Unplanned Unicorn

This week, I introduce you, my readers to an unplanned foraging unicorn: prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum).

I researched prickly ash briefly when I first read Forage, Harvest, Feast (yes that book again), which holds the distinction of being literally the only foraging book to mention prickly ash at all. Which in retrospect is odd, given that Z. americanum has a pair of famous Chinese cousins, Z. bungeanum and Z. simulans, which are the source of Sichuan pepper used in Asian cooking.

Sichuan pepper comes from the Chinese prickly ash
Sichuan pepper comes from the Chinese prickly ash

No matter. If I’m to enjoy prickly ash, it would have to be as store bought seasoning, since said shrub is apparently “endangered / highly state rare” for Maryland. I dismissed this spiky subject even though there are reported sightings for Frederick county. Compared to ramps – one of my last remaining foraging unicorns – the seventeen prickly ash recipes in Viljoen’s book weren’t really worth the hunt. Besides, when would I ever make “Quail Stuffed with Prickly Ash, Pheasant Back Rice and Ramps” (p. 312)?

[EDITED TO ADD: I just learned that Alan Bergo’s book, Flora, also includes information on prickly ash. In other news, I just cheated on my “book diet”…]

But lately, my foraging excursions have expanded to include West Virginia, and while hiking recently I found a bristly, angry looking bare branch and attempted to ID it (I use the Seek app on my phone). Lo and behold: Z. americanum.

A branch bristling with thorns - prickly ash
A branch bristling with thorns – prickly ash

American prickly ash comes with a whole host of confusing family relations. In addition to the name “prickly ash”, it might also be known as: pricklyash, prickly-ash, common prickly ash, northern prickly ash, and eastern prickly ash. There’s also a “southern” prickly ash, Z. clava-herculis, aka Hercules club, as in the club used as a weapon (not a dance club). And the awkward cousin nobody sees or hears from regularly, Z. parvum. Any of the various Zanthoxylum species might also be known as “toothache tree” for the mouth numbing effects of chewing on the leaves or bark. (It also apparently inspires copious salivation, which could be funny when combined with mouth-numbing.)

Oh, then there’s also Aralia spinosa – no relation – known primarily as Devil’s walkingstick, which is sometimes also called prickly ash. But you can see from this photo (taken a few summers ago) that the spikes on A. spinosa are very, very different from Zanthoxylum spp.

Devil's walkingstick is sometimes also called prickly ash
Devil’s walkingstick is sometimes also called prickly ash

Prickly ash – Chinese or American – also hosts a variety of medicinal uses, in addition to the previously mentioned mouth-numbing effects. This article goes into extensive details if you want to read more.

Later that on that same WV trip, I realized there was a second specimen, a spiky fellow that I had encountered several times previously but never thought to investigate more thoroughly.

A second prickly ash specimen
A second prickly ash specimen

Given their tendency to grow in thickets, I suspect I may find many more. Suddenly my future looks very peppery!

Now… if I could just find ramps!


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