Burn Out

Folks, remember when foraging that “edible” does not always mean “good.”

And just because someone else relishes a specific wild plant does not guarantee that you will as well.

Take for example: American burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius). Also known as fireweed, but it shares that name with Chamaenerion angustifolium, which is not what we’re discussing this week. Burnweed is a native annual in the Aster family (with daisies, dandelions and lettuce), and sports some very showy leaves making it pretty easy to identify. As the name implies, it favors disturbed ground, especially where there has been fire.

American burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius)
American burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius)

Viljoen sings praises to American burnweed in Forage, Harvest, Feast (yes that book AGAIN) – and in fact is the only foraging book I am aware of which even mentions it. So I was ecstatic to find two small specimens in my yard (which, for the record, has not experienced any fires).

Apparently the leaves are edible even when the plant gets much larger (up to four feet, apparently!) but I decided to harvest them now, when they were still small enough to savor fresh and raw.

Did I say “savor”?

I didn’t savor.

I actually didn’t taste much of anything. Maybe a hint of bitterness? Maybe a tease of something aromatic and exciting?

Is my burnweed defective? Or is it my tastebuds?

American burnweed in my garden path
American burnweed in my garden path

I harvested and nibbled the leaves of both plants, and the results were the same for both. There was some kind of flavor there. But nothing worthy of the odes in FHF.

I persevered. Given the relatively small amount I had, I opted to make a compound butter – a great go-to option for small amounts of flavorful ingredients. Luckily I had a sheep sorrel patch in reserve for just such an opportunity. Yes, I permit weeds when it suits me. (Just wait till you see my annual garden update in a few days … yikes!)

My sheep sorrel reserve, just in case I need it
My sheep sorrel reserve, just in case I need it

I blended 2 Tbs minced burnweed, 2 Tbs minced sheep sorrel, and 1/4 tsp garlic scape salt into 1/4 cup softened butter. Rather than make a fancy roll in parchment paper, I opted to scrape the compound butter into a mold.

Compound Butter of burnweed and sheep sorrel
Compound Butter of burnweed and sheep sorrel

Guess what? I still don’t taste the burnweed. Butter, check. Sheep sorrel, check. Garlic scape salt, double check. Burnweed? Not so much.

Apparently, despite its edibility, American burnweed was primarily used by the Native Americans for medicinal purposes. One of its other names, pilewort, implies at least one such application. It was also known to treat poison ivy, one of my inevitable summertime scourges. I have a small amount of leaves left, and have decided to add them to a bug bite / sting / itch relief salve I am currently making with plantain, comfrey, echinacea, and jewelweed macerated in almond oil. More details on that coming soon!

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