Saturday, May 29, 2010

Processing Wild Plants

We seem to be in the middle of stalk season. Everything wild we've eaten this week has been a stem--either the main plant stem or a petiole (a botanical term for leafstalk). The time for wild greens has passed as the plants toughen up their leaves with clusters of fibers that make them indigestible to all but the most committed herbivores. Since we don't have four stomachs, we are obliged to look elsewhere for our vegetables. The only domesticated plant that I know of which is prized for its stalk is celery. (Asparagus I think of as a shoot, edible only when it's tender and young.) Although their flavors are drastically different, the texture of the shoots we've eaten lately have been quite similar to celery.

Despite any culinary similarities, wild stalks are different from celery in that they all have taken extra processing time. They've needed to be peeled. And I, Thag, the foraging family's dedicated sous chef, am just the man for the job. Peeling, I can tell you, is a time consuming process. Certainly, some of that is due to my inexperience. I imagine our ancestral foragers peeling rinds and removing thorns with the finesse of a cordon bleu chef. As a young grasshopper of the foraging arts, however, I have a long way to go before mastery.

Foraging takes time, and time is one thing that I can never find in quantity enough. When I began this project, I dreamed of quiet Saturdays spent ranging through the woods and fields looking for tasty morsels. The reality is that we have yet another to do list. Surely, it is a labor of love, but it's seldom done at a leisurely pace. We are trying to tack a foraging life onto a civilized one that is already full. Our Saturdays were already packed with work, home, and family. I have even found myself pulling jewelweed by flashlight. The seasons of plants pass by quickly. We've already missed a few edibles that were on our list because we didn't gather early enough. As delicious as they were, the milkweed shoots should have been gathered several weeks earlier. We missed poke altogether. It had grown tall (and poisonous) by the time we we found its shoots. It is a challenge to keep one foot in the foraging world while another foot is busy running the rat race.

I am curious to know about how other would-be foragers make space for a little bit of wildness in their lives. If you're out there, I'd love some tips. Please comment.


  1. I hear you about not having enough time. Especially when you put a lot of time into some wild food gathering that doesn’t pay off. I just made several attempts to gather the cambium layer from some basswood trees that fell in the recent storm. Sam Thayer said, “if you peel the bark from a basswood, you will find a sweet, slushy layer adhering to the wood. This is the cambium. I scrape it off with a knife, and it comes in strips that look a little like sauerkraut but taste like very sweet cucumber.” I got a tiny hit of sweetness and slush, but mostly it was like eating some not so tasty wood. I like black birch bark and love slippery elm (though I haven’t gathered my own slippery elm) but either I didn’t do something right or the basswood just didn’t do it for me.

    A lot of my wild food gathering happens while I’m on route to or doing something else. For example, when I’m out on errands I’ll stop by a spot to see if a certain kind of mushroom has fruited or a wild green is up yet. Whenever I’m driving, biking, or jogging I pull over to harvest or check something. I keep tons of bags, a saw, snips, a shovel, and hiking boots in my car. I always carry a jackknife on me, because a good wild collecting spree can happen anywhere.

    I also focus on harvesting and preparation methods that give me the most food for smaller effort. For example, with wild leeks I just pull on the plant from the base. If the bulb comes with it great, if not then I just take the greens.

    I think we need to start a wild food cooperative or exchange. Trading items that we have gathered and processed in bulk might save time and energy.

    I almost called you to share a huge mushroom harvest. I was 95% sure of my identification but I would have needed a microscope to be 100% sure. Denny and I tried them and thought that they tasted great. But I ended up throwing them out. I just didn’t know enough about potential look a likes to warrant taking the chance. Do you have a good microscope?

    Have you tried toasting clover blossoms in an iron skillet? You stir them until they are light brown and crispy. (It doesn’t take long.) My favorite is red clover because they are sweet. However, I got the idea from Wildman Steve Brill and he thinks hop and white clover are best.

    Congrats on being half way to your goal. I still predict that you’ll make it to 150 or more.

  2. Arena,

    We would do well to follow your example and be prepared to gather at any moment. Alas, despite six years in the Boy Scouts, I am often caught with nothing but a knife. I stuff my pockets and walk around with overflowing fistfuls of plants. (Maybe we should put our gathering tools in Yub-Yub's daiper bag.)

    It's funny that you mention the idea of a wild food coop. I was just talking with my friend, Rebecca, about a wild food club of some kind. I think that Windham County may have a critical mass of wild food enthusiasts who are interested in sharing recipes, resources, and processing methods.

    Or for identification . . . I do have access to a microscope, a regular compound light microscope like the kind you probably used in biology in high school. Call anytime. I'd be happy to look at spores with you.

  3. Hi,
    Just found your site while looking for a jewelweed salve recipe (found several). One of my favorite stalks that's available anytime (no season)is spiderwort. Snap the flower stems, don't cut, as you want it to break where its still tender--like asparagus. Trim the leaves, you can leave the flowerheads/buds--leaves are edible, but a little tough sometimes in more mature plants. Saute in butter--or a substitute. I like to sprinkle with nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese and a little salt. Hard to describe, but tastes a little like a combination of asparagus and green beans--yummy!