Evening primrose, dandelions

By Tom Seymour | Apr 01, 2020
Photo by: Tom Seymour

As social-distancing continues in place, more and more people avoid making unnecessary trips to the store. Fortunately, nature offers us numbers of wild, edible plants. In most cases, it isn’t necessary to go far afield to locate them, either.

As mentioned in my last column, for as long as Mainers are isolating themselves at home, I am dedicating this and future columns to helping people identify, locate and use these free, healthful, wild plants.

Before discussing this week’s suggested plants, it is important to note that all plants, including wild ones, emerge, grow and reproduce on a set schedule. That is, each plant has its own timetable. This timetable, while not set in stone as per exactly when any particular plan emerges, does not vary. The roll-call of emergence cannot be altered.

As an example, ox-eye daisies will never become ready before dandelions. So with a guidebook in hand, especially one that presents plants in order of emergence, my book “Wild Plants of Maine,” for example, anyone can go afield and reap a harvest of whatever plant is in its prime.

So just as one plant follows another, foragers can anticipate what plant will present itself next. As one plant grows past its prime, another takes its place. The number of plants coming online grows exponentially as the weather warms and the season progresses.

Root Crop

The current list of plants that are ready to harvest is sparse. In the last column we discussed cattail shoots, ground nuts and daylily shoots. This time we’ll cover wild evening primrose and dandelions.

Wild evening primrose clearly defines the often-short window of opportunity that exists for every plant. The root is only prime as long as the leaves lie flat on the ground in a “basal rosette,” meaning the leaves radiate out from a common center. As the sun becomes higher in the sky, the leaves become cupped, as if grasping for sunlight. When the leaves are all standing nearly straight up, the root becomes pity and not worth bothering with.

Wild evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, gives us a root crop as wall as a leafy green that can either be cooked or, when very young, used in salads.

The plants that we harvest now are first-year specimens that began life last year. Look for ovate, or slightly egg-shaped leaves lying flat on the ground. The leaves are dark green with a cream-colored midrib and a hint of red on the tips.

Dig the plant in its entirety. This is necessary to extract the root. While it is usually a bad idea to pull a plant up by the roots, in this case there is no harm done, since evening primrose re-seeds itself aggressively.

The root, which is off-white, with a raspberry-colored crown, runs about the size of a small carrot. Sometimes, rootlets grow from the root. Break these off by hand and scrub the root. Then slice it lengthwise and cook as you would a parsnip. I use a cast-iron frying pan with about one inch of water. Allow the root to simmer until fork-tender, perhaps five to eight minutes, depending upon the size of the roots. Drain and serve.

The leaves, especially the leaves in the center of the rosette, make an interesting salad ingredient. Larger leaves, as long as they remain prostrate on the ground, can be cooked like spinach.

Look for wild evening primrose in waste places, especially where the ground was recently disturbed. Once a colony is located, you should be able to pick a good number of roots and leaves.


Everyone is familiar with dandelions, Taraxacum officinale. While it is a bit early for those fat dandelions of May, some dandelions are ready to harvest now. Look on south-facing locations for young dandelions.

Since every part of a dandelion is edible, you may wish to save it all, even the root. The root, when dried and ground, makes an acceptable coffee substitute. The crown, or top of the root, stands as the real powerhouse of the amazing dandelion. Here, you have one of the best vegetables in the plant kingdom.

My dandelion-harvesting method entails using a forked digger and breaking the root just beneath the surface. I have enough coffee substitutes and don’t need to use the root, so I leave it to start another dandelion.

But the crown, that’s something entirely different. Here is where the buds form. Unopened dandelion buds are not quite as bitter as the leaves, something for those who dislike dandelions because of the bitterness should note. Also, young dandelions, as in the skinny ones we find now, have only a slight bitterness, if any.

If you have enough buds and crowns, steam or boil them separately. If not, cook crowns, buds and leaves all together. And remember, dandelions are chock-a-block full of vitamins and nutrients. They are, indeed, nature’s vitamin pill.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Marcia Putnam | Apr 02, 2020 06:12

"Wild Plants of Maine" in hand, Tom, I'll head out alone when the sun's up and find some Evening Primrose. Good plan for lonely times! Find and eat...

David Putnam, Waldo

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