Category Archives: Wild Edibles

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.

Foraging Wild Flowers: Common Dandelion

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) offers many gifts to the modern forager. In April and May, the flower buds and brightly blooming flowers are a delicious snack, salad ingredient, or soup component. The flowers can also be infused to make a delicious tea.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

I've written previously about foraging the leaves of Common Dandelion, but for those new to eating wild plants, it's the mild tasting yellow petals that I find make the best introduction. To avoid the bitterness that the green parts contain, simply loosen and remove the yellow petals by rolling each flower head between your thumb and pointer finger.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Note: You may notice an increased need to urinate soon after consuming Common Dandelion parts. Consult an herbalist or herbal reference for more on the medicinal actions of this abundant perennial.

Tiny Flowers: Shepherd’s-purse

Photo of Shepherd's-purse flowers

Now that the green season has taken hold and a handful of wildflowers are blooming, it's time again to break out Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. I noticed a plant with tiny (<1/4") white flowers last week in Wells and was pretty sure I knew who I'd found. Keying out the plant confirmed my hunch.

I began by determining the plant's 3-digit code:

Flower type: 4 Regular Parts (4--)
Plant type: Wildflowers with Alternate leaves (43-)
Leaf type: Leaves Toothed or Lobed (433)*

Then, on page 4, under group 433, the key asked if the flowers were yellow (no) or white, pink, or purple (yes), and if the leaves had an arrow-shaped base, which clasped the stem (yes, though this is not well depicted in my photos) or were not arrow-shaped (no). The key then pointed to page 136.

Of the six plants described on that page, only one description fit my mystery plant. Basal leaves deeply lobed; pods triangular (to me the pods are triangular/heart-shaped). A drawing of the plant on page 150 provided visual confirmation. The plant I'd located was Capsella bursa-pastoris, known as Shepherd's-purse, a member of the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family.

Shepherd's-purse is a widespread, weedy species who typically grows in disturbed soil in full sun. The flowers, immature seed pods, and tender leaves and shoots are edible, especially for those who enjoy a spicy mustard flavor (boiling can reduce the flavor, if desired). The mature pods can also be used as a spice. Arthur Haines documents many medicinal uses for this herbaceous annual in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 2, 2015, p. 126-27). You can find more photos of Shepherd's-purse at GoBotany.

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*Note: Looking at the basal leaves (instead of the stem leaves), you might wonder whether they're considered divided or toothed/lobed. Newcomb's guide accounts for this confusion by directing you to Shepherd's-purse whether you choose the former or the latter.