If you have been anywhere in central Maryland the past few weeks, you’ve see this yellow flower EVERYWHERE. It’s along every roadside. This lovely trumpet-shaped blossom is common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).
Every part of the evening primrose plant can be eaten, as long as you get your timing right. Evening primrose is a biennial, in the first year producing only leaves, and the second year sending up a tall stalk to produce flowers for seeds. Like chicory and salsify, I have only been able to recognize evening primrose when its showy flowers are on display, at which point I have already missed half the foraging fun.
Anywhere you see evening primrose flowering, you should be able to find first year plants close by. Unfortunately the first year plant bears very little resemblance to the second year flowering plant. It starts life as a basal rosette (low lying leaves in a circle around the root), with lance-shaped leaves featuring a prominent white midrib.
I found this little guy close by several blooming evening primrose. I assume it is a first year. Am I going to sample the leaves without REALLY knowing for sure? Of course not!
Naturally I had to dig it up to inspect the root as well. The root displays a trait of the evening primrose, with a red color near the soil line and a light tan below that. (This photo doesn’t do the colors justice.) Am I going to nibble on the root to see what it tastes like? Heck no!
The only way I will feel 100% comfortable with this identification is to stake out one suspected first year plant, and watch to see what it does the following year.
Why are we looking for the first year plants? At that age, the leaves and roots are edible. The leaves of the first year plants can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach and similar greens. You can harvest leaves in the fall of a first year plant, or early spring for a second year plant. Once the plant starts flowering in July and August, the leaves are too tough to eat.
The roots can be consumed raw, although according to some sources the flavor may be too spicy (like an extremely intense radish) for some people. Cooking helps tame the flavor. Other sources say the roots can be sweet, so maybe the flavor changes with growing conditions. Don’t harvest all the roots you find though, or you won’t have flowers to enjoy later.
The immature flower stalks can be harvested in the late spring or early summer of the plant’s second year. I have read that they need to be peeled before being eaten – I haven’t caught one at the right stage to try it myself. The flower pods and flowers are edible as well. The flowers have a mild sweet flavor, and would make a delicious decoration on salads or desserts. Just don’t harvest all the flowers, or there won’t be any seeds later!
The immature seed heads can apparently be cooked and eaten like a vegetable. And last but not least, once the seed heads are ripe (mid- to late-fall) you can peel them open to reveal the edible seeds. The seeds are even good for you too. They contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid. The seeds are commercially processed to extract the oil and sold as nutritional supplements.
The seeds can be used like sesame seeds or poppy seeds to garnish baked goods, or sprinkled over yogurt or cottage cheese. Some sources recommend toasting them, but I would be concerned heat would damage the GLA. When I use the seeds I plan to harvest later this year, I certainly will not be heating them. Whatever you choose to do with them though, make sure to leave a few seeds behind to help seed the next crop of evening primrose!
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