In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


Pokey Foraging, Week Ending 1/27/2019

This is the year I am eating poke sallat. Yes, I know. I’m crazy.

DISCLAIMER: my own plans to try poke sallat should not be construed as endorsement that pokeweed is safe to eat. Pokeweed is toxic except in very narrow circumstances. The author does not assume responsibility for anybody getting sick or dying because they rushed out to eat pokeweed after reading this blog.

OK, on with the post.

Last year I lacked confidence in my timing to harvest pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). The plants went from tiny shoots to large and pink-tinged in a few weeks. Since doing additional research, I believe the early- to mid-May shoots & leaves were probably fine. Although earlier would have been better. Pokeweed turns magenta as it ages, and with more sun exposure. Also the leaves apparently can be eaten as well, and seem to be even more commonly consumed than the shoots.

Why am I talking about pokeweed in winter? Well, now is a great time to identify opportunities for spring consumption because dead pokeweed is very dramatic. The formerly magenta stalks fade to light brown, making them stand out starkly compared to surrounding plant matter.

Pale Pokeweed Stalks in Winter

Pale Pokeweed Stalks in Winter

Sometimes the leaves and shriveled berries still cling to the plants, which helps confirm the identification.

Once dead, the hollow stalks will often be bent over but still intact.

Bent Pokeweed Stalks

Bent Pokeweed Stalks

Pokeweed is a perennial which grows from very deep, aggressive root systems. Wherever you see winter pokeweed, start looking for new shoots from the crown by late April. (In central Maryland, anyway. The timing may be different elsewhere.) Pokeweed also grows from the seeds scattered everywhere by the birds which love the berries, but there’s no way to predict where these new plants will grow.

My plan is to harvest the pokeweed when it is about 6″ tall or less. Some authors say that any time before the berries turn green is safe, but I am unwilling to test that theory…let me survive one meal first! Because the roots are especially toxic, I will cut off the shoots at ground level rather than trying to dig or pull the stalk to harvest the edible parts. A lot of sources suggest that pokeweed needs to be boiled in three changes of water for at least 20 minutes – that is an hour of boiling, so I am pretty skeptical of whether the remnants are even worth eating at that stage. The least boiled-to-death guidance I have read suggests one minute in boiling water, then another 15 minutes in a fresh pot of boiling water. Either way, pokeweed can absolutely never be eaten raw.

Best of all, I have a significant “crop” of poke growing throughout my yard. I should be able to collect and enjoy a decent amount. (Although I may be the only one in the house who eats it!)

Why am I bothering, you may ask? Because it’s there, and I have to know. Plus, pokeweed is supposed to be delicious. (Sources say if there is any trace of bitterness left, it needs to be boiled longer – it should never be bitter.) Last but not least, it apparently contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. In a simpler time, after a winter of living on dried, canned and root cellar foods, pokeweed would have been a nutritious and tasty way to welcome spring.

If you want to do your own research on the edibility of pokeweed, here are some links:

Additionally, here is a site with nutritional info:

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Eats Shoots and Leaves (or Not), Week Ending May 13

Midspring in the mid-Atlantic. Asparagus is popping up in my garden with increasing frequency. A variety of wild edibles are producing shoots now as well.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) went from nowhere-to-be-seen to almost-too-large-to-eat  in the space of four days!
Milkweed Shoot

Milkweed Shoot

Unfortuantely at this tender, tasty stage, milkweed shoots look dangerously similar to dogbane (Apocynum cannibum) which is toxic. Both plants start the season as unbranched stalks with opposite, oval shaped leaves, and both ooze milky sap from hollow stems if you snap them off. As the plants mature, dogbane develops branched stems whereas milkweed remains a single straight stalk. But by then, they are too old to eat as shoots.
Dogbane Shoot

Dogbane Shoot – Don’t Eat This

Dogbane tends to be thinner and more red-tinged, however I would not rely on these traits to safely distinguish it from milkweed. It is especially difficult to tell if you don’t have a sample of each side by side for comparison. However, if you get reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaally close to the stem on milkweed, you may spot the super fine hairs on it. One blogger suggested using a jeweler’s loupe to see them – that’s how tiny they are. (As fine as frog fur, perhaps?) I tried to photograph the hairs with “meh” results. Trust me, though. If you can’t see the hairs, or aren’t sure if you can see the hairs, just give it a pass. Milkweed flower buds and immature seed pods are both edible as well, so if it does turn out to be milkweed you can still benefit from the plant later in the year.
Milkweed Stalk Close Up

Can you see the super fine hairs on this milkweed stalk?

If you were wondering, I did not eat the milkweed shoots I found. I only located two in a “safe foraging” zone (the safest – my backyard), and I am saving them both for flower buds and seed pods. If you do find milkweed shoots, apparently the best way to cook them is by boiling for 15 minutes. If I get a chance to try this, I will let you know how it turns out! (Fifteen minutes seems like a really long time to me…)
Another plant is producing shoots throughout my yard: pokeweed (Phytolacca americana).  Pokweed is edible before it starts turning magenta colored, at which point it becomes toxic. As you can see in this photo, all my pokeweed shoots, even the youngest ones in the background, have a LOT of magenta already.
Pokeweed Shoots

Pokeweed Shoots

In other words, I haven’t tried eating pokeweed either. If I can find some shoots where the pinkish color is limited to the bottom of the stem, I will cut off the pokeweed above that location and give it a try. Stay tuned!
Bramble shoots (Rubus spp.) are allegedly edible as well. I say “allegedly” because frankly, I have never been hungry enough to fight the prickles for the food underneath. Neither for wild blackberries that grow nearby, nor my own everbearing raspberries when they need to be pruned back.

Blackberry Shoots

Blackberry Shoots

In addition to my reluctance to fight the prickles, these blackberry shoots are too close to poison ivy for my comfort (you cans see the “leaves of three” clinging to the tree in the background).
Raspberry Shoot

A Prickly Raspberry Shoot

Yes friends, you read correctly. I’m surrounded by wild food this week, and didn’t eat any of it!

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Foraging Finds, Week Ending April 22

I spent Earth Day 2018 marveling at the beauty and abundance of the natural world around us.

Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are blooming amidst the more readily recognizable pink and white blossoms of cherry and pear trees. The oddly shaped flowers grow directly from the branches as seen in the photo below. The flowers taste like spring vegetables, like peas or new asparagus – not sweet per se, but fresh and eager. They would make a fabulous garnish on a salad of pea shoots and other young greens.


Redbud Tree (Cercis canadensis)

I found wild ginger (Asarum spp.) in the woods entirely by accident. The leaves remind me of violet, only more so – heart-shaped, but more so; shiny, but more so; green but more so.  The rhizomes smell like earth and faintly of Zingiber officinale, or “real” ginger like you would buy in the store. (The two plants are unrelated except by name.) The flavor is mild enough you can munch directly on the rhizomes… after washing them, of course!

Wild Ginger (Asarum spp.)

Wild Ginger (Asarum spp.)

Dead white stalks, talk despite being bent and broken, indicate where last year’s pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) stood.  Since asparagus was peeking up through the dirt in my garden, I wondered if pokeweed shoots might follow a similar timetable? Indeed, at the base of the dead stalks I found signs of life. I haven’t decided yet how – or even if – I will try pokeweed this year…this is one of those plants where timing makes all the difference between tasty and toxic. Stay tuned for future posts!

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Under the forest cover, mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) plants blanketed the ground. This one even had a budding flower. Mayapples are my tragic foraging story of 2017. I had located them in the spring (just like this year!) but when I returned to harvest the fruits the plants had completely disappeared – maybe due to spraying, or being choked out by wine berries, roses and other plants which dwarf the tiny mayapples. This is another plant which straddles the line between life and death for humans; all parts are poisonous except the completely ripe fruit. (And some sources advise they can still be poisonous if consumed in large quantities.)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Last but not least – I found several patches of spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) large enough I knew that harvesting a few for their corms would not endanger the local population. The corms are tiny – this picture shows a closeup of about 1/3 cup – and so much work to find and dig that I probably won’t bother again. Once cleaned and trimmed of roots, I steamed them in the microwave for 3 minutes and coated with butter. They tasted like teensy tiny potatoes (they are also known as “fairy spuds”) except sweeter. I meant to photograph the handful of cooked corms, but they were devoured before I had the chance!

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) Corms