The milkweeds’ days are numbered in hours…
I know I already mentioned this podcast by Chris Martenson titled Living with Integrity.
I was struck, not just by the analogy of eating spoonfuls of oil, but his observations about dramatic declines in insect and bird life in his area. It made me reflect on how unaware I am of what’s “normal” here in central MD. I’ve never paid attention to birds and bugs before, beyond railing against Japanese beetles killing my plants…
…and the cardinals destroying my blueberries.
Then just a few days later, I read Chapter 10: The Myth of Nature from 33 Myths of the System. All of Darren Allen’s writing is powerful, and this was no exception. But I was surprised by the claim of 75% of insect life gone.
Seventy five percent? Really?
Today I was rummaging through the milkweed in the farmer’s field across the street. Good news! I actually have permission to forage here now, and the farmer hasn’t yet mowed. I am hunting for milkweed buds to eat as vegetables, and some milkweed flowers for a batch of liqueur.
Harvesting the flower parts should be “okay” from a ecological perspective because the farmer will probably mow this field in the next few weeks, before these plants could set seed anyway. No milkweed cheese for me this year! Even if my own modest patch manages to produce flowers, I wouldn’t harvest them (as flowers or young seedpods) to make sure I could plants more milkweed so the monarchs have something to eat next year.
So I creep through the tall grass in the field, harvesting milkweed flower buds and flowers, getting sticky sap all over my gloves, trying avoid any poison ivy and praying there are no ticks. I approach each plant carefully, tenderly, so I don’t disturb any caterpillars happily munching on the leaves. In fact, I might even relocate a few to my own yard, to make sure some survive the inevitable mowing of the field.
Only… there’s no monarch caterpillars.
Everywhere I look, the leaves are smooth and untouched by little caterpillar mandibles.
At long last, I find one. One singular monarch baby.
I carefully evacuate it to my yard, and hope I can find more in a few days … and that rain postpones the inevitable mowing further to buy me more time!
As we cleaned out the side yard over the past year or so, we uncovered a mulberry tree (Morus rubra). Well, we actually discovered many mulberry trees because they are practically weeds in our area, much like black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia).
Now the mulberry is a proud member of my growing food forest. Carefully mulched and with the weeds cleared away, I am finally getting a bumper crop of mulberries … sort of.
The easiest way to find mulberries this time of year is to look down, rather than up into the trees. Especially where branches hang over roads. The pavement will be smeared darker than usual, as the blackest, ripest berries fall to the ground and passing cars crush them. Many people find mulberry fruit to be a nuisance. I find them to be delicious, especially in this lull between the end of the strawberry crop and blueberries finally ripening.
The problem / challenge / opportunity is leveraging the mulberries in my yard. Yes, I love it when the ripe fruit falls to the ground… but then it’s a hassle to scoop up the berries from the grass and the dirt. So, following advice I found online, I spread a blanket under the tree to catch the berries. Well, a floating row cover as the case may be. I worried a blanket would smother the grass.
But that just made it easier for the birds to find and eat the fruit too! And because the blanket was on a slope, the slightest breeze blew the fruit right off. After a few hours, there weren’t many berries so I left the blanket. Then forgot about the blanket. A few days later, when I tried to collect the blanket, the handful of fruit I “harvested” had molded and stuck to the fabric. Ew. I threw the whole thing away, grateful it was “just” a row cover and not an actual blanket.
My mulberry tree is young enough I can reach a few of the lower branches on my tip-toes. But even with diligent effort, I could barely harvest enough berries for any use besides eating right then and there!
What would I do with the mulberries if I ever gathered enough to “do” anything? I don’t know! I will cross that bridge if and when I actually reach that point!
(There are also white mulberries (Mora alba) growing wild in central MD as well. They are considered to be invasive in this area. I don’t know how the flavor compares to our “regular” mulberries, but it must be nice not getting your fingers and face stained purple from eating them!)
Common burdock (Arctium minus) regularly infiltrates lawns and fields in central MD. I first noticed burdock in our yard last year, and once I knew what to look for I saw it everywhere.
This year, we cleared out an area in our yard choked with weeds and overrun by poison ivy and honeysuckle. In the midst of this mess, I uncovered several second year burdock plants. I carefully marked them with flags so they wouldn’t “accidentally” get mowed with the other weeds.
Since burdock is a biennial, these burdock plants were already large and have since grown even bigger. They would make nice show pieces in an edible landscape, if they weren’t randomly located in our front lawn! In late spring, the second year roots are too big and tough to harvest for food. Plus, with the size of these plants I can’t fathom how big the roots must be. When we harvested first year plants for roots last year, we invested a lot of effort for the amount of food we got out of it.
(I apparently never posted about eating burdock roots, oops? Rest assured, the julienned roots nicely complemented the other flavors in a stir fry.)
Like other biennials, second year burdock sends out flowering stalks. Before they flower, the immature stalks can be harvested and many sources said they were the best part of foraging burdock – no digging required! Timing is everything; as you wait, the stalks get bigger, but as they grow they become more tough and bitter.
Apparently, when you topple the flowering stalk, the burdock plant sends up a new one to try producing flowers and seed. I’ve read that one plant can produce as many as three harvests of immature stalks. Sounds like a great food source to me!
Each flowering stalk had several side-shoots as well. I wasn’t sure if they were worth collecting too, so I harvested everything to be sure. Since this little experiment – just a few days ago! – I read that if a burdock stalk has laterals, it is already past its prime. Oops again?
Burdock leaves allegedly have medicinal properties, but I know even less about foraged medicine than I do about foraged food! I just composted the leaves I cut from the stalks.
Honestly, I struggled to efficiently and quickly peel the stalks. I used a paring knife and kept working until I only had the smooth insides. The fibrous outer portion seemed to take forever to clean away.
The smaller stalks from the side shoots were easier to peel, but had a much smaller core for the amount of effort required to get to it.
I eventually gave up on peeling these smaller pieces.
Also, the burdock ended up staining my hands slightly brown. None of the resources I’d researched on burdock mentioned this side effect. Not as bad as black walnut, mind you, but still noticeable. You can just see the stain on my fingers in the pictures above.
At long last, we had a side-dish-worth of burdock stalks. It didn’t add up to much!
I microwave-steamed the stalks with two tablespoons of water for six minutes, stirring partway through. I dressed the stalks with butter and salt. The flavor was OK, but nothing remarkable. Certainly not worth all the attention they garner as a wild food. One book I read compared the flavor to cardoons, but I have never eaten a cardoon – I actually had to research what a cardoon even is – so I cannot offer an opinion there.
One of my kids bravely nibbled a bite, and claimed it tasted like artichoke hearts. And so it did! In this family, steamed artichokes are enjoyed with mayonnaise – hey, don’t judge! – and indeed we all enjoyed the burdock stalks a lot more after dipping them in mayo.
The real question is: would I do it again? I only harvested what I thought we would eat, so several stalks linger in my yard. Plus, the three plants who sacrificed their stalks ought to produce new ones as well. Maybe I will try slightly younger stalks next time… stay tuned!
There’s so much going on wild-food-wise right now in Maryland! I could fill this blog with pages and pages of photos of the amazing bounty out there, in the woods and in the fields.
However, I am realizing more and more that knowing “what” is edible is useless if you don’t know what to actually do with it. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, not only can you eat garlic mustard, but you really should eat it to remove this exotic invasive species from delicate native ecosystems.” But what does one do with this knowledge? Not much, without knowing how to eat garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).
A lot of foraging books toss out suggestions, but few actually provide recipes. Garlic mustard pesto gets mentioned frequently, so I decided to give it a try.
Luckily the internet provides recipes that the books don’t. I used the recipe here as my starting point, substituting toasted hazelnuts for the walnuts since that is what I had. Plus, I am actually growing hazelnut trees (although I still have years to wait before they produce nuts) and I like to adapt recipes to use as much of my own harvest as possible.
Also, rather than using leaves from the second year stalks as in the original receipt, I used first year plants.
Wait, haven’t I written previously that first year garlic mustard isn’t worth eating?
One key to harvesting garlic mustard greens is timing. In Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer shares the secret: the “meristem”. The meristem is the part of any plant where growth occurs. Because it is growing, the meristem is often lighter colored, softer, and milder flavored compared to established parts of the plant. In other words, it’s the most edible part.
Which explains why first year garlic mustard leaves are unpalatable in fall – they have finished growing for the season, and the leaves are tough and bitter. In spring, however, new first year plants are coming up, with young tender leaves that are much more enjoyable. To some people anyway. Others will find garlic mustard to be too intense no matter how early you harvest it!
Personally, I found the garlic mustard pesto a delightful change from the typical basil-based version. Although if you are serving it to guests, you should warn them to sample a small amount before diving in!
Three more notes:
- If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but the flavor is still too pungent for your taste buds, next time substitute 1 cup of the leaves for a milder-flavored green. In the photo above, you can see young lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) in the lower left corner. That’s a great candidate, and adds a nutritional boost as well. Spinach would also work. I wouldn’t recommend another plant with a strong flavor – like basil, for instance – because it could clash with the flavor of the garlic mustard rather than simply taming it.
- If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but just … you know … never eat crackers or toast to put the pesto on, blend two parts pesto to one part white wine vinegar. Poof! Instant pesto vinaigrette to enjoy on a salad.
- If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but don’t seem to eat very much at a time, you can always freeze the leftovers for later.
This year, I missed the window for milkweed shoots.
I noticed the milkweed (Asclepius syriaca) coming up in the field across the street from my house a few weeks ago. Milkweed is one of the darlings of foraging, because it has so many edible parts through so many different seasons: shoots in the spring, flower buds in the summer, flowers in the late summer and edible seedpods if you catch them early enough (also in the late summer).
But you see, I already know what will befall the milkweed plants growing surreptitiously among the meadow grass and other “weeds.” In a few weeks, the farmer will mow his field to the ground, just like last year, and I – and all the monarch butterflies – will be deprived of this amazing plant.
Well. I can drive to the grocery store for food. This year, I am also “all in” on my garden, which will (baring any weather related catastrophes) will help keep me and mine fed. (Although the children will protest it, I’m sure.) The monarchs butterflies, though… that’s all they have. And they won’t have it for very long as it is.
Which is why I’ve decided to experiment with “reverse foraging.” I adopted this phrase from author Sara Bir, and I suspect most serious foragers have done something similar. The idea is straightforward enough: intentionally encouraging and even propagating wild edible plants. It can be as simple as ensuring optimal habitat is available for the plants – even just not mowing part of the lawn – or as complex as re-seeding ramps in a woodland patch getting bare. OK, I can’t actually do that because I still haven’t discovered ramps in the woods near me. But I can (and did) scatter milkweed seeds among the wildflowers I planted in my side yard to see if they would grow.
I recently discovered a veritable nettle bounty grows less than a mile from my house!
I first located stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) in the woods nearby in early spring last year. I was very excited since stinging nettle is one of the “classic” wild foraged edibles. People even harvest it to sell farmer’s markets because of its cachet in the local food movement. Stinging nettle is best harvested early in the spring – earlier than pictured here – when the tops are at their youngest and most tender. If you’re going to eat them, that is. Stinging nettles can be used for tea long after they are too tough to eat.
The jagged leaves growing opposite each other on the stem look similar to members of the mint family. But there is no doubt which plant it is if you bravely – or accidentally – touch the hairs on the stem.
I have read that drying stinging nettle removes the infamous bite from the stems. Personally, I find that even dried leaves retain some sting, making them unpleasant to handle. The best approach, in my opinion, is to dunk them in boiling water, and simmer a few minutes before draining.
Boiling the stinging nettle offers two benefits. You precook the greens for future use in recipes. And if you carefully strain the cooking water into a separate container instead of letting it go down the drain, you have stinging nettle tea as well! I store the intensely-green colored liquid in the fridge to drink cold as a pick-me-up, or warm for a tonic. Stinging nettle tea both looks and tastes like spring.
This year, I also discovered local Canadian wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). Technically I “found” it late last autumn, when foraging for pawpaws. As I searched the forest floor for fallen fruit, I would periodically get stung by dead or dying stalks of something. The stalks seemed to be everywhere.
Turns out they are everywhere this spring as well. Comparing the shapes of the leaves against those of stinging nettle, I had this sudden thought that maybe I had found wood nettle. Wood nettle has rounder leaves than the more famous stinging nettle.
I brushed one with my index finger to confirm its stinging nature, and sure enough, it let me have it! The burning sensation continued longer than I liked, so I tried my first ever spit poultice. Guys, this is gross but it actually worked. I found a broad leaf plantain, chewed part of a leaf and then put the resulting wet mess on the sting. I then wrapped the rest of the leaf around the finger to help hold the spit poultice in place. The burning disappeared almost immediately, and after half a minute the only memory of the experience was the leaf wrapped around my finger.
I did not have any harvesting equipment (aka gloves and a bag) with me at the time, so I cannot tell you how wood nettle tastes. I read it tastes even better as a cooked green than stinging nettle, and I hope to be able to report on that by next week. Unfortunately, I am currently suffering from an embarrassment of vegetables (mostly wild) for cooked green veggies, and I fear a family rebellion if I serve too many too soon!
Apparently there is also an “American nettle”, Urtica gracilis, that grows in Maryland according to the Maryland Biodiversity Project. But I haven’t found that yet, and might not depending on its typical growing habitat.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that stinging nettle and wood nettle are not related to purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), which I discussed a few months ago. Purple deadnettle actually is a member of the Mint family. The “dead” in its common name reflects the fact that it does not sting, unlike the other nettles discussed this week.
Have you ever eaten a plant that fights back?