Posts Tagged ‘Nature’s Garden’

Milkweed, For People and Others

People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

Mild Wild Greens:the Siberian elm

There are some plants for which I have an intense and personal dislike, and the Siberian elm is close to the top of the list. It’s one of our more common trees, because it’s so highly adapted to invade and crowd out more desirable trees. The seeds come up everywhere, and their hold on life is astoundingly tenacious. Even as tiny seedlings, they have a deep root system. If you don’t get the whole thing out, they will come up from the root, they spread by root, and they produce, by scientific measure, a trillion skillion seeds per tree per season.

But this time of year, they have two good qualities. The first is that they cover their branches early in spring with bright lime green samaras, the casing within which the seed develops. They look fresh and green before anything else, which lifts my spirits toward spring. And, the samaras are edible and quite good, and available in mind-bending quantities. The samaras are round and paper-thin. Just pull them off the branches by the handful and add to salads or eat on the spot for a quick snack. Be sure to get them young, when fully expanded and a little over half an inch across but before the edges have started to dry and lose their intense greenness. Taste a few. If there is a “papery” feeling in your mouth, they’re too old. Use only those that are tender. The flavor is pleasant, mild, a little “green,” and very slightly sweet. They don’t have the texture or character to endure cooking. Just eat all you can, and if you have chickens, goats, etc., give them some too. There’s plenty.

Whenever you eat a food that is completely new to you, use good sense. Eat a little, wait a day, eat a little more only if you had no reaction to the first try. It goes without saying that you don’t put any wild plant in your mouth unless you are 100% sure what it is. For more on wild foods and foraging common sense, read anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. Please don’t use my blog to identify plants, since identification is not my emphasis. You need a couple of good field guides for that. Start with Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate and you may end up with an intriguing new hobby.

Addendum: when I wrote this post 6 years ago, I forgot to mention that the samaras are a great addition to spring salads, too. I had a little more to say about them this year, and you can read it here.

My Bookshelf: Safe Foraging with Samuel Thayer

Periodically someone asks me what wild food books I recommend. There are a number of good ones, and a much larger number of bad ones. For overall high quality, level of detail, and knowledge of his subject, I’m a fan of Samuel Thayer and his books on foraging, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. Thayer has chosen to cover a smaller number of plants at a much higher level of detail than other guides, and if you’re a beginner I especially recommend this approach. There’s plenty of time to branch out later. I also recommend the delightful books of Euell Gibbons. They are not field guides and I don’t care for the recipes much, but his sheer joy in his subject is infectious. I became interested in wild foods when I was 12, and my wise mother bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I wouldn’t poison myself. The gift has lasted almost 40 years (so far) and it would be impossible to calculate how much it deepened my love for the natural world.
This is a good opportunity for me to talk about my own view of foraging and use of wild edibles. Too many people with too little knowledge are out there seeking wild foods (and, worse, teaching about wild foods.) Most of us didn’t learn from experienced parents and grandparents, so respect your own learning speed and style. Consult at least two guidebooks before you decide that you have identified a plant, and read the first 40 pages of Nature’s Garden before you do any actual foraging because the information about a safe approach and common pitfalls is invaluable and well written. Remember that you are introducing your body to entirely new foods, and eat very small portions the first time, followed by small portions the second time, to determine your tolerance. NEVER assume that one part of a plant is edible just because another part is edible. Many common vegetables have toxic parts- the ordinary potato has toxic foliage- so there’s no reason to assume that edible leaf equals edible fruit or root, or vice versa. NEVER use this blog to identify a wild edible. I write about cooking and eating, not about plant identification, and the information that I give is not adequate to identify a wild plant when used alone, nor are my photographs taken with clear identification in mind. If you want online information, Thayer has an excellent website at Forager’s Harvest, and Langdon Cook has a delightful blog about wild food adventures in the Seattle area. Our climate in New Mexico is very different, but many of the plants he collects are found in our area.
That said, I can’t think of any hobby that has given me more pleasure than foraging. Sometimes people ask me why I seek and eat wild foods, when I have a garden and can grow all the vegetables I want. Euell said it best: “Wild foods are my way of taking communion with nature, and with the Author of nature.” I can’t think of anything we all need more right now than a positive connection with nature that makes us love it and want to protect it.