I’ve always wanted to learn more about identifying edible plants along the trail.
I can recognize blackberries and blueberries (both highbush and lowbush) in the wild, and hiking along the Long Path in the Palisades during the summer, I’ve snacked on quite a few wineberries. But what I know about foraging is far outstripped by what I don’t know.
So when I saw that the Palisades Interstate Park Commission would be hosting a talk by Robert “Bobcat” Saunders – who, let it be said, really knows his edible plants – one weekend at the Alpine Boat Basin, I decided to check it out.
There was quite an array spread out on the tables inside the picnic pavilion as we arrived: various kinds of dried mushrooms, like morels, chanterelles and black trumpets. There were greens also, like lamb’s quarters and lemon balm, and a whole book of leaves from edible plants like bergamot and wineberry.
Bobcat started us off with an overview of the history of gathering food, and the health benefits: it’s fresher and has more vitamins than grocery store produce. A lot of identifying, and collecting, edible foods involves being knowledgeable of the seasons, the terrain and the rest of the ecosystem. For example, mushrooms usually show up in damp, mossy areas, and certain varieties may be found growing alongside certain kinds of trees.
One important thing to remember: take only as much as you need, and leave something for the rest of the plant to recover. And enough for the next forager. That’s the “one-thirds” rule. Apparently, some high-end restaurants have gotten a little too carried away in harvesting wild edibles like ramps.
But the most important rule of all in foraging: Make sure you know exactly what it is, and that it’s edible, before you try to eat it.
We passed around some dried morels, and a jar of dried berries from the spicebush plant. Morels have a surprisingly sweet, woody scent to them. To me, it smelled a lot like maple syrup. Other people suggested cocoa or molasses. As for the spicebush berries, they had a woody, spicy smell that was very familiar, but I was having a hard time placing it. It wasn’t sweet enough to be cloves. However, a check of my spice rack when I got home found that the spicebush berries smelled an awful lot like allspice.
A few other things we learned: Cattails have edible pollen, and the innards of the plant taste like cucumber. Lamb’s quarters, a plant also known as goose’s foot, can be used in any recipe that calls for spinach.
We had a snack of some banana-walnut bread (very good stuff) and a lemonade-like drink made from red sumac berries (also very good stuff). And then we set off on a spot-the-plant walk down the shoreline.
We were barely down off the picnic pavilion steps before Bobcat pointed out some epazote: a leaf that’s rather common in Mexican cuisine as well as a medicinal and a digestive aid. There were some more lamb’s quarters nearby; as it turns out, there were a lot of lamb’s quarters growing on that beach. “Spanakopita, here I come,” Bobcat said.
The rest of our walk, within fairly short order, yielded a rather healthy clump of broadleaf dock, some burdock (also known as gobo), purslane, wood sorrel, garlic mustard, common mullein, and amaranth. Some of us remarked that the farmer’s market and Whole Foods would charge a lot of money for just a clump of some of this stuff.
And way down at the end of the beach near the stone retaining wall was a clump of mugwort. In addition to being rather useful for treating reproductive system ailments in women (menstrual cramps and all that), it’s been known to cause rather vivid dreams, even just by tying a sachet to the bedpost. Several people in our party immediately picked a large clump of mugwort upon hearing this news. (Me? My own dreams are weird enough, so I passed.)
It’s probably all of the talk about mushrooms and greenery that made me go home afterwards and make a batch of scrambled eggs with mushrooms, onions and spinach for supper. But think about it – so many plants that we might have just seen as weeds or undergrowth along the trail might actually make a tasty meal.
Talk about food for thought!
For further reading:
New Jersey Mycological Association: They know their mushrooms. Bobcat’s involved with them as well.
Bobcat recommends the Peterson Field Guide for Edible Plants and the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.