Edible wild plants gone legit
Organizations such as Josselyn Botanical Society and New England Wildflower Society, Inc., have promoted wild plants for many years. However, mainstream outlets have, until recently, largely stayed away from our native or naturalized wild plants. But now, even old, established seed companies offer seeds or plants of native varieties.
Every year, native species of wildflowers, ferns and sometimes shrubs, appear in garden catalogs. For example, the 2014 Jung Seeds & Plants catalogue offers wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, Bunchberry, Cornus Canadensis, purple trillium, Trillium erectum, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis, interrupted fern, Osmunda clatonia and ostrich fern, Ptretis pensylvanica.
But these are all sold as ornamentals, more specifically, native shade plants. This despite ostrich fern being the popular “fiddlehead” fern that we seek as food in early spring. No one, to my knowledge, has listed edible wild plants, as such, in their catalogs. That has changed.
The Waldo County Soil & Water Conservation District offers two wild edibles in its 2014 Annual Spring Fruit Tree, Shrub & Berry Sale catalog. I was amazed to see Good-King-Henry, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, and groundnuts, Apios Americana. What’s more, these wildlings are both peddled as food products.
Good-King-Henry (GKH), like so many other wild plants, is a naturalized European import. Having been grown in scattered locations in both the United States and Canada, it has long since escaped cultivation and become a locally-abundant part of the local flora. I have never seen GKH, but have read much about it. The plant belongs in the goosefoot family and, as such, is related to the common garden weed Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album. Most members of this group are sweet and tasty when steamed or briefly simmered.
Reference to GKH in wild plant books is minimal. However, “Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants,” 1986, lists the plant and gives a bit of its history. The name Good-King-Henry comes not from the English King of the same name, but from a goblin of the Teutons. The creature helped housekeepers with their housework and remained passive as long as it was fed its daily cup of cream. The Reader’s Digest book lists a slew of ailments that GKH was supposed to treat and also mentions that it was used as a spinach substitute and contained significant amounts of vitamin C and iron, something we might expect from any green, leafy vegetable.
Getting back to the related lamb’s quarters, I have long since stopped raising spinach and now content myself with harvesting lamb’s quarters, the wild relative of spinach that grows all on its own in my garden soil. But lamb’s quarters is somewhat unruly. An annual, it self-seeds readily and requires diligent weeding in order to keep it from overstepping its bounds. Besides that, lamb’s quarters grows large, perhaps 3 feet or more. Lamb’s quarters often blocks sunlight to other garden plants. It is a delicious, nutritious and highly aggressive garden weed.
Unlike lamb’s quarters, Good-King-Henry only grows to 12 inches. Also, it has leaves that grow to 6 inches long, far larger than lamb’s quarters. Also, GKH is perennial, meaning that it won’t self-seed as profusely as lamb’s quarters. It doesn’t need to, because its root system survives over the winter. Being a Chenopodium, the same as lamb’s quarters, GKH should have all the nutritional benefits of lamb’s quarters, plus a more easily-maintained nature.
The book “Flowering Plants of Great Britain,” 1870, indicates that GKH was widely cultivated in England in the past and gardeners usually had at least several plants growing on their plots. So GKH comes well-recommended.
While the soil and water conservation district sells GKH plants for $5 a pop, another source sells GKH seed for 40 cents a packet. Le Jardin du Gourmet, of St. Johnsbury, Vt., offers GKH and other seeds at a low price, for people who just want to try, or “trial,” a new variety but don’t want to spend a lot of money. I ordered a packet of GKH, along with a bunch of other herb seeds.
For those interested in seed of this old-time spinach substitute, Le Jardin du Gourmet’s website is agrp-dec.com/seeds.
The soil and water conservation district also now sells groundnuts, as mentioned earlier. Groundnuts are tubers and look something like little potatoes. They are prepared for table in the same way as potatoes and I’m convinced that they taste as good as or better than potatoes.
Groundnuts grow on damp or wet ground. I have them growing on my property and also find them while trout fishing in springtime. Then, the groundnuts are exposed and easy to harvest, thanks to the riparian habitat being scoured by ice floes during the spring runoff. Groundnut tubers grow on a long, string-like root and several can be picked up at a time, all strung together like soap-on-a-rope.
Later in the year, we must locate groundnuts by their vines and/or flowers and then follow the vine to the ground and dig the tubers. The flowers are a rose/chocolate color and very fragrant. The vines have no strength of their own and depend upon other plants for support. Groundnut vines grow so vigorously that they often strangle and kill even the most robust streamside vegetation. Groundnut vines and flowers closely resemble those of domestic peas, to which they are related.
Up until now, few people other than dedicated wild-plant foragers were even aware of groundnuts. But that may change as people try this new offering from the soil and water conservation district. Let me offer a caveat, however, to those who do take the plunge and plant groundnut tubers. Groundnuts are frightfully invasive.
Does it seem strange for me to list a native —for groundnuts are a native species — as invasive? They are, and it pays to know this because once planted, always planted. Some native species are as or even more invasive than plants that came here from some other place.
Anyway, since groundnuts do grow like, well, weeds, we might not want to plant the tubers just anywhere. I suggest, for starters, growing groundnuts in a large container. Just keep them well watered and come fall, dump the container and save out the largest tubers for cooking as you would a potato. The smaller tubers can go back in the container.
By that time you will have firsthand knowledge of just how far groundnut vines can spread. Perhaps you won’t mind if they take over a section of land and you might even want to dedicate a select area to groundnuts. Or maybe not. So try growing in a container first and see what happens.
For more on this, contact your local Soil & Water Conservation District. In Waldo County, the phone number is 338-1964. In Knox, Lincoln and Hancock counties, just contact the local University of Maine Extension office and they will direct you accordingly.
It warms my heart to see wild edible plants offered for sale from commercial vendors. It’s about time, I say.