Summer Foraging Fails, Week Ending 9/8/2019

As summer draws to a close in the mid-Atlantic, the nights have finally turned cool and the days less humid. There are still some foraged foods I have been unable to explore this year.

(OK, some of the wild edibles I’ve sample this summer could still be considered failures because I couldn’t capitalize on them. The best example being mayapples! I spied two more ripe mayapples in the woods last week, but was unwilling to tangle with the nettles for such a meager amount of food. Black nightshade berries were also disappointing, primarily due to lack of interest from my family. Plus there only seem to be a handful ripe at any given time. I’m thinking about dehydrating them as I harvest them, to see how that goes. And don’t even get me started about my missing black cherries!)

Accessibility has been one of my greatest challenges to foraging thus far. I’ve mentioned a few times that blatant trespassing and foraging along dangerous (and runoff-encrusted) roadsides is Not OK. Never mind the weird looks you get from folks watching you try to pry off plant parts! Here are three local wild edibles that remain maddeningly out of reach for me.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Staghorn sumac drupes remain frustratingly elusive, despite my constant hunt for them. 2019 has been a relatively dry year so far, which means prime flavor in sumac drupes. The flavor comes from a coating on the outside of the red fruit, so rain showers (like we were inundated with last year) actually wash away the flavor. I even staked out a possible location for sumac over the winter, but that photo was taken from a car window…

The staghorn sumac drupes, taunting me from overhead
The staghorn sumac drupes, taunting me from overhead

… and up close, the drupes still tower over my head.

Cattails (Typha latifolia). Cattails are even harder to just sneak up on than sumac, even though they are abundant in my usual suburban / country haunts. Any soggy roadside drainage ditch can (and often does) provide the perfect home to cattails, but they are usually fenced off. Even if they aren’t, there still remain the usual hazards of foraging along roads.

Fenced off surburban cattails in a shopping center parking lot drainage area
Fenced off surburban cattails in a shopping center parking lot drainage area

Cattails provide foraged food throughout the year. I’ve already missed the spring shoots, immature male flowers, and pollen by now. Fall is prime time to dig for the lateral rhizome tips. However, you can’t just go digging along roadside ditches. It’s not like my persimmon trees from last year, where you can just scoop up handfuls of fruit from the ground and dash back to the car. You have to rummage through the mud or water to actually find where the growing tips of the cattail colony ends.

I think I have a lead on some private property with a pond, where I may be able to forage cattails next year. Stay tuned!

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). The evening primrose has been especially maddening because I see them everywhere along the roadsides, but nowhere I feel safe parking and trying to harvest the flowers. Many of these are country roads, so relatively low traffic – but with no shoulder to speak of when you pull over.

Roadside evening primrose - so close, and yet so far
Roadside evening primrose – so close, and yet so far

I took this photo from my car. (Stop freaking out – it was perfectly safe. Low-traffic country roads, remember?)

I may plant evening primrose in my own yard next year. This would probably be the best solution, honestly, since it would allow me to harvest some plants for the roots, and some for the greens, and still have others left over to form flowers the following year. I just have to find a place in my yard for a two-year (biennial) crop! Should make next year’s edible landscaping tour very interesting.

How has your summer fared (with foraging or otherwise)? Successes, disappointments? Share your thoughts below!

8 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing what’s going on in your area. I was looking forward to collecting some Mexican plums here in central Texas, but it’s only rained a few drops in the past couple of months so the ones I had my eye are dropping unripe from the trees. My absolute summer favorite, though, is purslane. More drought-tolerant. Slightly moist, refreshing and nutritious, it’s the perfect summer green. Unfortunately, there’s none growing in my yard this year, and I only find it in sprayed places or in the sidewalks by busy streets. At least I collected some of the purslane seeds from those to scatter about my yard. Hoping for next year…

  2. Why drive, park, and dash, when you could hike and collect at leisure? Hundreds of miles of hiking trails must be nearby. A few years ago I spent two days and a night on the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail, and it must have been a forager’s delight, if I had the eyes to see it.

    • It all depends on what you’re foraging, honestly. Sumac and evening primrose both prefer sunny fields or meadows, whereas cattails like really wet feet. Along the Appalachian Trail I would expect to find nuts and other forest trees with edible leaves, and shade-loving plants like mayapples, wild ginger, and greenbrier (among others). Clearly I need to make time to go see for myself!

      • Also, I remember the National Park Service goons may have their ideas about foraging. I lost my taste for hiking when I woke up in the morning to find a ranger checking everything out… the established trails are regulated environments 😦

  3. I’m lucky enough to have my own small piece of land. I’m developing it to be productive in food, both native and imported. I call it editing – discouraging what I don’t want, and enouraging what may be more useful. This year I had success eating pignut (conopodium majus) which I discovered is much nicer cooked. My bird cherries fruited for the first time – very small but tasty and a promise for future years. I’m hoping to try marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris) later this year which I identified spreading around after I went out and bought a plant!

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