Sustainability Students Forage Edible Wilds For A Forest-To-Table Meal

Sustainability Students Forage Edible Wilds For A Forest-To-Table Meal

Better Farm's sustainability students last week foraged wild edible plants on the property for a farm-to-table meal.

Nina, Steph and Levi headed out into the woods, fields, and pond to find cattail, nettles, burdock and thistle for inclusion in Vietnamese pho, a traditional noodle soup.

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Beyond the Garden Gates: Wild Plant Classification Part II

 By Allison Bachner
This is the conclusion of sustainability student Allison Bachner's two-part wild plant classification study. For Part I, click here.

We're continuing today with wild plant classifications as discovered on the Better Farm campus. Putting aside their pesky tendency to pop up in the garden rows, wild plants have value that make them well worth knowing. Here is the second installment of plants I discovered in the wilds of Better Farm.

The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. Whatever you call it, a stand of cattails is as close as you'll get to finding a wild supermarket. In spring, the cattail shoot has an odorless, tender, white, inner core that tastes sweet, mild, and pleasant. None of cattails' look-a-likes grows more than a few feet tall, so by mid-spring, the much larger cattail becomes unmistakable, even for beginners. They grow in marshes, swamps, ditches, and stagnant water—fresh or slightly brackish—worldwide. Finding them is a sure sign of water. Every part of a cattail has a practical use. The plant is easy to harvest, very tasty, and highly nutritious. It was a major staple for Native Americans. "Settlers" missed out when they ignored this great food and destroyed its habitats, instead of cultivating it. Before the flower forms, the shoots— prized as "Cossack's asparagus" in Russia—are fantastic. You can peel and eat them well into the summer; and will quickly discover they taste like a combination of tender zucchini and cucumbers (they're great in salads, soups, stir-fries, and sandwiches). You'll get the best yield just before the flowers begin to develop. A few huge, late-spring stalks provide enough delicious food for a meal. Some stalks grow tall, and become inedibly fibrous with developing flowers by late spring, although just before the summer solstice, you can often gather tender shoots, immature flower heads, and pollen at the same time. You can also clip off and eat the male portions of the immature, green, flower head. Steam or simmer it for ten minutes. It tastes vaguely like its distant relative, corn, and there's even a central cob-like core. Because it's dry, serve it with a topping of sauce, seasoned oil, or butter. When the male flowers ripen, just before the summer solstice, they produce considerable quantities of golden pollen. People pay outrageous prices in health stores for tiny capsules of the bee pollen—a source of minerals, enzymes, protein, and energy. Cattail pollen beats the commercial variety in flavor, energy content, freshness, nutrition, and price. To collect the pollen in its short season, wait for a few calm days, so your harvest isn't scattered by wind. Bend the flower heads into a large paper bag and shake it gently. Keep the bag's opening as narrow as possible, so the pollen won't blow away. Sift out the trash, and use the pollen as golden flour in baking breads, muffins, pancakes, or waffles. It doesn't rise, and it's time-consuming to collect in quantity, so generally mix it with at least three times as much whole-grain flour. You can also eat the pollen raw, sprinkled on yogurt, fruit shakes, oatmeal, and salads. Jelly from between a cattail's young leaves can be applied to wounds, sores, boils, carbuncles, external inflammations, and boils to soothe pain. (From Wild Man Steve Brill .)

New England Aster
Native American tribes on burning the flowers and leaves that is interesting, the smoke being used in Inipi (sweat lodge) Ceremonies, to revive the unconscious, to treat mental illness, nosebleeds, headaches, congestion, for smudging and as an additive to Kinnickkinnick smoking mixtures. The dried blossoms were also snuffed for similar purposes, or the vapor inhaled as a steam. Aster tea was used to treat earache, relieve gas pains, stomach aches and fevers. The flowers and roots were both commonly used.  (From Herb Craft.)

Purple Loosestrife
Purple Loosestrife possesses four principles: resin, resinoid, tannin, and alkaloid; and its properties are alterative, antispasmodic, diuretic, astringent, anti-febrifuge, tonic, and demulcent. Loosestrife is employed chiefly in fevers and hepatic derangements, constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, cholera infantum, cholera morbus, malignant cholera, hemorrhages or bleedings of all kinds, leucorrhosa, old wounds, sores, clouded vision, and so on. The whole plant is used either alone or combined with others of a palliative or soothing character. Purple Loosestrife may justly be considered one of the most valuable of all vegetable astringents yet known to man. It is its astringent effects on the mucous surfaces that renders it a most valuable remedy in fevers, especially typhoid; and in hepatic derangements of the liver and biliary ducts. In constipation it is a most useful herb to remedy that condition, as, by its promoting the secretive powers of the mucous surfaces and its astringent quality strengthening the muscular parts of the intestinal walls, it gives tone and energy to them, and by that means tends to remove constipation. It is also a useful agent in relaxation of the bowels, because of its powers of correcting acid accumulations in the stomach and intestines. These statements with regard to its utility in the treatment of the two opposite conditions—diarrhoea and constipation—may seem erroneous and inconsistent, but they are correct. (From Henriette's Herb.) An ointment may be made with the water 1 OZ. to 2 drachms of May butter without salt, and the same quantity of sugar and wax boiled gently together. It cleanses and heals ulcers and sores, if washed with the water, or covered with the leaves, green or dry according to the season. A warm gargle and drink cures quinsy or a scrofulous throat. (From Botanical)

Joe-Pye Weed
Joe-Pye Weed has been used for ages as a diuretic, stimulant, tonic, astringent and relaxant. This plant offers a terrific remedy for gravel in the gallbladder; and can dissolves stones while healing chronic urinary and kidney disorders. The plant can help with bed-wetting, poor appetite, dropsy, neuralgia and rheumatism. Joe-Pye is also very soothing and will relax the nerves. Combined with uva ursi, marshmallow, blue cohosh and lily root, it can help deter female troubles, bladder and kidney infections, diabetes, and Bright’s disease. The plant has also been used for headache, hysteria, impotence, indigestion, intermittent fever, sciatica, sore throat, urine retention, vomiting, asthma, chronic coughs, colds and typhus fever. Cough syrup can easily be made out of Joe-Pye Weed by steeping and boiling down blossoms and leaves, adding molasses, and boiling the whole mixture into a syrup.

All parts of a thistle plant can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes, including the root, leaves, flowery tops and seeds. According to the beliefs of many Native Americans, any object that sticks or pricks an individual will also alleviate the hurt when an ointment prepared with the same substance is applied on the affected area. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, different types of thistles are used to prepare decoctions to alleviate inflammation. In addition, an infusion prepared with the leaves and roots of common thistle is believed to heal stiff neck, seizures and nervous disorders. Common thistle roots have been employed as a poultice and a decoction prepared using the plant too is used as a poultice to treat aching jaws. A hot infusion prepared with the whole common thistle plant has been traditionally used to treat rheumatic joint pains and bleeding piles. The inner bark of common thistle yields a fiber sometimes used in paper manufacture. High-quality oil can be obtained by extracting the seeds of different species of thistles. The thistle down is excellent as firewood which can be lit without difficulty even by a spark from a stone. In addition, the Cherokee, a Native American tribe, used the down of the plant for the tail on blow guns. Tender leaves of the plant can be soaked overnight in saline water and cooked for consumption. Leaves of common thistle may also be added to salads after thorns are removed. Even the roots of common thistle are cooked and they have a flavour akin to Jerusalem artichoke. In addition to consuming the roots fresh, they may also be dried and stored for use when necessary. Some people also cook and use the young flower stems of common thistle as a vegetable. Even the flower buds of the plant are brought to culinary use. These flower buds are used akin to round artichokes, but they are comparatively small and even more difficult to prepare. The dehydrated thistle flowers are used as a rennet alternative to curdle plant milks. At times, even the seeds of thistle are roasted and consumed by some people. (From Herbs 2000.)

The species Solidago canadensis and S. odora are considered the most medicinal (and the tastiest) of goldenrod, but all species of goldenrod are safe and beneficial and can be used to help the immune system get ready for winter. Goldenrod tonics are easy to make. Harvest any goldenrod by cutting the top third of the plant in full flower on a sunny fall day. Or, respectfully pull the entire plant, roots and all, in the late autumn or early winter. Then follow these simple directions. Note: You can use any size jar when making a vinegar or a tincture, so long as you fill it full. To dry flowering goldenrod: Bundle 2-3 stalks together and hang upside down in a cool, shady room until thoroughly dry. When the stalks snap crisply, store the dried herb in brown paper bags. One or two large handfuls of crushed leaves and flowers, steeped in a quart of boiling water for thirty minutes makes a tea that can be used hot, with honey, to counter allergies (especially pollen allergies), fevers, sore throats, coughs, colds and the flu; or taken cold to relieve colic in babies, and gas in adults. Dried mint and/or yarrow are tasty, and useful, additions when making goldenrod flower tea. To dry goldenrod roots: Rinse dirt off the roots, then cut away all the stalks, leaves and dead flowers. If possible, hang your roots over a woodstove to dry; if not, place them on racks and put them in a warm place to dry until brittle. Store in glass jars. Depending on the difficulty you are addressing, goldenrod root tea may be made with large or small amounts of the roots brewed or decocted in boiling water. Or the roots may be powdered, alone or mixed with flowers, and applied to hard-to-heal wounds and sore joints. To make a goldenrod vinegar: Chop the goldenrod coarsely, filling a jar with chopped flowers, leaves, stalks (and roots if you have them); then fill the jar to the top with room-temperature, pasteurized, apple cider vinegar. Cap it tightly with a plastic lid. (Metal lids will be eroded by the action of the vinegar. If you must use one, protect it with several layers of plastic between it and the vinegar.) Be sure to label your vinegar with the date and contents. Your goldenrod vinegar will be ready to use in six weeks to improve mineral balance, help prevent kidney stones, eliminate flatulence, and improve immune functioning. To make a goldenrod tincture: Chop the goldenrod coarsely, filling a jar with chopped flowers, leaves, stalks (and roots if you have them); then add 100 proof vodka, filling the jar to the very top. Cap tightly and label. Your goldenrod tincture will be ready to use in six weeks, by the dropperful, as an anti-inflammatory, a sweat-inducing cold cure, and an astringent digestive aid. Medical herbalists use large doses (up to 4 dropperfuls at a time) of goldenrod tincture several times daily to treat kidney problems -- including nephritis, hemorrhage, kidney stones, and inability to void -- and prostate problems, including frequent urination. The colonists called goldenrod tea "Liberty Tea," for they drank it instead of black tea after the Boston Tea Party. In fact, Liberty Tea proved so popular, it was exported to China! Let goldenrod liberate you, too. Herbal medicine is people's medicine, a gift from Mama Earth to us. (From Susun Weed.)

Queen Anne's Lace
Also called wild carrot, Queen Anne's Lace has many medicinal properties. The wild carrot is an aromatic herb that acts as a diuretic, soothes the digestive tract and stimulates the uterus. A wonderfully cleansing medicine, it supports the liver, stimulates the flow of urine and the removal of waste by the kidneys. An infusion is used in the treatment of various complaints including digestive disorders, kidney and bladder diseases and in the treatment of dropsy. An infusion of the leaves has been used to counter cystitis and kidney stone formation, and to diminish stones that have already formed. Carrot leaves contain significant amounts of porphyrins, which stimulate the pituitary gland and lead to the release of increased levels of sex hormones. The plant is harvested in July and dried for later use. A warm water infusion of the flowers has been used in the treatment of diabetes. The grated raw root, especially of the cultivated forms, is used as a remedy for threadworms. The root is also used to encourage delayed menstruation. The root of the wild plant can induce uterine contractions and so should not be used by pregnant women. A tea made from the roots is diuretic and has been used in the treatment of urinary stones. An infusion is used in the treatment of oedema, flatulent indigestion and menstrual problems. The seed is a traditional 'morning after' contraceptive and there is some evidence to uphold this belief. It requires further investigation. Carrot seeds can be abortifacient and so should not be used by pregnant women. Ancient folk lore said that to cure epileptic seizures you should eat the dark coloured middle flower of Queen Anne's Lace. The flower is also used in ancient rituals an spells, for women to increase fertility and for men to increase potency and sexual desire! (From The Carrot Museum.)

Motherwort earned its nam from its traditional use in relieving trauma and tension during pregnancy, childbirth as well as motherhood. In addition to be a useful remedy for the reproductive system disorders among women, motherwort also possesses properties that invigorate as well as strengthen the cardiac system. Hence, it is also popular as a remedy that is beneficial for the heart. It has already been established that motherwort plays a vital role in the intensification of the heart, particularly during pregnancy and child birth when more pressure is forced on the heart. Many herbal practitioners recommend the use of motherwort to treat anomalies like arrhythmia and heart palpatations—both of which are closely related to nervousness and stress. On the other hand, the bitter glycosides present in motherwort have been found to possess temporary capabilities to reduce blood pressure. (From Herbs 2000.)

Lady's Thumb
Anglo-Saxons used lady's thumb as a remedy for sore eyes and ears. The leaves are edible and some members of the smartweed family possess a "peppery" flavor. Native Americans used the leaves in treatments of stomach pains and poison ivy. They also rubbed the plant on their horses as an insect repellent. (From Brandeis.)

Red Clover
Red clover is used for cancer prevention, indigestion, high cholesterol, whooping cough, cough, asthma, bronchitis, and sexually transmitted diseases. Some women use red clover for symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes; for breast pain or tenderness, and for premenstrual syndrome. Red clover is applied to the skin for skin cancer, skin sores, burns, and chronic skin diseases including eczema and psoriasis. In foods and beverages, the solid extract of red clover is used as a flavoring ingredient. Red clover contains hormone-like chemicals called isoflavones that seem to cause reproductive problems in certain animals. Experts think a diet high in isoflavones may have been responsible for reports of reproductive failure and liver disease in cheetahs living in zoos. In large quantities, red clover can cause sterility in livestock. Red clover contains “isoflavones” which are changed in the body to “phytoestrogens” that are similar to the hormone estrogen.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Beyond the Garden Gate: Wild Plant Classification Part I

It was a day as fine as any to bushwhack through the Better Farm wilds in order to classify some native plants! Putting aside their pesky tendency to pop up in the garden rows, wild plants have value that make them well worth knowing. Here is the first installment of the plants I discovered on my romp.

Wild Plant Identification:

Staghorn Sumac
Sumac is native to the Mediterranean, but now grows in abundance throughout the Northern United States. Sumac flowers contain calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants; while the bark is useful medicinally as an astringent tea for anti-diarrhea purposes. Staghorn sumac is also antibacterial. Middle Eastern chefs dry the berries, and then grind them up into a spice powder that lasts all year without refrigeration. The spice can be sprinkled on rice, hummus, or kebabs. Sumac tastes slightly sour, tart and citrus-like, very similar to a lemon. Sumac fruit can also be turned into lemonade: Simply put the berries in cold water, rub them to release the juice, and then leave them for several hours to soak and infuse into the water. Strain and drink it. The liquid can also be frozen in ice cube trays and used year-round like lemon juice. (Information from

Red-Panicled or Grey Dogwood
Historically, American dogwood has been used to treat malaria instead of the drug quinine. American dogwood is still used today as medicine for headaches, fatigue, fever, and ongoing diarrhea. It is also used to increase strength, stimulate appetite, and as a tonic. Some people apply American dogwood directly to the skin for boils and wounds.

Elderberry Tree
Elderberry juice was used to treat a flu epidemic in Panama in 1995, and has historically been widely used for its antioxidant activity, to lower cholesterol, improve vision, boost the immune system, improve heart health, and as a remedy for coughs, colds, flu, bacterial and viral infections, and tonsillitis.  Bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect a cell. People with the flu who took elderberry juice reported less severe symptoms and felt better much faster than those who did not. Elderberries contain organic pigments, tannin, amino acids, carotenoids, flavonoids, sugar, rutin, viburnic acid, vitaman A and B and a large amount of vitamin C. They are also mildly laxative, a diuretic, and diaphoretic. Flavonoids, including quercetin, are believed to account for the therapeutic actions of the elderberry flowers and berries. According to test tube studies2 these flavonoids include anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants and protect cells against damage. In Israel, Hasassah's Oncology Lab has determined that elderberry stimulates the body's immune system and they are treating cancer and AIDS patients with it. The wide range of medical benefits (from flu and colds to debilitating asthma, diabetes, and weight loss) is probably due to the enhancement of each individual's immune system.

Butter-and-Eggs serve as a diuretic, purgative and astringent. Leaf tea can be used as a laxative, strong diuretic for dropsy, jaundice, enteritis with drowsiness, skin diseases, piles, liver and bladder problems. Ointment made from the flowers is used externally for piles, skin eruptions, sores, and ulcers. A “tea” made with the plant's milk may also be used as an insecticide. (From MedicinalHerbInfo.)

Toadflax, Common Toadflax, Yellow Toadflax, Butter-and-Eggs, Wild Snapdragon -

Spotted Touch-Me-Not
Jewelweeld has been used as a treatment for eczema, insect bites, rashes, and spring tonics. It is also an effective cure for poison ivy. Flowers can be rubbed on skin as a natural insect repellent.
Burdock Root contains a number of medicinal properties that have been used for hundreds of years. Most traditionally, herbalists use it as a blood purifier. The root also overs relief from abscesses, acne, carbuncles, psoriasis and eczema. The herb increases circulation to the skin by helping to detoxify epidermal tissues. Burdock Root has additionally been reported to destroy bacteria and fungus cultures. It is a popular detoxifying agent that produces a diuretic effect on the body which aids the filtering of impurities from the bloodstream. By promoting perspiration, Burdock Root eliminates toxins through the skin. Burdock Root contains inulin, a carbohydrate that strengthens the liver. The high concentration of inulin and mucilage aids in the soothing effects on the gastrointestinal tract. The high concentration of inulin is helpful for individuals afflicted with diabetes and hypoglycemia as it provides helpful sugar that does not provoke rapid insulin production. Inulin is aromatic, stimulant, expectorant, tonic, stomachic, and antiseptic. Burdock Root can also be used as a mild laxative that aids in the elimination of uric acid or gout.  

Burdock root helps the kidneys to filter out impurities from the blood very quickly. It clears congestion in respiratory, lymphatic, urinary and circulatory systems. Burdock  releases water retention, stimulates digestion, aids kidney, liver and gallbladder function.  It also functions as an aperient, depurative, and antiscorbutic. Decoctions of Burdock have also been historically used for soothing the kidneys, relieving the lymphatic system, rheumatism, gout, GI tract disorders, stomach ailments, constipation, catarrh, fever, infection, fluid retention and skin problems. An article in Chemotherapy identified the chemical arctigenin contained in Burdock as an “inhibitor of experimental tumor growth.” European and Chinese herbalists have long considered burdock root's "lightly warming, moistening effect an excellent tonic for the lungs and liver.  It reportedly stimulates toxic waste through the skin and urine, improving digestion and is good for arthritis and rheumatism.
A recent study showed that Burdock blocked dangerous chemicals from causing damage to cells, suggesting to the possibility that burdock may help decrease the risk of developing cancer from toxic chemicals. And finally, despite Burdock’s reputation as a noxious weed, it is the source of several very palatable foods. Edible components of the Burdock plant are its roots, seeds, and its young stems. Young stalks are boiled to be eaten like asparagus, raw stems and young leaves are eaten in salads. Both the root and leaves are used in herbal remedies, but most recipes call for the root which has a sweetish and mucilaginous taste. Fresh burdock root also has a distinct aroma. It has been used, after chopping and roasting, as a coffee substitute. Originally cultivated in China for medicinal purposes, this unique root has become a sought-after specialty in Japan. Flavorful and crunchy, burdock is an excellent source of fiber, along with the vitamins and minerals. Its nutty taste is delicious sautéed in combination with carrots or just some soy sauce and a bit of sugar, or it can be deep-fried in a tempura batter. Avoid rinsing this brown-skinned vegetable until you're ready to use it.  In markets, it's sold with the dirt still lingering on the roots because it is quick to wilt when washed. The white flesh immediately discolors once peeled. You'll want to soak it in a mild vinegar solution until you're ready to cook it to maintain the color. Its hearty flavor is a little like that of potatoes, although it’s related to artichokes. Mashed roots can also be formed into patties and fried.  The white pith can be added to salads or simmered in syrup to make candy or soaked in vinegar  to make pickles. (Information from Herbal Legacy.)

Chicory as a homeopathic remedy is used for sluggish digestion that may lead to headaches. Herbally, chicory is a bitter used to increase appetite and promote digestion. As a culinary herb, young chicory leaves are used in salads. Chicory root is best known as a coffee substitute. (From Holistic Health Careers)


Milkweeds secrete latex containing cardiac glycosides that are medicinally valuable in the treatment of heart disease. This same latex is an old home remedy for warts. These compounds are also part of a chemical defense that the butterflies deploy against birds who would prey on them, explaining in part their fascination with these plants. Milkweed serves as a major nectar source for butterflies and bees; both of which have been in rapid decline in large part because of herbicides like Roundup, which kills virtually all plants except crops genetically modified to survive it. As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. The agricultural landscape has been sterilized. You can help! Become an active participant now. Make a difference today. It all starts with one seed...and you to plant it. (From Annie's Remedy)

To read Part II of this study, click here.

Wild Plant Foraging: Ramps

Allium tricoccum, otherwise known as ramps or wild leeks.
Wild leek season is upon us! The Allium tricoccum (otherwise known as ramps, spring onions, ramson, wild leeks, wood leeks, or wild garlic), is a wild onion that appears in early spring across much of the eastern United States and Canada. Ridiculously yummy and easy to prepare, ramps are a growing favorite among chefs in restaurants—and this weekend you can enjoy some of ours on the Mother's Day menu at Bella's in Clayton!

The broad, bright leaves on wild leeks make them easy to spot along hillsides in wooded, rocky areas:
A grove of wild leeks.
A group of foragers took to the woods yesterday to harvest more than 20 pounds of the tiny delicacy, which goes great in soups, on salads, in flat breads, or pickled and canned.

Here's the bounty, which will be part of this week's CSA:

A pound of wild leeks will cost consumers, on average, between $9 and $20 with leaves and roots on:

But you can get wild leeks from us for just $4/pound (while supplies last!):
To enroll in Better Farm's CSA program, click here. Many thanks to the Tulley family for allowing us to forage in their woods!

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Mushroom Hunt

One afternoon last week, the Better Farm crew and I went out for a hike to find mushrooms (and maybe my truck keys, which I'd lost in the woods a week earlier). The hike is part of our outdoor survival unit, which includes foraging and identifying edible wild plants.

Once we got into the woods, we started to really fight with the bugs. But we also started to see a bunch of mushrooms: two on the hillside, and three more on the flat ground. 

After walking for a little while, we found another mushroom in a clearing then a few more on a stick. Three more were growing in decaying bark. Another grew in the shade of a rock, and lastly there was one growing among the grass. All together we found 10 mushrooms. Here's what we identified:

1.       Pluteus
2.       Eucocoprinns Bimbanmii
3.       Unkown
4.       Hygrocybe Vitellina (inedible)
5.       False Chanterelle (edible)
6.       Gymnopilus
7.       Atramentaria
8.       Galerina Autumnails (inedible)
9.       Literocybe Clari
10.   Amanita
11.   Laccaria Amethystea (Edible)

Backyard Foraging

Foraging may not be the perfect rainy-day event, but we got a kick out of it and actually learned tons about what's growing right in our own backyard! Here's what we gathered yesterday afternoon:

Milk Thistle
Nearly all parts of the milk thistle plant can be consumed as a food without harm. The plant is however, best known for its medicinal benefits such as increasing appetite and aiding in digestion. It is also used to cleanse the liver, treat gall bladder disease, jaundice, cirrhosis, hepatitis and poisoning. Most of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves for example, make a great spinach substitute when steamed (be sure to remove the sharp leaf-spines first). The seeds, when roasted, make a great coffee substitute.
Side note: This plant almost looks identical to burdock.

Unlike Poison Sumac, which can be identified by its white drupes, the fruits from the Smooth and Staghorn Sumac form dense clusters of reddish drupes. The dried drupes can be ground to produce a tangy , tart purplish spice used in a variety of foods, including salad dressings, meats, rice and hummus. Sumac is also used to make a beverage like tea. This drink is made by soaking the drupes in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid through a cotton cloth and sweetening it.

The cattail is one of the most useful wild plants that aid in survival through edible, medicinal and other functional purposes. Cattails can be found all over the world in places with year-round standing water or wet soil, and can be identified by their characteristic brown seed head located a few inches from the top of the plant. In late spring to early summer the female flower spike (which later develops into the characteristic ‘cattail’ seed head) can be broken off and eaten like corn on the cob once boiled. Additionally the rootstock can be eaten raw or boiled – simply dig up the cattail and clean off the dirt from the root. Check out the small, pointed shoots called ‘corms’ coming off the root, which can be peeled and eaten or added to a salad.

: Lastly, we came across milkweed. We found that you can actually harvest the unopened flower buds (which look like miniature heads of broccoli) and put them in soup, casserole, stir-fry etc, or simply boil them.

For more information:

Edible Wild Plants: Mullein

Photo from Hawk Conservancy.

Mullein is an easy-to-grow herb, often seen in disturbed areas such as fields and ditches. A multi-purpose herb, mullein offers many healing abilities from its flowers, leaves and root. Mullein is also a lovely addition to landscaping. The stalk can grow 6 feet high, and the leaves can grow up to 2 feet across. Try growing a beautiful specimen in an area that bees can enjoy the blossoms, and birds can eat the seeds. You can also find it growing will all over the North Country!

Mullein has a myriad of uses. Every part of the plant is used at different times in its life cycle. The thick, soft leaves are used to treat respiratory illness. They have been shown to loosen congestion and help clear the lungs. The tiny hairs on the leaves can be irritating, and any teas should be filtered very carefully to avoid this problem. A tincture would alleviate this issue, although it is extremely bitter. 

Mullein flowers also provide a soothing and cleansing effect to the skin. As a wash, they are an easy treatment for minor wounds and scrapes. These same flowers can be picked throughout the growing season, placed in olive oil and left to infuse. The resulting infusion is wonderful for earaches that do NOT involve a ruptured eardrum. Add beeswax to the infused oil, and you will have a balm that makes a great addition to any baby's changing table. The delicate skin of a baby's diaper area can benefit from a light layer of this mullein balm.

Mullein root is used in urinary tract issues. The plant has a long taproot, making it difficult to harvest, and nearly impossible to transplant. When harvesting, be sure to use a spade and dig when the soil contains some moisture.

Finally, mullein is a wonderful indicator of a soil's contamination level. When looking for wild mullein, only harvest from straight, vigorous stalks. The crooked stalks indicate a high level of chemical contamination in the soil.

Here's how to prepare mullin for its healing qualities:

Things You'll Need
  • 1/2-gallon glass canning jar with lid
  • 1 quart 100-proof alcohol
  • 2 tbsp. honey
Preparing the Herbs
  • Harvest two quarts of mullein stems and flowers by making an angled cut near the base of hte plant. Don't take more than 50 percent of the total plant so as to leave plenty behind for future use. Shake the leaves free of any dust or insects. You can give the stems a rinse, but this isn't necessary unless the plant was covered in dirt.
  •  Break the stems into pieces and place them into the canning jar. If using purchased dried herbs, the herbs will already be processed. Fill the jar halfway with herbs but don't stuff them in. They will need to have room to fully absorb the tincture solution.
  • Pour one quart of 100-proof alcohol into the jar. Vodka or brandy is commonly used for making tinctures and is easily purchased in liquor stores. If alcohol is not desired, use a quart of plain white vinegar instead.Add two tablespoons of honey to a quart of water and mix this in with the alcohol. Mullein is a mucilaginous plant, which makes it so valuable as an expectorant. The honey will pull out the mucilage compounds to give you a more effective tincturePut the cap on the jar and shake it a little to allow the herbs to settle into the liquid. It is important that the solution--called the menstruum--completely covers the herbs. Any herbs that are exposed to air during the tincturing process will eventually spoil and destroy the tincture. Add more menstruum if necessarTightly cap the jar and label with the date. Place the jar in a cool, dry location for at least three weeks. The tincture will strengthen the longer it sits. Check on the herbs every couple of days and give the jar a turn to prevent settling. Check to see if menstruum needs to be added to the jar.
Making the Tincture
  • Place a colander over a pot and line with cheesecloth. You will be wringing the liquid out of the herbs, so use a piece that is big enough to make a small bundle.
  • Gather the corners of the cheesecloth and squeeze the liquid from the herbs, wrenching as much liquid out as you can.
  • Discard the mullein to the compost pile and pour the new tincture into a clean glass jar for future use.


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Cooking with Wild Leeks

Wild leek greens, fresh-cut tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette with mozzarella (or cheese substitute): YUM.
Some Better Farm family members and friends hit the woods yesterday to explore three Indian River Lakes Conservancy trails: the Grass Lake Overlook, Sugarhouse Trail, and North Ridge Trail. While climbing rocky slopes, jumping over creek beds, and taking close looks at towering oak trees, birds overhead, and bugs crawling around in the dirt, we also stumbled upon hillsides loaded with wild leeks:

Without any shovels, we set about digging the plants out of the ground with our hands. We made off with several handfuls of the flavorful onion variety, and took them back to the farm to prepare. Here they are, cleaned and ready to go:
The group decided to do an Iron Chef-style cook-off with our pickings. Here are our dinner menu and recipes:

Spinach-Artichoke and Wild Leek Dip (vegan)
1 can artichoke hearts, quartered (or quarter them yourself)
1 fistful of baby spinach
6 to 8 wild leeks
2 T vegan cream cheese
2 T vegan mayonnaise
1/4 C vegan shredded cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1 T olive oil
note: all vegan cheeses and mayonnaise may be subbed out if desired

Pre-heat the oven for 350 degrees.  Cut root stems off leaks, then slice white bulbs thinly. Finely dice the leek greens and garlic. Sautee the leeks, leek greens, garlic, and quartered artichoke hearts in a pan on the stove at medium heat until the artichoke hearts begin to brown. Add the spinach and mix. When the spinach begins to wilt, transfer all ingredients to a bread loaf pan and add the cream cheese, mayo, and shredded cheese. Mix well and put in the oven for 10 minutes or until the top of the food begins to turn golden-brown.

Tomato and Wild Leek Bruschetta (vegan-optional)
Whole wheat rolls, cut in half
Sliced tomato (at least 2-3 slices on each serving of bread)
Leek leaves (just cut bulb off the plant and use the entire green)
Mozzarella cheese or cheese substitute
Balsamic vinegar to taste
Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Put your oven on low broiler setting. Lay bread on a cookie sheet, cut-side up, and drizzle with balsamic and olive oil. Add one full leek green, then stack with tomato slices and mozzarella (optional: add cut-up garlic chives from the garden as a garnish). Put in broiler until cheese is melted.

Seared Chicken or Tofu with Wild Leek-Roasted Pepper Glaze
4 chicken breasts OR 1 lb. tofu (or combination of the two)
1 yellow or red pepper
5 cloves garlic
5 wild leek bulbs
2 T olive oil
Seasonings: fresh-cut garlic chives, rosemary, sage, basil, and dill, diced leek greens
Salt and pepper to taste
Stick blender
Optional: For a boost of flavor, dash of Bragg Liquid Aminos and/or Szechuan sauce 

Cut the pepper into pieces and roast it on the stovetop (heat on high) with peeled garlic cloves, leek bulbs, and olive oil. When the pepper and garlic are seared (black will begin to appear and the produce will noticeably soften), transfer the ingredients to a bowl and use the stick blender to blend them into a thick liquid. Coat your chicken and/or tofu with the roasted pepper glaze and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Then transfer your meat or tofu to a pan and dust with your seasonings (and additional aminos or Szechuan sauce). Cook on high heat, flipping twice, until your meat is done and/or the tofu is crispy golden-brown. Cut into strips and serve with a size of Israeli couscous.

Sesame Seed-Coated Carrots, Green Peppers, and Wild Leeks
1 green pepper
6 wild leeks
3 carrots
2 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Bragg Liquid Aminos
1 T sesame seeds
2 T olive oil

Cut the green pepper and carrots into thin strips. Chop the leeks thinly, and dice the leek greens and garlic. Add these ingredients to a wok and toss in the olive oil and liquid aminos. Cook on high until produce starts to soften, then reduce heat to low, stirring frequently until the vegetables are lightly browned. Coat in sesame seeds and serve.

Got a great recipe you'd like to share? E-mail us at

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Wild Edible Plants: Eat your sumac

Sumac plants in winter.

There are 250 species of sumac growing in subtropical and temperate regions all over the world. The fruits of the genus Rhus are ground into a deep-red or purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to salads and meat.

In Arab cuisine, sumac is used as a garnish on dishes such as hummus and added to salads in the Levant. Iranian food features sumac on kebabs and lahmacun. In North America, the smooth sumac and staghorn sumac can be used to make "sumac-ade", "Indian lemonade", or "rhus juice". This drink is made by soaking the berries in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid through a cotton cloth and sweetening it. Native Americans also used the leaves and drupes of the smooth and staghorn sumacs combined with tobacco in traditional smoking mixtures.
Photo of sumac berries drying out from First Ways. Blogger Rebecca Lerner suggests spreading the berries out on a shelf in a warm, dry room.
A lot of people mistakenly assume all sumac plants are poisonous. But poison sumac, while related to the sumac trees this post is about, is not the same thing and actually looks very different. Poison sumac has smooth leaves and white berries, while edible sumac has tightly clumped red berries and jagged, toothy leaves:

Sumac contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants, according to a plant physiology study conducted by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sumac bark is useful medicinally as an astringent tea for anti-diarrhea purposes. It’s also antibacterial.

Sumac makes a great, healthy lemonade alternative. Just soak the berries in cold water, rub them to release the juice, and then leave them for several hours to infuse into the water. You can also heat it up to speed the process. You can also freeze the liquid in ice cube trays and use it year-round like lemon juice. “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Wild Vegan Cookbook offers several interesting recipes for sumac concentrate. 

If you dry the sumac berries out and grind them into a spice powder, it will last year-round without refrigeration. Sprinkle the powder on rice, hummus, or kebabs. 

Here's our friend Bob Laisdell showing how to retrieve the drupes (clusters of berries): 

And our friend Rick Lopez showing off the berries up-close:
Want to give it a go? Here's an easy recipe for sumac tea:

Fresh Sumac Iced Tea
Serves 4
6 cups near-boiling water
2 drupes of staghorn sumac berries
Honey or other sweetener to taste 
  1. Remove the berries from the drupes.
  2. Pour nearly boiling water over the berries and steep for an hour. Smoosh the berries in with the water. Strain the berries.
  3. Chill the drink.
  4. Take the warm berries and add to an ice cube tray. Fill with halfway spring water or with the drink itself and freeze.
  5. A few hours later fill up the ice cube tray. This way the berries will be prevented from floating to the top. Freeze again.
  6. Add the ice cubes to your glass and fill with the chilled drink. Add sweetener if you like.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.