Summer Foraging Fails, Week Ending 10/4/2020

Summer ended abruptly here in the mid-Atlantic. Not the referencing the autumnal equinox here, but the shift from blistering temps to chilly ones, and that change in how the sun slants creating longer shadows. The weather change felt like it happened overnight. We even had unexpected frost before the official change to fall – September 20! Average date of first frost in my agricultural zone isn’t until mid-October.

It’s a good time to reflect on everything I failed to accomplish in my foraging practice this summer! These failures fall into three broad categories: the wild food I was unable to find; that which I found but couldn’t forage; and that which I foraged ineffectively.

The biggest frustration on my list: still no maypops (Passiflora incarnata). I know they’re around here somewhere. How could you miss those crazy purple flowers? I have to keep looking. (P.S., if you’re wondering what happened to my red vine passionflower vines, they never produced fruit and not a single one of them survived our (relatively mild) winter.)

While I did I manage to find local wild hazelnuts (Corylus americana), they are too remote for me to check them regularly. I don’t know exactly when they will be ripe (my own hazelnuts are still too young to fruit) so I don’t stand a chance of harvesting them before the squirrels get the handful on the trees.

Hazelnuts still ripening on the tree branch
Hazelnuts still ripening on the tree branch

My other big spring discovery was wild serviceberries, aka juneberries (most likely Amelanchier arborea), thanks to studying my own cultivated trees (Amelanchier canadensis). What did I do with my newfound source of fruit? Nothing! I was unable to return to the wild trees in time to harvest any berries!

Of the items I see regularly and still can’t forage, top of my list is staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). I see it all the time. Along roadsides and highways. Or a few in a local park, where they tower above my head in a very exposed location where a lot of passersby might see me and wonder what on earth is she doing to that poor tree? It’s particularly frustrating because because many of Maire Viljoen’s recipes in Forage, Harvest, Feast call for sumac in one form or another (even recipes for other wild plants). Sure, I could just buy some from a Middle Eastern grocery store (although their sumac is Rhus coriara, and has a slightly different flavor). Just like I could buy daylily buds or ground kudzu root from an Asian market. But that exactly defeats the purpose of trying to forage local replacements for exotic ingredients with very long supply chains.

I also could not get to the one stand of cattail (Typha latifolia) I have permission for forage. The abrupt arrival of COVID-19 in the spring kept everyone confined to their homes, and some folks continue to be very cautious about “visiting”. I chose not to press the issue of harvesting the cattails since 2020 has been such a very unsettling year. I am keeping my fingers crossed for 2021!

Most of my summer foraging fails land squarely in the category of ineffective foraging. Top of this list: black cherries (Prunus serotina). This year I started stalking the black cherry trees early to catch the fruit. Up till now, I’d never found any. The trees seemed to go magically from flower-covered to bare of fruit, probably thanks to the same birds that ravage my blackberries and raspberries. This year, I actually harvested some fruit. Just nowhere near enough for, well, anything except eating straight. But the seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, and the small amount of flesh remaining is frankly not tasty enough to bother!

Black cherries at different stages of ripeness
Black cherries at different stages of ripeness

Another wild plant I knew about, but failed to effectively forage, was the nearby tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis). I never went back to collect the sap for possible medicinal use. Though in my defense, I wasn’t hugely motivated since I wasn’t sure tall blue lettuce would have the requisite amounts of lactucarium anyway.  As the blogger at Skyent pointed out in a comment on that blog post, Lactuca virosa isn’t native to this area, and I confirmed it doesn’t even appear in the Maryland Biodiversity Project. Ah well. I’ll keep researching natural herbal pain killers, and maybe I’ll find something even better.

What’s even worse than “not enough to forage” or “not sure if it’s a good idea to forage” is when you have plenty of the plant, but the recipe you try out ends in disaster. Well, not disaster. But something you don’t actually use or consume, and end up tossing out. This happened to me with both the elderflower cordial and the milkweed cordial. The elderflower cordial wasn’t bad, per se, but I just didn’t know what to do with it once I had it. (Yes, Forage, Harvest, Feast had recipes but they were gin-based and I’m just not a gin fan. There, I said it.) And the milkweed cordial WAS a disaster, because I left it too long out of an overabundance of caution about the fermentation. And frankly I don’t have a use for milkweed vinegar in my life!

What successes or failures did you encounter this summer, foraging or otherwise?

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