In Search of the Lean Six Life

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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 1/20/2019

This week, I’m blogging about a previously mentioned plant, common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).  The original post showed summer time photos, as well as one picture of its “winter aspect.”

In the winter, evening primrose stalks stand out with their brown fluted seedpods. Like much winter foraging, identifying the evening primrose stalks in the cold months gives you a place to which to return when the weather warms up. This biennial plant offers edible roots in its first year, and edible flower stalks, flowers and seed heads in its second year of life.

I recently found evening primrose standing out clearly against the snow.

Evening Primrose in the Snow

Evening Primrose in the Snow

(There are some additional photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site as well.)

I haven’t been able to confirm this yet, but I assume not all evening primrose plants in a patch will be on the same life cycle. These dried stalks are from second year plants, and new first year plants will start from their seeds; but there must be other plants in the area that will be in their second year during 2019. I think. Maybe. We’ll see!

In addition to locating future crops, evening primrose has a bonus winter benefit. Some of these seed heads still have seeds in them!

I can hear some of you now… well, one of you in particular. “Are the seeds of sufficient caloric value to be worth the effort to harvest?” Obviously the crop would have been larger if you had gathered the seed heads before they dried and lost half their seeds; but perhaps you only just discovered the plants now, in the dead of winter. Or you’d used all the seeds you harvested in the fall. Or you just spontaneously realized you needed gamma linolenic acid (GLA) in your life.  Who knows? The point is: some seeds are still there.

The seed heads are made up of four chambers which can be pried apart down to the base. If there are seeds left in mid-winter, they will be tucked away in this part. Rather than separating the four chambers by hand, I find it faster to use garden sheers to cut through each seed head near the base. Doing this above a mesh strainer over a bowl allows the seeds to fall through into the bowl while the rest of the plant matter stays in the strainer.

Well. In theory anyway. Evening primrose seeds suffer the same harvesting challenges as any small seeds (mustard and amaranth, for example): winnowing is an essential step to remove the last traces of unwanted dust and plant bits from the seeds. The usual winnowing process involves pouring the seeds between two bowls while a light breeze blows. The seeds fall to the waiting bowl and the winds carries away the chaff.

The seeds in the following picture still need to be winnowed. Obviously!

Evening Primrose Seeds with Chaff

Evening Primrose Seeds with Chaff

Unfortunately, the breeze around my house is ALWAYS strong, which is why there is STILL no post about my amaranth harvest last year. (I tried, I really did.)

Once you have the evening primrose seeds cleaned – better than in my photo, please! – they can be used anywhere you would want a healthy crunchy topping. They can be sprinkled onto yogurt, desserts, or used in baked goods in place of poppy seeds. Some sources suggest toasting the seeds in a dry skillet over a low heat until they begin to smell fragrant. (I haven’t tried this personally so I can’t tell you what it smells like!)

Or you can do what I will probably do with my small, uncleaned harvest… scatter them around the yard and wait for next year’s crop to grow!


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Plant Profile, Week Ending 8/26/2018

If you have been anywhere in central Maryland the past few weeks, you’ve see this yellow flower EVERYWHERE. It’s along every roadside. This lovely trumpet-shaped blossom is common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).

Evening Primrose is Everywhere

Evening Primrose is Everywhere

Every part of the evening primrose plant can be eaten, as long as you get your timing right. Evening primrose is a biennial, in the first year producing only leaves, and the second year sending up a tall stalk to produce flowers for seeds. Like chicory and salsify, I have only been able to recognize evening primrose when its showy flowers are on display, at which point I have already missed half the foraging fun.

Anywhere you see evening primrose flowering, you should be able to find first year plants close by.  Unfortunately the first year plant bears very little resemblance to the second year flowering plant. It starts life as a basal rosette (low lying leaves in a circle around the root), with lance-shaped leaves featuring a prominent white midrib.

I found this little guy close by several blooming evening primrose. I assume it is a first year. Am I going to sample the leaves without REALLY knowing for sure? Of course not!

Possibly Primrose

Possibly Primrose

Naturally I had to dig it up to inspect the root as well. The root displays a trait of the evening primrose, with a red color near the soil line and a light tan below that. (This photo doesn’t do the colors justice.) Am I going to nibble on the root to see what it tastes like? Heck no!

Possibly Primrose Root

Possibly Primrose Root

The only way I will feel 100% comfortable with this identification is to stake out one suspected first year plant, and watch to see what it does the following year.

Evening Primrose

Evening Primrose

Why are we looking for the first year plants? At that age, the leaves and roots are edible. The leaves of the first year plants can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach and similar greens. You can harvest leaves in the fall of a first year plant, or early spring for a second year plant. Once the plant starts flowering in July and August, the leaves are too tough to eat.

The roots can be consumed raw, although according to some sources the flavor may be too spicy (like an extremely intense radish) for some people. Cooking helps tame the flavor. Other sources say the roots can be sweet, so maybe the flavor changes with growing conditions. Don’t harvest all the roots you find though, or you won’t have flowers to enjoy later.

The immature flower stalks can be harvested in the late spring or early summer of the plant’s second year. I have read that they need to be peeled before being eaten – I haven’t caught one at the right stage to try it myself. The flower pods and flowers are edible as well. The flowers have a mild sweet flavor, and would make a delicious decoration on salads or desserts. Just don’t harvest all the flowers, or there won’t be any seeds later!

The immature seed heads can apparently be cooked and eaten like a vegetable. And last but not least, once the seed heads are ripe (mid- to late-fall) you can peel them open to reveal the edible seeds.  The seeds are even good for you too. They contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid. The seeds are commercially processed to extract the oil and sold as nutritional supplements.

Seed Heads Still Holding Seeds in the Winter

Seed Heads Still Holding Seeds in the Winter

The seeds can be used like sesame seeds or poppy seeds to garnish baked goods, or sprinkled over yogurt or cottage cheese. Some sources recommend toasting them, but I would be concerned heat would damage the GLA. When I use the seeds I plan to harvest later this year, I certainly will not be heating them. Whatever you choose to do with them though, make sure to leave a few seeds behind to help seed the next crop of evening primrose!

For a reminder about foraging safely, please visit this page.