July was all about visiting red raspberry, black raspberry, purple flowering raspberry, blackberry, and dewberry patches to harvest the berries for on-the-spot savoring and putting into bags which then went into the freezer for later use. Now that it is September your sense of place hopefully hasn’t changed but the foods have. To know when to pick wild edibles you need to visit those spots regularly to learn the edibles’ growth cycle and their habitat and who their plant neighbors are. As you walk your yard, your neighborhood, and your favorite outdoor get-a-ways, what flora do you recognize as food? If you are not sure, start with what you know and what you think of when you think of autumn. What fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, tubers, roots, and mushrooms do you look forward to eating in the fall?
When I do a wild edibles program one of the first activities I do is circle people up and ask them what their favorite food is. Though I recognize I may not change anyone’s mind about their favorite foods, my hope is to introduce folks to seasonal wild yummies so that at the end of the program participants will hopefully list one of the wild foods they sampled as a food they look forward to eating again. Meanwhile, responses abound from lobster to dark chocolate to steak to strawberries to ice cream. I notice that no bitter greens are declared. Several of the food items mentioned live locally while others herald from away. Many of our foods, particularly our flora, are seasonal. One cannot harvest strawberries in the winter locally; but they do grow here and ripen in June. So it is important to get to know the flora and fauna you share space with.
As garden vegetables go, I love pumpkins and acorn squash and look forward to them as a stored winter delight. But squash bugs and some gnawing rodent have been nibbling on my ripening squash, thus rendering them useless for human consumption. So though while I was looking forward to harvesting squash from my garden, I won’t be. Thank goodness for farmers’ markets! Meanwhile, there are still flora offering up their nutritive leaves and fruit: tomatoes, basil, and lamb’s quarter. But gathering food does not need to stop at the garden with plants you grew on purpose; wild edibles abound! Now is the time to harvest rugosa rose hips and black cherries. Elderberries and nannyberries will follow as well as apple and pear drops you can glean for making cider and sauce. And then there are the bitters to flavor your health.
Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, in Asteraceae, has decided to make my yard their home. Individual plants grow both in and outside of my garden. They are so plentiful I am seeking to learn more about what gifts they offer. You can make smudge bundles from them. In the burning of bundles, they can act as an insect repellent along with a cleansing scent. Mugwort tea serves as a nervine, diuretic, digestive aid, and emmenagogue, which means it helps a woman bring on her period. But mugwort is not just medicinal, one can also use the leaves to flavor food. Before hops became popular in flavoring beer, mugwort was used. Plants grow up to 3-6’ tall. Leaves are green on top and silvery underneath, deeply divided, and possessing smaller lobes at the base of each leaf. Leaves at the base of the stiff red-brown stalk are more widely-lobed. When you pet the leaves then smell your hand, you will pick up their aromatic scent, which is spicy and slightly reminiscent of mint. The first time I munched on a leaf I let the taste linger in my mouth and then decided to chase the flavor down with evening primrose flowers which are, though not sweet, not bitter either.
Goldenrod, Solidago spp., also in Asteraceae, also love my yard. There are so many varieties of goldenrod, but the attributes this family share in common are their yellow flower heads which tend to appear as a long row of draping tiny bright yellow flowers, and their thin tapering long dark green leaves. Goldenrod, growing about 3’ tall, blooms in the late summer and fall and can be used medicinally. Leaves and flowers can be steeped to make an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-fungal tea. And as a treatment for ragweed allergies. And for a long time that is all I knew. And then I read they are edible. What? They are all over the place and one can eat the flowers and leaves? I had to sample. Raw flowers are bitter with a slight aromatic taste, reminiscent of ox-eye daisy, that lingers in the mouth. Using the festive flowers as a garnish would liven up a fall salad. But do not overdo it if you are not used to eating bitters. Young leaves can be cooked until wilted via sautéing or steaming or blanched and put in the freezer for later use in soups and stir-fries.
Many humans do not appreciate bitter tastes even though bitters are used to aid digestion. Eating bitters can remind our body that they are nutritive and an important part of one’s diet. Mugwort and goldenrod are two such plants.
Being connected with the land in such an intimate way, taking in the flora and fungi beings of the land into your body and being, accepting the nutrients and feeling the connection radiate throughout your body, helps root you in a sense of place. You deeply know the place you live in because you take time to observe the plants living with you over the course of the seasons and you consume the flora living beside you when they are in season.
Enjoy getting to know your wild edible flora neighbors and appreciate what they have to offer!
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
This article appeared in the September 2021 edition of The Ashfield News.
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