June 13, 2015

Foraging the Minuteman Bike Path - Spring

Most days I commute by bike to work, year round. Lucky for me, most of the distance from Somerville to Bedford (through Cambridge, Arlington, and Lexington) is on the Minuteman Bike Trail. This is great because there are few road crossings, which increases both speed and safety, and I get to see some greenery and wildlife along the way. Flowering wild apple trees are more scenic and multiflora rose more fragrant than the ass end of an MBTA bus. Downside is that plowing of the path by the different municipalities along the route in wintertime can sometimes be spotty.

Given that for 7+ hours a week I am travelling along the path, I spend a lot of time looking at plants. In the winter of 2013/2014 I checked out a slew of foraging books from the library, which were neat to read. I find nature much more interesting if I can eat it!

Over the last year, I've tried to identify and sample edible plants along the Minuteman path. This post and my planned follow-ons for Summer and Fall will document which plants I've seen and tried and my opinion about whether they are any good to eat. Plants that are only for tea or herbal medicine are not that interesting to me; I want FOOD. I'll update the posts as I add more plants.

The Minuteman bike path is in some ways not ideal for foraging. For something like 100 years, it was the railbed for coal burning trains, so the soil along it's margins is surely sodden with mercury and other delights present in coal combustion products. There may have been a few decades of diesel burning trains in there towards the end. And these old northeast towns have been industrialized for a long time, so there has been ample opportunity for toxins like lead and halogenated solvents to be introduced into the area from nearby factories and commercial operations. Given that history and a desire not to impact the greenery of the path environment too heavily, I've tended more towards sample quantities rather than huge harvests. My kids have not even wanted to try most of the stuff I've brought home, and what they did try they didn't like much. But I don't think I'd like to see them eat any significant quantity of produce gathered from the path.

Still, riding the path is an opportunity to identify and study local edible species that is too good to ignore, and it passes the time while I'm pedaling the bike down the same stretch of pavement for the 1304th time: "Is that Dock? I think so... Hmmm. Got to look at those photos on the internet again...", and so on.

I've given each plant a rating of 1-5, with 5 being quite tasty and 1 being something I'd rather not eat again unless I was starving. I'm not a hard core forager or wild food enthusiast, and I know my ratings will be different from what you might find on excellent foraging websites like eattheweeds. Becky has tasted most of what I've brought home, and her take on foraging is that calling something "edible" seems to mean "you probably won't die if you eat it" rather than "yummy".

Ok, on to the spring plants!

Wild Garlic - 5
These are just about the first green thing to come up in early spring and have typical allium looking foliage. The bulbs are small, and I just dug, washed, and cooked mine still attached to the greens.

 I dug these out on a stretch of the path between Arlington Heights and Arlington Center.

They were oven roasted at 200C after being brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. The greens got dried out, a little burned, and crunchy, while the bulb got soft and chewy. All delicious.

Daylilly Shoots & Tubers - 4
Hemerocallis Fulva

I read that these were good to harvest at about 15cm (they get tougher later on), so I cut most of mine off at soil level on the same day I took the wild garlic. I figured probably they would regrow from the tubers and come back next year.

This particular group of daylillies were between Lexington Center and the crossing of 4/225 by the Lexington Public Works.  A few were dug with tubers on since I wanted to see what these tasted like. The tubers were bland, but apparently are better when picked new and white in the fall.

Roasted with olive oil and salt, the shoots were nice, especially when munched along with wild garlic.

Japanese Knotweed - 1
Polygonum cuspidatum

I was excited to try this plant because there is a ton of it growing all along the path, especially in Arlington. The shoots pictured at the top of this post were cut behind Arlington Coal & Lumber. Sources recommended cutting the shoots young, which I did. They look appealing in the field.

I tried two methods of cooking knotweed. I had read it was a bit like rhubarb (indeed, it is in the same plant family), so I chopped some up and stewed it in a pot, thinking I could use it as topping on whole milk yogurt for desserts. When it came out of the pot, it looked and smelled like a pile of steaming boiled weeds barfed up by a cow.

Taste was awful. Yes, it was sour like rhubarb (not as sour), but had a strong green grassy flavor and a mystery foul overtone too, rather like what you might imagine eating barfed up weeds would taste like.

I also tried my standard method of roasting with olive oil and garlic, and the appearance was decent when they came out of the oven, but the taste was still dismal if not quite as bad as the pot cooked sample.

Stinging Nettle - 2
Urtica chamaedryoides
This is a plant that gets stellar reviews from foragers and is even cultivated in the garden by some. I took my young leaves and tops from the section of path that runs by the Lexington municipal compost facility, between 128 and Hartwell Ave. I wore gloves while gathering. There is a huge amount of nettles growing on this stretch and I've seen three other people foraging them over the years.

For cooking, I tried a short cook in a cast iron pan with olive oil and garlic followed by a short period of steaming with a dash of added water, which is pretty standard at our house for cooking greens. A little salt went on as they came out of the pan.

The taste was ok, but my mouth started going a bit numb as I at a few mouthfulls. Perhaps they needed to cook longer? Maybe it was my imagination? I got stung hundreds of times from nettles as a kid growing up in rural California; perhaps it is hard to let go of that and see this plant in a new way. But I'm pretty sure something weird was going on in my mouth.

Wild Mustard - 1
Not sure what exact variety this is, but it has typical crucifer flowers and foliage. I tried a leaf and it was thin and very bitter. Maybe it should be gathered earlier in the season.

Garlic Mustard - 2
Alliaria petiolata
Plenty of this around, and easy to gather. I took this batch from the section of path in Lexington between Seasons Four and the Great Meadow.

 After pan cooking with olive oil and garlic, it was still fairly bitter. The leaves are also somewhat thin, so it takes a lot of leaves to make a serving.

Milkweed Shoots - 3
Asclepias syriaca
I cut these at about 15cm tall from in front of Seasons Four in Lexington.

They seemed a good candidate for roasting with olive oil, garlic, and salt, and turned out reasonably when prepared this way. There is some controversy over whether milkweed is indeed edible. I was 100% sure these were milkweed and not another poisonous type of plant. Many recommend that the plant parts be blanched with one or more changes of water to remove bitterness. Others say the plant is not bitter at all. There is some coverage of this discussion on eattheweeds, but I figured we could try it and see how bitter it was. In this case anyway, it was not bitter.

Violets - 2
A plant that grows everywhere around here in abundance.

The flowers are ok on a salad, mostly for decoration. The leaves are mild tasting, but highly mucilagenous. A big leave chewed up raw will leave you feeling like you have a mouthful of snot. If you love okra, Violet leaves might be just up your alley. For me the mucous was a bit much. Could be useful for thickening soup or something. I wonder what they are like cooked.

Dandelion - 2
Taraxacum officinale
Another abundant plant, though harder to find specimens with leaves big and juicy enough to be worth picking.

Spruce Tips - 1
The new green growth right at the end of spruce tree boughs in spring. Reminds me of using pinesol cleaning fluid for mouthwash. Maybe I picked too far back on the tip.

Cattail - 1
Supposedly one of the great wild foods. I pulled one up from in front of my office to try to get at the center shoot. This endeavor left my hands covered with goo, and a little nibble confirmed the taste as being like, well, fibrous goo. Probably error on the forager part; wrong time of year or something.

Plantain - 2
Plantago major
Grow absolutely everywhere, though it takes a little looking to find one that is juicy and big enough to want to eat it. The leaves I tasted had an ok, mild flavor, but were a bit on the tough side. This was after an unusually long period of no rain and hot weather for our climate though, so I should give Plantain another chance.

Redbud Flowers - 2
Cercis canadensis
Look stunning on tree branches in the spring, and neat on top of a salad. Hard to imagine gathering enough for a meal, and didn't have a memorable taste. I think I enjoy them more on the tree than on in my mouth.

Spiderwort - 3.5
Tradescantia virginiana
Less common on the path than in my yard, but they are around and easy to recognize. I cut my test sample from my yard.

The stems exude a sticky goo when cut, which incidentally was a bit bothersome to clean off my pan after roasting.

Tried the trusty olive oil/salt roast on the clusters of buds and the stalks.

The stalks were pretty good, if a little stringy. Buds were not horrid, but probably not worth the trouble. I roasted them along with 5 or 6 new garlic bulbs with greens we got from our CSA, which put the spiderwort in the shade. But I think the stalks were better than most foraged greens, and were especially nice when eaten with a crispy roasted garlic leaf.

Lambsquarters - 2.5
Chenopodium album
Grows everywhere, including my garden where I took this picture and a taste of the raw plant. The leaves were rather thin and not particularly tasty.

Others I think are around but I haven't found or gotten a good ID on yet:

 Allium tricoccum
I think they should be around somewhere but can't seem to find any. I bought some bulbs from rampfarm.com and planted them in my yard this year. So now I know exactly what to look for and when, but still have not found any on the path. There are a few stands of lilly-of-the-valley in Lexington, which looks very similar but is of course poisonous. An episode of Outlander used this fact as a plot device!

Pineapple Weed
Matricaria matricarioides
I feel like I've seen it somewhere, but so far have not found it when purposefully searching.

About 80% sure a lot of the plants along the path are types of Dock and probably edible, but have not gone to the effort of getting a better ID.

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads
Matteuccia struthiopteris
These are all over the place and easy to identify once they get bigger, but I have yet to mark a place in the summer, then come back to the same place next spring to get fiddleheads

Pokeweed Shoots
Phytolacca americana
Pokeweed is hard to miss in the fall when it is displaying its (non-edible) strigs of colorful berries, but to date I haven't remembered where any is by the time spring rolls around. A plant that bears careful foraging since the uncooked greens and seeds are toxic and the root is deadly.


What am I missing?? If you have foraged around the path, let me know if I'm missing some of your spring favorites.

I think so far the only things I really want to eat more of are wild garlic and daylilly shoots. But I'm glad I tasted all those weeds.


Anonymous said...

You should give the nettles a second try.
You can prepare them like cream spinach, blanching the tips and then passing through a sieve(or blender) and adding some salt, garlic and some oil. it´s a traditional spring meal here in Austria.
My summer and autumn favorite is nettle pesto: raw nettles (only the young tips), hazelnuts, garlic,salt and olive oil, worked over in the mortar.

Another plant to try is hop. the shoot tips can be prepared like asparagus.

Alison said...

The plant you have identified as purslane does not look similar to the purslane* that I am familiar with, which has somewhat juicy almost "succulent" looking leaves that are more rounded at the tip. When I have eaten it, it is a little crunchy, with a slightly tangy/salty flavor that is very appealing, so much so that I wish it grew in my yard, and have considered planting some.

I've never tried raw lambs quarters, but have sometimes found it mixed in with commercial spinach, and indeed it cooked up entirely similarly


Holly Gates said...

@Alison -
You are absolutely right, thanks for the input! I do feel like I've seen purslane around, but as you point out the one I had picked out in my garden is not it. I'll keep a better eye out.

Kimbersew said...

I enjoy nettles scrambled with eggs or simmered in broth- the needles wilt away if they have enough heat and moisture around them. Garlic mustard is best if you catch the 1st year growth (short rosettes) Milkweed- I happily eat leaves, buds, blossoms, pods while still wet inside- all raw- but not stems. Ramps are spring ephemerals and usually on east-facing slopes. I recommend the foraging guides by Samuel Thayer and the gorgeous foraging cookbook by Dina Falconi for info about what parts of plants to forage and when. Once you know enough, you will never be hungry!

Anonymous said...

Do you find morel (wild mushroom) in spring?