Stalking Claiborne’s Wild Edibles
It all started after Michael Twitty’s recent visit to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, when he cooked okra crab soup and made ashcakes over a ground fire, teaching about the African food traditions that form the basis of our American cuisine.
We were sitting at the church, musing about how many people we know who might be able to live off the land, really. Forage for wild foods, survive off of the things that fly over, swim in, pop out of the hard ground, burst forth from brown branches.
Hmm. Norm, maybe. Eric Applegarth? Renny?
A quiet voice in the background was heard, and Molly said – “I’ve done it”.
Molly Bond spent summer vacations during much of her life on an island off the coast of Maine – an island with no roads, no electricity, no grocery stores. She learned to forage wild foods because that’s what they ate. A week or so after our conversation, she noticed how many wild edibles were evident in her yard, and invited us to visit her home, walk around the grounds and see them.
She prepared a list (wow) of 29 foods growing now in her yard, plus a few that should be there, but aren’t evident yet. We started at number one, and moved through. Everybody learned something. With three master gardeners and a couple of experienced hippies, there was a lot of collective information about these wild foods.
- Wild cherry – for jam and wine. The bark is good for smoking meats. With tiny fruits and big seeds, this cherry is a lot of work for what you get.
- Chickweed – harvest in early spring before it flowers. This stuff is everywhere.
- Wild onions – eat them as chives. You can dig the bulbs, but they’re tiny and hardly worth it. But the flavor packs a punch.
- Mustard – everywhere. Eat the leaves, grind the seed.
- Wild lettuces – bitter now, and hairy. Harvest these before the thorny stalk forms, when they’re new out of the ground.
- Dandelion – famous for wine, once the flowers form, the greens are bitter. You can dig down and eat the entire crown of the plant.
- Sorrel – delicious and lemony. Use young leaves in salad, famous for adding to potato soup.
- Lemon balm – for tea.
- Mullein – For smoking – a tobacco substitute, it’s also used in cough medicines. You cook down the leaves into a tea-like elixir.
- Wild violets – all parts of them are edible – flower and leaves, they also look beautiful on the plate. Janet said that wild violets are also a larval food for butterflies.
- Ground ivy – the leaves are good for tea.
- Wood sorrel – more bitter than the other lemony one.
- Monarda – the wild, pink flowering one. Known for Oswego tea – what the colonists drank when tea was taxed by the Brits.
- Day Lilies – both the flowers and the roots are edible. I was surprised last summer to see a small box of day lily flower buds being sold at a farmers market for four bucks. Molly said the roots of the daylily are edible, but you have to cook them in “3 waters”. I wrote that down and then said – “wait! WHAT?” She went on “ Cook the roots in water for five minutes. Dump the water out and re-fill the pot. Cook that for five minutes, dump it out and do it a third time”. Three waters…..who knew?
- Spearmint – salads, tea.
- Red clover – the large clover. You can eat the leaves and also cook them down for cough syrup. I’m all over this cough syrup thing. Wouldn’t it be great to make your own and not spend nine bucks on a little bottle of robitussin? (Oh yeah…medicinal plants…that’s where drugs came from….)
- Cattails. Molly’s pond is lined with cattails – she tossed some seed at the edges of the pond a few years ago, and it has really taken over. So much that her son, Owen, will be getting his mucking boots on soon to dig them out. Hopefully we’ll get to share in that harvest, because she had surprising things to say about cattails. All parts of the cattail are edible, and in fact, it’s the number one survival plant – if there’s nothing else to resort to, this is what to go for. The stalks have a hard core, and around that core is tasty and edible pulp. You dig, scrub and cook the roots. Even the cattail itself is edible – if you harvest before they mature, you can eat them like corn on the cob. And if you burn the cattails, save the ashes – they’re good for use on wounds and burns. Now, I believe that, really I do. But I doubt that I’d reach for ashes of any kind if I had a burn or a wound. Would you? But it’s good to know, in case you’re on a camping trip without a first aid kit.
- Wild mulberry – oh yeah. Delicious.
- Pecan – Molly has two pecan trees grown from nuts that Thomas Jefferson sent to her late husband’s ancestors. Handsome trees, they’re not as large as you might expect, and were just beginning to show the season’s new shoot growth.
- White oak. Who knew that you can grind up acorns for flour? Soak the nuts first in water to leach out the tannins.
- Elderberry – looks like a tiny cherry when ripe. You can eat both the flowers and the fruits. Three of our group chimed in with something about elderberry pancakes, and now I can’t get them out of my head.
- Sassafras – the roots and leaves are edible. Sassafras is the source for file, used in file gumbo in the south, and also the old-fashioned sarsaparilla soda – which is like root beer.
- Sumac, next. A seasoning spice, some varieties are poisonous, so care must be taken. It’s also known as a “lemonade.”
- Wild blackberries line the roads of Talbot County, and you’ll see people out picking throughout July. Delicious. The size of the blackberry depends on the amount of rain during the fruiting period.
- Milkweed – who knew? You can eat the pod before it’s fuzzy, and also the flowers and roots.
- Beach plum – Around here, beach plum are plentiful. Seaberry Farms makes and sells a delicious beach plum jam – you can get it at Easton Market Square. Tart and delicious.
- Persimmons, of course. These wild persimmons are so bitter and astringent in fall, you really have to wait till after a freeze before they are edible.
- Rugosa Rose. The rose hips, of course, are famous for tea and for jelly. The petals are edible too – but stay away from the thorny stems! Molly said that the Norwegians used rose hips during World War 2 for tea and jam to supply vitamin C.
- Redbud – the tiny buds of the Redbud tree are edible. It’s hard to imagine not wanting to keep them right there on the tree, but if you’re cutting some branches to bring inside, you can save some of the tiny buds for a beautiful, edible addition to a dinner plate.
Just a few plants were missing from her yard – wild asparagus, poke weed, black walnuts, lamb’s quarters (so nutrient dense, you can’t really find a better wild green to eat) and purslane – another “weed” that we curse in our gardens, but has recently taken center stage on gourmet dinner plates as a nutritious and delicious green. Since it’s packed with omega 3s, try eating the purslane from your garden instead of composting it.
Then to top it off, Molly offered several references – all of these are available on Amazon. This was such a terrific hour spent with neighbors – I’ll never look down at weeds in exactly the same way ever again. So many edibles in our landscapes, and we just walk past them every day. Nothing we saw looked like it was going to fill you up, but in case you need it, it’ll keep you alive. And of course, it’s great to know and use these wild edibles in our daily lives.
- Uva, R.H., Neal, J.C. DiTomaso, J.M. 1997. Weeds of the Northeast.
- Gibbons, Euell, 1968. Stalking the Wild Asparagus.
- Gibbons, Euell, 1967. Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop.
- Gibbons, Euell, 1971. Stalking the Healthful Herbs.