Summer Foraging Fails

With the official arrival of autumn, the weather has turned sharply colder here in the mid-Atlantic region. Which is something of a miracle. In recent years, high temperatures and crushing humidity persisted well into October, so “fall-like weather” during early fall is a treat!

The cooler air temps result in cooler ground temps as well, and the wild plants we forage in the winter are popping up everywhere. Henbit, dandelions, chickweed and garlic mustard suddenly blanket the landscape.

Winter is coming – garlic mustard and chickweed have started making an appearance

Now is the time when I reflect on all the things I failed to accomplish this summer, from a foraging perspective. These failures fall (haha) into three major categories: availability, timing, and utility.

Let’s start with availability. My foraging efforts continue to be plagued by complete lack of some wild food, and by “not enough” of others. Maypops (Passiflora incarnata) continue to top this list, because I know they are around here somewhere! Those flashy flowers would be visible in the summer, marking where to return in the fall to harvest the fruit. (If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember I tried planting some of my own, only it didn’t go as planned….)

An example of forage that is available, just not in quantity enough to use: wild grapes (Vitis spp.), absolutely, no question. I froze the meager two cups of juice I processed last week while I figure out a plan for them.

My bigger issue this summer was timing. I was too late, or too early for cattails (Typha spp.), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), daylilys (Hemerocallis fulva) and yes, even milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I can offer no excuse for the last two, except that I was lured into complacency by their relative abundance. I could have walked half a mile from my house and harvested armloads of either. And by the time I was like “yeah, I should do that,” I had missed the opportunity.

Utility issues continue to plague me as well, where I forage wild food with delight and then completely mis- or under-utilize them. (I philosophized about this recently.) Case in point: so far, I have one small handful of black cherry (Prunus serotina) kernels for mahlab. They smell amazing so I haven’t given up on them (although they are still toxic since they haven’t been roasted yet), but I have nowhere near enough to make a useful amount of seasoning. They’re just such a pain to crush with enough force to crack the shells, but not so hard that the kernel gets completely crushed.

Mahlab, maybe?

(I suspect, once roasted, they could also be soaked in high proof alcohol for a substitute almond-flavored extract.)

Tragically, I fear pawpaws (Asimina triloba) may have earned a spot in the “cannot utilize” category. I baked the Pawpaw Spice Cake from Forage, Harvest, Feast (yes, that book again), and it was ridiculously delicious. My family had mixed feelings about the spicebush in the topping, and the hazelnuts ended up burnt by the time the rest of the cake was cooked through. Oh, and I made it as a loaf rather than a cake. (I am incapable of following recipes as written, FYI.) But overall, the pawpaw spice “bread” seemed a success. Except that it made. Me. So. Sick. Maybe it was the wheat flour, and not the pawpaws. Since I eat so little wheat, could my body have forgotten how to digest it? Maybe it was the adventures in wild mushrooms from the day before, and the pawpaw bread fell victim to bad timing? But the smell of pawpaws now makes me sick to my stomach. To add insult to injury, one of my neighbors gifted me with over 40 pounds of fruit from his own grove – just a small amount from under a few of his trees. I spent days cleaning the pulp from the peels and massive seeds, and saving small amounts in bags in the freezer. And now I’m afraid to use any of it!

Pawpaw processing… “paw”sibly pointless

What foraging successes (or failures) did you encounter this summer?

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