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Where the edible wild plants are

Friday, June 28, 2013, by Mónica M. Allende Quirós
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My eyes automatically opened and, as my internal alarm clock rang, I reached for the desk near my bed to pick up my cellphone to check the time. 5:27 AM. I beat my alarm by three minutes. I considered going back to sleep.

It is Sunday, June 23, 2013 and I have been at Harvard Forest for 36 days. This room is starting to feel like my room. So, you may ask yourselves, what am I doing up at 5:30 AM on a Sunday if I don't have to work? Today, we are going to a class about the edible wild plants of New England.

After a quick breakfast, we drove for about two hours to Westport, Massachusetts, to the Westport River Watershed Alliance, were we met the rest of the group and headed out to meet our teacher, guide and cook Russ Cohen. Cohen, an environmentalist and food enthusiast, has been teaching about edible wild plants and foraging for almost 40 years.

First up in our walk was Sassafras albidum (Family: Lauraceae), more commonly known as sassafras. Sassafras is a deciduous tree native to eastern North America and eastern Asia that can reach heights of 30-59 ft. It can be identified by the three different leaf shapes found on the same plant: unlobed oval, bilobed and trilobed. Cohen pulled a shoot from the ground and scratched along the stem and the principal root and passed it around for us to smell. Sassafras has been used commonly in the United States as flavoring for effervescent drinks. Its root gives up the sweet scent of root beer. The leaves can be dried and grounded to make Filé powder, which is used as a thickener in gumbo and other recipes, and the roots can be used to make tea.

[Me sniffing the root and bark of a sassafras shoot.][Buildings we saw along the way.]









[It smells like carrots!]

Further along the walk, we stumbled upon wild carrots, scientifically known as Daucus carota. Although white, not orange like the domesticated carrots found in a supermarket, the way to distinguish wild carrots from other poisonous look-alike species in the wild is the strong carrot smell of its roots. We stopped and smelled the root to make sure it smelled like carrot.

[Nature's Band Aid: If you ever cut yourself while in the woods, look for White man's footprint. Take a leaf, scrunch it up and place it over the wound. It will help stop the bleeding.]White man's footprint, or Plantago major, is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe and northern and eastern Asia. It has broad, dark green, egg shaped leaves with three or more clearly defined parallel veins. Its common name was given by Native Americans as they noticed the plant blooming everywhere the Europeans settled. Its leaves are known to have natural coagulants and are also edible raw or cooked.

[It may not bring you good luck but it sure is a tasty snack.]In that area, we also found common wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). Often confused with clover, common wood sorrel has three heart-shaped leaves and white flowers streaked with purple. Flowers, fruits and leaves of this plant are edible, and often used in salads or to prepare tea. It is rich in vitamin C, for which it was used to treat scurvy. Oxalic acid in it is responsible for the sour kind of lemony taste of the plant.

Elderberry, black cherries, wild berries: all of these can be found in the woods and when ready to harvest can be picked by the bucket to add to salads, desserts, or a refreshing drink.

[Cohen and the group looking at an elderberry tree.]

[Good advice: If by accident you happen to identify any wild edible plant, like berries, while they are out of season, make a mental note of the location and when the time for harvesting comes, go out and enjoy. But always keeping in mind that there are other animals whose diet depends on certain plants. Try not to exterminate whole plant populations.]

Our journey through the woods continued. Poke weed, dames rocket, black locust, orach and many other plants were identified. We found wild asparagus by the bay shore and a dead horse shoe crab by the rose hips in the shore line. Plenty of poison ivy which no human should ever eat and what seemed to be a coyote carcass. Pretty soon, four hours had gone by and we found ourselves sitting in the balcony of a nearby house, looking out at the ocean as it peeked among the tree tops, while we ate Japanese knotweed crumble cake and 'sumac-ade', a kind of lemonade made with sumac, and a wild berries sorbet.

[The shoreline.][The carcass.][The asparagus.]

[View from the balcony while we ate some awesome food.]

Mónica M. Allende Quirós

Quirky Q & A with Mónica

 If you could be a superhero which special power would you choose to have?

My superpower would be empathy. Another superpower could be to be able to manipulate water in the environment.

 If you had a snail that could magically grant wishes, what would you name it?

Mateo, the Wish Granting Snail.

 What's your favorite board game?

My favorite board games are Scrabble and Monopoly.

 What nocturnal animal would you be if you had to choose and why?

I would be a tarsier. 



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