adfPine Mountain Settlement School
Series 22: Environmental Education
Series 23: Ellwood J. Carr Botanical Collection
ELLWOOD J. CARR BOTANICAL COLLECTION Edible Plant Workshop Slides
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GALLERY: ELLWOOD J. CARR BOTANICAL COLLECTION Edible Plant Workshop Slides
Edible Wild Foods
Ellwood J. Carr’s full-text slide presentation
There are several ways of approaching the subject of edible wild foods. One could be purely academic, by just learning the common and botanical names of the plants that are edible as well as other similar plants that are inedible or poisonous. Another would be the use of plants purely on a short time emergency survival basis. The third would be to utilize edible wild foods to diversify the daily diet and to combine them with other foods.
Of these I chose the latter, however a thorough knowledge of the academic should be acquired or health impairment or serious consequences could result through carelessness or ignorance.
Wild food workshops which I have conducted have been essentially “tasting parties” where a wide variety of wild food materials have been offered. Some items are cooked by themselves to be able to learn their taste, other items have been offered in casseroles, soups, etc.
Each presentation, however, has had all the elements of a complete meal. In the last workshop, 65 different items were offered.
You see here jelly being prepared by washing the malic acid from smooth sumac berries (Sumac glabra) and using the concentrated acid with a recipe for making mint jelly with Sure-Jell.
As many as five jams and jellies have been available for tasting; using such things as persimmon, maypops, wild cherry, wild plum, hackberry, smooth and aromatic sumac, poke berries, mayapple, etc.
It has been my plan to offer from three to five items in each category or course in the menu.
Even on a tasting basis it requires a tremendous amount of time to put on a workshop of this type which includes everything from appetizers, teas and coffee substitutes to after dinner sweets.
From here on we will see slides of some of the plants that one might use to put together such a meal.
Richweed, a non-stinging member of the Nettle family, (Pilea pumila) can be used for an interesting vegetable drink having the taste of celery and parsley. My recipe calls for boiling the stems and leaves, making an extract and adding tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and salt to suit.
A good vegetable drink hot or cold can be made by boiling the dried or green red clover tops (Trifolium pretense), using the extract and adding a bouillon cube per glass.
We talked about using the smooth sumac acid extract for jelly, however, a good simulated acid fruit drink can be made from the extract by adding sugar and a bit of mint.
It is commonly thought that the sumacs are poisonous. This is not true of the red berried sumacs. The white berried ones are poison ivy and poison sumac.
Another acidulous fruit-like drink can be made from the boiled extract of sour-grass or Oxalis species. This too can be mixed with other juices or flavored with anise, mint, spices or extracts, and sweetened with sugar as desired.
Some caution here though. Oxalic acid is a poison in concentrated amounts and one should not drink excessive amounts of this juice.
Fresh Elder flowers make a nice refreshing drink when steeped in hot water and then cooled and sweetened. Sumac extract added to it makes it still better.
Dried Elder flowers with mint makes an excellent full bodied tea, hot or cold.
Salad materials come next in the meal and Corn Salad, a member of the Valerian family, can be used in a green salad as well as being cooked. Other species of the genus will serve equally as well when young and tender.
Corn Salad is a fairly common plant considered as a weed of field and garden. When found it is usually abundant.
Wild green salads are better when combining three or more plant materials at a time, using the bland tasting ones to buffer the stronger or bitter tastes of others, unless bitter flavors are desired.
Water cress has some bitterness as well as being quite peppery. The pungent flavor is typical of many plants in the mustard family.
Here again one can balance these flavors with milder tasting plants or use the wild plants to add to the bulk of domestic lettuce.
Small amounts of wild salad greens or a mixture of them can add variety and zest to any lettuce salad.
Wild dandelion (Taraxacum) has served for generations as a salad green. When found in tall grass or weeds in winter or early spring it is usually well blanched and less bitter. The white blanched portion of the petiole bases with a portion of the root or crown attached makes an ideal salad ingredient, fresh or cooked.
Wild lettuce, species of Lactuca, in early tender stages may make up the whole or parts of a salad either fresh, cooked, or wilted with bacon grease, depending on one’s acceptance of bitterness.
The more common species with yellow flowers is the one usually seen along roadsides and waste places with prickles on the more mature leaves.
There are white to blue flowered species of lettuce also. These are generally the ones with less pinnatifid and larger leaves without prickles. The plants grow sometimes 12 to 18 feet tall in rich ground.
Let us now consider plant material for breadstuff. The pollen of the cattail along in May or June makes an excellent flour for muffins either by itself or mixed with domestic flours or meal.
Starch extracted from the roots also may be used or added to the pollen. The peeled root may be ground fine and used by itself or as an extender for other flour materials.
Acorns, especially of the white oak group, have been a favorite bread material of the Indians. Various ways of leaching the bitterness from the nuts are given by writers of wild food subjects.
I just roast the nuts lightly to kill the insects so they can be stored in an airtight container and ground into flour later.
Chinkapin Oak or Quercus muhlenbergii, and White Oak Quercus alba, have the least bitter acorns.
Using a flour of ½ acorn, ¼ slippery elm bark and ¼ wheat flour makes a good, fairly moist muffin. The bitterness is not all that disagreeable especially if sugar is added to the batter.
The slippery elm bark, heavy in mucilage, helps to make the acorn flour more moist and the white flour makes it lighter in texture.
The Burr Oak, Quercus macrocarpa, is suggested but I have never tried these acorns.
As already stated, Slippery Elm bark can be used as a flour material. It gives moisture to drier materials and the mucilage also helps to reduce the bitterness of other flours such as acorn or pigweed.
Ulmus rubra or slippery elm has large brown furry buds in the winter which marks the tree from American elm.
The two can easily be distinguished up into flowering time. Here are the flowers of American Elm in contrast to slippery elm.
Millet or foxtail, annual Setaria species, though I have never used them, should make an excellent bread material. Usually it is very abundant in old fields and roadsides where there is good moisture.
It should be cut like hay early, before it begins to shatter and then dried, thrashed and winnowed. There should be no difficulty in getting good return for the energy spent.
Climbing buckwheat, Brunnichia ovata has a tremendous amount of seeds and, if not growing in with briars, it is fairly easy to harvest large amounts of the vine in a short time. Allowing the vines to dry and flailing out the seeds makes them easily cleaned.
Perhaps, as with regular buckwheat, some persons are allergic to climbing buckwheat flour. It does yield a good flour with little effort.
Added slide of muffins and flours
The passion flower vine, Passiflora incarnata, bears large semi-dry pulpy fruits. In May there is little evidence of even the vine itself, which makes the alternate name, “Maypops” difficult to understand.
The pulpy coated seeds can be stripped out of the pods and macerated in a coarse sieve to separate the acidulous pulp from the seeds. By liquefying the pulp and adding water, a good fruit drink can be made as well as an unusual tasting jelly.
In May Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, blooms. Poisonous extracts for medicinal purposes are produced from the roots of Mayapple and the leaves are toxic.
However the fruit maturing in August or September is edible. The Mayapples have a decided grape odor. They can be eaten fresh or made into a jelly. They are somewhat acid. Over indulgence in the fresh fruit might be laxative. Getting the fruit before the raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels and possums limits the supply.
Wild plums, at least in the area of Lexington, are not available every year and when they are, there is great variation in quality and taste from tree to tree.
In the years when they yield heavily, one tree should provide enough to carry over until another crop. The juice could be canned for a drink and the pulp be made into a jam.
Ground cherries, species of the Physalis, make excellent material for jam, jelly, preserves, or pies if one can find an area where the small yellow, tomato-like fruit it not destroyed by insects. In Bell County one can gather them readily but I have yet to find them undamaged in the bluegrass.
Nicandra, a similar looking plant with a lavender flower instead of yellow and a dry seedy berry is poisonous and called the Shoofly Plant. The leaves crushed in sugar water or milk have been used as a fly and ant bait.
Poke (Phytolacca Americana) is a controversial plant because the upper parts of the plant are poison in the green state. The root is always toxic.
The tender leaves cooked make an excellent spinach. The tender stalks peeled and cured in salt brine make a fine pickle. I have used the pulp of the berries for jelly which has been relished by many and have also used the berry pulp for a corn starch or custard pudding.
I have drunk a half pint of poke berry wine at a time for several days running with no more effect than slightly coloring the urine. However, caution should be the word in the use of the berries. The seeds contain toxic materials.
The fruit of wild cherry, either Prunus serotina or virginiana may be used for jelly. Fresh, they are too bitter for plentiful eating. But juice extracted from the pitted fruit could be used to mix with other fruit juices. They have long been used for wine.
Leafy plants for a cooked vegetable abound in plenty. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum species) makes an excellent cooked green.
They may be used as long as the growing tip can be snapped out.
The Solomon’s Seal can hardly be considered a weedy plant and should be gathered with discretion lest an area be depleted. I have never gathered them unless they are plentiful and then with care for their survival.
The same word applies to the Merry Bells (Uvularia grandiflora and perfoliata). I have not used these plants but I would handle them the same as True Solomon’s Seal.
One need have no qualms as to over-gathering these next two robust plants. They are high in potash and Vitamin D, so large amounts should be eaten with caution as they could react unfavorably to some people.
Lambs Quarters, shown here, (Chenopodium album) is a delicious cooked vegetable and can be cut up fresh in a salad. It is very similar to spinach in texture and taste. Beets, chard and spinach are close relatives.
Pigweed, Amaranthus retroflexus, is also a very prolific plant of plowed ground, barnyards, and cultivated fields.
When young and tender it is unsurpassed as a cooked vegetable and high in vitamins and minerals. Pureed it makes a good soup ingredient. The garden flower cockscomb is a related plant.
Waterleaf or Shawnee, Hydrophyllum virginianum, common in shady ravines and moist wooded areas throughout Kentucky, was used by early pioneers as a cooked vegetable and mentioned in Daniel Boone’s writings as Shawnee.
Stinging nettles, Urtica species, make real fine pot herbs, cooked and seasoned as you would spinach. Their content of vitamins and minerals is very high as well as protein. Never throw away the excess water that these greens have been boiled in, as it can be saved and used in soup stock.
Young basswood leaves, Tilia species, can be used as a green vegetable dish. I served them at a spring wild foods workshop and everyone liked them. Later on in the season, of course, the flowers can be used for tea either fresh or dried. And in the fall when the fruits ripen one might experiment making a substitute chocolate from them. It has been done, but it will keep only a short time.
This it the very young stage of the Jewel Weed and it may be used as a pot herb.
There are yellow and orange flowered species and either may be used. I would prefer this green mixed with others or used as a casserole dish with other food items included for seasoning. By itself it has an odd flavor, however, is not disagreeable.
As you may know, Jewel Weed is an excellent topical remedy for poison ivy. And if you will note, Noxema uses a Jewel Weed extract in its poison ivy lotion.
We take up plants now that may be used as soups and certainly a delicious soup can be made of young milkweed pods (Asclepias syriaca). They also may be served just boiled and sautéed with butter or they can be baked in a casserole dish topped with cheese sauce.
Some mention is made in the literature of Indians using Hackberries (Celtis species) as food; they were ground and cooked with their meat.
I have done some experimenting and come up with a decidedly good soup and dessert with them by whipping off the pulp from the large seeds in a blender then pressing the pulp through a fine sieve to get rid of the skins.
When sassafras is mentioned most everyone thinks of the tea and the typical sassafras aromatic flavor.
One of the most useful ways of using Sassafras is to dry and powder the leaves. A teaspoon of the finely powdered leaves in a pot of soup or stew gives a rich consistency due to the high content of mucilage. The taste is very mild and not at all aromatic. The smell of crushed green sassafras leaves has a very clean, pleasant smell somewhat like lemon.
Cactus fruits, of Opuntia species, found growing along the river and creek bluffs can be used for food. They are very mucilaginous which would suggest their use in soups or stews. It is reported that the leaf pads are somewhat bitter but not enough to hinder them from being used.
Flowers of Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, before they open, are equally as good as the young pods. They may be served in creamed sauce or in a casserole topped with cheese. In any recipe for broccoli, milkweed flowers might be substituted.
There are a number of wild plant roots to be used as a vegetable and a very good one is the large rootstock or rhizome of Solomon’s Seal.
These should be thought of as a survival food, not because they are not excellent food, but large-scale gathering could deplete and endanger the species.
However the Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) is much more robust and found along roadsides and waste places.
In rich ground it produces long carrot-like roots that make an excellent dish in any way that you might use carrots, beets or turnips. They have a slight peppery flavor.
For Prickly lettuce, Lactuca serriola, we have mentioned using young leaves in salads. But the best use of this and related species in my mind is the tender unopened flowering tips.
At this stage, and one can usually gather generous quantities along roadsides and fencerows.
The best use of these is for a casserole dish layering pre-cooked tops alternately with bread crumbs, cottage cheese, pieces of wieners, ham or sausage, and seasoned with onion, salt and pepper and the whole topped with a sharp cheddar cheese sauce, baked at 350 for 45 minutes. Yum Yum.
Rock tripe, a lichen, Umbilicaria species, I have used mostly as a meat substitute, in a main dish or casserole.
Sometimes the two kinds can be found growing together. Usually the warty rock tripe is found in drier and sunnier situations than the shoe-leather type which is olive green on one side and black on the other. I have not found this material in limestone areas, but on sandstone cliffs and rocks.
The “button” or point of attachment should be cut off as this is tough. They take a great deal of washing to get rid of the grit, especially the “shoe leather” type.
Cooked with rice or corn meal with tomato paste, onion and cheese added, it makes an excellent dish. The taste far outweighs the looks.
Black walnut may not excite anyone’s imagination as an edible food, but I found the juice of the salt cured young walnut makes an excellent kitchen bouquet to enrich the color of gravies as well as a seasoning.
Good cooking is only as good as the seasonings and condiments used. Crinkle-root or Toothwort (Dentaria diphylla) belongs to the mustard family. The long roots may be lignified in a blender with vinegar and water to make a spicy horseradish. Wild turnip roots can serve the same purpose.
Cedar berries, Juniperus virginiana, are a useful seasoning and condiment. In dressings for poultry or stuffed pork chops, they lend their flavor well. They can also be steeped in vinegar and used in an oil and vinegar dressing.
Juniper berries of the Communis species are used as the flavoring for Gin and Vermouth.
Sweet Flag or Acorus calamus I have used steeped in vinegar for an oil and vinegar salad dressing. In the salad dressing, I use a teaspoon of powdered sassafras leaves to the pint as an emulsifier.
I have tried making candy from the roots but it is very strong tasting, however, it is an excellent tonic for the throat and stomach.
Spicebush berries, Lindera benzoin, dried and ground, can be used as an all-spice flavor or as a tea. The green twigs, however, make the better tea and can be used throughout the year.
There are many wild fruits available for table use and the various wild berries are well known.
Papaw (Asimina triloba) are more difficult to come by, at least in central Kentucky, because the varmints beat you to them.
However, one or two good sized Papaws will make a custard or corn starch pudding for the whole family. They can be picked on the green side and held in the refrigerator for some time to ripen.
Persimmons, Diospyros virginiana, make excellent fruit for puddings, jams, and fruit drinks but they need to be dead, mushy ripe.
Dried, the pulp can be ground and used in muffins.
Even slightly green, the persimmon has real pucker power and its unusual astringency has been used medicinally.
Many flowers of plants can be used as food in several ways.
Daylily flowers, Homerocalis, can be dipped in a sweet, spiced fritter batter and make good eating; they are much used in Asian cuisine.
The dried flowers can be chopped up in soup and stews.
I made fritters using Sassafras flowers and they were really good. This was an experimental use on my part as I had never heard of them being used. All who tasted them wanted more.
The pesky dandelion, if it can’t be gotten rid of in your lawn can at least be made into a fritter using the flower heads. These morsels will delight your friends too.
Wild ginger, Asarum canadensis, has always entered my workshops in a candied form. However, I have also made use of the liquefied, cooked root in a sauce which can be used on meats and cooked vegetables.
Another material that can be used candied is the young growing tips in spring of the White Pine, Pinus strobus. I have been surprised at the number of people liking these candied bits for the first tasting.
Plants’ leaves and roots used for teas and beverages are numerous. New Jersey Tea or Red Root, Ceanothus americanus, was used as a tea in protest by American Revolutionaries to the English tax on Oriental tea. It has no caffeine stimulant.
True Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, makes a stimulating aromatic tea with the flavor of teaberry gum. The same taste can be had with bark or twigs of Sweet Birch, Betula lenta.
The stimulation comes from the aromatic oil and not caffeine. There is only one plant with any significant amount of caffeine found in the U.S. It belongs to the Holly family and grows in the southern states.
Huckleberry leaves (from the Gaylussacia species) make a good bright yellow tea. Some species of Vaccinium (blueberries) may also be used. As far as I know, none of the Vaccinium are toxic.
Strawberry leaves (Fragaria species), either fresh or dried, make a bright yellow tea containing high amounts of Vitamin C.
There is a report, however, that wilted leaves of strawberry are poisonous.
As was said in the beginning, to be safe in eating wild plants, one should have a thorough knowledge of plants and be able to identify them without question.
After knowing something of plant families and their potential for toxic species within the family, one can then feel somewhat safe in doing some experimenting.
Such is my case with the Hedge Apple, or Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera), considered by most as poisonous. So far, results are not promising that it will ever be a gourmet delight.
Here is Hemlock, which to most, spells poison, but as so often is the case with many plant names, there is more than one plant called Hemlock. Tsuga Canadensis leaves shown here make a good tea if boiled long enough.
The poisonous hemlock is Cicuta maculata, a member of the Parsley Family, which contains a number of highly toxic plants.
Being an edible wild food gourmet is fun but as with everything else, you learn by doing but in this the word is “caution” as well as to be conservation conscious as you gather these delights of woods, field and roadside.