One visitor who passed through our lives this summer was a young chef with an interest in edible wild plants. I lent him Mom’s collection of books on the subject, and now that the books are returned I’m leaving them on the kitchen table for handy reference.
Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (Houghton Mifflin, 1977) clearly indicates the time of year when plants are edible, and it seems that in spring almost every growing thing is not only edible but also delicious. Steamed and buttered shoots of fireweed, burdock (imagine something good about burdock!), cattails, bulrushes, ostrich ferns: all tasty in their own way.
In spring and early summer the new leaves of wild mustard are recommended, also leaves of sweet white clover, dandelions, plantain, chickweed, violets, alfalfa, stinging nettles (steam the leaves and wear gloves while picking): these “weeds” are available in our own yard. Mallow leaves can thicken soups, and An Instant Guide to Edible Plants by Forey and Fitzsimons (Crescent Books, 1989) states: “The roots of Marsh Mallow can be boiled until thick and made into marshmallows.” Is that actually how Kraft marshmallows are made?
Flipping through Eat the Weeds by Ben Charles Harris (Barre Publishers, 1972), I learn that elderflowers can be dipped in batter and fried into fritters. Too late to try that this year, but we have been eating daylily flowers and buds prepared the same way: they fry quickly, look beautiful, and are absolutely delicious.
When summer matures, flowers turn into seedpods and stems and leaves of most plants become dry and unappealing. But there are still plenty of un-tamed edibles out there for inquisitive epicures such as myself. Our spinach may have bolted and left town, but a healthy patch of lambs-quarters is thriving on our compost heap and is eager to take over in the steamed greens department. The sumac bushes by the Cove are laden with perky clusters of hard red berries that make into a refreshing lemonade-like drink (soak clusters for 15 minutes in cold water, sweeten to taste). Down the shore road a patch of blackberries is a-ripening-o. In the bog across the way the cranberries are biding their time, and mountain ash berries on the tree by the shed are yet forming. (Wait till after a frost to try cooking with these.)
If you are so inclined you can look about and harvest the ingredients for a winter night’s tea: leaves and flowers of wild roses and sweet goldenrod, leaves of raspberry, blackberry and spearmint. And why would anyone on the Island ever buy thyme? Have you see the purple lawns of flowering thyme this summer?
I love my little stack of books, especially the dog-eared and well-annotated Stalking the Wild Asparagus (Alan C. Hood and Company, 1962) by Euell Gibbons. This book of foraging adventures begins with a thank-you to Gibbons’ mother for introducing him to wild food. My own mother also introduced me to wild food. Thanks Mom.