On a clear, muggy morning at the entrance to Picnic Point, a couple from Dubuque Iowa, a visitor from Omaha Nebraska, and an assortment of Madison residents and students gathered. All brought together by their interest in foraging, these people were attending Food for Thought: Wild Edible Plants, an enlightening field trip led by Eve Emshwiller, UW Madison Professor of Ethnobotany, and Kelly Kearns, retired WI DNR Invasive Plant Coordinator.
Before moving on to the plants themselves, the event began by leafing through a collection of foraging books recommended by Eve and Kelly. The titles included cookbooks like Hunt, Gather, Cook by Hank Shaw, The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora by Alan Bergo, as well as more traditional foraging guides like Wild Edible Plantsby John Kallas and the Peterson Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants. Most highly recommended, however, were books by Samuel Thayer (The Forager’s Harvest, Incredible Wild Edibles, Nature’s Garden) whose lived experience as a forager directly informs his expertise on the subject and his writing. Look to his website to see which plants are covered in each of his books: https://www.foragersharvest.com/sams-books.html
All being found just within the plantings around the preserve welcome kiosk, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) and cattails (genus Typha) volunteered themselves as the first exhibits of the trip. It must be noted that the collecting of plants, for foraging or otherwise, is not allowed in the preserve. However, our leaders Eve and Kelly had special permission to do so just for this event, so we did get to nibble on a few of these plants we would normally have to find elsewhere.
Milkweed gets its name from the milky-white substance it contains within its stems and leaves. This substance, called latex, is toxic, but it loses this quality after boiling. Boiled milkweed flower buds and very young pods (some foragers recommend two or three changes of water to completely flush the toxins) become safe for human consumption.
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) is a non-native, weedy species that tastes quite similar to spinach (even better than spinach by some accounts). It can be eaten raw or cooked.
Sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) is another common exotic weed, and it was named “oleraceus” to recognize how good it is to eat! Prickly lettuce (Latuca seriola), another edible, can be distinguished from sow thistle by a row of spines that run along the midrib of each leaf, and by the way it holds its leaves perpendicular to the ground.
Right behind the sow thistle and prickly lettuce, in the small pond directly adjacent to the Picnic Point entrance, were the cattails. Sometimes referred to as a wild “supermarket” for all of its different edible parts, Eve clarified that only certain parts of the cattail are good to eat in each season. Kelly recommended that the green male cattail spike can be steamed at buttered like corn on the cob, and that you can collect bright yellow pollen from the slightly older male flower spikes. The pollen can be used for baked goods, which doesn’t much change the flavor, but adds protein and turns your dough bright yellow.
Before moving further into the preserve, Kelly brought out some day lily (Hemerocallis sp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and bee balm (Mondarda sp.) samples to share with the group. Yarrow is good for teas, while all parts of the daylily flower are edible – even the little stamens have a slight peppery taste.
Once inside the preserve gates we learned that native and European highbush cranberries (Viburnum opulus var. americanum or V. opulus var. opulus respectively) are hard to distinguish. They require that you use a hand lens to look at the shape of the small glands present on the petiole right under the leaf base. If the glands are concave (Eve referred to these as “little bowls of yuck”), the plant is non-native V. opulus var. opulus and bears unpleasantly bitter fruit. If the glands are convex, the berries should be palatable after the first frost!
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is another edible fruit found in the area, and is familiar to many people under the guise of elderberry syrup, a common supplement for immune system support. In addition to the dark purple berries, the flower blossoms can also be used for a variety of culinary purposes, like being fried and battered as fritters or being part of a sparkling elder flower cordial with lemon or sumac.
Walnuts were next along the stone wall, and we learned that native black walnuts (Juglans nigra) do have a distinct taste from the European walnuts you find at the store. There is a man who collects local black walnuts from yards around Madison, processes them and sells them for a hefty price at farmer’s markets: https://spectrumnews1.com/wi/milwaukee/news/2021/10/13/collecting-black-walnuts
Eve recommended that you get the walnut husk off as soon as possible, and then one of our attendees chimed in from experience that it takes three weeks for the exposed nuts to dry and cure before eating. Many other Wisconsin trees and shrubs have edible fruits and nuts. The serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), and oaks (Quercus spp.) were mentioned by Eve and Kelly on this field trip. Acorns from the white oak group were recommended over red oak acorns because of their lesser tannin content. They need to be mashed and flushed with water to remove the tannins, then dried and used as flour.
Once we were back on the main path out to picnic point Kelly pointed out black currants (YUM!), grape vine tendrils (YUM! Exquisitely tart), and dogbane (YUCK! Don’t eat anything called “bane”). Also in the YUCK! category, always avoid bittersweet nightshade and white snakeroot. Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) produces bright red berries that are attractive to young children but can be fatal. White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is so toxic that one can die from drinking the milk of a cow that ate it. “Milk sickness,” or being exposed to the snakeroot toxin through milk, is rumored to have killed Abraham Lincoln's Mother.
Surprisingly, while stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) can give you a painful rash, if cooked it is a tasty and nutritious green. Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) similarly can be cooked and eaten. Even common yard weeds, like dandelions (Taraxacum spp.) and the broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), can be of use to foragers. All parts of the dandelion are edible, and Eve suggested trying to make “dandinoodles” from the stalks of dandelion flower buds as described in Stephen Barstow’s Around the World in 80 Plants (not to be mistaken for another book with the same title by Jonathan Drori). Just boil with salt as you would regular pasta noodles! See also http://www.edimentals.com/blog/?tag=dandinoodles). The broadleaf plantain is not as much of a culinary plant as it is a useful medicinal for making poultices. Kelly affirmed that it works well on bruises.
A few more edible plants we encountered on our way out were American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) – only to be eaten in moderation - and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum),which has a characteristically square stem like other members of the mint family.
While this wrapped up our Food for Thought: Wild Edible Plants trip, Kelly mentioned she is also part of foraging field trip put on by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin in early summer in Spring Green. I you want to keep any eye out for info on the 2023 foraging trip, and other Natural Resource Foundation trips, check out this website:
Many thanks to our wonderful leaders Eve Emshwiller and Kelly Kearns and our intrepid attendees! Thanks as well to Friends field tripper extraordinaire Doris Dubielzig for providing me with her notes and photos. Report by Will Vuyk, with photos from Doris Dubielzig.