Hikers' lunch: Weeds, glorious weeds Naturalist leads foraging near Bear Branch Nature Center

August 11, 1993|By Pat Brodowski | Pat Brodowski,Contributing Writer

Gather the summer's weeds while ye may.

The swamps and meadows are a hidden supermarket of greens. The salad department is underfoot. Look up for tasty milkweed pods. Tap the sap of trees for dessert.

A dozen people stalked a leafy lunch Saturday. They were lured into the wild acres surrounding Bear Branch Nature Center by Heather Davis, park naturalist. As an aficionado of cattail and milkweed, she led an "edible plant hike" to enjoin others to feast upon free-range summer greens.

After an hour's hike, the plants were washed for salad. Cattail and wild garlic were quick-fried and tossed with the greens.

The resulting salad was so tasty the group left the bottled dressing unused.

The highlight was boiled milkweed pods dipped in melted butter. They ran a close contest with artichoke leaves for flavor.

Dessert was a wild ginger and maple syrup candy created beforehand by Ms. Davis.

The hike began with advice and a look at guidebooks.

"You must know when to pick which parts of what plant," says Ms. Davis. "Don't fool around making mistakes. Take a field guide. Know which part -- root only, perhaps, or new buds. And really important, when to collect. Pokeweed is only edible when new tender shoots [are growing]. Personally, I don't fool with plants like that."

"One thing when collecting," advised Ms. Davis, as the group fanned out around the pond. "Follow the rule of 10. If there are 10 plants, take one. Don't deplete your resource." Reaching into the rushes, Cyril Miller Jr. and his wife Susan pulled at thick bundles of cattail leaves. Park regulations against collecting plant specimens were suspended for the hike.

"We travel by motorcycle a lot," said Mr. Miller. "I enjoy being outdoors but never learned to find my way around." In Maine, where moose crossing signs are more plentiful than hotels, they could have used a few wild plants to get by.

"We didn't even have room for a tent" on the motorcycle, said Mr. Miller. He'd never tasted cattail before.

Cattail, it turns out, yields lots of foods. "It's called the supermarket of the swamps," said Ms. Davis, echoing the statements of a former edible plant guru, Euell Gibbons.

The group collected tubers and shoots from the mud. Atop the roots were bundles of leaves. Inside was six inches of crispy white stem, similar to a bamboo shoot and tasting like cucumbers. "We'll fry all these in butter," announced Ms. Davis as Mr. Miller snapped off a tender sprout the length of a cigar.

It was too late in the summer to collect the vitamin- and protein-rich cattail pollen -- "It makes the best pancakes," said Ms. Davis -- and the green, corn-like baby seed heads.

Collecting native greens often yields pitifully small nuggets -- but each is surprisingly packed with flavor. There's the dime-sized wild garlic. Hairlike strands of yellow wood sorrel. Matchstick leaves of oxeye daisy, tasting of radishes. Sumac berries (the nonpoisonous type) for tart lemonade.

"Grab a leaf and chew on it," said Ms. Davis, pointing out a patch of purple flowers. Everyone hummed, recognizing mint. She had some advice: "Say you're out on a romantic evening and you forgot to brush your teeth. Grab some mint!"

It seems the quest is to collect the young and tender, like the thumb-sized milkweed pods not yet filled with seeds.

"All of our ancestors relied on edible wild plants," said Ms. Davis. In native greens, the early colonists found medicines and variety for their diet. Today it's been discovered that many are loaded with vitamins A and C, she said.

"We're budding survivalists," said Micki Forrester, when asked why she'd come on the hike. Her husband, Brad, spotted the chinquapin, a relative of the chestnut due to ripen later.

"I've learned a lot today," he said, stomping through the underbrush. "We take a travel trailer now, as a base for day hikes. We know a lot of plants. I came here today to learn new ones."

Ms. Davis tore leaves of black willow for everyone and the group began to chew. The taste of aspirin was unmistakable. Salicylic acid, prominent in aspirin manufacture, was known by the Greeks to be in willow.

"Native Americans made tea of black willow, our native willow," said Ms. Davis.

Another medicinal plant came into view. "Boneset was big-time medicine for the early settlers," said Ms. Davis, caressing an umbel of white flowers growing waist-high. "It's real special once you know its lore and history.

"Boneset helps the immune system, fights colds, and reduces fever. The new leaves are best. It's nasty to drink, very bitter," she said, but she'd use it again.

For Janine Crouse, useful and edible plants are part of a wildflower study she began recently. More than once she spotted an unusual wildflower and took out her guidebook.

"Is this square-stemmed monkey flower?" she asked Ms. Davis, pointing to delicate lavender flowers reminiscent of snapdragons. "Yes," responded Ms. Davis. It was a pleasure to be on a hike with a specialist. Ms. Davis had recently returned from a wildflower study in Alaska.

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