Foraging for Edible Plants Resources for the Wild Food Enthusiast
It is hard to imagine that there could be any new discoveries in wild plant food research when there are so many great books and articles out there already. But much of what is in print is surprisingly inaccurate or misleading.
For example, young milkweed shoots are delicious as a potherb and taste much like asparagus. But according to the available literature, milkweeds contain a toxic, bitter alkaloid that has to be properly cooked out to render the plants safe to eat. The proper method for cooking is to plunge the herbs into rapidly boiling water for two minutes, drain the water, then repeat the process two more times. If all bitterness is gone then the herbs are safe.
But as you will read in the article The Milkweed Phenomenon, milkweeds in most parts of North America don't contain the bitter alkaloid, and they can be cooked and eaten without any special preparations, or even eaten raw. Sam Thayer writes:
"The first time that I ate milkweed shoots, it was done with extreme care. I mean, extreme. I knew that the shoots were mildly poisonous when raw and that they would be terribly bitter and still a little toxic if not cooked properly. I knew that I had to boil them in several water changes, making sure that the shoots were covered with boiling instead of cold water - for the use of cold water would set the bitter principle in the vegetable. I also knew that this bitterness was caused by a toxic, milky latex. I knew all of this because I had read it in half a dozen books.
Not surprisingly, such elaborate and exacting preparation requirements, with such severe consequences if wrongly performed, caused me to put off trying milkweed for several years. When so many excellent wild vegetables exist, why waste my time with one that is described as only marginally edible? Or so I reasoned."
Over a period of time Sam Thayer started preparing milkweed greens with less and less caution, searching for some evidence of the bitter toxin in the plants, but never found any trace of bitterness, even when eating the young plants raw.
Thayer realized that the bitterness was geographical, found in some parts of the country, but not others, yet all the available literature originated in places where milkweeds were bitter. Many other plants have similar stories, Thayer pointed out, delicious in some parts of the country, but positively bitter and repelling in other places.
It was Sam Thayer's article that inspired me for the first time to try cooking and eating some milkweed greens (plunged into boiling water and cooked without changing the water). They were delicious, just like asparagus!
Also of interest, be sure to check out the Wild Food Adventurer Newsletter published by John Kallas is still going strong. It is an excellent wildfoods newsletter, and Sam Thayer has been a frequent contributor.
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