Category Archives: Wild Edibles

Washed Ashore: Soft-shelled Clam

Photo of Soft-shelled Clam

Soft-shelled Clams (Mya arenaria) are among the best known marine mollusks harvested from mud flats throughout New England. Also known as Long-necked or Steamer Clams, these shellfish are food for many species, including Atlantic Moon Snails, Green Crabs, various gulls and diving ducks, certain fish, Northern Raccoons, and, of course, humans.

The two halves of this bivalve's shell are similarly shaped, with the exception of the hinge area. The left valve has a spoon-like shelf, and the right valve has a corresponding groove to accommodate it.

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Foraging Wild Fruit: Withe-rod

Photo of Withe-rod fruit

Withe-rod (Viburnum nudum), also known as Wild Raisin, is similar in many respects to Nannyberry (V. lentago), with oppositely arranged leaves and clusters of edible, dark blue/purple fruits which ripen in September. But whereas Nannyberry's leaves are edged with sharp teeth, the leaves of Withe-rod have blunt or wavy teeth, and the flower (and later fruit) clusters of Withe-rod have distinct stalks, which Nannyberry's clusters lack. (This latter feature is useful for telling the two apart during the white season.) And while Withe-rod has smaller fruits, the single seed within each one is soft and chewable, unlike the tougher seed of Nannyberry, which I prefer to spit out.

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Wetland Plants: Pickerelweed

Photo of Pickerelweed

One morning earlier this month, I spent a few hours kayaking in a shallow pond that was home to a vast colony of blooming Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata). I've known, or at least recognized, Pickerelweed, for over a decade now as a common aquatic plant with arrow-shaped leaves and a blue-purple flower spike, but I'd never looked at the plant's flowers up close -- they are so hairy.

According to John Eastman (The Book of Swamp and Bog, 1994, p. 143), dragonfly and damselfly nymphs commonly climb up Pickerelweed plants when they're ready to transform into winged adults and leave their empty exoskeletons behind as evidence.

Eastman also notes that various dabbling ducks, such as American Black Duck, Mallard, and Northern Pintail, eat the seeds of Pickerelweed, which ripen in late summer. Though I've not yet tried them, humans can also eat the seeds raw, roasted, or boiled. For more details on human uses, see Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 166) by Arthur Haines.

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Foraging Wild Shoots: Goat’s Beard

Photo of Fistulous Goat's-beard flower bud shoot
Flower bud and peduncle of Fistulous Goat's Beard

This week, I added two new wild foods to my diet: the immature flower shoots of Fistulous Goat's Beard (Tragopogon dubius) and those of Meadow Goat's Beard (T. pratensis). The two plants are similar but can be told apart easily by the length of the bracts that surround their flowers. Fistulous's bracts extend well beyond the yellow ray flowers, whereas Meadow's bracts are about as long as the rays.

Both species produce flowers over the course of several weeks, and individual plants may feature flower buds, open flowers, ripening fruits, and dispersing seeds all at the same time. The flexible, immature flower shoots (or, flower buds and peduncles) are mild tasting and can be easily snapped off (notice the milky sap) and eaten raw, tossed into salads, or added to soups and stir-fries.

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Note: Purple Goat's Beard (T. porrifolius) -- the only other Tragopogon species in New England -- is similarly edible, but I've not yet had the pleasure of meeting this plant.

Foraging Wild Flowers: Cat-tail

Photo of Narrow-leaved Cat-tail

Last week, I gathered one of Jenny's favorite wild foods -- the immature male flower spikes of Cat-tail (Typha spp.*). These spikes found at the tops of rapidly growing plants are initially concealed by a thin green sheath. Slightly older spikes will turn yellow as they prepare to release pollen. I gather them for food any time before the pollen (and associated nutrition) is released, which in New England is typically in mid-June through mid-July.

When gathering, I leave behind the female, seed-bearing flower spike (this bottom section will become the familiar brown sausage-on-a-stick) and simply snap off the top pollen-bearing part. Peeled (if needed), boiled for 5 minutes, and lightly salted, these wetland vegetables make a fine finger food that can be nibbled like miniature ears of corn. The flower parts can also be stripped from the "cobs" by hand and added to soups, stews, and baked goods.

For a practical demonstration of Cat-tail flower/pollen harvesting as well as a discussion of the plant's nutritive value, check out this video by Arthur Haines:

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*Note: Two species of Cat-tails grow in New England: Broad-leaved Cat-tail (Typha latifolia) and the one shown here, Narrow-leaved Cat-tail (Typha angustifolia). While the former has a larger stature, and generally provides more food value per plant, the uses of these two species are similar. Hybrids of these two species also occur.