Wild teas of summer

By Tom Seymour | Aug 13, 2020
Photo by: Tom Seymour Staghorn sumac berry cluster

Queen Anne’s Lace (QAL), Daucus carota, grows in luxuriant abundance on lawns, roadsides and in fields throughout Maine. A truly useful plant, QAL makes a high-quality tea and the root is a passable root vegetable.

A wild carrot (note the botanical name listed above), QAL, if cultivated by saving seed from successive generations, will eventually develop carotene, making the cut root orange instead of its natural white. The question of which came first has no answer, since carrots, if left to go wild, will turn into QAL.

With carrots being easy to grow and cheap to buy, I don’t bother with the root, instead focusing upon the flat-topped, flower cluster. The source of a pungent, uplifting tea, QAL goes unnoticed by most gardeners and even most foragers. But this ubiquitous plant is well worth knowing. Here’s how to make a spicy tea.

To one large, compound umbel (the flat, rounded flower cluster atop the plant), add one cup of boiling water. Or, use two smaller umbels and the same amount of water. Allow to steep, then discard the umbels.

A final note: QAL has a tiny, red or purple flower in the center of the flower cluster. In order to distinguish from a vaguely similar, toxic species, don’t pick if the plant does not have this flower.

Pineapple Tea

That low-growing, chamomile-looking plant that lines your driveway is probably not chamomile, but rather, is pineapple weed.

To make a positive identification, just pick one of the tightly packed blossoms, crush it and smell it. “Pineapple,” you will exclaim. Yes, this insignificant-looking plant smells and tastes exactly like pineapple. Lots of wild plants have better-known counterparts, at least regarding taste, and pineapple weed ranks among them.

This is one wild, tea plant that you can pick, dry and save for winter use. Sipping on a pineapple-scented tea during the gray days of winter has a decidedly cheering effect.

To make a fresh tea, pick only the blossoms. These yellowish, cone-shaped, tightly packed blossoms look somehow unfinished, as if they have yet to open and turn a bright yellow. But neither of those will happen. The dense, greenish-yellow blossom is as developed as it will ever become.

For tea, add a cup of boiling water to two heaping teaspoons of blossoms. For dried product, use one cup water but only one teaspoon dried blossom.

Some may be tempted to strain the finished tea, but I simply stir at the onset and then allow the blossoms to sink to the bottom, where they continue to add their pineapple flavor.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac, so-called because its fuzzy branches and twigs resemble deer antlers in velvet, makes a top-shelf, ersatz, “lemonade.”

People sometimes ask me if it is possible to confuse staghorn, also sometimes called, “red” sumac, with the poison variety. The answer is a resounding, “no.” Poison sumac, an uncommon plant in Maine, grows in some locations in throughout southern and central Maine. Poison sumac lacks the trademark, fuzzy twigs of red sumac and also, the flower spire is ivory, or white. Stick to the description for red sumac and you will be fine.

The flower spires consist of lots of fuzzy, red, berries. Follow these directions to make sumac lemonade.

Pick two or three berry clusters (spires) and spread out on a table to check for clinging debris or insects. Then, roll the berry clusters between your hands and slightly crush them. Place the clusters in a glass pitcher and fill the pitcher with ice-cold water. Allow to steep for 15 minutes and strain through a cheesecloth or a very fine strainer. Refrigerate.

The finished product can be used as is or sweetened, as a wild, pink lemonade. But that’s not all. The unsweetened product tastes exactly like lemon juice and can be used in any application that calls for lemon juice.

In fact, if you blindfolded someone and gave them first a glass of real lemon juice and then a glass of sumac lemon juice, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Sweetfern Tea

Sweetfern, a five-foot shrub that grows in waste places or where ground was formerly cultivated, has slender, segmented leaves that resemble pinna (the smaller, individual parts of a true fern), hence the name sweetfern.

To enjoy, just pick some leaves, crush them and sniff. The spicy aroma becomes immediately apparent.

For tea, use two tablespoons of fresh, crushed leaves to one cup boiling water. Use one tablespoon dried leaf and one cup water.

Summer presents us with fleeting bounties. I suggest you go out now and try some of these ethereal treats.

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