outer leaves from the core, all the way to the base of the plant. Now grab the inner core with both hands, as close to the base as possible, and pull it out. Peel and discard the outermost layers of leaves from the top down, until you reach the edible part, which is soft enough to pinch through with your thumbnail (the rule-of-thumb). There are more layers to discard toward the top, so you must do more peeling there. Cut off completely tough upper parts with a pocket knife or garden shears in the field, so youíll have less to carry. Note: Collecting shoots will cover your hands with a sticky, mucilaginous jelly. Scrape it off the plant into a plastic bag, and use it to impart a slight okra-like thickening effect to soups. The shoot provide beta carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C.
The proportions of food to waste varies with the size of the shoot. You’ll get the best yield just before the flowers begin to develop. A few huge, late-spring stalks provide enough delicious food for a meal. Some stalks grow tall, and become inedibly fibrous with developing flowers by late spring, although just before the summer solstice, you can often gather tender shoots, immature flower heads, and pollen at the same time.
You can clip off and eat the male portions of the immature, green, flower head. Steam or simmer it for ten minutes. It tastes vaguely like its distant relative, corn, and thereís even a central cob-like core. Because it’s dry, serve it with a topping of sauce, seasoned oil, or butter. Sometimes I also gnaw on the cooked female portions, but thereís very little to them. Itís easier to remove the flesh from the woody core, if desired, after steaming. This adds a rich, filling element to any dish, and it’s one of the best wild vegetarian sources of protein, unsaturated fat, and calories. It also provides beta-carotene and minerals.
When the male flowers ripen, just before the summer solstice, they produce considerable quantities of golden pollen. People pay outrageous prices in health stores for tiny capsules of the bee pollenóa source of minerals, enzymes, protein, and energy. Cattail pollen beats the commercial variety in flavor, energy content, freshness, nutrition, and price. To collect the pollen in its short season, wait for a few calm days, so your harvest isn’t scattered by wind. Bend the flower heads into a large paper bag and shake it gently. Keep the bagís opening as narrow as possible, so the pollen won’t blow away. Sift out the trash, and use the pollen as golden flour in baking breads, muffins, pancakes, or waffles. It doesn’t rise, and it’s time-consuming to collect in quantity, so I generally mix it with at least three times as much whole-grain flour. You can also eat the pollen raw, sprinkled on yogurt, fruit shakes, oatmeal, and salads.
During fall, winter, and early spring, the cattail rhizomes store food. Digging up the thick, matted rhizomes from the muck, especially in cold weather, is not easy. After years of procrastination, I determined that, as a foraging teacher, the time had come to experiment with cattail rhizomes. Late one autumn, a friend and I went to gather cattail rhizomes from Central Park. It was so messy, I emerged from the park splattered with muck, looking more like a ?Wildman? than I had ever intended. We hauled two dripping shopping bags across Manhattan, into her apartment and onto her balcony. It took half an hour hosing down our harvest, and the mud clogged the drain.
We peeled off the rhizomesí outer layers, still imbued with mud, then worked the starch from the fibers with our fingers, in a large bowl of water. The water became cloudy with the starch. We waited an hour to let the starch settle, and poured off the water, getting enough sweet, tasty starch to thicken a small pot of soupóhardly worth the effort.
An alternate method is to tear apart the washed rhizomes and let them dry, pound the fibers to free the starch, and sift. This yields as about as much starch as the previous method. However, I’ve received reliable reports that people in other parts of the country had better results. Perhaps rhizome quality varies.
I’ve also tried chewing on the fibers inside the cleaned rhizomes and swallowing the starch, which is very tasty. However, the digging and cleaning is so much work, I’d have to be starving in the winter to bother. Furthermore there are reports that eating the starch of some species raw may cause vomiting.
The buds of the following year’s shoots, attached to the rhizomes, are also edible. Although they make a tasty cooked vegetable, I find them too small to be worth digging up and cleaning, although their size may also vary.
Collecting the flower heads and pollen doesn’t harm the plant, because cattails spread locally by their rhizomesóthe seeds are for establishing new colonies, and each flower head makes thousands of these. Collecting a small fraction of the shoots also does no damage, since the colony continually regenerates new shoots. Since nobody wants to sink into the mud, people normally collect at the periphery of the stand. Of course, if the stand is small, it’s already struggling to survive adverse conditions. Finding a larger stand elsewhere will increase your harvest, and give the embattled plants a chance.
The Indians also cattails medicinally: They applied the jelly from between the young leaves to wounds, sores, boils, carbuncles, external inflammations, and boils, to soothe pain.
Besides its medicinal uses, the dried leaves were also twisted into dolls and toy animals for children, much like corn-husk dolls found today. Cattail leaves can be used to thatch roofs, weave beautiful baskets, as seating for the backs of chairs, and to make mats. Archeologists have excavated cattail mats over 10,000 years old from Nevada cave.
No longer edible once the pollen is gone, the brown flower heads make good “punks,” supporting a slowly-burning flame, with a smoke that drives insects away. The fluffy, white seeds were once used for stuffing blankets, pillows and toys. The Indians put them inside moccasins and around cradles, for additional warmth. After hours of collecting, I once made a cattail fluff pillow, but something went wrong: My girlfriend sewed shut a pillowcase with the white seeds inside, and I went to sleep happy, on the softest pillow I ever felt. This mood quickly vanished when I awoke at 2:00 AM:. My head was on top of the pillow, but my right arm had “disappeared.” I discovered it beneath the pillow. It had “fallen asleep” so badly, it seemed disembodied. After I shook it awake, I wished I hadnít. There was a row of hives from one end of the arm to the other, wherever it had pressed into the pillow. They itched so badly, it seemed to require a forest of jewelweed to quell the torment. I had never heard of this reaction in any of the books that lavishly praise cattail fluff as stuffing! Confident that my “allergy” was unique, I handed the pillow to my girlfriend the next evening. She agreed that it was the best pillow everóuntil the next morning, when the hives marred her once-beautiful face. She was so angry, she wouldn’t talk to me until the hives healed. I learned later that my mistake had been not using thick batting material to enclose the stuffing.
Cattails and their associated microorganisms improve water and soil quality. They render organic pollution harmless, and fix atmospheric nitrogen, bringing it back into the food chain. They’ve even been planted along the Nile river to reduce soil salinity.
Chickweed (Stellaria species)
DESCRIPTION: A low, inconspicuous, European annual 3 to 8 inches tall, chickweed forms mats up to 16 inches long. Tiny, pointed, oval, untoothed leaves, 1/2 to 1 inch long, grow in pairs (they’re opposite). A fine line of hair extends along the length of the slender, delicate stem.
Tiny white flowers 1/8 inch across, with 5 petals so deeply cleft they look like 10, distinguish chickweed from other plants (Stellaria means star, referring to the flower). Five green sepals (modified leaves) grow as long as the petals they underlie.
Caution: Poisonous spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata) also trails the ground with paired leaves, but with different flowers and white, milky sap, which chickweed lacks. Non-edible matted doorweed or oval-leaf knotweed (Polygonum arenastrum) trails the ground as well, but its slender stem has alternate (singly configured) leaves.
You can eat all the many chickweed species. Common chickweed (S. media) has stalked leaves (media means ordinary). Star chickweedís (S. pubera) leaves are stalkless (pubera means downy). Mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) is coarsely hairy.
HABITAT: Look for chickweed on lawns and in open, sunny areas, as well as partially shaded habitats.
SEASON: Growing all year, chickweed’s best when no taller plants or tree leaves shade it out, throughout early spring and late fall, and during winter thaws.
Finding it for the first time was a major breakthrough for me. It meant that I wouldnít have to give up foraging all winter!
FOOD USES: Chop common and star chickweed, and add them, raw, to salads, or cook them like spinach. Mouse-ear chickweedís so hairy, you have to cook it.
Chickweed gets its common name because chickens love it. Raw, it tastes like corn silk. I demonstrate this to school kids with a chicken imitation, then I grab the herb from the teacher’s hand with my teeth and swallow it—corny, but consistent with the plant’s flavor!
Cooked, chickweed tastes like spinach. Include any of the species in soups and stews, but cook no more than 5 minutes to prevent overcooking. Unlike most other edibles, the stems, as well as the leaves and flowers, taste good.
Cooking shrinks chickweed by 3/4, concentrating the nutrients and compensating for whatever vitamins cooking destroys.
NUTRITION: Chickweed is an excellent source of vitamins A, D, B complex, C, and rutin (an accompanying flavonoid), as well as iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, sodium, copper, and silica.
MEDICINAL USES: Applied externally, finely chopped chickweed soothes irritated skin, especially when mixed with marsh mallow (Althaea officinale) root. It’s good for cuts, minor burns, eczema, and rashes. Bandage it on the affected area by itself or mixed with clay, which adds a drying and drawing effect. Change the dressing often.
Of course, try to uncover the cause of the skin malady and work to undo it. If you continually wake up with itchy, swollen areas on your skin every morning, you may find vigorous application of a fly swatter to the surface of the mosquito that’s been camping out in your bedroom to be the remedy of choice!
To make chickweed infusion, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1/4 cup of chickweed. Cover and let steep, off the heat, for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain out the herb and drink the tea hot.
A mild diuretic, promoting the flow of urine, this beverage is also supposed to cleanse and soothe the kidneys and urinary tract and help relieve cystitis. Unlike the more powerful pharmaceutical diuretics, it wonít deplete the body of minerals. Itís also reputedly good for rheumatism.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
DESCRIPTION: You can recognize chicoryís initial growth by its long, deeply toothed (serrated) leaves, which eventually reach 3 to 6 inches in length. They hug the relatively warm ground and spread away from the root into a circle to catch more sunlightóthe basal rosette, common in cold weather when nothing taller creates shade.
With white, milky sap, it looks like its edible relatives. However, the dandelionís larger, sharper teeth point to the leaf base; and wild lettuceís finely hairy leaves contrast with chicoryís hairless leaves. Without poisonous look-alikes, chicory is a good target for beginners.
By late spring, chicory grows strong, angular flower stalks up to 4 feet tall, sporting 15 to 20 sky-blue composite (dandelion-like) flowers over 11-1/2 inches across, with fringed edges. They emerge from the upper leaf axis (the joint between the stem and leaf), blooming from June to November.
Dandelions, with yellow flowers, stay close to the ground all year, while wild lettuce usually has yellow flowers, on very tall stalks. Chicoryís stiff, gnarled, beige taproot, white inside, usually grows much longer than a carrot.
HABITAT: Chicory usually appears spontaneously if you donít mow the lawn. It also grows on roadsides, in waste places, and in overgrown fields.
SEASON: Collect the very young leaves in March, and again in November, when new leaves emerge. In between theyíre too bitter. Use the roots in the fall and early spring.
FOOD USES: Add very young chicory leaves raw to salads, or include them in cooked recipes, the same way you cook dandelions. More strongly flavored than commercial chicory, they cook in 10 to 15 minutes. To overcome the bitterness of older leaves, you may boil them in 1 or more changes of water.
To make a caffeine-free coffee-like beverage from the roots, scrub, chop, and toast them in a 350†F oven 1 hour, or until dark brown, brittle, and fragrant, stirring occasionally. Grind to the size of coffee in a spice grinder or blender, and use like regular coffeeó1‡ tsp. per cup of water.
NUTRITION: Chicory leaves are a good source of vitamins A, B complex, K, E, and C, as well as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, and magnesium.
MEDICINAL USES: You can make a decoction of chicory root by slicing it, then simmering it in a covered saucepan for 10 to 20 minutes. (You usually simmer dense roots and barks to extract their essences, while you usually only steep finer, more delicate leaves, in water just off the boil, away from the heat, so you wonít drive off their essences.) Strain out the herb, and drink it hot. Herbalists use the tea as a blood purifier (detoxifier), tonic, and decongestant of the internal organs, although I havenít seen any confirmatory research.
A strong tea of the boiled roots, flowers, and leaves is reputed to be a good wash for skin irritations, including athleteís foot. You can apply a compress of the boiled leaves and flowers, wrapped in a clean cotton cloth, to swellings, boils, and mild inflammations.
Clovers (Trifolium and melilotus spp.)
Clovers have leaves in sets of three, and compact flower heads that consist of many tiny, pea-like, bilaterally symmetrical (2-sided) flowers. Some species have flowers that make excellent tea, and a few have edible flowers. Avoid bitter flowers that are turning brown, and choose those with the brightest color, which are tastiest.
Red Clover (Trifolium praetense)
This is the tastiest of the clovers. Growing throughout the US, it’s easiest to pick in late spring, when the greatest number of high-quality flowers bloom. It grows in meadows and on lawns, at its best in full sunlight.
Red Clover Flower Head
Pour a cup of boiling water over handful of red clover flower heads, cover, and steep 20 minutes. Strain out the flowers and enjoy a tasty, healthful tea. You may also pick the flowers from the flower head and use them raw or cooked. They taste a little like sweet string beans.
Red Clover Flower Head and Leaves
Note the prominent arrow-shaped, light-colored chevrons on the leaves. They help guide pollinator insects to the flower head.
White Clover Leaves
White clover has 3 oval, finely toothed leaves that arise from a separate stalk from the flower head. Some people eat the very young leaves, although they may be hard to digest. Wood sorrel, with 3 heart-shaped leaves, is a completely different, unnrelated plant.
White Clover Flower Head (T. repens)
These flowers also make a good herb tea, although red clover is less labor intensive to collect and more healthful. This common, widespread plant also favors sunny meadows and lawns.
White Sweet Clover in Flower (Melilotus alba)
This species also has leaves in sets of threes, and 2-sided flowers that are white. It grows in sunny fields and blooms in the summer.
White Sweet Clover Flower Stalk
These flowers grow on a long, erect flower stalk, rather than on a globular flower head. You can also use them to make tea. Avoid plants that have begun to decay, which are poisonous.
White Sweet Clover in Flower (Melilotus officinalis)
This plant is very similar to yellow sweet clover, except for the flower color
Note the 2-parted symmetry of these flowers, with a large lip below a keel, characteristic of all clover flowers (as well as alfalfa).
Common Plantain (Plantago major)
Shred the leaves of this invaluable, very common, widespread, lawn and garden “weed”, and you can cure new mosquito bites by repeatedly applying the juice for 15 minutes. It also helps heal poison ivy rash and relieve virtually any skin irritation.
Common Plantain Leaf – The oval leaf, growing close to the ground, gets its name from the word foot. It’s not related to the banana-like plantain. Pen-and-ink drawing by “Wildman”
Young Common Plantain Basal Rosette
Oval (the related long-leaf plantain has long, narrow leaves), smooth-edged, ribbed leaves, spreading in a circle from 1 point, define this plant. You can eat the smallest leaves, which taste like wheat grass juice, in early spring, before they get tough. The flavor is mediocre.
Common Plantain in Flower
The green, pencil-shaped flower stalks occur from spring to fall.
Common Plantain Flowers
The flower stalk is covered with tiny, inconspicuous, white pollen-bearing stamens, quite beautiful under magnification.
Common Plantain Seed Head
The green, oblong fruits taste like inferior peanuts. When the seed head dries out, you can use the tiny black seeds inside as a source of fiber or a thickener, like psyllium seeds.
Common Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Common Spicebush Leaves and Berries – Note the smooth-edged, oval, pointed, alternate leaves and oblong, red berries.
This 5-20 feet tall, spreading bush is a native member of the laurel family. The bushes are usually colonial, spreading by the roots. Crush or scratch the thin, brittle twigs, or any part of spicebush to release its lemony-spicy fragrance.
The bright green, alternate, toothless, pointy-tipped, stalked leaves are elliptical, 2-6″ long.
Young Spicebush Twig – Unlike other shrubs, some of the leaves never get large.
In the early spring, before the leaves appear, dense clusters of tiny, yellow flowers in the axils scent the air, attracting early-season insects.
Spicebush Flowers – Note the tight cluster of globular flowers.
Spicebush Flower – Each tiny, radially symmetrical flower has cream-colored petals and protruding, yellow, pollen-bearing stigmas.
Spicebush in Flower – The leafless spicebush is festooned with tiny yellow flowers in early spring.
The spiciest parts are the hard, oval, stalked, scarlet berries, each with one large seed.
Spiceberries, Unripe and Ripe – Finely chopped, the ripe berries are a superb seasoning.
They grow in clusters, from the leaf axils of the female bushes, in autumn.
Spicebush with Berries – This spicebush is at its peak!.
Look for spicebushes in damp, partially shaded, rich woodlands, on mountains’ lower slopes, in thickets, and along stream banks, throughout the Eastern United States, except the northernmost regions. Pioneers knew that this was good soil for farms, with moist, fertile soil.
The berries, which taste a little like allspice, are an irreplaceable seasoning for me. Rinse them, pat them dry, and chop them in a blender or spice grinder. If you have neither, put them under a towel and crush them with a hammer. Some people remove the seeds, but I crush them along with the rest of the berries.
Since spiceberries are ripe in apple season, they often find themselves in the same pot. I love compotes with sliced apples, walnuts, orange rind and spiceberries, simmered about 15 minutes. Spiceberries donít go quite so well with some other later autumn fruits, such as autumn olives and persimmons. Wild raisins, on the other hand, get a much-needed zing from spiceberries. The seasoning is also wonderful for main courses, and in pastries, like commercial allspice.
To store long-range, donít dry the berries. Theyíre too oily, and may go rancid at room temperature. Spread the chopped berries out on a plate or cookie sheet and freeze them, then pack into a freezer container. This way, you can remove small amounts of herb as needed, and your seasoning doesnít stick together. I think 1/2 teaspoon is plenty for a recipe that serves six, but depends on your personal preference.
Collect the twigs year-round for teas, or use the leaves from mid spring to fall. In one cup of water, steep either 1/2 cup of fresh leaves (dried leaves loose their flavor) or twigs, or two tablespoons of chopped berries.
Pioneers called this plant fever bush because a strong bark decoction makes you sweat, activating the immune system and expelling toxins. They used it for typhoid and other fevers, and to expel worms. I use a tincture of the leaves, along with wild ginger and field garlic, plus as vitamin C and zinc lozenges, at the first sign of a cold or sore throat, and it sometimes works.
The Indians used a spiceberry infusion for coughs, colds, delayed menstruation, croup, and measles. They used the oil from the berries, externally, for chronic arthritis. Itís also good for flatulence and colic. Spicebush leaf, bark, or berry tea compresses are also good for mild skin irritations, such as rashes, itching, and bruises.
Spicebush Leaves and Berries – The berries often form small clusters along the twigs.
Paula Morgan notified me that country folk used to tenderize game and reduce its rankness by laying it on fresh spicebush twigs. They’d also use it to tenderize the meat of old roosters.
As a vegetarian, this inspires me to experiment with spicebush twigs as part of a marinade to tenderize middle-aged chicken mushrooms or black-staining polypores, which tend toward toughness.
I’ll also try adding them to a pot of beans, to see if they get soft faster. Even if that doesn’t work, it should add to the flavor.
Status: Edible Plant,Medicinal Plant
Scientific Name: Cardamine pratensis
Alternative Common Names: Lady’s Smock, Bitter Cress
Groups: Family Brassicaceae or Cruciferae, the mustard or cabbage family
Plant Type: Annual or herbaceous perennial
All Seasons This Plant is Edible: Early spring, mid-fall, late fall
Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible: Early spring, mid-fall, late fall
Food Uses: Salad, potherb
Parts to Use: Leaf, bud, flower, stem
Habitats: Lawns, woodlands, swamps
Primary Habitats: Lawns, woodlands, swamps
Range: Throughout the Northeastern US and all of Canada
Place of Origin: Europe and West Asia
How to Spot: Look for an herbaceous, unbranched plant eight to 20 inches tall. It has upward-tilted, alternate, fern-like, toothless, feather compound leaves with two to six small, paired leaflets plus one larger terminal leaflet. A terminal raceme of relatively large, white, lavender or pink, four-petaled flowers forms around long, slender seedpods.
General Information: This mustard grows from eight to 20 inches tall, with a slender, erect, unbranched stem. Distinctive, fern-like, upward-tilted, feather-compound, alternate leaves two to three inches long. Each leaf consists of two to six toothless, paired leaflets 0.4 inch long, plus one terminal leaflet. The similar basal leaflets are rounder, with a larger terminal leaflet, while the upper leaflets become increasingly narrow. Blooming throughout the spring, lavender, white, or pink, four-petaled flowers grow 0.5 to 0.75 inch across, in a terminal raceme on top of the stem. After tiny seeds disperse from the long, slender seedpods in the summer, the plant disappears, although new basal leaves re-appear in autumn.
Positive ID Check:
- Herbaceous, unbranched plant with smooth, erect stem eight to 20 inches tall
- Upward-tilted, alternate, fern-like, hairless, toothless, feather compound leaves two to three inches long
- Two to six paired leaflets 0.4 inch long per leaf, plus one larger terminal leaflet
- Basal leaflets rounded, upper leaflets increasingly narrow
- Terminal raceme of white, lavender, or pink, four-petaled flowers up to 0.75 inch across
- Long, slender seed pods containing tiny seeds
Harvesting: Sever the basal rosette from the roots by sweeping a pocket knife under the leaves. Collect the mature plant’s flowers, leaves, and tender, upper parts of the stems that you can pinch off, using your fingers.
Food Preparation: This plant tastes like wasabe, and the flowers are especially beautiful. It’s peppery flavor makes it a favorite of everyone who tries it. Add it raw to salads or sandwiches, or use it as a garnish. Chop it finely, and mix it with cooked vegetables and brown rice before rolling it into nori to make vegetable sushi, or cook it into any savory dish. Add it 5 minutes before the end of cooking.
Nutrition: The whole plant is full of vitamin C, and it certainly provides other vitamins and minerals, although they haven’t been analyzed yet.
Medicinal Uses: This plant tastes like wasabe, and the flowers are especially beautiful. It’s peppery flavor makes it a favorite of everyone who tries it. Add it raw to salads or sandwiches, or use it as a garnish. Chop it finely, and mix it with cooked vegetables and brown rice before rolling it into nori to make vegetable sushi, or cook it into any savory dish. Add it 5 minutes before the end of cooking.
Poisonous Lookalikes: None
Cautions: Even though this isn’t a native species, please don’t pick it where it’s rare, and collect just a small fraction of any stand.
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors: Hairy Bittercress, edible (also covered in this app)
This delicate perennial has relatively large, long-stalked, four-petaled flowers growing on a terminal raceme. The long, smooth, slender stem supports upward-tilted, alternate, feather-compound leaves consisting of narrow, stalkless, smooth leaflets. The basal leaves are similar, but with rounded leaflets.
Cuckoo Flower Basal Rosettes – Cuckoo Flower’s basal rosettes consist of small, feather-compound leaves with smooth, rounded, stalkless leaflets.
Cuckoo Flower Colony – Usually colonial, these beautiful, four-petaled, whitish to pink-lavender flowers grow in terminal racemes atop a smooth, slender stem that has upward-facing, feather compound leaves. The leaflets on the stem leaves are quite narrow.
Cuckoo Flower Flowers – Cuckoo flower’s showy, white, pink or lavender, four-petaled flowers, with prominent, diverging veins, yellow anthers, and a green pistil, grow on a smooth terminal raceme
COMMON DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
The dandelion is a perennial, herbaceous plant with long, lance-shaped leaves. They’re so deeply toothed, they gave the plant its name in Old French: Dent-de-lion means lion’s tooth in Old French.
The leaves are 3 to 12″ long, and 1/2 to 2-1/2″ wide, always growing in a basal rosette.
Parachute and Seed
The rosetteís immature, tightly wrapped leaf bases just above the top of the root form a tight “crown.”
Dandelion leaves are at their best when they’ve just emerged.
The dandelionís well-known yellow, composite flowers are 1 to 2″ wide.
They grow individually on hollow flower stalks 2 to 18″ tall. Each flower head consists of hundreds of tiny ray flowers. Unlike other composites, there are no disk flowers.
Yellow Composite Flower
The flower head can change into the familiar, white, globular seed head overnight. Each seed has a tiny parachute, to spread far and wide in the wind.
The thick, brittle, beige, branching taproot grows up to 10″ long. All parts of this plant exude a white milky sap when broken.
Dandelion Seed Head
There are no poisonous look-alikes. Other very similar Taraxacum species, as well as chicory and wild lettuce only resemble dandelions in the early spring. All these edibles also exude a white milky sap when injured, but chicory and wild lettuce leaves have some hair, at least on the underside of the midrib, while Taraxacum leaves are bald. Unlike the other genera, Taraxacum stays in a basal rosette. It never grows a tall, central, stalk bearing flowers and leaves.
Dandelions are especially well-adapted to a modern world of “disturbed habitats,” such as lawns and sunny, open places. They were even introduced into the Midwest from Europe to provide food for the imported honeybees in early spring. They now grow virtually worldwide. Dandelions spread further, are more difficult to exterminate, and grow under more under adverse circumstances than most competitors.
Most gardeners detest them, but the more you try to weed them up, the faster they grow.
The taproot is deep, twisted, and brittle.
Unless you remove it completely, it will regenerate. If you break off more pieces than you unearth, the dandelion wins. “What’s a dandelion digger for?” a dandelion asked.
“Itís a human invention to help us reproduce,” another dandelion replied.
Collect dandelion leaves in early spring, when they’re the tastiest, before the flowers appear. Harvest again in late fall. After a frost, their protective bitterness disappears. Dandelions growing in rich, moist soil, with the broadest leaves and largest roots, are the best. Select the youngest individuals, and avoid all plants with flowers. Some people eat the greens from spring to fall, when they’re very bitter. Others boil out the summer bitterness (and water-soluble vitamins) out in two changes of water. Itís all a matter of preference.
Dandelion greens are wonderful in salads, sautÈed or steamed. They taste like chicory and endive, with an intense heartiness overlying a bitter tinge.
People today shun bitter flavorsótheyíre so conditioned by overly sweet or salty processed food. But in earlier times, we distinguished between good and bad bitterness. Mixed with other flavors, as in a salad, dandelions improve the flavor.
I also love sautÈing them for about 20 minutes with onions and garlic in olive oil, adding a little home-made wine before they’re done. If you’re not used to the slight bitterness, cook them with sweet vegetables, especially sliced carrots and parsnips. Boiling dandelions in one or more changes of water makes them milderóa good introduction if you’re new to natural foods. Early spring is also the time for the crownógreat sautÈed, pickled, or in cooked vegetable dishes.
You can also eat dandelion flowers, or use them to make wine. Collect them in a sunny meadow, just before mid-spring, when the most flowers bloom. Some continue to flower right into the fall. Use only the flowerís yellow parts. The green sepals at the flowerís base are bitter.
The flowers add color, texture, and an unusual bittersweet flavor to salads. You can also sautÈ them, dip them in batter and fry them into fritters, or steam them with other vegetables. They have a meaty texture that contrasts with other lighter vegetables in a stir-fry dish or a casserole. A Japanese friend makes exceptionally delicious traditional dandelion flower pickles, using vinegar and spices.
The taproot is edible all year, but is best from late fall to early spring. Use it as a cooked vegetable, especially in soups. Although not as tasty as many other wild root vegetables, Itís not bad. I remember finding large dandelions with huge roots growing on the bottom of a grassy hillside. They were only mildy bitter, so I threw them into a potato stock. With the added scallions, tofu, ginger, carrots and miso, this became an excellent Japanese miso soup.
Pre-boiling and changing the water, or long, slow simmering mellows this root. Sweet vegetables best complement dandelion roots. Sauteing the roots in olive oil also improves them, creating a robust flavor. A little Tamari soy sauce and onions complete this unusual vegetable side dish.
The leaves are more nutritious than anything you can buy. They’re higher in beta-carotene than carrots. The iron and calcium content is phenomenal, greater than spinach. You also get vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P, and D, biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc by using a tasty, free vegetable that grows on virtually every lawn. The root contains the sugar inulin, plus many medicinal substances.
Dandelion root is one of the safest and most popular herbal remedies. The specific name, officinale, means that It’s used medicinally. The decoction is a traditional tonic. Itís supposed to strengthen the entire body, especially the liver and gallbladder, where it promotes the flow of bile, reduces inflammation of the bile duct, and helps get rid of gall stones. This is due to its taraxacin. Itís good for chronic hepatitis, it reduces liver swelling and jaundice, and it helps indigestion caused by insufficient bile. Don’t use it with irritable stomach or bowel, or if you have an acute inflammation.
The modern French name for this plant is pissenlit (lit means bed) because the root and leaf tea act on the kidneys as a gentle diuretic, improving the way they cleanse the blood and recycle nutrients. Unlike pharmaceuticals diuretics, this doesn’t leach potassium, a vital mineral, from the body. Improved general health and clear skin result from improved kidney function. One man I spoke to even claims he avoided surgery for urinary stones by using dandelion root tea alone.
Dandelions are also good for the bladder, spleen, pancreas, stomach and intestines. Itís recommended for stressed-out, internally sluggish, and sedentary people. Anyone who’s a victim of excessive fat, white flour, and concentrated sweeteners could benefit from a daily cup of dandelion tea.
Dandelion rootís inulin is a sugar that doesn’t elicit the rapid production of insulin, as refined sugars do. It helps mature-onset diabetes, and I used it as part of a holistic regime for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Dandelion leaf infusion also good at dinner time. Its bitter elements encourage the production of proper levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. All the digestive glands and organs respond to this herbís stimulation. Even after the plant gets bitter, a strong infusion, is rich in vitamins and minerals, and helps people who are run-down. Even at its most bitter (Taraxacum come from Arabic and Persian, meaning “bitter herb”), it never becomes intolerably so, like golden seal and gentian.
The leafís white, milky sap removes warts, moles, pimples, calluses, and sores, and soothes bee stings and blisters.
Unlike most other seeds, dandelionsí can germinate without long periods of dormancy. To further increase reproductive efficiency, the plant has given up sex: The seeds can develop without cross-fertilization, so a flower can fertilize itself. This lets it foil the gardener by dispersing seeds as early as the day after the flower opens.
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
This delicious Asian “show” flower, especially common on the east coast, has been planted throughout America. It gets its name because each flower lives only 1 day.
Use the shoots in early spring, and the flower buds, flowers, and wilted flowers in late spring and early summer.
Caution: Daylilies, especially the raw shoots, cause digestive distress in about 1 out of 50 people, and in rare circumstances (I’ve never seen this happen), the compounds that cause this are concentrated enough to make anyone sick.
The sword-like leaves with parallel veins arise in late winter and early spring, growing in dense stands. Rhizomes (underground stems) ending in thickened tubers distinguishes this plant from poisonous lilies.
Daylily Shoot – Use raw the shoots raw in salads, or sautÈ, steam, stir-fry, deep-fry, bake, simmer in soups, or pickle.
Daylily Shoots – Growing in dense stands makes the shoots easy to collect in quantity before most other edibles even appear.
Daylily Flower Buds – Cook the unopened buds like string beans.
Daylily in Flower – Use the orange (some cultivars are yellow), 6-petaled flowers raw in salads, in hot-and-sour soup, or deep-fried.
Daylily Flower – Note the 6 orange petals and protruding stamens. Discard the flower’s acrid, green base.
Wilted Daylily Flower and Buds – Reconstitute the previous day’s wilted flowers in soups.
Daylily Rhizomes, Tubers, and Roots – Rhizomes, underground stems ending in thickened tubers, allow this plant, which doesn’t set seed, spread. Preparing the small, tough-skinned tubers, which are season all year, is too labor-intensive to be worthwhile.
MINI SPECIALIST|FOUND FOOD: DAYLILIES
Wall Street Journal Magazine
March 25, 2009
By William R. Snyder
Status: This plant has poisonous parts. Edible Plant. Medicinal Plant
Scientific Name: Aralia spinosa
Alternative Common Names: Devil’s walkingstick, Angelica Tree, Prickly Ash, Prickly Elder
Groups: Family: Araliaceae, the ginseng family
Plant Type: Tree
All Seasons This Plant is Edible: Early spring, mid-spring, late spring, early summer
Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible: Early spring, mid-spring. The shoots, the only edible parts, are at their best just before and during mid-spring, when they’re abundant, although you can still find a few shoots that haven’t leafed out well into early summer. The tree flowers in late summer and the poisonous berries ripen in the fall.
Food Uses: Potherb
Parts to Use: Shoots
Habitats: Partially sunny areas, open spots in moist woods, trail edges, park lands, thickets, and stream banks
Primary Habitats: Lawns and meadows, thickets, edge habitats, woodlands, and parks
Range: Much of Eastern North America, and locally where it’s been planted on the West Coast
Prevalence: Common Native
Place of Origin: It’s also native to Asia, perhaps because a migrating bird, blown off course by a storm, spread the seeds from one continent to the other in its droppings.
How to Spot: Look for a small, umbrella-shaped tree covered everywhere with large, stiff, sharp thorns. The feather-compound leaves are very large, twice-divided, alternate, and white, branching panicles of tiny, five-petaled, cream-white flowers are configured in circles. It’s small, round, blue-black berries are similarly configured.
General information: Growing from six to 30 feet tall with an ash-colored trunk six to eight inches in diameter, very sharp, stiff, treacherous spines arm almost every part of this small, mostly unbranched, deciduous tree, from the large, stout, burgundy-colored shoots to the feather-compound leaves. Spreading by the rhizomes, it often grows in dense stands, more like a colonial perennial than a tree. Most of the long-stalked, three- to six-foot long and equally wide, spiny, fern-like, alternate, twice-compound leaves, the largest of any North American tree, grow clustered toward the top, creating an umbrella-like form. They consist of many long-pointed, narrowly heart-shaped, opposite, short-stalked, toothed leaflets two to three inches long. The unpaired terminal leaflet has the longest leaf stalk. All the leaflets turn burgundy, dappled with yellow, in the fall. Blooming in late summer, small halos of tiny, five-petaled, cream-white flowers grow in huge, white, terminal panicles three to four feet across. Circular clusters of long-stalked, juicy, black-blue, long-stalked, spherical berries 0.25 inch wide, replace the flowers in late summer and fall.
Positive ID Check:
- Small tree heavily armed throughout with large, sharp thorns
- Large, stout, burgundy-colored, thorny shoots in early- and mid-spring
- Twice-divided, feather-compound, alternate leaves three to six feet long,
- Small halos of tiny, five-petaled, cream-white flowers growing in white, terminal panicles three to four feet across, from late summer to fall
- Circular clusters of long-stalked, 0.25 inch wide, juicy, spherical, black-blue, berries growing in white terminal panicles three to four feet across, in autumn
Harvesting: Wearing heavy duty work gloves and using a pruning shears or a knife, carefully cut off the stout shoots after the leaf buds begin to open, but before the prickles harden and the individual leaflets separate. Trim off any hard leaflets and thorns in the field if you prefer.
Food Preparation: Pare the prickles off the shoots with a sharp knife or potato peeler, slice thinly, and steam, simmer in a soup or stew, bake, sauté, or dip in batter and deep fry. They cook in 10 to 15 minutes and taste like asparagus, only more meaty and even better-flavored.
Nutrition: No information is available.
Medicinal Uses: Very popular in early America when the human body was thought of as a foul, sinful object that must be violently “cleansed” like a dirty bathroom floor, doctors administered a poisonous decoction of the fresh cambium of the roots as an emetic and purgative. This counterproductive form of “heroic” herbalism, long rejected by science, is best relegated to the past. At the same time, the decoction of the dried cambium, which doesn’t have such harsh effects, was considered a stimulant and tonic. It was also used as eye drops for sore eyes, and to increase the flow of saliva. A poultice of the root has been used externally for skin eruptions, boils, varicose veins, sores that don’t heal, and swellings, and a tincture of the berries was widely used in various pain remedies, and for rheumatism and toothache, in colonial times. Because parts of this plant are potentially toxic, it’s not suitable to use for making home remedies.
Poisonous Lookalikes: None
- Handling this tree gives some people rashes. Use work gloves. The thorns are sharp enough to penetrate work gloves if you’re not careful.
- Don’t eat the shoots raw—they’re probably poisonous uncooked. Eat only the cooked shoots. The berries and other parts of the tree are definitely poisonous.
- Also—don’t sign a contract with someone who’s using the trunk of this tree as a walking stick—especially in blood!
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors: Some of the common names of this tree, it’s relatives, and unrelated species are misleading. It’s called angelica tree because the flowers and berries form halos, not because it has anything to do with an herbaceous plant named angelica (Angelica archangelica). Although the tree is sometimes called prickly ash, it’s different from a shrub (Zanthoxylum americanum) with the same name that I call Szechuan pepper. To add to the confusion, it’s sometimes also called prickly elder, but again, it’s not related to edible (and inedible) species of elderberries (Sambucus spp.) A cultivated Asian relative, the Japanese Angelica Tree (Aralia elata), looks a lot like this tree, but it doesn’t grow in the wild in North America. But its edible relative, the toothache tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), also confusingly called Devil’s walkingstick, is a larger medicinal species of the Southeast, with once-compound, not twice-compound, leaves. To avoid all this infernal confusion, I now refer to this tree by its least ambiguous name, Devil’s walkingstick (I had always called it Devil’s walkingstick on my tours, and in books I’d written previously), and you can simply refer to all these species’ scientific names, which you have here at your fingertips, to be sure of what you’re talking about!
Onions and Apples with Devil’s Walkingstick: Everyone knows you can’t mix apples and oranges, but how about apples and onions? With a few seasonings plus Devil’s walkingstick as a catalyst, the combination works remarkably well, creating a superb side dish.
3 tbs. corn oil
3 tbs. sesame oil
6 Granny Smith apples, sliced
6 yellow onions, sliced
2 cups Devil’s walkingstick, sliced
1 tsp. cinnamon, ground
1 tsp. anise seed, ground
3/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves, ground
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
Gently sauté all ingredients in the oils for 25 minutes, or until the onions are lightly browned.
Serves 6 to 8
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Devil’s Walkingstick Shoot on Trunk – This stout, thorny shoot, above the woody trunk, makes a delicious vegetable before the leaflets have separated. Just don’t forget to pare off the thorns before serving the dish to your guests!
Devil’s Walkingstick Shoot – This stout, thorny, yellow-green and burgundy colored shoot is unlike those of any other trees.
Devil’s Walkingstick in Flower – These beautiful, tiny, cream-white, five-petaled flowers spread out on a panoramic, white panicle. Growing above an umbrella of twice-divided feather-compound leaves, it creates a natural spectacle in late summer and early fall.
Devil’s Walkingstick Berries – These extensively branching white panicles bear large numbers of small, spherical, blue-black berries arranged in circles, in the fall. Too bad they’re poisonous.
Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Common Elderberry in Flower with Immature Berries – Note the loose cluster of flowers and berries configured like an umbrella.
This member of the honeysuckle family is a shrub that grows up to thirteen feet high, with smooth, gray bark. Corky bumps cover the slender branches, and thereís a spongy, white pith inside the twigs and branches.
The opposite, feather-compound leaves may be over three feet long. The leaf is divided into 5-11 opposite, coarsely toothed, pointed, short-stalked elliptical leaflets, each 3-4″ long.
In late spring or early summer, the elder bears tiny, branched, white, lacy flowers in flat-topped to slightly rounded clusters (panicles) that spread over 6″ across.
Common Elderberry in Flower – Note the paired feather-compound leaves divided into segments called leaflets. The finely toothed (serrated) leaflets are oval, with pointed tips.
The tiny, spherical, juicy, purple-black to black, seedy berries are hardly more than 1/8″ across. They grow in branched clusters, like the flowers, ripening from mid-summer to early fall, in quantities that weigh down the branches.
Common Elderberry Fruit Cluster – The tiny, black, globular berries grow on branching, umbrella-like clusters.
The blue elder (Sambucus cerulea) has dark blue to blackish berries, and grows in the western 1/3 of the United States Itís very similar to the common elderberry, and you can use it the same way.
Avoid elderberries species with red fruit growing in rounded, instead of flat clusters. They may make you sick. Herculesí club is a shrub or small tree with feather-compound leaves that looks a little like the common elderberry. It has flat clusters of poisonous, black berries, often arranged in a ring, and a short, unbranched, thorny trunk. Elderberries are thornless.
The common elderberry often grows in large, dense stands in moist places. Look for it in marshes, along riverbanks, along roadsides, and in moist woods and thickets in eastern North America and the West Indies.
Collect the flowers by plucking off the stalk at the clusterís base. Itís impossible to remove each tiny flower individually. Take a small proportion of the flowers from each bush, and collect only where they are abundant or the plant wonít produce any berries. Where you find one elder bush, you usually find many more.
Common Elderberry in Flower – Note that the leaves are compound (divided into segments), and opposite (there’s a pair of these compound leaves).
The flowers make wonderful food. Try elder flower (sometimes called elderblow) fritters using your favorite tempura or pancake batter. Make a light, mild batter, so you donít overpower the delicate flowers. Try sautÈing them.
Elder flowers make a pleasant tasting tea, especially with mint. They also make a potent, fragrant wine. Steeped in vinegaróthey add flavor and strengthen the stomach.
Common Elderberry Flowers – Each radially symmetrical flower has 5 flattened, white petals and five protruding stamens (male parts).
Taste some berries from a few bushes before you collect, so you can choose the bushes with the tastiest fruit.
Common Elderberry Fruit Cluster – Each cluster bears very many tine, globular, black berries.
Gather the berries like the flowers. This is quick. The real work occurs at home: Pulling small bunches of berries from their stems, and sorting the fruit from the debris on a tray, takes time
Avoid unripe, green berriesótheyíll get you sick. Even raw ripe elderberries make some people nauseous Cooking or drying dispels the offending substance, and greatly improves the flavor. Baking this fruit in muffins, cakes and breads imbues them with a piquant crunchiness. They become the central ingredient whenever you use them in baked goods. Elderberries arenít sweet and contain no thickeners. Rely on other ingredients for these elements, especially if youíre making the European favorite, elderberry jam.
ommon Elderberry Fruit – The scar at the tip of each berry marks the spot where the petals had been growing on the flower. Note the branched, purple fruit stalks.
The berries have few calories and lots of nutrition. They provide very large amounts of potassium and beta-carotene, as well as sugar and fruit acids, calcium, phosphorous and vitamin C.
Looking at or even thinking about the elderberry bush evokes a flood of magical associations and images of the pastóEuropean ladies dousing their white skin with elder flower water, and crystal goblets filled with elderberry wine. In European folklore, fairies and elves would appear if you sat underneath an elder bush on midsummer night. The lovely elder possessed potent magic, with the ability to drive away witches, and kill serpents. Carrying the twigs in your pocket was a charm against certain diseases. One of these tales bears some truth: Sleeping under the elder supposedly produces a drugged, dream-filled sleepóthe fragrance is actually a mildly sedative. Perhaps the visions of fairies and elves resulted from dreaming under an elder bush.
My experience with the elder indicates that much of its charmed reputation among Europeans and Native Americans comes from its ability to heal. The flowers and fruit are medicinal. Hippocrates already recognized this in 400 B.C. (He used a smaller European species with similar properties, that doesnít grow in America.)
Due to their diuretic and detoxifying properties, people eat elderberries to lose weight. The flowers have been used in cosmetics since ancient times. Distilled elder flower water softens, tone and restores the skin. Elder flower infusion cleanses the skin, lightens freckles, and soothes sunburn. Its Bioflavinoids promote circulation and strengthen the capillaries.
Common Elderberry Flower Head – Note how all the flowers are open, and none has yellowed yet. This is the best time to harvest them, and when they’re the most fragrant.
An infusion or tincture is astringent, expectorant and diaphoretic, great mixed with yarrow and peppermint for colds, flu, and asthma. Herbalists also use it to soothe childrenís upset stomachs and relieve gas. Itís even applied externally for swelling, rashes, and chilblains (frostbite-like trauma to wet skin), and as an eyewash for conjunctivitis and eye inflammation. You can even steep the flowers in oil to make a soothing massage lotion that relaxes sore muscles, and also soothes burns and rashes. Like the flowers, elderberry infusion is astringent and diaphoreticógood for colds, excessive mucus, and sore throat. You can also boil them in vinegar to make a black hair dye.
In 1899, an American sailor accidentally discovered that cheap port wine, which is colored with elderberries, relieved his arthritis. Other port wines didnít work. I donít recommend drinking alcohol, which causes more problems than it helps, but this result indicates elderberriesí possible anti-arthritic properties. Another use for the wine goes back to the movie: “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Two old ladies laced it with arsenic to put lonely old men out of their misery!
Many older herb books recommend using elderberry leaves, roots, or bark medicinally, probably because Indian herbal experts used them. This doesnít guarantee safety: Never use these parts of the elderberry. Theyíre poisonous. They contain a bitter alkaloid and glycoside that may change into cyanide. Children have been poisoned using elderberry twig peashooters, and adults have been poisoned using hollowed twigs to tap maple trees. However, there is a benefit to the toxicity: People use dried, crumbled elderberry leaves in their gardens as a natural insecticide.
However, there’s been new research on medicinal uses of the European black elderberry (S. nigra) that looks very promising.
False Hellebore (Veratrum viride)
Although a strong cardiac stimulant has been made from the roots, this highly toxic plant can cause birth defects, gastrointestinal distress, salivation, prostration, general paralysis, spasms, irregular heart beat, difficulties breathing, and death.
False Hellebore, Immature and In Flower – Unlike the similar but less toxic, odoriferous skunk cabbage, this odorless plant has a flower stalk, plus alternative leaves that are pleated. Lacy clusters of small yellow flowers adorning this springtime plant help decorate swamps in springtime.
False Hellebore Shoots – The characteristic pleated surface of the leaves is evident when the first shoots appear in early spring.
False Hellebore, Immature and in Flower – The alternate, oval, pointed, toothless, pleated leaves on a tall stalk make this plant quite distinct.
False Hellebore in Flower Attractive yellow flowers blooming above the leaves adorn the cylindrical flower stalk. Note the skunk cabbage leaves, with branching veins, growing on the ground nearby.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Garlic Mustard Basal Rosette and Taproot – This despised invasive plant is actually one of the best and most nutritious common wild foods.
Garlic mustard, also called Jack-by-the-hedge and sauce-alone, defends itself from insects by smelling like garlic, which insects don’t like. Of course, if a swarm of Italian insects finds it, the plant soon becomes extinct.
This erect European herb of open woodlands and disturbed soil has dark green, heart-shaped, scallop-edged, deeply veined, long-stalked basal leaves that grow up to 5″ across.
Garlic Mustard Basal Leaf – Note the scalloped edge and deep veins.
The stalked stem leaves are smaller and more triangular. The garlic odor is apparent when you crush a leaf.
Garlic Mustard in Bud – The flower bud resembles broccoli, a relative.
Look for the basal rosettes from fall to early spring. The leaves survive the winter, and you can even find them under the snow.
Garlic Mustard Sprouts – These infant plants, which arise from seeds in early spring, also smell and taste like garlicóquite delicious.
The leaves contain natural anti-freezes that lower the freezing point of water. Caution: Never put garlic mustard leaves into a car radiator. It’s not that kind of anti-freeze.
Garlic Mustard Basal Rosette – This is what you’ll see taking over woodlands in the eastern US early every spring.
This biennial grows up to three feet tall in mid-spring of its second year, flowers, produces long, narrow seedpods, and dies.
Garlic Mustard Seed Pods Containing Edible Seeds – You can harvest these abundant seeds every summer.
The summer basal leaves of the surrounding first-year plants remain horribly bitter until it gets very cold again. Violets and gill-over-the-ground look like garlic mustard until you hold the leaves side-by-side, or crush and smell the plants. There are no poisonous look-alikes. Other similar Alliaria speciesóall edible members of the garlic mustard groupómay also have snuck in from Europe.
Garlic Mustard Flowers – 4 petals configured like a cross is typical of the mustard family.
The pungent, mildly bitter, garlic-flavored basal leaves are good from late fall to early spring. They taste great to some people, while others find them too bitter unless cooked, or mixed with milder vegetables.
Garlic Mustard in Flower – Note the triangular, coarsely toothed leaves, and long, narrow, seed pods.
Many plants become more bitter as they mature. But garlic mustardís arrowhead-shaped stem leaves are more pungent and less bitter in the spring, than the basal leaves were in the cold. They even carry overtones of sweetness. Theyíre easy to strip off, so you can collect bagfuls in short order, along with the terminal clusters of tiny, four-petaled, tasty, white flowers.
Garlic mustard is great raw in salads, mixed with more mild greens. It’s also good steamed, simmered, or sautÈed. In Europe, they use it in sauces. Cook no longer than five minutes, or the leaves will become mushy.
Sometimes you’ll find garlic mustard with exceptionally large leaves. These may have large, whitish, fleshy taproots, which taste like horseradish. They’re good from late fall to early spring, before the flower stalks appear. Use them like horseradish, grated into vinegar, as a condiment. I love chopping these roots into thin slices, and handing them out to children during classroom visits. Overwhelmed by the pungency, chaos reigns as the kids rush to the water fountain. Then they all want seconds.
Garlic Mustard Basal Rosette with Taproot – The spicy taproot can get quite long.
WHAT IT IS: The gingko tree’s dull orange globular fruit, which grows on female trees only, smells like. vomit. But be brave, for a hidden treasure lies within-a beige, almond-shaped, thin-shelled nut, enclosing a jade-green seed. The kernels can be eaten as an appetizer, or in soups, stews, or Asian dishes.
WHEN TO PICK IT: The fruit ripens in late fall.
WHERE TO FIND IT: When my wife-to-be lived in Fleetwood, we’d gather ginkgoes from the lawns of apartment buildings opposite the post office, and no one ever complained. You’ll find gingko trees on urban and suburban streets and in cultivated parks.
HOW TO IDENTIFY IT: The gingko is the oddest tree in Westchester (or anywhere else, for that matter). Its leaves, two to three inches across, are fan-shaped, with veins diverging from the leaf base and continuing to the leaf’s far end. The slender tree grows up to 90 feet tall. Inconspicuous strands of green, wind-pollinated flowers bloom in early spring. Unlike any other tree, the short, stubby twigs, most visible in the winter, look like bullets.
NUTRITIONAL BONA FIDES, LORE, AND FOLK-MEDICINE USES: Ginkgoes provide Bioflavinoids that increase circulation, strengthen capillaries, and, reputedly, improve memory.
NOTES ON HANDLING AND PREPARATION: Discard the fruit wearing rubber gloves, to keep your hands from smelling and to avoid the poison ivy-like rash the fruit sometimes incurs. Rinse the nuts in a colander and toast 30 minutes in a preheated, 300 F oven, stirring occasionally (raw nuts are poisonous). Tap the nuts with a water glass to crack the thin shells and remove the edible and delicious kernels.
Gingko Leaf and Fruit
Gingko Nut and Leaf – Unlike human beings, with gingkos, it’s the female of the species that has the nuts!
Female Gingko Tree in Autumn
Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum, Fallopia japonica)
DESCRIPTION: In the early spring, Japanese knotweed looks like an army of nondescript fat, green, red-flecked stalks poking up from the ground. While the underdeveloped young leaves don’t provide uch of a clue to the plant’s identity, last year’s dead stalks do: the new shoots grow among a bamboo jungle of jointed (Polygonum means many knees), hollow, lightweight wooden poles up to 13 feet tall, even though the plant belongs to the buckwheat family, not the bamboo family. The mature Asian ornamental bears large, triangular, smooth-edged, alternate (singly configured) leaves, 4 to 6 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide, with pointed tips (cuspidatum means “make pointed”) and straight bases. The mature reddish stems form a zigzag pattern.
Arising from where the leafstalk meets the stem (the axil), the tiny white flowers, blooming in late summer and fall, form such beautiful, long, lacy spikes that gardeners imported this “weed” from Japan.
Giant knotweed (P. sachalinense), also edible, is taller, with larger leaves with heart-shaped leaf bases. I’ve seen it only once, in Bronx River Park. There are no poisonous look-alikes.
Besides providing delicious flavors for recipes that benefit from a sour component, giant knotweed contains a natural pesticide, MOI-106, with great potential for organic farmers.
HABITAT: Japanese knotweed grows on disturbed soil, along roadsides and riverbanks, in other moist areas, and in fields. Often displacing other plants and difficult to eradicate, it’s so tasty that some municipalities have surrendered, and hold annual Japanese knotweed festivals instead.
SEASON: You can eat Japanese knotweed shoots from mid-April to early May, before the plant gets tough and woody. Rarely, tender new edible shoots grow later, after the plantís been cut down.
FOOD USES: Best when 6 to 8 inches tall, the intensely tart, tangy shoots (discard all the tough leaves) taste like rhubarb, only better. A tough rind that you must peel (good for making marmalade) covers the taller ones.
Slice the stems, steam as a vegetable, and simmer in soups, sauces, fruit compotes, and jam, or bake in dessert dishes. Use sparingly. I’ve made terrific applesauce and excellent strawberry compotes using just 1 part knotweed to 10 parts fruit.
You may even substitute cooked knotweed, which gets very soft, for lemon juice, transforming familiar recipes into exotic ones. Or use a chopstick to pierce the membranes that separate the segments of 1-foot-tall shoots, peel, stuff the stalks with sweet or savory stuffing, and bake in an appropriate sauce.
NUTRITION: An excellent source of vitamin A, along with vitamin C and its cofactor, the antioxidant flavonoid rutin, Japanese knotweed also provides potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and manganese. Itís also an excellent source of resveratrol, the same substance in the skin of grapes and in red wine that lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attacks. When I find the plant on tours with school classes, I tell the kids that the plant prevents heart attacks, and we do an experiment: I have a teacher, whom we all observe carefully, eat some knotweed. Then I proclaim: “See, he’s not having a heart attack. it works!”
Resveratrol may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or slow its progression. Normally, glial cells in the brain support the neurons (nerve cells) and apparently modify the way they communicate, but in Alzheimer’s disease, an accumulation of gunk called amyloid plaques signals these helper cells to kill the neurons instead. Resveratrol seems to block this deadly signal. And resveratrol will also increase your lifespan by 30%, but only if youíre a fruit fly. It activates sirtuin genes, which increase cell longevity the same way a calorie-restricted diet does. Whether this might also slow human aging is still open to question.
MEDICINAL USES: Large quantities of Japanese knotweed act as a gentle laxative, like rhubarb.
Jewelweed (Impatiens species)
Young Jewelweed Shoot – Note the roundish pair of lower leaves and the elongated, toothed upper leaves, which are similar to the mature leaves.
Although this isn’t one of my favorite wild foods, It’s one of our most important herbs. I call jewelweed the foragerís American Express, because I never leave home without it.
Jewelweed Sprout – Note the succulent, translucent, unbranched stalk and the pair of roundish, notched leaves, very different from subsequent leaves.
It’s common, widespread, easy to recognize, and invaluable to anyone venturing out-of-doors, because it’s a virtual panacea for skin irritation.
Jewelweed Shoot – The paired, elliptical, coarsely toothed (serrated) leaves of this older shoot are typical of the plant.
This herbaceous native plant has distinctive succulent, translucent, hollow, stem, powdered with a pale blue-green, waxy bloom and partitioned by nodes, making the plant easy to identify. Jewelweed grows up to five feet tall, branching toward the top, and toughening with age. Thereís a clear, watery liquid inside, especially in the nodes.
The delicate, long-oval, long-stalked, leaves are 1/4 to 1/2″ long, with a few rounded teeth. The upper leaves are alternate, the lower ones opposite. They’re water-repellent, so they look like they’re covered with tiny jewels (raindrops) after it rains, accounting for the name jewelweed.
Bejeweled Jewelweed Leaf – Either like electrical charges, which repel each other, line up on the surface of the leaf and the surface of the water drop, or a waxy coating on the leaf repels the water, forcing it into a spherical shape.
If you submerge the leaves in water, their undersides will turn silvery, delighting children of all ages.
The trumpet-shaped flowers, which bloom from early summer to fall, are under 1 inch long, with three petals, one which curls, to form a long slipper- or sack-shaped spur.
Spotted Jewelweed Flower – The red spots on the orange petals attract pollinators.
Spotted touch-me-not has orange-yellow flowers spotted with red, yellow or white. They’re usually in pairs, so the scientific name is Impatiens biflora.
Spotted Jewelweed in Flower – The trumpet-shaped flower has a long spur at the end. Pollinators with long tongues, such as butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds, can reach the nectar at the end. Other insects simply chew through the flower’s base.
Pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) has yellow flowers with reddish spots. Pallida means pallid.
Pale Jewelweed Flower – The stamens at the top of the inside of the flower dust pollinators with pollen as they go after the nectar deep inside the flower.
In late summer and fall, you can surround the ripe seedpods with your hand, and grab them tightly.
Spotted Jewelweed Seed Pod and Flowers – Because of the long flowering season, flowers and mature seed pods often grow side by side. Note the long, slender flower stalks.
The seeds will pop into your hand, and you can eat them, discarding the coiled “springs.” They’re very tasty—walnut flavored, but too small for more than a trail nibble. Children, who seek out fun over efficiency, love learning to catch and eat jewelweed seeds.
Caution: Don’t grab the seed pods loosely, or the seeds will pop away—especially important if you’re Catholic—you’re not supposed to spill your seeds!
Spotted Jewelweed Seeds and Coiled, Exploded Pod – Mature seeds are flattened-ovate, green to blackish, and with a ridge running along the length on both sides.
Jewelweed contains two methoxy-1, four napthoquinine, an anti-inflammatory and fungicide that’s the active ingredient of Preparation H.
Instructions for Use: Apply where “The sun don’t shine!”
If you break jewelweed’s stem and repeatedly apply the juice to a fresh mosquito bite for 15 to 20 minutes, the itching stops and the bite doesn’t swell. For older bites, it works only temporarily.
Jewelweed’s juice also relieves bee and wasp stings, although it doesn’t always cure them completely.
It’s also good to for warts, bruises, and fungal skin infections such as athlete’s foot and ringworm. It’s is also helpful for nettle stings, minor burns, cuts, eczema, acne, sores, and any skin irritations.
If you accidentally touch poison ivy and apply jewelweed juice to the affected area before the rash appears, you probably won’t get the rash. One of my best strawberry patches is also infested with poison ivy. You can’t avoid touching it as you collect the irresistible fruit. I have everyone apply jewelweed to all exposed areas when we leave, and nobody ever gets a rash.
The Indians treat already-developed poison ivy rash by rubbing jewelweedís broken stem on the rash until it draws some blood. The rash then dries out, a scab forms, and healing occurs.
There are many ways to capture jewelweed’s medicinal properties: The fresh plant lasts a week in a sealed container in the refrigerator. 1960s foraging guru and author Ewell Gibbons reported the jewelweed tincture he extracted in alcohol went moldy, but I’ve soaked fresh jewelweed in commercial witch hazel extract for a few weeks, and the extract of the two herbs works well and doesn’t perish.
You can also make jewelweed ointment by simmering a small amount of jewelweed in light vegetable oil (any vegetable oil except olive oil, which burns) 10-15 minutes. Use only a small handful of jewelweed stems per quart of oil, or bubbles of jewelweed juice will form in the ointment and go moldy. Strain out the herb, add a handful of beeswax to thicken it, and heat until melted. Take out a spoonful and let it cool to test the thickness, and add more oil or beeswax as needed. Add the contents of one oil-soluble vitamin E capsule, a natural preservative, and let it cool. Refrigerated, it lasts for months.
Juneberry, Shadbush, Serviceberry (Amelanchier species)
Juneberry Branches and Berries – The red, unripe berries, as well as the blue, mature ones, are good to eat.
These diverse shrubs or small trees have smooth to slightly furrowed, ash-gray to blackish bark, often beautifully adorned by curving, vertical, dark gray stripes.
Juneberry Bark – The shrub’s smooth tight bark, decorated with vertical stripes, makes the genus easy to recognize, even in the winter.
The alternate, oval, finely-toothed, medium-sized, stalked leaves are about 2″ long, with slightly downy, light green undersides on some species.
The five-petaled, white flowers usually bloom early in the spring, before the leaves appear. Radially-symmetrical and about 3/4″ across, they resemble apple blossoms, with many conspicuous stamens.
Juneberry Blossom – Many pollen-bearing male stamens surround the single, central, female stigma of this radially symmetrical, 5-petaled white flower, similar to the related apple blossom.
The blossoms hang from long, sparse, racemes.
Juneberry Flower Cluster – The flowers alternate along the stalk.
The shrub is called the juneberry because the fruit ripens in June. It’s also called serviceberry because it blooms when in mid-April, when long-delayed religious services were held throughout 19th century New England, as snow covered roads became accessible again. But not everyone was religious, and others would just as soon go fishing, especially when the first run of shad migrated upstream from the ocean, heralded by the blooming shadbush.
Juneberry Blossoms – The oval, finely toothed (serrated) leaves are only starting to develop when the flowers bloom.
The blue-black, round berries, which are red before they ripen, are about 1/4-1/3″ across, the size of blueberries, which they resemble. They even have the crownóa frilled opening on the end away from the fruit stalk.
Cluster of Juneberries – These sweet, juicy berries taste even better than they look!
Inside are soft, almond-flavored seeds, absent in blueberries. Also, blueberries have bell-like flowers, and different bark.
There are many native and some European species growing throughout much of the United States and Canada.
Cluster of Red Juneberries (A. alnifolia, var. Ballerina) – Atypically, the tasty fruit of this English species, with red rather than blue berries, and often planted as an ornamental in cultivated parks, ripens in autumn.
Although many have delicious fruit, some have bad-tasting berries. There are no poisonous look-alikes, since no poisonous berry has a crown, but a careless beginner could still confuse juneberries with crownless poisonous and non-poisonous berries. These are described under Blueberries.
Red Juneberry, split open – Note the teardrop-shaped, reddish-brown seeds.
Keep your eyes open for these inconspicuous woodland treasures from June through August. Most species ripen in late spring, but others come into season later. Different species favor varying habitats. Some grow on hillsides, others inhabit lowlands, while a few tolerate saltwater, and grow within yards of the sea. Look for juneberries in moist and somewhat dry soil, in woods, along streams and lakes, on mountains, in thickets, clearings, cultivated parks, and on the grounds of landscaped garden apartment complexes.
Juneberries are a great surprise the first time you try them. With no similar commercial relatives, these delicious berries, related to apples, are quite unique. Although they’d been sold in the marketplace in the past, they’re almost completely forgotten today. The fruit has a strong, sweet and penetrating flavor, a little like pears, while the soft seeds add a nutty, almond-like flavor.
Some years there are excellent crops, but in other years, you can hardly find any berries. These shrubs are somewhat finicky about their requirements. Also, in some places, birds attack the fruit as soon as it ripens, joyously taking little bits from each berry.
It takes me a long time to gather juneberries, especially since I can’t help eating two berries for every one heading for my pail. I usually supplement them in a recipe with other fruits, to stretch them.
Make your favorite blueberry muffin recipe using juneberries. It will be different and fantastic. I’ve made my best cobblers with this fruit. They also make great jam. They contain pectin, so you don’t need much thickener. The Indians, who used them like blueberries, dried them and added them in stews and pemmican.
Iroquois women used the fruit as a blood remedy, to strengthen the body after the pain of childbirth. They drank a root and bark decoction to prevent miscarriage. They also used it to expel parasitic intestinal worms, as did the Chinese.
Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa)
This small, Japanese ornamental tree has been planted in parks and backyards throughout North America. Enjoy the red, pronged, globular fruit rawóit turns bitter cooked.
Kousa Dogwood – Showy, white flowers festoon this small tree in mid-spring.
Kousa Dogwood Branch with Flower – The opposite (paired) leaves are typical of dogwoods. What look like petals are actually 4 sepals, specialized leaves that originally enclose the flowers in the bud stage.
Immature Kousa Dogwood Blossom – The inconspicuous, tiny, true flowers will emerge from the globe in the center of the immature, green sepals.
Kousa Dogwood Flowers – The sepals turn white, and the true flowers bloom on the central globe when they mature.
Kousa Dogwood Branch With Fruit – Soft, red, globular, long-stalked fruits, containing hard seeds, ripen in early- to mid-fall.
Kousa Dogwood Fruit – Trees with the largest, most abundant fruit are usually the tastiest ones.
Lamb’s-Quarters (Chenopodium album)
This European relative of spinach and beets, which grows throughout the North America, bears large quantities of edible, spinach-flavored leaves you can collect from mid-spring to late fall. It’s one of the best sources of beta-carotene, calcium, potassium, and iron in the world; also a great source of trace minerals, B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, and fiber.
Lamb’s-quarters in Central Park.
Urban and suburban parks feature this “weed” in unmanicured sunny areas. You can also find it along roadsides, in overgrown fields, backyards, on disturbed soil, and in vacant lots.
Don’t confuse this odorless plant with epazote, which smells resinous and is poisonous if eaten in quantity; and don’t collect where the soil might be contaminated with toxic nitrates, which it absorbs.
Lamb’s-quarters Sprouts – Note the diamond-shaped leaves with shallow teeth and a white, waxy powder on the smallest leaves.
You can eat the leaves and stems at this stage, in early spring, when this annual (1-year) plant first appears.
Large Lamb’s-quarters Plant – Note how this non-woody plant branches like a tree.
Strip the leaves and add them to salads, steam 5 to 10 minutes or until just wilted, add seasonings, and serve as a vegetable side dish; or prepare like spinach.
Mature Lamb’s-quarters Plant – Here the diamond-shaped, shallow-toothed leaves growing on branches, with whitish powder on the leaf undersides and smaller leaves, make identification absolute.
Lamb’s-quarters Tip – The smaller leaves at the tip of the plant are elliptical with smooth edges.
Lamb’s-quarters in Flower – Wind pollinates these small, green, inconspicuous flowers, which grow on slender, branching clusters. Edible, they don’t taste very good.
Lamb’s-quarters Flowers – The tiny black seeds that develop inside the flowers in autumn are tasty and healthful, but very labor-intensive to collect.
Long Leaf Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Shred the leaves of this very common, widespread, invaluable, lawn and garden “weed”, and you can cure new mosquito bites by repeatedly applying the juice for 15 minutes. It also helps heal poison ivy rash and relieve virtually any skin irritation.
Young Long Leaf Plantain Basal Rosette – Long, narrow (the related common plantain has oval leaves), ribbed, smooth-edged leaves spreading in a circle from 1 point characterize this plant.
Young Long Leaf Plantain Basal Rosette Not the yummiest of foods, you can eat these small leaves, which taste like wheat grass juice, raw or cooked, in early spring, before they become tough.
Long Leaf Plantain in Flower – Single, cylindrical flowers growing atop long, slender stalks tower over the basal rosette in the summer and fall.
Long Leaf Plantain in Flower – Brown flowers with tiny white stamens (which produce pollen) grow on top of long, slender stalks in summer and fall.
Long Leaf Plantain Flower – Tiny, white, protruding stamens encircle the scruffy, brown flower’s “waist”. The summit resembles a narrow pineapple.
Long Leaf Plantain Flower – Each tiny, white, long stamen’s tip looks like a pair of buns.
Mulberries (Morus species)
Red Mulberries – The ripe fruit of this common tree is very dark purple, nearly black, although unripe fruits are reddish.
There are two common mulberry tree species, the native red mulberry (Morus rubra), and the Asian white mulberry (Morus alba). The red mulberry, which reaches a height of about sixty-five feet, with rough, reddish-brown bark.
Red Mulberry – The aggregate fruit, composed of lots of berries stuck together, each with its own seed, is long-oval in shape, and hangs from a short, slender fruit stalk.
The white mulberry only grows up to forty feet tall, with rough, lighter, ochre-gray bark and spreading branches. Mulberry bark has distinctive vertical cracks or furrows, with an occasional orange-brown streak between the cracks.
Both species have roughly oval, toothed, alternate leaves 2-6 inches long. Sometimes theyíre variably lobed, sometimes they’re unlobed. The red mulberryís leaves feel like sandpaper underneath. The white mulberryís leaves are smooth underneath.
As the new leaves develop in mid-spring, tiny male and female flowers hang on separate small, slender, inconspicuous spikes. The male cluster is longer, the female rounder.
Male (long) and Female (round) Mulberry Flowers – It’s the rounded female flowers that will become the fruit.
When the female flowers are fertilized, an aggregate fruit results. It’s globular to cylindrical, 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches long, hanging from a short fruit stalk.
White Mulberry – I used to think white mulberries were red mulberries falling to the ground before ripening until I noticed that mature white mulberries are soft, moist and sticky. Unripe berries are dry and hard.
Other very similar, locally-distributed edible species include the Texas mulberry (Morus microphylla), and the black mulberry (Morus nigra). Sassafras also has lobed and unlobed leaves, but they’re fragrant and untoothed. There are no poisonous look-alikes.
Raspberry and blackberry fruits superficially resemble mulberries, but the fruits of these unrelated thorny canes grow upright, on receptacles, with no fruit stalks.
Ripe mulberries come in different colors: red, white, pink, and black. These colors are attributed to two different species and their hybrids.
Pink Mulberries – Because these wind-pollinated trees hybridize so easily, most wild mulberries in North America have genes from both red and white species.
The red mulberry has red unripe berries. They darken to black, with reddish undertones, when theyíre ready to eat.
Red Mulberries – Note the rounded, somewhat oval toothed leaves.
When I first started gathering mulberries, before reading my first field guide, I noticed that some neighborhood trees’ berries never seemed to ripen, falling to the ground still white. I finally caught on that these were white mulberry trees. Even though they’re white when ripe, theyíre soft and juicy.
White Mulberries – The black seeds are clearly visible as they contrast with the white berries.
White mulberry trees were imported from Asia in the 1800’s to start a silk industry. Growing silkworm caterpillars and unrolling the cocoons to make silk was too labor-intensive for us, and the effort was abandoned. But because mulberry trees are so prolific, most of America is now graced with the two species plus hybrids.
Pink Mulberry – This fruit is also sticky-moist when ripe.
You’re most likely to find mulberries in residential neighborhoods, parks, in fields, especially along the edges, open woods, and near fresh water. They grow throughout the country, ripening in late spring and early summer.
You can spot ripe mulberries in season from a distance because the fruits make such a mess on the ground. I love taking children mulberry-gathering. Everyone holds up a drop cloth, while I climb into the trees and shower the drop cloth and kids with fruit. Do this on a nice day proceeded by sunny weather, because rain washes away berriesí flavor.
Use mulberries immediately. They won’t last more than a couple of days in the refrigerator. They soon ferment or get moldy, probably because of their high water content and thin skins. This is why you rarely seem them in stores. Eat them, cook them, dry them, freeze them, just donít let them spoil.
There are many ways to cook mulberries once youíve eaten your fill of fresh fruit. Cook them in their own juice until the mixture becomes liquid, and make a sweet mulberry slurry. Add a little lemon juice and orange rind to offset the sweetness, stir in a thickener and you have a pudding. I’ve made mulberry pies and mulberry muffins. You can do anything with mulberries you do with virtually any other berry, and they dry and freeze well. Lemon or lime juice enhances their flavor, since they donít have the acidity of other fruits.
Dried mulberries are more crunchy, like (related) figs. You can grind them in a the blender, and mix in nut butter, sweetened to taste, to make a mulberry candy.
You can also use the young, unopened leaves in the spring. Boil them for twenty minutes and discard the water, for mild, tasty vegetable. This water, the unripe berries, uncooked young leaves, and mature leaves are toxic and mildly hallucinogenic. While they wonít kill you, they’ll give you a terrific headache and an upset stomach. The primary hallucination is that youíre so sick, you’re going to die. However, you’ll probably eventually recover.
How did red mulberries get their color? The answer lies in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the first love story ever written, compiled by Ovid from earlier Greek folklore:
Pyramus and Thisbe were neighbors who fell in love when they became adults. Their parents disapproved, but the lovers communicated secretly, through a crack in the wall separating their houses. One night, they eloped, but Thisbe was frightened away from their rendezvous point, a white mulberry tree, by a bloody-mouthed lion that had just finished a meal. She escaped and hid, but lost her cloak, which the lion mauled and bloodied.
Pyramus, seeing the bloody mouthed lion and the cloak, imagined the worst, and impaled himself on his sword. His blood colored the mulberries red. When Thisbe found him and realized what had happened, she followed him to death on same sword. The European mulberry species has been red ever since.
In traditional European medicine, the mulberry root is a remedy for tapeworms. The treeís inner bark (cambium) has been used as a laxative. The fruit, eaten in very large quantity, may also mildy laxative.
MULLEIN, JACOB’S STAFF, FLANNEL-LEAF (Verbascum thapsus)
Mullein, Basal Rosette – These soft, fuzzy leaves are a favorite for young children.
After exposure to countless associations between this common, widespread medicinal herb and Native American culture, I mistakenly thought this herb was native. I was astonished when I finally learned that mullein is Eurasian: After its early arrival on these shores, the Indians adapted it. They had discovered the same healing properties that made it a mainstay in European folk medicine for thousands of years.
The name “mullein” has two possible derivations: It either comes from comes from mollis, which means soft in Latin, or the Latin word mulandrum, which comes from melanders and means leprosy, an illness this plant was used to treat. Verbascum means “mullein” in Latin. It derives from the word barbascum, which means “with beard.” Roman men shaved, barbarians didn’t, and mullein is certainly as woolly as any barbarian youíll ever encounter. The species name is thapsus because mullein resembles the European genus Thaspia, named after an ancient town in present-day Tunisia.
Mullein is a biennial: The first year the leaves form a basal rosette, with strikingly large, flannel-like, velvety-woolly, long-oval, gray-green, leaves nearly two feet long. When I bring this plant to school classes, the children first think it’s artificial.
Mullein, Basal Rosette – Mullein’s first leaves spread into a circle along the ground, sheltering the plant and maximizing the sunlight.
The second year, the basal leaves precede a stout, erect flowerstalk that may reach six feet in height.
Mullein in Flower – Note that few flowers bloom at any time on the tall, erect, unnbranched flower stalk.
The stalkless flowers bloom sequentially from late spring to early fall, growing in long, tight, spikes.
Mullein Flower Stalk – Yellow flowers in bloom are scattered along the flower stalk.
They’re yellow, with five radially-symmetrical petals, about 1-1/2″ across.
Mullein Flower with Insect Pollinators – Bright, showy flowers attract insects.
The pointed, elongated, globular fruits are five-parted woody capsules, 3/8″ long, opening toward the tips. The dead, brown fruit stalks stand out in the winter.
Mullein Fruit Stalk Skeleton – The persistent, conspicuous seed stalk makes it easy to spot mullein in the winter. Caution: The seeds inside the woody fruit capsules are poisonous.
Mullein grows in old fields, roadsides, and disturbed habitats throughout the United States It does well in dry, sandy conditions, especially in alkaline soil, so itís especially common near the seashore. Archeologists sometimes look for Indian sites where thereís lots of mullein, because the lime from the Indian shell piles increases soil alkalinity, encouraging this plant to proliferate.
Mullein tea provides vitamins B-2, B-5, B-12, and D, choline, hesperidin, PABA, sulfur, magnesium, mucilage, saponins, and other active substances.
People use the tea as a beverage, but it’s best known as one of the safest, most effective herbal cough remedies. Mullein is an expectorant, and a tonic for the lungs, mucus membranes, and glands. An infusion is good for colds, emphysema, asthma, hay fever, and whooping cough. Strain the infusion through a cloth, or the hairs may get stuck in your throat and make you cough even more. Laboratory tests have shown that itís anti-inflammatory, with antibiotic activity, and that it inhibits the tuberculosis bacillus. The Indians smoked dried mullein and coltsfoot cigarettes for asthma and bronchitis, and indications are that itís effective: I’ve observed it working for bronchitis.
The tea is also an astringent and demulcent. It’s good for diarrhea, and it’s been used in compresses for hemorrhoids since it was recommended by Dioscorides centuries ago. It’s also supposed to help other herbs get absorbed through the skin. Pliny the Elder of ancient Rome, Gerard in sixteenth century England, the Delaware Indians, and country folk in the South, used the heated leaves in poultices for arthritis.
A tincture of the flowers is used for migraine headaches. An oil extract of the flowers, which contains a bactericide, is used for ear infections, although you should consult with a competent practitioner first, to avoid the possibility of permanent hearing loss if the herb doesnít work.
Roman ladies used them to die their hair blonde. Roman soldiers dipped the flowerstalks in tallow to make torches.
Women who were forbidden to use make-up for religious reasons rubbed the rough leaves of this rubrifacient on their cheeks, to create a beautiful red flush. People who spend time in the woods are attracted to mullein’s large, velvety leaves when they run out of toilet paper, again creating a beautiful red flush on their cheeks.
Nettles (Urtica species, Laportea canadensis)
Stinging Nettle in Flower – Note the paired, long-stalked, coarsely toothed leaves; the strands of tiny flowers; and the unbranched stalk covered with stinging hairs.
These annual or perennial native and European herbaceous plants are distinctive for many reasons, as you’d quickly discover if you ever encountered them wearing shorts. Nettles are covered with tiny, nearly invisible stinging hairs that produce an intense, stinging pain, followed redness and skin irritation. The generic name comes from the Latin word, “uro,” which means “I burn.” Nevertheless, they’re superb, non-stinging, cooked vegetables.
Nettles usually appear in the same places year after year. Look for them in rich soil, disturbed habitats, moist woodlands, thickets, along rivers, and along partially shaded trails.
They grow throughout most of the United States Here are a few of the most common species: Stinging nettle’s (Urtica dioica) rather stout, ribbed, hollow stem grows 2-4 feet tall. The somewhat oval, long-stalked, dark green, opposite leaves are a few inches long, with a rough, papery texture, and very coarse teeth. The leaf tip is pointed, and its base is heart-shaped.
This is a dioecious plant, with male and female flowers growing on separate plants. The species name, dioica, means “two households” in Greek: By late spring, some plants have clusters of tiny, green female flowers, hanging from the leaf axils in paired strands.
Stinging Nettle Stingers – The stinging nettle is covered with nasty hypodermic needles, evidence that this plant evolved in The South Bronx!
Young Stinging Nettle – Some people have learned to handle nettles without getting stung, but I find it’s much more simple to strip off the leaves quickly with work gloves, rinse, and steam.
Stinging Nettle Shoot You can eat the stems as well as the leaves of this very young plant.
Female Stinging Nettle in Flower
Female Stinging Nettle Flowers
Other plants possess diagonally upright male flower strands, poised at the tops of the plants.
Male Stinging Nettle Flowers
Slender nettle (Urtica gracilis) is similar, with sparse stinging hairs and slender, opposite leaves.
Slender Nettle in Flower – Note the diagonally-upright male flowers in the upper right.
Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) has fewer stinging hairs. The leaves are alternate rather than oppositeóthey’re larger and wider, with more rounded bases than the ones stinging nettles have.
Young Wood Nettle
Wood nettle has flower clusters on top as well as in the leaf axils.
Wood Nettle in Flower
Wood Nettle Flowers
Other true nettle species are also edible. You’d think the stinging hairs would make nettle identification easy. Nevertheless, I once ran into some people in the woods who insisted that clearweed (Pilea pumila), a similar-looking, nonpoisonous plant with a translucent stem and no stinging hairs, was stinging nettles. They had been eating this unpalatably inedible nontoxic plant, which I had always rejected as unpalatable, all summer.
Sometimes nettles grow near catnip, another similar-looking plant. Mints, of course, have no stinging hairs, and catnip is fragrant. Catnip and nettles are an excellent combination for herb tea.
Collect nettle leaves before they flower in spring. They may be bad for the kidneys after they flower. New nettles come up in the fall, and you can pick them before they’re killed by frost.
People have been using nettles for food, medicine, fiber, and dyes since the Bronze Age. Collect them using work gloves, and wear a long-sleeved shirt. If you happen upon nettles when you have no gloves, put your hand inside a bag. The young leaves are the best part of the plant. They come off most easily if you strip them counter-intuitively, from the top down.
Whenever any of my tour groups find nettles, I announce that someone will volunteer to get stung, to demonstrate how jewelweed cures the rash. Sure enough, someone accidentally gets stung, and we cure it. Once I was the careless one who got stung, but I kept my mouth shut treated myself surreptitiously. Plantain and dock also work. “Nettle in, dock out!,” say the English. Surprisingly some people (masochists?) actually find nettle stings invigorating, and use them to wake up the body.
I have to travel quite a distance to find a place where they grow like “weeds.” As you can imagine, I pick in quantity, steam them, freeze them, put them in soups, stews, and other dishes. I dry them, tincture them in alcohol, and sometimes get stung by them. They get used up quicklyóeveryone loves themóand I’m back at the nettle patch soon enough.
Clean and chop nettles wearing rubber gloves. Once youíve cooked them a little, the stingers are deactivated, and the plant becomes wonderfully edible.
Nettles have a bad reputation as an unpleasant-tasting survival food in some circles. That’s because people don’t know how to prepare them. They often boil them, which is awful. Nettle leaves are good simmered in soups 5-10 minutes, but my favorite method is the waterless steaming method, recommended for spinach in a 1699 cookbook by John Evelyn, and described in the cooking section.
I enjoy nettles as a vegetable side-dish with rice and beans. Sometimes I make creamed nettlesómuch more satisfying than creamed spinach. Because nettles have the richest, hardiest taste of any green, I often combine them with lighter ingredients, such as celery, zucchini, lemon juice, or tomato sauce.
I also dry nettles for winter use and tea. Sitting here writing this book, I frequently sip on warm nettle tea. Itís one of my favorites. It doesn’t taste like a normal teaónot bitter, spicy, minty or lemony. Itís more like a strong stock of a rich, deep, green plant essence, and it’s one of the most nourishing drinks of all. Whenever I feel run down, tired, or even irritable, I think of making myself some.
As food, this tonic is good for rebuilding the system of chronically ill people. Nineteenth century literature is full of so-called constitutionally weak people, who usually die on the last page. In Russia, they were given freshly squeezed nettle juiceóa tonic loaded with iron and other nutrientsófor iron-deficiency anemia. This often worked.
Many of the benefits are due to the plant’s very high levels of minerals, especially, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. They also provide chlorophyll and tannin, and they’re a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and B complex vitamins. Nettles also have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids. They’re ten percent protein, more than any other vegetable.
The substances in the stingers have medicinal uses: In the late 1980s, scientists studying the differences between dried and freeze-dried herbs accidentally discovered that freeze-dried nettles cured one of the researcher’s hay-fever. Subsequently, a randomized double-blind study at the National College of naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon showed that 58 percent of hay-fever sufferers given freeze-dried nettles rated it moderately to highly effective. Nettles are a traditional food for people with allergies.
Nettles sting you because the hairs are filled with formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), plus unknown compounds. Some of these substances are destroyed by cooking, steeping, or drying, but not by freeze-drying or juicing. Unfortunately, you need a vacuum chamber to freeze-dry herbs. However, you can purchase freeze-dried nettles in capsules for hay-fever.
As an expectorant, it’s recommended for asthma, mucus conditions of the lungs, and chronic coughs. Nettle tincture is also used for flu, colds, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Nettle infusion is a safe, gentle diureticóconsidered a restorative for the kidneys and bladder, and used for cystitis and nephritis. Itís also recommended for weight loss, but you may shed more pounds of water than fat.
Nettle tea compress or finely powdered dried nettles are also good for wounds, cuts, stings, and burns. The infusion was also used internally to stop excessive menstruation, bleeding from hemorrhages, bloody coughs, nose bleeds, and bloody urine. It helps blood clot, but major bleeding is dangerousóindicative of a serious underlying condition. Consult a competent practitioner in such cases. Use for minor cuts.
Other uses include treating gout, glandular diseases, poor circulation, enlarged spleen, diarrhea, and dysentery, worms, intestinal and colon disorders, and hemorrhoids. Nettles are usually used along with other herbs that target the affected organs.
German researchers are using nettle root extracts for prostate cancer, and Russian scientists are experimenting with nettle leaf tincture for hepatitis and gall bladder inflammation.
Eating nettles or drinking the tea makes your hair brighter, thicker and shinier, and makes your skin clearer and healthierógood for eczema and other skin conditions. Commercial hair- and skin care products in health food stores often list stinging nettle as an ingredient. Nettles have cleansing and antiseptic properties, so the tea is also good in facial steams and rinses.
Nettles’ long, fibrous stems were important in Europe for weaving, cloth-making, cordage, and even paper. Native Americans used them for embroidery, fish nets, and other crafts. You can even extract a yellow die from the roots.
Nettle tea is given to house plants to help them grow, but the strangest use I’ve ever heard is for severe arthritis. You must whip the victim over most of the body until an extensive rash develops. This flagellation or “urtication” may stimulate the weak organs, muscles, nerves and lymphatic system, and increase circulation. Or it may cause so much pain, the victim forgets about the arthritis.
Young Stinging Nettles
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia pennyslvianica)
DESCRIPTION: This large, unbranched, curved, feathery fern, 2 to 6 feet tall, resembles an ostrich’s tail, with 1 central stem per frond, and toothed (serrated) leaflets.
Inside a vase-shaped bunch of conspicuous, sterile fronds, you’ll find the smaller fertile or fruiting fronds, up to 2 feet tall, that look like birdsí tails, with dense, dark brown feathers.
The emerging fern first takes the form of a fiddleheadótightly rolled up to resemble the curved, narrow end of a violin, with a stout base tapering upward. A papery, scaly sheath wraps this hairless, emerald-green vegetable, which varies in height as it grows. Fiddleheads of other ferns wonít kill you, but theyíre not tasty and are often too hairy to eat; bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), a favorite in Japan that appears in mid-spring, contains carcinogens.
Caution: Some deadly plants, such as poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), may look like shopping mall ferns to the novice. However, the poisonous plants lack the ostrich fernís distinctive fiddlehead.
HABITAT: Ostrich ferns grow in moist areas in partial shade. Although I’ve never found them in New York City, they grow in swamps in the surrounding suburbs and countryside.
FOOD USES: Fiddleheads are a much sought-after vegetable, especially among the Japanese. Their delicate flavor (donít overseason) lies somewhere between asparagus and snap peas).
Rub off the scaly membrane under running water, then steam, simmer, or sautÈ for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with a sauce or theyíll be somewhat dry.
Unlike most other wild vegetables, fiddleheads donít grow back when you pick them. Be sure you collect only where very abundant, and take no more than half the fiddleheads from any single bunch to avoid depleting the rhizomes (underground stems) of nutrients.
NUTRITION: Ostrich fern fiddleheads provide lots of vitamin A and niacin, some vitamin C, the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron, and the trace minerals manganese, zinc, and copper.
MEDICINAL USES: Tests have come up with no distinct biochemical activities for this plant.
American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Also see “America’s Puckery Persimmon” by “Wildman” in Early American Life Magazine, December, 2006.
Persimmon Tree in Kissena Park – American persimmons are sometimes planted in urban parks.
Native to eastern North America, this tree provides abundant superb sweet, pulpy fruit, usually in late fall.
Eat only fully ripe fruit, nearly rotten-looking, or you’ll be in for an unpleasant astringent surprise.
Persimmon Flowers – 4-lobed yellow flowers with globular bases bloom in the spring.
Persimmon Branch – The oval, alternate (single) unserrated leaves make an excellent herb tea, rich in vitamin C.
Ripe Persimmons – The pulpy, orange, globular fruits are ripe only after they wrinkle and discolor.
Persimmon on Twig – The orange, stalkless fruit attaches directly to the slender twig.
Ripe Persimmon – Note the wrinkles, cracks, and discoloration.
Persimmon Trunk – This member of the ebony family has characteristic dark bark. It’s broken into distinctive rectangles, like a mosaic, making it easy to recognize.
Persimmon Pond – The best place for persimmons in NY is around this pond in Muttontown Preserve in East Norwich, NY.
Pineapple Weed (Matricaria matricaioides)
This close relative of chamomile, which grows in sunny very poor soil, such as baseball diamonds and parking lots, has the same usesómake a tea with the leaves, flowers, and stems, and enjoy as a beverage, or to relieve nervous tension, stomach upset, and insomnia caused by stress.
Pineapple Weed – This small, pineapple-scented plant has fine, lacy leaves, and small, inconspicuous, globular, yellow-green flower heads.
Pineapple Weed Basal Rosette – Fern-like leaves emerge in early spring and fall, easily distinguished from similar-looking yarrow (another medicinal beverage) by their pineapple scent.
Pineapple Weed, Side View – From the side, the lacy leaves make the plant look like a tiny Christmas tree.
Pineapple Weed in Flower – The flower heads grow at the tips of the branches spring, summer, and fall.
Pineapple Weed Flowers – The small, globe-shaped, yellow-green flower heads are composed of many tiny, tubular disk flowers bunched together, typical of the composite (daisy-sunflower-dandelion) family. Unlike related chamomile, there are no petal-like ray flowers.
Poison Ivy And Its Relatives (Toxicodendron species)
Poison Ivy Leaf and Flowers
These relatives of the cashew, mango, and the sumacs cause people more problems than any other plants, yet they’re simple to avoid. After pointing out their different forms and asking people to locate them, even the kids are poison ivy experts by the end of one tour. The straightforward generic name comes from the Greek, where toxico means poisonous, and dendron means plant or tree.
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) has long-stalked, alternate, three-parted palmate-compound leaves. One leaflet points to the left, one to the right, and one has a stem and points straight ahead. The leaflets have some indentations on the edges that you could almost call teeth. The leaflets range from 4 to 14 inches long, with pointed tips, and more rounded bases. Their leafstalks are reddish near the leafís base.
These variable leaves are dark glossy-green most of the season, although they have red overtones when they first appear in the spring, and they turn scarlet in the fall. The plant is so beautiful in autumn, someone brought it to his garden in England, and now the British Isles are blessed with this plant.
Young Poison Ivy Leaves
Poison oak (Toxicodendron quercifolium on the East Coast, or Toxicodendron diversilobum on the West Coast), is nearly identical, except that its leaflets are partially subdivided into lobes. Botanists still argue over whether all these variants are really different species.
Poison ivy’s general forms are also highly variable. It may grow as an herbaceous plant, upright shrub, or woody vine. The vine has aerial roots that anchor it to the tree or fence, but donít absorb nutrients. Dark, dense, hairy-looking aerial roots are a certain identifying characteristic in the winter.
“Hairy Rope, Don’t Be a Dope!” – Poison Ivy Vine with Hairy-looking Aerial Roots
Inconspicuous green and yellow flowers grow on branched, lateral stems bloom in late spring.
Poison Ivy Flowers
They’re followed by small, round, berries in the summer and fall, green at first, then cream-white.
Poison Ivy Berry Cluster
The berries are edible, but only if youíre a bird (the downy woodpecker eats the berries and spreads them through its droppings).
Poison Ivy Berries. Closer than you ever want to be to them!
They’re as poisonous to us as the rest of the plant: Leaves of three, let it be! Berries white, take flight!
Poison Ivy With Berries
Of course, other plants, like blackberries, raspberries, wild beans, and hog peanuts also bear three-parted palmate-compound leaves.
One of the good things about poison ivy and its relatives is that, unlike many other plants, it’s always easy to find. It grows throughout North America, favoring disturbed habitats such as edges of trails, on fences, in fields, in marshes, in thickets, and woods. Because it needs plenty of sunlight, it doesnít grow in virgin forests or very old, undisturbed woods. Itís especially common at the seashore, where its roots help prevent beach erosion, and provide cover for small animals.
The plant is poisonous all year. I heard of a man who randomly picked up a poison ivy twig to chew on in the middle of the winter. His throat got so swollen, the hospital had to insert a breathing tube to save his life.
Poison Ivy Wine Close-up
The poison is the yellow oil urushiol, a lacquer-like phenolic compound. It doesnít effect animals, but four out of five people are allergic to it. Exposure leads to severe skin blistering, contact dermatitis, usually within 1-12 hours. Washing with soap containing oils spreads the urushiol, although washing with an oil-less soap or detergent (see your pharmacist) helps prevent the rash.
Avoid poison ivy even if you know you’re not allergic to it, since repeated exposure may initiate allergy. Every time I pointed out poison ivy, one older German woman who regularly attended my tours would disobey me and shock everyone by holding a piece of poison ivy in her bare hands, innocently asking, in her thick accent: Mr. Brill, is dis dehr plant you mean?? She was immune, until one day, she showed up with bandages on her arms. She had flirted with danger once too often.
“What happened to you?” I asked.”Yah, meester Brill,” she repled. “You ver right. I no do dat no more!”The best way to prevent the rash is to rub juice from the broken stem of jewelweed on the affected area. Plantain species also help.A colleague is so sensitive that oil carried by the wind sets off a reaction. She tried a radical solution: eating poison ivy, starting with one very tiny leaflet in early spring, when the urushiol content is minimal. The next day she ate two, then three. I donít advise this risky approach: It may backfire, and I wouldnít try it myself. However, she was desperate, and it worked. She desensitized herself, and continues to consume tiny quantities for maintenance.Iíve heard that Pacific Northwest lumberjacks routinely protect themselves from poison ivy this way, but you can also get a bad rash where the poison ivy leaves enter the body, as well as where they exit (the treatment backfires)!
The worst thing to do with poison ivy is burning it. (If it becomes necessary to eradicate this plant, uproot it in late fall, wearing protective clothing, when it has a minimum of poison).
The Boy Scouts Handbook forbids the use of any vine in campfires, to avoid such accidents: smoke carries the oil, producing a rash over 100 percent of the body.
Bill ClintonIf you inhale the smoke, you can get the rash in your throat, bronchial tubes, and lungs. This can be fatal, especially if youíre camping out, where thereís no hospital.
In fact, there’s only one person in the world who doesn’t have to worry about this effect, and it’s someone with whom you’re quite familiar: It’s Bill Clinton ó he doesn’t inhale!
“I tried it once, but I didn’t inhale!”
Poison ivy inspired early twentieth century scientists to create weapons with substances as irritating to the human body as this plant. Thatís how the mustard gas of World War I, and subsequent biological warfare, originated.
Nevertheless, poison ivy has medicinal uses. An ointment of equal parts poison ivy vine, prickly ash bark, and alfalfa seeds is supposed to be good, applied externally, for arthritis. I donít know if it works, and I suggest you don’t try to find out yourself. There are safer herbal and nutritional treatments. Poison ivy is also used in homeopathic medicine. Here, herbs are repeatedly diluted so many times, there are literally no molecules left in the medicine. This makes homeopathy difficult to understand from a scientific basis, but it’s supposed stimulate the body’s defenses against the symptoms the offending substance causes. The patientís constitution is more important than the symptoms in choosing the best homeopathic treatment, but for people with skin problems, poison ivy is often included in the regimen. Of course, there are conflicting claims about whether homeopathy works. Some people benefit from it, others donít, but it’s safer than drugs.
UPDATE: Bigger, Better Poison Ivy Coming Soon to a Forest Near You!
Poison ivy is going to be getting much better. Researchers at Duke University investigating ecosystems of the future pumped high levels of carbon dioxide into a forest. Prevalence of poison ivy increased, along with the concentration of urushiol!
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
This reddish-stained non-woody plant grows from 4-8 feet tall and branches, like a tree, then dies to the ground, all in one season. Its oval, stalked, alternate, smooth-edged emerald green leaves get 8-10 inches long.
Small, five-petaled, short-stalked, radially-symmetrical flowers with green centers bloom in the summer and fall.
Pokeweed Flowers – They dangle from long racemes (common stalks).
Pokeweed Flowers on Raceme – Notice how the flower centers (ovaries), already resemble the berries they will become.
Theyíre replaced by purple-black berries 1/3 inch across in the fall.
Each berry is marked with an indentation, as though someone had poked it.
Inside the berries are numerous small, flat, highly-toxic seeds.
Underground is a huge, fleshy, toxic, perennial taproot.
Pokeweed Taproot and Very Young Shoot
This is one of the best-tasting vegetables on the planet. Gourmet stores in Europe (where it’s grown as a crop) and supermarkets in the south (where it’s been popular since the days of the pioneers) sell it canned.
Make sure you collect only the young stems and leaves in the spring, never the roots, flowers, berries, or summer or fall plants, which are poisonous. Avoid plants more than 8 inches tall. Prepare as directed below, or you may get very sick. Beginners should use this dangerous gourmet vegetable only under expert supervision.
Poor Man’s Pepper (Lepidium virginicum)
This common European weed of sunny, disturbed habitats, poor or sandy soil, and roadsides, grows throughout the US, from spring to fall. Use the spicy leaves, flowers, and seedpods in salads, soups, sauces, casseroles, and for making prepared mustard.
Poor Man’s Pepper with Seed Pods – The mature plant has lots of branches with alternate (arising singly) leaves, and seed stalks with alternating, flat, circular seed pods.
Poor Man’s Pepper Basal Rosette – Strap-shaped leaves spread in a circle along the ground early in the spring. Note the teeth pointing toward the leaf tip (dandelion leaves teeth, usually much larger, point downward).
Poor Man’s Pepper with Immature Flower Stalk – The alternate (single) leaves on the flower stalk look the same as the basal leaves, even though the plant is getting taller by mid-spring.
Poor Man’s Pepper in Flower – Tiny, 4-petaled, white flowers alternate along the slender flower stalk, with flat, circular seed pods below. The upper leaves are more narrow than the basal leaves.
Poor Man’s Pepper Flowers and Seed Pods – Note the flowers’ 4 tiny, white petals, and yellow-green centers, above; developing into flat, green seed pods below. Other similar peppergrasses, also members of the mustard family, are edible as well.
Poor Man’s Pepper Seed Stalk – Grind the green pods with vinegar, miso, garlic, turmeric, and salt in a blender to make a superb prepared wild mustard.
Poor Man’s Pepper Gone to Seed – The seed pods, which mature from the bottom up, turn white when mature. Each pod releases tiny, orange-brown, oblong seeds.
Poor Man’s Seeds and Split Pods – The seeds are much too tiny and insubstantial to use as food.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
Purslane Leaves and Stems
Description: A succulent, sprawling plant of lawns and meadows; flowers inconspicuous, 1/5 inch wide, five yellow petals tucked between the branches, mid-summer to fall; fruit capsules up to 1/4 inch long, filled with tiny, round, black seeds; leaves paddle-shaped, succulent, stalkless 1/2 to 2 inches long, alternate or opposite; stem reddish, succulent, branching, creeping, 4-10 inches long.
Purslane is one of my favorite summer vegetables, with a mild, sweet-sour flavor and a chewy texture. Its reddish stem, nearly as thick as a computer cable, creeps along the ground, rarely getting taller than a pint of milk. The stalkless leaves are paddle shaped, about as long as a small paper clip.
Purslane Leaves, Stems and Flower Buds
Blooming in the summer, the 5-petaled, tiny yellow flowers hide between the base of the leaf and the stem.
The tiny black seeds are hardly larger than grains of salt. If you look very carefully at the end of summer, you may be able to find them pouring out of tiny capsules smaller than a filling in a tooth.
Purslane Fruit Capsules and Seeds
Purslane leaves and stems are great raw in salads. You can steam them or add them to soups, stews, and other vegetable dishes. Beware of spurge, a different-looking poisonous creeping wild plant that sometimes grows near purslane. The stem is wiry, not thick, and it gives off a white, milky sap when you break it. If you’re very careless, you may put some in your bag along with purslane, because they sometimes grow together on lawns, gardens, and meadows.
Purslane Going to Seed
Purslane comes from India, where it was a food crop centuries ago. It was Gandhi’s favorite food. Now it also grows across America, and around the world. It has a wonderful survival tactic: The succulent (juicy) stem, keeps it from drying out. If someone decides purslane is a “weed” and uproots it, it uses the water in the stem to make seeds before it dies, and soon there’ll be even more purslane.
Ramp, Wild Leek (Allium tricocca)
Ramps Seeds and Flowers – Tiny, hard, round, black seeds appear on umbrella-like clusters on a slender stalk in late summer and fall. In late fall, you can locate the bulb by looking for the remnants of the seed head.
You recognize this premier member of the onion/garlic family by itís elongated-oval smooth-edged, stalked leaves, 4-12 inches long and 1 to 2-1/2 inches wide, emerging in dense stands from the floor of moist, open woodlands throughout Eastern North America every spring.
Ramps Leaves and Bulb – The bulbs are at their smallest in early spring, when the growing leaves absorb the nutrients for rapid growth.
Crush any part of the plant, and its familial affinity will hit you right in the nose.
Young Ramps in Early Spring
Lily-of-the-valley, beautiful but deadly (it reminds me of my ex-girlfriend) has similar leaves, but no odor.
Ramp leaves die back when tree leaves block the sunlight from reaching them in late spring, but a slender, smooth, erect flower stalk, 6 inches to 1-1/2 feet tall, supports a small, umbrella-like cluster of 6-petaled white to cream-colored flowers in early summer.
Ramp Flowers – The 6-petaled flowers are typical of the lily family, to which ramps and onions belong.
The flowers are followed by three-lobed, green fruit.
Ramp Fruit – Note the 3 lobes of each fruit.
The fruits open in the fall to expose tiny, globular, shiny, black seeds in sets of threes.
Ramp Seeds – Before falling to the ground, the seeds grow in sets of 3.
Ramp Seeds Close-up – Note the 3 chambers in the opened fruit.
Underground, youíll find white bulbs, usually clustered, which are edible spring (when I usually collect just the leaves, since the bulbs are small then), summer, and fall (plus mild winters, if you can find them).
Ramp Bulb in Summer – The bulb looks like an oblong onion, but packs way more punch!
When there are no leaves, look for the flower- or seedstalk to locate the bulbs.
Ramp Skeleton – Locate this in the fall and you’ll know where to dig for the bulbs.
There are no two ways about it: Whether you use the leaves or the bulbs, this is simply the best-tasting member of the entire onion family, wild or commercial. You can use the leaves or bulbs raw or cooked. Any cooking method works, taking 5-15 minutes. Youíll find that ramps are terrific, and so is the resulting bad breath.
If you canít find ramps in the wild, you may purchase them in gourmet stores. Otherwise, substitute shallots.
SHEPHERD’S PURSE (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Shepherd’s Purse – Note the deeply toothed basal leaves, and the stalkless upper leaves clasping the stem.
DESCRIPTION: Shepherdís purse begins with a basal rosette (circle of bottom leaves) of deeply toothed leaves up to 9 inches across, broader toward the tip, like the dandelionís, but without white, milky sap, and with more blunt teeth pointing outward, not toward the leafís base. The slender, white taproot contrasts with dandelionís stout, beige one.
The little-branched, slender, erect flower stalk grows up to 2‡ feet tall in mid-spring, with smaller, alternate (singly configured), stalkless leaves clasping the stem with 2 small, pointed lobes.
The tiny, white, 4-petaled flowers, whose petals form a cross, like related mustards, alternate around the tip of the stalk.
The flowers give way to long-stemmed, flattened, triangular, 2-parted seedpods º inch long that supposedly resemble the purses of ancient shepherds. If you ever run into an ancient shepherd while collecting shepherdís purse, let me know if itís true. Although shepherdís purse has no poisonous look-alikes, be sure that the ancient shepherd doesnít view your botanical studies of his purse as the work of a pickpocket or crook, and bop you one on the noggin with the crook of his staff!
Shepherd’s Purse Basal Rosette – The teeth point outward or upward, not downward, like the dandelion’s.
HABITAT: Shepherdís purse grows on disturbed soil, in unmowed meadows and lawns, and along roadsides and trails
SEASON: Eat this annualís tender, young basal leaves in March and early April, before the plant flowers. Sometimes edible new leaves come up in late fall too. Either theyíre fooled by short nights (which stimulate germination), similar to early spring, or they just havenít read the other field guides that list this as a springtime-only plant.
FOOD USES: Uncharacteristically mild for a mustard green, the leaves benefit from plenty of seasonings. Add them raw to salads; simmer in soups, stews, and sauces; or sautÈ or steam them. They cook in about 10 minutes, and shrink by about 75%. I find the seedpods and the tiny, spherical seeds inside the mature pods to be without flavor, although they are reputedly peppery.
NUTRITION: Shepherdís purse leaves provide vitamins C, A, and K; some protein; the minerals sulfur, calcium, iron, potassium, and sodium; the flavonoid rutin; and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
MEDICINAL USES: Used to reduce fertility (and to strengthen uterine contraction during childbirth) in China, itís supposed to be an astringent, making tissue contract and stopping all manner of bleeding, from external scratches and nosebleeds to internal hemorrhages.
Itís reputed to be good for diarrhea (an astringent would tighten loose bowels), and to act as a diuretic for kidney disease. I havenít seen these claims confirmed or refuted, but it didnít work on my paper cut, so I wouldnít use it for more serious conditions without proof.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras Tree in Flower
Description: Medium-sized, root beer-scented tree with 3 kinds of leaves; flowers tiny, yellow, 5-petaled, in spring; fruits blue-black, egg-shaped, 1/2 inch long, in long-stalked cups in summer; 3 leaves oval, mitten-shaped, or three-lobed, 3-5 inches long, fragrant, toothless; roots very fragrant; twigs green, hairy under magnification, curving upward like candelabras.
Sassafras is a tree with three different leaves. One is oval, one partly divided into three lobes, and one is mitten-shaped. The edges are smooth.
If you tear or crush the leaves, they smell like root beer. You can make tea with the leaves by pouring boiling water over a handful, letting them sit covered, away from the heat, 20 minutes, then straining out the leaves. The roots of small saplings are even better.
Sassafras makes so many extra seedlings, that you can usually pull some up without harm, especially if some friends help. Grab the bottom of the green, root beer-scented saplings with both hands, and pull slowly, so the root doesn’t break off.
Sassafras grows at the edges of forests, in thickets, and along residential streets in the eastern half of the U.S. Itís in season all year, although you must recognize the green, erect, sweet-smelling leafless twigs to harvest in the winter.
The inner bark or cambium is the living part of a tree. The outer bark, and the wood in the center, is made from tiny units called cells which have died.
Wash off the soil, and gently simmer the root in water, covered, over low heat 20 minutes. Because leaves are delicate, you usually donít boil them because the flavor will boil off. Roots are tougher, so usually must boil them to get at the flavor.
Remove the root, and drink the tea. You can use the root over again. To make root beer, chill the tea, then add drop of honey for sweetness and some sparkling water for fizz. You can also chew on sassafras twigs to freshen your breath.
WHERE DID SASSAFRAS GET ITS MITTENS?
Persian and Flemish Folklore
Long, long ago, the first people began life as a double tree. God separated the two trees, gave them souls, turned the branches into arms and legs, and made the crowns into heads filled with the gift of knowledge. Other trees also wanted to become people. They tried, but didnít make it. However, some of their leaves, like sassafras’s, are shaped like human hands, showing our link to trees.
In Arkansas, superstitious people never burned sassafras wood. They thought that someone would die when the wood cracked and sputtered.
Fire inspired many other superstitions: in Massachusetts, people believed that the flame would take the shape of the leaves of the tree you were burning.
Note: You may have heard that sassafras has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it causes cancer. Huge quantities have given to rats over took periods of time give the rodents cancer because they change the molecule sassafrole into a cancer-causing one. Humans don’t do this, and no one has ever gotten sick from sassafras. Sassafras was banned because there are a lot of rats in the FDA!
Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
Skunk Cabbage, Young Leaves and Flower – The flower is hooded, and the emerging leaves are wrapped like a scroll.
DESCRIPTION: This entire plant smells like a skunk when injured (hence the specific name, foetidusóstinking)ógreat to show kids, always eager to be repulsed!
The flower, which appears in late winter before the leaves, features a stalked, elliptoid, pale pink spadix (the reproductive part) about 1 inch long, studded with small yellow flowers, and partially shielded by a mottled, purple and green, long-oval spathe, 3 to 6 inches tall. It generates enough heat to melt the surrounding snow, while the odor attracts the yearís first flies to this heated haven. They mate there and pollinate the flowers.
The smooth-edged, long-oval to heart-shaped leaves come up in March (sometimes also in late fall, when they donít complete their development). First wrapped like scrolls, they grow 1-1?2 to 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet long.
In mid-summer and fall, an inconspicuous, low, flattened, green, egg-shaped fruit, 2 to 3 inches across, its surface convoluted like a brain, appears in the mud, turning black as it matures. Inside, a circle of 10 to 14 roughly globular seeds lines the periphery.
Caution: Deadly false hellebore (Veratrum viride) superficially resembles skunk cabbage, and the plants often grow side by side. Odorless, false hellebore leaves look pleated, with prominent parallel veins, while skunk cabbage’s inconspicuous veins branch.
The leaves, which appear in early spring (they sometimes also appear in late fall, but don’t complete their development) are first wrapped like a scroll.
HABITAT: Skunk cabbage grows in large, dense stands in wet woods and swamps. And it grows in a certain area in eastern Asia too. Even though the 2 populations have been separated for 6 to 8 million years, the plantsí forms are identical, and they interbreed readily. For a long time, biologists couldnít figure out why they didnít evolve into 2 different species incapable of interbreeding in all that time.
It turns out that once a new species comes into existence, it remains unchanged for millions of years, through ice ages and hot climates, until it finally goes extinct. New species may branch off and evolve from an isolated pocket population of the parent species in as few as tens of thousands of years, only to continue unchanged for millions of years as well. And the stagnation of skunk cabbage in Asia and America (it does grow in swamps after all) supports this take on the scale of evolutionís operation, and explains the conundrum.
After I identified skunk cabbage once by a swamp, a member of my expedition got very excited and plunged into the muck after it. The owner of a well-known New York City herb and spice shop, he hadnít been able to obtain the root, which his customers were demanding, from his suppliers.
The rest of us continued on, soon finding more skunk cabbage growing on dry land. But as the tour ended and we passed the swamp again on the way out, the store owner was still rolling in the mud, trying to wrestle out the skunk cabbage roots. I imagine heís still there, struggling, to this very day!
The moral: look around to find the best spot, where you wonít have to sort out grass and twigs, deal with poison ivy, or dive into a swamp, before collecting!
SEASON: You may try using skunk cabbage leaves in March and early April, but after reading further, you may not want to!
FOOD USES: Marginally edible at best, skunk cabbage contains calcium oxalate crystals, which cause the must unpleasant burning sensation of the mouth and tongue. Boiling doesnít dispel this quality. I once dried young skunk cabbage leaves in a food dehydrator for a week, following instructions from Lee Petersonís Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Then I simmered them with lots of other vegetables, tomatoes, spices, and beans, making chili. I finally dispelled the calcium oxalate crystals from the skunk cabbageóunfortunately, they went into my mouth!
After cursing out Peterson for an hour before the burning and stinging of my tongue and mouth, caused by one bite (which I quickly spat out), subsided, I flushed the entire recipe down the toilet, and the plumbingís never been the same since!
I include skunk cabbage in this book only to head off foragers whoíve been misinformed about its edibility and insist on trying it. If you must use this plant, air-dry it for 6 months, after which it tastes like paper, a vast improvement!
Conclusion: The day you bring home skunk cabbage is the night to go out for dinneróand if you do find skunk cabbage, leave it for the skunks!
Skunk Cabbage Fruit – The green and black, ovate, blocky fruit is easily overlooked.
MEDICINAL USES: An ointment made by boiling skunk cabbage roots in oil is said to be good for ringworm (a fungal infection of the skin), as well as sores and swellings.
Iíd be willing to try this plant externally, but Iíll let someone else swallow the tea made from the roots or seeds first. Such an infusion is supposedly antispasmodic, diaphoretic (inducing sweating and stimulating the immune system), and expectorant (bringing up phlegm), and it reputedly acts as a narcotic for asthma. Itís supposed to be good for arthritis, chorea, hysteria, edema, whooping cough, worms, epilepsy, and convulsions in pregnancy and labor (the Iroquois would pass the seeds over female genitals to bring on childbirth). I doubt that all these claims could be verified scientifically.
Skunk Cabbage Fruit, split lengthwise. – The oval seeds grow close to the fruit’s surface
Common Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)
WHAT IT IS: The leaves of this plant taste like lettuce but with more oomph. Eat them raw or cooked.
WHEN TO PICK IT: Early spring to late fall.
WHERE TO FIND IT: In meadows and fields, along roadsides, near the seashore, and in unkempt gardens. I gather them on little-trafficked side streets in towns throughout Westchester.
HOW TO IDENTIFY IT: The plant has long, lobed, toothed (serrated) leaves similar to its edible relative, the dandelion, but is bristly, and not thorny. The leaves are hairless. In early spring, the leaves radiate in a circle from the roots. In mid-spring, the plant bolts, reaching up to four feet tall, with a hollow stem and alternately configured (single), broad-based, triangular, stalkless leaves that taper at the base and clasp the stem. Older leaves turn grayish-green. The many yellow flowers, which bloom in the summer and fall, look like dandelions only smaller and fringed. The globular, white seed heads are also similar to but smaller than the dandelion’s.
NUTRITIONAL BONA FIDES, LORE, AND FOLK-MEDICINE USES: An excellent source of vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, and iron.
Common Sow Thistle Basal Leaves – Note the large leading lobe and the prickly leaf margins.
Common Sow Thistle in Flower.
Common Sow Thistle Flower Cluster – Note the yellow, dandelion-like flower and corrugated flower buds.
Common Sow Thistle Flower Head
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
Description: Herbaceous plant with small, white, 5-petaled flower, 3-parted leaf, and familiar fruit; flower white, radially-symmetrical, 5 petals, 1/2 to 1 inch broad, on separate flower stalk; fruit drooping on long, slender, stalk, much smaller than commercial strawberry, with 10 tiny, green sepals cupping the base; leaf on separate stalk, 3-parted palmate-compound, with large, even teeth, leaflets long-oval, 2-3 inches long; plant 2-6 inches tall, spreading by long, slender, scaly, horizontal runners.
Earls, dukes, princes, and marquises used the common strawberry’s beautifully-shaped 3-parted, evenly-toothed compound leaves as emblems on the crowns. Poison ivy also with three leaflets, lacks the even teeth.
The white strawberry flower, which ripens early in spring, grows up to one inch across, with five symmetrical petals.
Wild Strawberry Flowers and Leaves
Flowers and leaves grow separately on long, slender stalks.
With milk-white flowers, whence soon shall sweet
Rich fruitage, to the taste and smell
Pleasant alike, the Strawberry weaves
Its coronet of three-fold leaves,
In mazes through the sloping wood.
Wild Strawberry in Flower
The fruit ripens in late spring or early summer. Much smaller than commercial strawberries, it takes long to collect, but tastes much better. Stuff yourself with wild strawberries, collect them to use on cereal, in pancakes, oatmeal, fruit salad, sauces, or other desserts. Theyíre so good, theyíre the symbol of perfect excellence.
A HAIKU GUIDE TO WILD STRAWBERRIES
1. Always pick the day
before the berry;
try the first day of summer.
2. Then fall to your knees
and follow your nose
in a field the sun favors.
3. Yes, bring a bucket
but to eat your fill,
you must be lucky or small.
4. And to bring them home,
even to loved ones,
makes you a strawberry saint.
Strawberries grow where there’s lots of sun: in meadows, fields, on moist ground, along the edge of woods, and on hillsides. You can find them across the U.S.
There are no poisonous plants that resemble strawberries, but there’s a related edible plant called the wood strawberry with yellow flowers, and a similar fruit surrounded by hairy sepals (modified leaves), that has no flavor—it’s as tasteless as my jokes!
Wood Strawberry – Caution: This delicious-lookng fruit may look like a strawberry, but it’s not. It’s the deadly wood strawberry: It looks so good when you pick it, but has absolutely no flavor when you eat it, causing you to die of disappointment!
The only way to use this fruit is to add it to salads or dessert dishes to add color.
Wood Strawberry Flower
In Europe, the strawberry flower means: be alert; it also signifies innocence. In the past, a woman would thread strawberries on grass stems for the one she loved:
The wood nymphs often times would busy be,
And pluck for him the blushing strawberry;
Making of them a bracelet on a bent,
Which for a favour to this swain they sent.
Superstitious Michigan farmers never ate the first strawberry to ripen, because it would show the plant that making lots of fruit was no use. So theyíd throw the first strawberry to the birds. This goes back to the pagan show of respect for the nature spirits.
Scandinavians believed the goddess Frigga smuggled dead babies’ souls to heaven hidden inside strawberries. Bavarian peasants tied baskets of strawberries to their cattle’s horns so elves could enjoy the fruit at night, and return the favor by magically using their magic to make the peasants prosperous.
THE MOTHER, THE STRAWBERRIES, AND THE GOLD
—German Folk Tale
Once upon a time, on the magical Midsummer Day (the summer solstice), a woman with a baby went picking strawberries. By nightfall she realized that the more berries she gathered, the more there were. After a while, she came upon a cave and entered it, carrying her baby. Inside lay mounds of gold. The three maidens of the cave allowed her to remove as much gold as she carry in one armful. But the woman became greedy, grabbed three armfuls of gold, and fled out of the cave, leaving the baby behind. Suddenly, the entrance shut behind her, and a voice called out, warning her that she couldnít reclaim the infant for another year.
On the next summer solstice, she was overjoyed to find the cave entrance open again. Inside, her child was waiting for her with a rosy apple in his hand. This time, she ignored the treasure and rushed to her child. The maidens of the cave, seeing how love had triumphed over greed, let them both go.
THE ORIGIN OF STRAWBERRIES
A Native American Folk Tale
Soon after the Great Spirit created the first man and the first woman, they began to quarrel. Nobody remembers why, but because of it, the first woman ran away in great anger. Soon, the first man became very sad, and began to moan and weep. The Great Spirit heard his cries and felt sorry for him. “Would you like to see your wife again?” he asked. “If only she’d come back,” the first man promised, “I’ll never quarrel with her again!”
“Go find her, then,” said the Great Spirit. The first man ran after her, but the first woman had too great a head start. So the Great Spirit created a huge patch of blueberries in her path, hoping she would stop to eat. But she was so angry, she didn’t even slow down.
Next, he tried raspberries, then currants, and even blackberries. Although the thorns tore her clothes and scratched her, she kept going.
Finally, the Great Spirit created a new berry growing along the ground, and she slowed down to try one. It was so good, she stopped to pick more. That was how the first man finally caught up to her and apologized. They made up, and the strawberry is still shaped like a heart because it symbolizes the love of The First Man and The First Woman. And Native people call it the heartberry.
This fruit shows an exception to nature’s rules. The seeds, which grow on the outside of the fruit, are often sterileóthey usually donít grow into new plants. Strawberries usually spread vegetatively, by runners. The fruit is a only a vestige (left-over) of an ancestor that did spread by seeds, although gardeners have propogated this plant using seeds. Runners gradually became so successful and important that varieties that wasted too much energy reproducing by seeds died out. The reason we can eat strawberries is that the genes (programming units) that instruct the plant to make the marginally functional flowers and fruit still exist.
Wife unto the garden and set me a plot,
With strawberry rootes of the best to be got
Such growing abroade, among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked prove excellent good.
Status: Edible Plant, Medicinal Plant
Scientific Name: Rhus spp.
Alternative Common Names: Smooth sumac is also called red sumac. Winged sumac is also called dwarf sumac or shining sumac. Skunkbush is also called sourberry, three-leaf sumac, and squawbush.
Groups: Anacardiaceae, the cashew family or sumac family
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
All Seasons This Plant is Edible: Mid-spring, late summer, early fall, mid-fall, late fall
Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible: Late summer, early fall, mid-fall, late fall. The berries of various sumac species come into season from late summer through fall. Smooth sumac and squawbush ripen in late summer, staghorn sumac ripens in early fall, and winged sumac ripens in mid-fall. And you can harvest the edible young shoots in the spring.
Food Uses: Salad, potherb, seasoning, tea/beverage
Parts to Use: Fruit/Berry, Shoot
Habitats: Staghorn, smooth, and winged sumac all grow in full or partial sunlight, in old fields, thickets, edges of woods, disturbed areas, canyons, stream banks, roadsides, dry sandy or rocky soil, and near the seashore. Skunkbush grows on slopes, plains, and canyons.
Primary Habitats: Fields, thickets, disturbed habitats, edge habitats, trail- and roadsides, woodlands, seashore, parks
Range: Various sumac species grow throughout North America. Winged and staghorn sumac grow throughout Eastern and Central North America. Smooth sumac grows throughout North America. Skunkbush grows in the western half of the US, but it’s also planted in parks on the East Coast—I’ve seen it in Central Park.
Prevalence: Common species, Native species
Place of Origin: Native
How to Spot: Look for dense stands of small trees or shrubs, with stout twigs that exude white sap. Sumac usually has long, feather-compound leaves, upright terminal spikes or panicles with many tiny, yellow to green-yellow, five-petaled flowers, and upright fruit clusters consisting of many tiny, spherical, hard, red berries.
General Information: This is a group of shrubs or small trees which usually use underground runners to form dense stands. They can reach from four to 30 feet in height. The stout twigs exude a white, sticky sap when broken.
Their lemon-scented alternate leaves, usually feather-compound but sometimes palmate-compound, can grow to over two feet long. The many pointed, toothed, paired, elliptical to lance-shaped leaflets on the feather-compound leaves, pointed at both ends, turn a beautiful scarlet in the fall.
Fragrant terminal spikes or panicles two to 12 inches consisting of many tiny yellow to green-yellow, five-petaled flowers bloom in mid-summer. They give way to dense clusters of small, hard, dry, sticky, spherical, red berries, each with a stony seed inside. The berries turn rust colored with age and persist through the winter, even more faded, and attached to their brown, stiff, branching stems.
Many sumac species grow throughout America. Here’s a sampling: Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) is a shrub or small tree that usually grows from four to 15 (sometimes 30) feet tall. Without much of a trunk, its branches spread to create a wide crown. Covered in velvet, its furry, forked branches resemble a stag’s antlers, especially in the winter when they’re bare. 16 to 24 inches long, each feather-compound leaf is composed of 11 to 31 sharply toothed, lance-shaped leaflets. Dense, rust-colored hairs coat the leaf stalks. Blooming in mid-summer, the dense, cone-shaped, male and female flower clusters, eight inches long, grow either on the same or on separate shrubs. The fruit clusters that follow, with berries 0.125 inches across, are also furry.
Smooth sumac (R. glabra) is a shrub or small tree up to 20 feet tall. The feather-compound leaf is 12 to 18 inches long, with 11 to 31 lance-shaped leaflets, whitish underneath, two to four inches long. Pointed, sharply-toothed, and whitish underneath, a smooth, reddish midrib grows between the leaflets. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants in dense, cone-shaped clusters eight inches long. The shrub isn’t hairy, and the fruit clusters are looser than staghorn sumac’s.
Winged sumac (R. copallina) grows up to 30 feet tall, with a short trunk and spreading branches. The feather-compound leaf grows up to 12 inches long, with of seven to 15 shiny, mostly toothless leaflets. The leaf’s midrib features distinct pairs of thin, flat membranes called “wings.” The flowers grow on pyramidal panicles three to five inches wide. The short-hairy fruit clusters are less dense than most other species.
Skunkbush’s (R. trilobata) densely hairy twigs release a strong, unpleasant odor when you break them, accounting for its name. Its three-parted palmate-compound leaf grows two to three inches long, with very coarsely toothed, sometimes lobed leaflets, dark green and shiny above. The small, white to creamy yellow flowers grow in spike-like terminal clusters. The terminal clusters of berries are so much smaller than the species discussed above, that one will easily fit into your hand, but the berries are a little larger than most other species’.
Positive ID Check:
- Small trees or large shrubs with stout twigs exuding white sap when cut
- Usually very large, feather-compound (sometimes palmate-compound) leaves, usually fragrant when cut
- Upright panicles or spikes of many tiny, yellow or green-yellow, five-petaled flowers
- Dense, upright clusters tiny, hard, spherical, red or red-orange berries
Harvesting: The best time to harvest the ripe berries is after a prolonged dry spell. The worst time is the day after it’s rained, when most of the flavor has been washed away.
The best berries are brightly colored and dotted with whitish deposits of tasty acid. Pinch a berry and touch your finger to your tongue. You should detect a strong, sour flavor. This means it’s harvest time.
Cut off the red seed heads with garden shears or a knife and transfer them to a bag, or twist and break them off with your hands.
Food Preparation: Don’t rinse off these berries before use or you’ll wash all the flavor down the drain. The best-known way to use sumac is by making a wonderfully flavored pink lemonade with it. Submerge the berry cluster (minus any six- or eight-legged stragglers) in a bowl of room temperature or warm water, and squeeze and twist it with your hands for a minute or so (you may also steep the clusters in hot water, but lemonade is better cold). Strain out the berries through a fine sieve or cheesecloth-lined colander, sweeten to taste, and enjoy.
You can also make sumac concentrate, which you can use like lemon or lime juice.
The young growth at the tips of the plants—the shoots, are also edible, raw or cooked, after you peel them. They make quite a tasty vegetable you can use in a variety of dishes.
Nutrition: Sumac is an excellent source of vitamin C. Most colorful fruits contain healthy proanthocyanins, but sumac hasn’t been tested for these yet.
Medicinal Uses: Sumac is an astringent, and it’s been used in herbal medicine as an antiseptic and tonic. Sumac pink lemonade was used for fever. It may not get rid of the fever, but like lemonade, it will make the patient fell a little cooler.
A decoction of the cambium or an infusion of the leaves has been used for diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, urinary tract infections, sore throat, chronic gum problems, and cold sores. The Native Americans chewed the root to ease swollen or infected gums and to stop kids’ bed-wetting, and they applied sumac compresses to burns and cuts, to stop bleeding, and reduce swelling. This plant certainly merits scientific testing.
Poisonous Lookalikes: Make sure the flower clusters are upright, and the clusters of berries are upright and red or red-orange. Poison sumac (Rhus vernix) has drooping clusters of white berries, quite different from the edible species. Touch it, and you’ll have a severe rash for a month that can recur over and over.
Poison oak has leaves similar to skunkbush, but the flowers are small and inconspicuous, and the berries are yellow-brown, not red.
Cautions: Sumac is related to cashews, mangoes, and poison ivy. If you’re you’re so sensitive to poison ivy that you can’t eat cashews or mangoes, you should avoid sumac too.
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors: In the Middle East, people use dried, ground sumac berries as a seasoning. That works with the species that grow there, but not with American ones, which have hard, stony seeds inside the berries. However, you can usually substitute Sumac Concentrate in recipe that calls for sumac, with good results. Just subtract a volume of liquid in the recipe equal to that of the Sumac Concentrate you’re adding.
The black walnut tree has leaves similar to sumac’s, but it’s a much larger tree with different flowers, and edible nuts rather than berries in the fall. Also, the leaf doesn’t exude a white sap, as sumac does.
The similar-looking leaf of the ailanthus tree (Ailanthus altissima) smells like rotten peanut butter and doesn’t exude a white sap. Again, all other features are different.
The mountain ashes or rowan trees also have similar leaves, but again, no milky sap, and much larger, round, red or orange edible berries.
Sumac Concentrate: I’ve discovered that you can make a very useful and tasty sumac concentrate by processing about five batches of sumac through the same water. When you achieve the acidity of lemon juice, you can use this in any of the thousands of recipes that need a touch of acidity or call for lemon juice or lime juice, or vinegar.
Sumac will imparts its own special flavor to any appropriate dish, from salad dressings to desserts. It’s especially good with mulberries, which lack the acidity of other berries, or other non-acidic fruits such as bananas, papayas, or pawpaws, not to mention mild-flavored vegetables such potatoes or cauliflower.
You can also freeze sumac concentrate in ice cube trays, pack the sumac cubes into freezer containers, and defrost as needed.
Sumac berry clusters, unwashed
Lukewarm or room temperature water as needed
1. Place the 1/5th of the sumac in a bowl, cover it with water, and squeeze and rub vigorously with your hands for a minute or so, or until most of the color has been transferred into the water.
2. Strain out the used sumac in a colander, and put the colored water back in the bowl.
3. Repeat step 1 with the remaining 4 portions of fresh sumac branches successively, until you’ve used up all the sumac.
4. Strain through a cheesecloth or fine sieve to remove all the debris.
Sumac-steamed Cauliflower: Here’s a quick, simple way to make the best cauliflower you’ve ever tasted, with sumac providing an exotic touch.
1 head of cauliflower, broken into florets
1 cup of water
2 tbs. + 2 tsp. olive oil, or to taste
1 tbs. + 1 tsp. sumac concentrate, or to taste
2-1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1. Place the water, 2 tbs. of olive oil, 1 tbs. sumac concentrate, and the 2 tsp. salt in a pressure cooker or large saucepan.
2. Place the cauliflower on a steamer rack above the water mixture, pressure cook 1 minute, and transfer the pressure cooker to a sink partially filled with water, to stop the cooking. If you’re using a saucepan, steam, covered, 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cauliflower is just tender but not mushy.
3. Serve sprinkled with the remaining olive oil, sumac concentrate, and salt. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 minute or 20 minutes
Watermelon-sumac Pops: Here’s a delicious, healthful frozen fruit dessert, where the sourness of the sumac concentrate offsets the sweet flavor of the watermelon.
6 cups watermelon, diced
1 tbs. clear liquid stevia
1 tbs. sumac concentrate or lime juice, or to taste
1. Purée all ingredients in a blender. Adjust the amount of sweetener and sumac concentrate to taste.
2. Pour into 8 ice pop mold divisions and freeze.
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Freezing time: 3 hours
Smooth Sumac in Flower and Staghorn Sumac with Berries – Most sumacs have long, feather-compound leaves consisting of many leaflets. Smooth sumac’s flower cluster is loose and spreading, while staghorn sumac’s berry cluster, which replaced its flowers, is much tighter.
Winged Sumac in Flower – Winged sumac’s large cluster of tiny, yellow flowers are typical of this plant group, but the shiny, toothless, elliptical leaflets, with pairs of flat membranes between them, are quite distinct to this species.
Winged Sumac Berries – Winged sumac’s loose cluster or red berries are the last to ripen in mid- or even late fall.
Smooth Sumac Flower Cluster – Smooth sumac has loose, cone-shaped clusters of tiny, yellow flowers. Unlike staghorn sumac, this species isn’t fuzzy-looking.
Smooth Sumac with Berries – Smooth sumac has the large, feather-compound leaves of most sumacs, and loose clusters of tiny, red berries. When the berries are red and sticky, they’re perfect for making sumac pink “lemonade” or sumac concentrate.
Smooth Sumac Berry Cluster – These red berries are perfect for making pink lemonade when you can see patches of sticky, whitish acid on them.
Staghorn Sumac Shoot and Leaves – Staghorn sumac has the large, feather-compound leaves of most sumacs, but its branches are fuzzy. The reddish, tender, young shoot is at the stage where it’s perfect to peel and eat.
Skunkbush in Flower – Skunkbush is different from most sumac species, with a three-parted, palmate-compound instead of a feather-compound leaf. Each leaf consists of just three partially lobed leaflets. The cluster of tiny, yellow flowers is also smaller than other species’.
Status:This plant has poisonous parts, Edible plant, Medicinal Plant
Scientific Name: Prunus avium
Alternative Common Names: Wild Cherry, Gean, Massard, Mazzard
Groups: Rosaceae, the rose family
Plant Type: Tree
All Seasons This Plant is Edible: Late spring, Early summer
Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible: Late spring, Early summer, These cherries ripen as spring gives way to summer.
Food Uses: Fruit/Berry
Parts to Use: Fruit/Berry
Habitats: Forests, edges of forests, edges of paths, park lands, cultivated areas
Primary Habitats: Edge habitats, cultivated places, woodlands, and parks
Range: Eastern and Western North America, but not in Utah
Prevalence: Common species
Place of Origin: Eurasia and Northern Africa
How to Spot: Look for a small tree with purplish-brown bark, or a medium-sized tree with silvery gray cracked bark, both shiny streaked with horizontal white lines. The shiny, fine-toothed, medium-sized, oval, pointed, alternate leaves have distinct red glands on the leafstalks. Clusters of two to six radially-symmetrical, five-petaled, showy, long-stalked, white flowers grow on the twig tips. Small, smooth, spherical, red, yellow, or black umbrella-like clusters of long-stalked cherries replace the flowers when the weather begins to get hot.
General Information: Growing up from 50 to 70 feet tall, with the trunk dominant over the branches, the sweet cherry tree is a feral form of the commercial cherry, created from seed, not from cuttings, so that it’s more like ancestral wild cherries than the uniform cultivated clones of orchard and backyards. The symmetrical, conical crown becomes rounded to irregular with age. White, horizontal lines streak the shiny, smooth, purplish-brown bark, which becomes dark silvery gray and fissured with age.
Shiny, fine-toothed, oval, pointed, alternate leaves, which turn orange, pink, or red in the fall, grow from 2.75 to over 5.5 inches long and 1.5 to 2.75 inches wide. The reddish leafstalk, which has two to five small, red glands (nectaries, where insects that protect the tree from herbivores get fed), grows from under an inch to 1.33 inches long.
In early spring, clusters of two to six radially-symmetrical, five-petaled, showy white flowers, each one inch to 1.5 inch across, bloom on the tips of the twigs on flower stalks one to two inches long.
Small, smooth, spherical, red, yellow, or black, long-stalked cherries, 0.5 to one inch across and containing one hard seed 0.33 inches across, ripen close to the start of summer. The stalks of several cherries originate from the same point on the twig.
Positive ID Check:
- Smooth, shiny bark, purplish-brown on young trees, becoming dark silvery gray and cracked with age
- Bark streaked with horizontal white lines
- Shiny, fine-toothed, oval, pointed, alternate leaves 2.75 to over 5.5 inches long and 1.5 to 2.75 inches wide
- Clusters of two to six radially-symmetrical, showy, long-stalked, 5-petaled white flowers, one inch to 1.5 inch across, growing on twig tips
- Small, smooth, spherical red, yellow, or black, long-stalked cherries 0.5 to one inch across
- Stalks of several cherries originating from the same point on the twig
- One hard seed 0.33 inches across inside each cherry
Harvesting: Sweet cherries are often hard to collect because too often, few branches grow within reach. And when a friend who repairs roofs for a living ascended one of these with me, using his mega-ladder, we still had to go out on a limb to reach the fruit. So look for young, relatively small trees at the edges of woodlands and in cultivated parks. You might get a really good crop from these every three to four years.
To collect efficiently, punch a hole in the top of a food container, insert a key ring, and attach it to your belt with a key clip, to free both hands for picking. When your container and stomach are full, transfer your harvest into one of your empty containers and resume picking.
Food Preparation: Sweet cherries are smaller and more tart than commercial cherries, with a more intense cherry flavor. Use them raw or cooked like commercial cherries, in sweetened puddings, cakes, cereals, salads, smoothies, pies, ice cream, jams, and other desserts. To remove the seeds cook them with a sweetener and thickener and strain out the seeds using a food mill, or use a cherry pitter or paring knife.
Nutrition: In addition to carbohydrates, cherries provide vitamins C and K, folate; the carotinoids beta-carotene, choline, zeanxanthin, and lutein; and the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Medicinal Uses: A decoction of the fruit stalks is considered astringent, diuretic and tonic, and has been used to treat cystitis, edema, bronchitis, diarrhea, and anemia. However it contains amygdalin and prunasin, potential sources of cyanide. Small amounts of these substances stimulate respiration, improve digestion, and create a feeling of well-being, but only if they don’t release cyanide and kill you first (stick to safer medicinal plants)!
Poisonous Lookalikes: None
Cautions: Except for the ripe fruit, all parts of the tree contain the toxic cyanogenic glycoside, amygdalin, which may break down into cyanide and cause gasping, weakness, excitement, pupil dilation, spasms, convulsions, coma, respiratory failure, and death, although if you cook the cherries before straining out the pits, the heat will destroy the toxins in the pits.
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors: Black birch bark looks similar to cherry bark, but it’s never reddish and has fewer cracks. All the trees’ other features differ, and even in the winter, injured cherry twigs smell like bitter almond, whereas black birch trees smell like wintergreen.
Some apple and crab apple trees with white blossoms bloom at the time as sweet cherries, but apple bark is gray and scaly, not smooth, shiny, or streaked with horizontal white lines.
Sometimes sweet cherries get blackish, but they’re not the same as our native black cherry, which has flowers and fruit ripening later in the season, and growing along long racemes. Nevertheless, like sweet cherries, black cherries are also sometimes confusingly called wild cherries.
Black Forest Cake with Wild Cherries: Here’s my healthful version of classic German chocolate cake topped with sweet cherries, that tastes even better than the original.
1 cup (5 oz.) buckwheat flour + 3/4 cup (5 oz.) sweet brown rice flour, or 10 oz. any whole-grain flours
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder
1/2 cup flax seeds ground into 3/4 cup meal
1 tsp. xanthan gum
1/2 tsp. guar gum
2 tsp. cinnamon, ground
1 tsp. nutmeg, ground
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cloves, ground
Ingredients to Blend
2 cups soy mil, nut milk, or other non-dairy milk
6 tbs. almond oil
1/4 cup lecithin granules
4 common spicebush berries, or 1 tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. vanilla
1 tbs. liquid stevia
2-1/2 cups pitted wild sweet cherries or commercial cherries
1-1/4 cups cherry juice concentrate
1 tbs. agar
5 tsp. arrowroot
1 tsp. liquid stevia
1 tsp dried water mint or commercial mint, ground
1/2 tsp. powdered ginger
1/8 tsp. amaretto extract or almond extract (optional)
3 cups silken tofu, drained
3/4 cup dates
1/4 cup lecithin granules
2 tbs. almond oil
1 tbs. fresh lemon extract
2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. liquid stevia
1/4 tsp. butterscotch extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1. Mix together the dry ingredients.
2. Purée the ingredients to blend in a blender.
3. Mix the purée into the dry ingredients. Don’t overmix.
4. Transfer to 3 oiled 9-inch pie tins and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick emerges dry.
5. Cool on racks.
6. Meanwhile, mix the cherry topping ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes before chilling it.
7. Purée all the icing ingredients in a food processor.
8. Layer the cake with icing, cherry topping, and more cake, until all ingredients are used up.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Sweet Cherry Blossoms and Fruit – The sweet cherry tree’s showy, long-stemmed, white, five-petaled, radially symmetrical blossoms grow in clusters of two to five, originating from a common point, sometimes before the oval, finely toothed, pointed, stalked, alternate leaves develop. The long-stalked red (sometimes yellow or black-purple) fruits resemble commercial cherries, only they’re smaller.
Sweet Cherry Flowers and Leaves – The showy, white, radially-symmetrical, five-petaled flowers bloom in early spring, growing in clusters of two to five, and originating from a common point. Where the long leafstalk connects to the finely toothed, oval, alternate leaves, you’ll find two or more distinctive, small, bright red glands—nectaries that feed the insects which defend their food source from destructive insects.
Sweet Cherry in Flower – The sweet cherry’s masses of showy white flowers make quite a display in early spring.
Sweet Cherry with Black Fruit – This long-stalked, spherical fruit, growing among elliptical, alternate leaves, is black instead of red.
Sweet Cherry Red Fruit – The long-stalked, smooth, thin-skinned, spherical, red (sometimes yellow or black) cherries grow in clusters of two to five, originating from a common point. Horizontal white streaks, lenticels that allow exchange of gasses with the atmosphere, adorn the stout, reddish twigs. The leafstalks of the finely toothed, oval, pointed, alternate leaves bear distinctive red glands called nectaries, which provide food for beneficial insects, in exchange for defense from destructive insects. They’re visible here as red dots on the leafstalks of the 2 leaves on the upper right.
Sweet Cherry Bark – White, horizontal lines streak the shiny, smooth, silvery gray, which becomes fissured with age.
Status: Edible plant, Medicinal plant
Scientific Name: Osmorhiza longistylis
Alternative Common Names: Anise Root, Sweetroot, Longstyle Sweetroot, Licorice Root, Wild Anise
Groups: Apiaceae or Umbelliferae, the umbellifers, or the parsley family
Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
All Seasons This Plant is Edible: All year except early fall
Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible: Early- to mid spring and mid- to late fall
Food Uses: Salad, potherb, root vegetable, seasoning, tea, beverage. The newly growing leaves of early- to mid-spring and autumn are the best to eat, although they’re also good if you can find them during warm spells in the winter, or where winters are mild.
The taproots are good all year, though you’re not going to find it when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, and it’s difficult, but not impossible, to find fleshy, usable taproots in the summer. They’re at their best from early- to mid-spring, before the plant flowers, and from mid-fall, when new basal rosettes appear, through late fall.
The immature seedpods are edible in late spring, before they get tough.
Parts to Use: Leaf, Root, Pod
Habitats: Light shade, in woodlands with rich soil, along the edges of paths, and in thickets
Primary Habitats: Trail- and roadsides, Woodlands
Range: This species grows throughout much of the US and eastern Canada except for Florida, Louisiana, and the West Coast, although other closely related edible species cover most of the rest of North America and Canada
Prevalence: Common species
Place of Origin: Native species
How to Spot: Look for a plant with a light green, reddish-tinged, hairy, somewhat branched stem one to three feet tall, with alternate leaves similar to basal leaves—long, deeply toothed, twice-compound, and divided into threes, with long, purple leaf stalks. The long-oval, pointed leaflets also divide into threes.
Five small, sparse, flat-topped, umbrella-like terminal clusters of tiny, white, five-petaled flowers grow above recurved, linear to lance-shaped bracts. The flowers become sharp, slender, black, ribbed, crescent-shaped, persistent, tapered, barbed seedpods, maturing from green to black.
Scratch and sniff for the odor or black licorice or anise.
General Information: This attractive herb, which smell like licorice or anise when injured, begins in early spring with a basal rosette of deeply toothed, twice-compound, often slightly hairy leaves with long, purple leaf stalks. The leaves can grow up to one foot long. They’re divided into groups of three. The long-oval, pointed leaflets, also in threes, grow up to one inch long. The terminal leaflet is always the largest.
In late spring, a smooth, light green, reddish-tinged, hairy, somewhat branched stem, with alternate leaves similar to but smaller than the basal ones, grows from one to three feet tall. For about two to three weeks in late spring to early summer, it produces five small, sparse, flat-topped, umbrella-like terminal clusters of eight to 16 tiny, white, five-petaled flowers 0.125 inch across. Recurved linear to lance-shaped bracts grow beneath the flowers.
Replacing the flowers, painfully sharp, slender, black, ribbed, crescent-shaped, tapered, barbed seedpods mature from green to black in mid-summer and fall.
A short, stout, gnarled, light brown underground base gives rise to many tightly packed, small, light brown, fleshy taproots, white inside. They grow four to six inches long.
Positive ID Check:
- Basal leaves up to one foot long, deeply toothed, twice-compound, divided into groups of three
- Pointed, long-oval leaflets up to one inch long
- Terminal leaflet always the largest
- Long, purple leaf stalks
- Short, stout, gnarled, light brown underground base giving rise to many small, tightly packed, fleshy, light brown taproots
- Light green, reddish-tinged, hairy, somewhat branched stem one to three feet tall, with alternate leaves similar to the basal leaves
- Five small, sparse, flat-topped, umbrella-like terminal clusters of eight to 16 tiny, white, five-petaled flowers
- Recurved, linear to lance-shaped bracts, growing beneath the flowers
- Slender, black, ribbed, crescent-shaped, persistent, tapered, sharply barbed seedpods maturing from green to black
Harvesting: Pinch off the leaves or flowers with your fingers. Dig up the roots with a shovel or trowel, taking only a fraction of the plants where they’re very abundant, and remove the taproots, which are the best parts to eat, from the tough base.
Food Preparation: Add the leaves, flowers, or tender young stems raw to salads, or add them to soups, stews, or desserts, at the end of the cooking time, to preserve the delicate flavor. They cook in about five minutes. Their delicate licorice flavor also makes them an especially good garnish.
Discard the hard, gnarled, underground base above the taproots (or steep it to make tea, which you can do with any part of the plant) and use the fleshy, strongly licorice-flavored taproots, the best part of the plant, grated or sliced, like you’d use carrots. Use them sparingly, or they’ll overpower the other ingredients in your recipe. Edible raw, they’re also great in soups and stews, as well as dessert dishes. I add them, grated, to ice cream, include them in smoothies, and always put some into oatmeal and cooked cereals. I also keep some grated roots in the freezer, to use as a seasoning.
You may also nibble on the immature green seedpods before they get tough, or use them in salads and cakes in place of anise seeds.
Don’t dehydrate this plant or it will lose all its flavor and become as tasteless as my jokes. But you can freeze the taproots raw or cooked. They’re already adapted to freezing in the winter.
Nutrition: No info is available.
Medicinal Uses: An infusion of any part of this plant, but especially the taproots, is good for stomach ailments, indigestion, gas, and lack of appetite. It’s also been used as an expectorant, to help cough up phlegm and for or mucus congestion, and for amenorrhea, to ease childbirth, as well as for eye drops. The crushed root has also been applied to wounds as an antiseptic. Its uses for indigestion are quite well established, but I’d love to see whether some of the other uses can be verified scientifically.
Poisonous Lookalikes: Poison Hemlock, Fool’s Parsley
Cautions: Avoid walking thorough the sharp, pointed seeds in autumn, or they’ll poke you through your socks and needle you!
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors: Although sweet cicely smells like it relative, anise (Pimpinella anisum), which doesn’t grow in America either, they’re completely different plants.
Other closely related licorice-scented sweet cicely species (Osmorhiza spp.) are all very hard to tell apart from (O. longistylis), but they’re all edible.
There’s also a totally different, unrelated European sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) that doesn’t grow wild in America.
Banana Chocolate Chip Pancakes with Sweet Cicely: This is what my wife and my five-year-old daughter, Violet, asked for, and with the right combination of herbs, especially the sweet cicely, it came out like a perfect combination of pancakes and confection.
1 cup sugar-free vegan chocolate chips
1-1/2 cups (7 oz.) buckwheat flour or other whole-grain flour
1 tbs. flaxseeds, ground
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. xanthan gum
1/2 tsp. guar gum
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. powdered stevia
1/4 tsp. cloves, ground
Ingredients to Blend
3 cups soy-rice milk or other non-dairy milk
2 ripe bananas
1/4 cup corn oil
1/4 cup sweet cicely root (or add 1/2 tsp. star anise, ground, to the dry ingredients)
2 tbs. lecithin granules
2 tsp. vanilla
1. Mix together the dry ingredients.
2. Purée; the ingredients to blend in a blender.
3. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Don’t overmix.
4. Stir in the chips. Don’t overmix.
5. Pour a ladle-full of batter onto an oiled hot griddle, cook until lightly browned underneath, flip with a spatula, and repeat the process to use up all the batter.
Preparation/cooking time: 45 minutes
Very Young Sweet Cicely – When sweet cicely starts growing, the long-stalked, 3-parted, twice-compound leaves emerge from a single, small taproot.
Sweet Cicely Taproot and Basal Leaves – The twice-compound, deeply toothed leaves, divided into threes, grow from long, reddish leaf stalks, above a hard base from which emanate crowded, fleshy taproots.
Sweet Cicely Flowers – While the delicate alternate leaves’ deeply toothed leaflets are twice-divided into threes, the long-stemmed, flat-topped, umbrella-like flower clusters are grouped in fives. Each tiny white flower has five petals.
Sweet Cicely Seeds – These sharp, pointed, barbed, narrow, recurved seedpods can be quite painful when they penetrate your socks, and even worse when they reach your ankles!
Status: Edible Plant, Medicinal Plant
Scientific Name: Zanthoxylum americanum
Alternative Common Names: American Prickly Ash, Northern Prickly Ash, Prickly Ash Berry, Toothache Tree, Sansho, Chinese Pepper, Japanese Pepper, Aniseed Pepper, Sprice Pepper, Fagara, Nepal pepper, Indonesian Lemon Pepper, Tickle Tongue Tree, Angelica Tree
Groups: Rutaceae, the rue or citrus family
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
All Seasons This Plant is Edible: Mid-spring, Late spring, Early fall, Mid-fall, Late fall
Primary Seasons This Plant is Edible: Mid-spring, Late spring, Early fall, Mid-fall, Late fall
Food Uses: Salad, Potherb, Seasonin, The young leaves are in season in the spring, the berries in the fall.
Parts to Use: Leaf, Pod
Habitats: In sun or shade, on fertile, well-drained soil, in woodlands, and along riverbanks
Primary Habitats: Near rivers, lakes, and streams, and in wetlands
Range: North Central States, plus parts of NY, PA, and extreme southern Quebec
Prevalence: Neither common nor rare
Place of Origin: Native
How to Spot: Look for a shrub or small tree with gray to brown, smooth bark punctuated with mounds usually armed with paired spines, often forming thickets. The red-brown to gray branches are usually armed with opposite thorns and alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves consist of five to 11 small, elliptic, ovate to oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets. Loose clusters of small, inconspicuous, long-stalked, five-petaled, green flowers growing from the leaf axils, to be replaced by lemon-scented, spherical to ellipsoid, bumpy, long-stalked, red fruit capsules containing shiny, hard, aromatic black seeds.
General Information: The gray to brown, smooth bark of this shrub or small tree, which grows from nine to 18 feet tall, is covered with mounds usually armed with paired spines 0.2 to 0.6 inch long, as are the red-brown to gray branches. It sometimes forms impenetrable thickets.
The alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves grow up to one foot long, with five to 11 elliptic, ovate, or oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets 0.8 to three inches long and 0.4 to 1.5 inches wide. With an asymmetrical base, each leaflet is dull green above, paler beneath. They turn yellow in autumn. The side leaflets are stalkless. The terminal leaflet has a short leafstalk, and the older leaflets are peppered with resin dots.
A loose cluster of small, inconspicuous, five-petaled, long-stalked green flowers grows from the leaf axils in the spring. Highly aromatic, spherical to ellipsoid, bumpy, long-stalked fruit capsules 0.25 inch form from summer to fall. Green ripening to red, each fruit capsule contains one or two small, shiny, hard, black seeds.
Positive ID Check:
- Shrub or small tree nine to 18 feet tall often forming thickets
- Gray to brown, smooth bark usually punctuated with mounds usually armed with paired spines
- Red-brown to gray branches usually armed with paired spines
- Alternate, feather-compound, lemon-scented leaves
- Five to 11 small, elliptic, ovate, or oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets
- Loose clusters of small, inconspicuous, long-stalked, five-petaled, green flowers, growing from the leaf axils, in the spring
- Highly aromatic, spherical to ellipsoid, long-stalked, bumpy fruit capsules 0.25 inch, first green, then red
- One or two small, shiny, hard, black seeds inside fruit
Harvesting: Strip off the young leaflets, or pick the ripe fruits with your fingers.
Food Preparation: A signature herb of Szechuan cuisine, the toasted ground fruit capsules (without the gritty seeds) create a tingly, numbing sensation on the tip of the tongue, along with an overtone of citrus. They’re best pan-roasted, ground, and added to soups, stews, tofu dishes, or mock fish dishes, at the end of cooking. Traditional companion seasonings include ginger, anise seed, chili peppers, black pepper, and garlic.
This spice is also big in Japan, where its called sansho. The Japanese also use the young leaves as a garnish, and sell a mixture of roasted, ground fruit capsules mixed with ground black pepper.
Nutrition: No info is available.
Medicinal Uses: A safe and important Eastern and Western medicinal plant that’s been used for centuries, Szechuan pepper, going by the name prickly ash in Western herbal medicine, is considered an alterative herb that gradually alters the course of a condition in a favorable direction. It contains the alkaloids chelerythrine, fagarine, magnoflorine, laurifoline, and nitidine; the courarins xanthyletin, zanthoxyletin, and alloxanthyletin; as well as the lignan asarinin, plus herclavin, tannins, resins, and a volatile oil. It has a stimulating effect upon the entire body, especially the lymphatic system and mucous membranes.
Natives Americans treated toothache with this shrub by chewing its cambium or pasting it on their gums. The burning sensation it creates blocks out the pain for a while. They applied a cambium poultice mixed with bear grease externally as a pain-killer, and used a cambium or fruit and seed decoction for gonorrhea. Chelerythrine, one of the compounds the shrub contains, shows anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties in the test tube, so this herb deserves to be tested on people.
The Indians also used this herb to treat sore throats, arthritis, and stiff joints and muscles, for which it seems helpful. An infusion or tincture of the cambium or fruit and seeds is still included in herbal treatments for arthritis and joint pains today, and a poultice is applied topically for wounds, pelvic disorders, rheumatism, and back pain.
As a vasodilator, it opens blood vessels and increases circulation, so herbalists use these preparations for intermittent claudication (cramps caused by poor peripheral blood circulation), Raynaud’s disease (numbness, again also caused by poor blood circulation), cold hands or feet, chilblains (wet frostbite), and varicose veins or varicose ulcers. Increasing the flow of saliva, it improves dry mouth, and it’s been used for toxic shock syndrome—an often fatal form of circulatory failure that requires prompt medical intervention. It’s also used for candida infections, diarrhea, flatulence, excessive belching, fatigue, fever, lumbago, paralysis, rheumatism, typhus, asthma, and sickle-cell anemia, although experimental verification is lacking.
An official treatment for chronic rheumatism, flatulence and diarrhea in the US Pharmacopeia from 1820 to 1926, 19th and early 20th century doctors extracted a resin they called fluidextractum xanthoyli from the cambium and used it to bring on delayed menstruation, and for digestive disorders such as indigestion, dyspepsia and colic; to reinforce the nervous system, and to treat cholera and typhus (potentially deadly infections requiring immediate medical treatment).
In traditional Chinese medicine, the decoction is used for the same disorders, as well as for killing pinworms and other parasites, so lawyers and politicians should avoid using this herb!
Cautions: This herb is contraindicated for anyone with ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, ulcers of the digestive tract, and gastro-esophageal reflux. Since it’s used to bring on menstruation, pregnant women should avoid it, even in Chinese restaurants. And don’t touch your eyes after handling the shrub—it can be quite painful if you don’t wash your hands beforehand.
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors: This species certainly confused me—I knew it as a medicinal shrub called prickly ash for decades, and it too 28 years of foraging tours before someone finally revealed that it was identical to Szechuan pepper!
The shrub is not related to black pepper or hot peppers. The related toothache tree (Z. clava-herculis), also sometimes called prickly ash, has larger leaves and similar medicinal uses to Szechuan pepper.
Devil’s walkingstick (Aralia spinosa) is a small, spiny tree with feather-compound leaves and edible shoots, but the leaves are much larger, and the flowers and fruits are completely different.
If you eat in a Szechuan Chinese restaurant or purchase prickly ash in an herb store or online, you’ll probably get the Chinese species (Z. bungeanum), but these two related shrubs have the same culinary and medicinal uses.
Szechuan Salad Dressing: This tangy dressing will zap your tongue with every bite of salad you eat!
2/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbs. lecithin granules
2 tbs. mellow miso
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp. Szechuan pepper, ground, or to taste
1/2 tsp. marjoram, ground
1/2 tsp. rosemary, ground
1/2 tsp. tarragon, ground
Purée all ingredients in a blender.
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Szechuan Pepper Leaves – This shrub’s smooth, gray bark, covered with pointed mounds ending in paired prickles, and the alternate, feather-compound leaves consisting of five to 11 elliptic, ovate, or oblong, nearly stalkless, wavy edged or toothless leaflets, make prickly ash distinct, even without the small, long-stalked, spherical fruits.
Szechuan Pepper Trunk – Szechuan pepper’s gray trunk is punctuated with mounds tipped with paired spines, making this shrub or small tree unlike any other species. It makes me think of the hide of a stegosaurus!
Szechuan Pepper Unripe and Ripe Fruit – These long-stalked, spherical, bumpy fruits—green at first, then red—grow in small, loose clusters. It’s the ripe, red fruits you use as a spice, something the ant with a taste for Szechuan food clearly knows!
Szechuan Pepper in Fruit – This prickly, many-branched, funnel-shaped, gray shrub, with feather compound leaves, provides small clusters of small, red, spicy fruits in autumn.
Szechuan Pepper Seeds – These shiny, hard, black seeds are gritty, even when ground. It’s the fruit capsule you use for food.
Violets (Viola species)
This group of herbaceous (non-woody) plants has a bilaterally symmetrical (2-sided) 5-petaled flowers, often with bushy stamens forming a “beard” inside. Many have tasty, edible flowers and leaves, although the yellow violet, which grows in wetlands, may cause gastrointestinal distress. Don’t eat African “violets,” which aren’t true violets.
Common Blue Violet (Viola papilionacea)
This is the most common species, with a sterile violet-colored flower that blooms in the spring. There are no leaves on the flower stalk. The heart-shaped, shallow-toothed leaves arise separately from the ground. They’re good to eat in springtime, but become tough and coarse in the summer.
Poisonous dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) has a similar violet flower, but with a “spur” behind the flower, and a different leaf. Monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum), also poisonous, has a large, helmet-like upper sepal that covers 2 petals.
Common Blue Violet Flowers and Leaves – Note the 2-sided violet flowers with beautifully veined petals.
Violet Meadow – Violet Brill enjoys playing with and eating violets in a meadow full of her namesake.
Violets grow in partially shaded spots in moist woods, and in meadows and gardens. They spread by underground rhizomes (which are toxic), creating dense stands of plants.
Common Blue Violet Fruit
A cryptic (hidden) flower appears in autumn, growing close to the ground, self-fertilizing and setting seed.
White Violet Flower – The white violet’s flowers and leaves are also edible. Note the “beard” of fuzzy stamens in the lower petals.
Blue-White Violet Hybrid – This hybrid between blue and white species is also quite beautiful and tasty.
Wild Ginger (Asarum species)
Young Wild Ginger – Note the pair of heart-shaped, smooth-edged basal (bottom) leaves, the slender rhizome (underground stem), and the hairy roots.
One of my favorite wild seasonings, wild ginger is a small plant with paired, heart-shaped leaves emerging from the ground. And hanging from the crotch between the two leaves youíll find a single 3-parted deep purple-brown flower.
Wild Ginger in Flower – The flowers grow at ground level because ants pollinate them.
The stem, a brittle underground horizontal rhizome the thickness of a pipe cleaner, exudes a strong ginger fragrance. Youíll find it in partially sunny wooded areas throughout eastern North America, as well as in cultivated areas (landscapers planted the European species in Central Park, for example) anywhere.
Wild Ginger With Its Roots – The plant grows in dense stands because it spreads by the root system as well as through seeds.
Once you locate this widespread, common plant you’ll begin using the rhizome in all recipes that call for ginger. I add it to desserts, curries, and various other ethnic dishes. Unrelated to its Asian namesake, various native and European wild ginger species provide a similar but more subtle flavor.
European Wild Ginger With Its Roots – This plant’s leaves are more rounded than its American relative.
European Wild Ginger Flower – Some of nature’s most beautiful creations require magnification for us to appreciate them.
Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)
Wineberry Cane with Fruit
This is another bramble (Rubus species), a group of usually thorny arching plant with palmate-compound leaves (the leaflets originate from the same point). This species has red, bristly stems that grow up to 8 feet tall, 3-parted leaves with large, pointed, roundish leaflets that are white underneath.
Young Wineberry Leaves
Clusters of small, inconspicuous white flowers appear in the spring.
Wineberry Flower and Unopened, Immature Fruit
They’re followed by large, juicy, hollow, faceted raspberries in the summer.
Look for wineberries in thickets, fields, edges of woods or trails, in moist soil throughout the northeast.
Use this common Asian fruit the same way youíd use commercial raspberries. Theyíre juicier and more sour, with more flavor than most of their relatives. The seeds are hard, so if youíre using the berries purÈed, itís better to strain them out.
Sheep Sorrel And Wood Sorrel (Rumex acetosella And Oxalis species)
Yellow Wood Sorrel Leaves
Description: Sheep Sorrel: a medium-sized plant with tiny reddish flowers and arrow-shaped leaves; flowers tiny, reddish, clustered on slender stalk up to 20 inches long, in late spring; fruits tiny, inconspicuous, yellow-brown, in papery wrappers; leaves arrow-shaped, pointy-tipped, up to four inches long, with a pair of narrow, pointed lobes pointing outward from the leafís base.
Description: óWood Sorrel: medium-sized plant with small three-parted leaf and heart-shaped leaflets; flowers yellow (other edible species’ flowers have other colors), less than 3/4 inch across, radially-symmetrical; leaves three-parted palmate-compound, less than one inch across, on long, slender stem; slender stalk usually up to 8 inches tall.
Here are two different, unrelated plants that share the same last name because both taste lemony. Sorrel comes from a French word for sour, and Oxalis comes from oxys, which means sharp or acidic in Greek.
Sheep Sorrel Flowers
Sheep sorrelís leaf looks like a sheepís, with a pointy tip like a nose, and two pointed lobes (subdivisions), pointed left and right, near the leaf base, like a sheepís ears. The leaf gets about as long as a house key.
Young Sheep Sorrel Leaves in Basal Rosette Configuration
In late spring, the tiny pink flowers dot a slender stalk as high as a quart orange juice container.
Sheep Sorrel Flower Stalk
The leaves are good to eat from early spring to late fall.
Sheep sorrel grows on lawns, and in meadows and fields. Sometimes people grow a large, less tasty, cultivated variety in their gardens.
This plant is a symbol of parental affection. Wild sheep sorrel is also the symbol of poorly-timed wit, such as a joke that falls flat because itís told at the wrong time. If that sounds confusing, attend my toursóyouíll hear plenty of those. But donít complain: It may help us find sheep sorrel.
Wood sorrel grows about as tall as sheep sorrel, but its leaf is compound, divided into three parts shaped like hearts.
Yellow Wood Sorrel in Flower
People confuse it with clover, but clover has oval leaflets instead of heart-shaped ones.
White Clover Leaf
The delicate leaves fold shut to protect themselves from direct sunlight. They also shut when it gets dark, possibly to protect themselves from the cold of night, or from damage from too much dew. So people explained that wood sorrel prays by folding its leaves at night. They also used to use this action to predict rain.
The English call wood sorrel cuckoo-sorrel and cuckooís meat because they thought cuckoos ate it to clear their voice, and because it flowers when the cuckoos are singing.
Common Wood Sorrel – This European species, where the white flower is decorated with purple lines, is actually quite rare in America. I only found it once!
Wood sorrel grows on lawns, along the sides of trails and roads, and in partially-sunny spots in the woods. Collect it from spring to fall.
The five-petaled yellow, radially-symmetrical flowers of yellow wood sorrel are as wide as a pencil eraser.
Yellow Wood Sorrel Flower
Another edible species also has violet flowers. Thereís even a giant species with huge leaves that grows in the forests of the Pacific northwest.
The edible fruit is a straight capsule about as long and wide as a childís toenail clipping. Inside are tiny, round reddish-brown seeds. If you touch a very ripe fruit, its sides split apart and the seeds pop out.
Yellow Wood Sorrel Fruit
In Ireland they call wood sorrel a shamrock, and according to Irish superstition, it will keep snakes away. Iím glad this isnít true. Snakes are fascinating to watch, but they usually avoid people, even without plants that are supposed to repel them. I try to observe wildlife whenever I get a chance.
The shamrock is a symbol of light-heartedness, and the Irish can certainly be joyful and lighthearted.
Use sheep sorrel leaves or wood sorrel leaves, flowers, and fruit capsules raw in salads. Cook them in soups, stews, or other dishes, or make a tea with them: Pour boiling water over a handful of leaves, stems, and flowers. Let them sit, covered, away from the heat, 20 minutes. Strain out the plants, sweeten if you want, and drink the lemony-tasting tea. Or chill it first, to make ice tea. Both sorrels are loaded with vitamin C.
Although sheep sorrel is a favorite wild food, a superstition from Bathhurst, New Brunswick, claims that eating it will make your head lousy. But to be lousy, you must be infested with lice, tiny parasitic insects that live on people and bite them.
Human Head Louse
There are different kinds of lice. Head lice live only on peopleís heads, and body lice live only on their bodies. Both are human lice, which can only live on people. Other types of lice live only on one type of animal each.
There are special soaps and shampoos today that get rid of lice and kill their eggs (nits), but in the past, and in very poor countries today, lice would infest people living under filthy conditions.
The great early 20th century New Orleans jazz pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton (one of my all-time favorite artists) recounts how, back in the day, a well-dressed, clean person would suddenly become lousy.
If he entered a cheap, filthy bar called a honky-tonk, one of the habitual customers would become envious. Then, when the victim wasnít looking, heíd pick a louse from his head and toss it onto the other man, “so he’d be lousy too.”