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Foraging and Cooking Wild Foods

Updated on April 6, 2016
Milkweed | Source
Daylily flower and buds
Daylily flower and buds | Source
Cattails | Source
Sumac berries
Sumac berries | Source

One of my daughters has lived in Intentional Communities for several years. Most such communities are self-sufficient agricultural communities. They grow most of their own food and produce the necessary cash income from various small industries.

But my daughter recently got the opportunity to travel, in order to visit several Intentional Communities around the US. One of these was quite unusual: Teaching Drum, in Wisconsin, offers a training program and workshops in primitive and wilderness survival skills. Following her stay at Teaching Drum, my daughter visited me bearing wild leeks, moose jerky, and rendered bear fat.

During her stay, we fished, foraged, and cooked wild (and not so wild) foods.


When you are foraging for wild foods, it is best to harvest no more than about a third of the plants in one area. Taking too much could mean destroying the whole group of plants, so that there would be none to harvest next year.

With milkweed tops and daylily buds, there need be no concern about collecting avidly. With milkweed, you are harvesting the flowers and buds from the very top of the plant. As with “deadheading” garden flowers, this stimulates the plant to produce more flowers. Harvesting all flowering tops—one time—will do no harm. Just don’t make repeated harvests of the flowering tops of any one group of plants, or they will be unable to set seed and reproduce themselves for next year.

Daylily buds from the tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) may also be harvested with abandon. There are many, many cultivated varieties of daylily, and the buds and flowers of all are edible, but your neighbors will not appreciate it if your harvest the gloriously large and colorful flowers and buds from their yards. Fortunately, the wild—or, rather, naturalized—tawny daylily grows abundantly along roadsides and in abandoned fields.

According to Claire Shaver Haughton, in Green Immigrants, the daylily originated in central China, where it was cultivated in large fields for food. “The people ate the flower buds as a spring tonic and a summer delicacy, and surplus buds were gathered and dried for use in winter as both food and medicine. It was believed that a powder made from the buds could dispel grief, relieve pain, purify the kidneys, and favor the birth of a son if it was worn in the girdle of ones gown during pregnancy.” The daylily was carried to Europe by way of the caravans that traveled the silk routes to Eastern Europe, and finally came to Western Europe in the 1500s.

The daylily was among the first flowers brought to the New World and was carried westward by the pioneers, being, like the lilac, a dooryard favorite.

Because the daylily is a sturdy and adaptable flower that spreads exuberantly from underground roots, it naturalized freely from the first plantings of our pioneer foremothers. When I see a large stand of tawny daylilies, I like to imagine that the patch of flowers marks where the old farmhouse—or even the old log cabin—originally stood in olden days, in a now-abandoned field.

You can gather as many of the buds as you wish, with a clear conscience. The plant propagates itself mostly by spreading from underground roots. While they are also propagated from seed, especially for hybridizing to create new varieties, the tawny daylily rarely sets seed. Some of the cultivated kinds set an abundance of seed pods, and if you happen to be growing such a variety, you can gather the edible and delicious immature seed pods.

Sumac berries, too, may be gathered heedlessly. Sumac mostly propagates itself from underground roots, forming large thickets.

Cattail shoots should probably not be over-harvested, but there is little chance that you’ll harvest so much pollen that you’ll prevent the plants from reproducing.

Here’s how to gather flowering milkweed tops, daylily buds, cattail hearts, and sumac berries:

Flowering milkweed tops: The pink-flowered Asclepias syriaca (pictured above) is the most common of the several kinds of milkweed that grow here in the Midwest. It blooms over a long period in June and July and is one of the most “satisfying” of the wild vegetables, being tasty and filling. Collect the flowering tops—giving preference to those with clusters of unopened buds. Most milkweed tops will have two large clusters of unopened buds and one cluster of newly opened flowers. Break off these groups of three (or sometimes two) clusters. It is fine if some leaves are included. Flowering milkweed tops should be cooked in two changes of water before eating. (That’s why you were always told they were poisonous.)

Cattail hearts: Pull up several cattails. The part that is used is the tender part of the stem at the bottom. About twelve inches is normally usable. Cut off these foot-long pieces and add them to your basket. At home, peel away the outer parts that are too tough for eating, leaving only the tender heart of the shoot. These can be cut into inch-long pieces for cooking, or chopped into disks, like scallions.

Daylily buds: Just break off the buds—and the flowers, too, if desired. Both the buds and flowers may be dried. The buds may also be stored in the freezer for adding to winter soups and stir-fries, and making medicinal teas. Dried daylily flowers were one of the ingredients in a Moo-Shu Pork recipe that I made many years ago. (I also lost the recipe many years ago.)

To make daylily buds and flowers into a tea, simply put them in a teapot and add hot water. As with most other mild-flavored herbal teas, it’s a good idea to add a bit of some other good-tasting herb, such as chamomile or mint, to the tea. Alternatively, a little cardamom or other spice does the job, especially after the tea has been sweetened with honey.

Sumac berries: When the big cones of sumac berries turn red, gather lots of these. It’s best to gather them before rains wash away the goodness from the berries. If gathered in dry weather, the bunches can be stored indefinitely in a Tupperware container. I actually did this one year: I gathered enough to fill a 2-gallon Tupperware container and then forgot all about them for a year or more. They were still perfectly good.

Cattail pollen: When I set off to collect cattail pollen from the cattails growing near our lake swimming beach, I asked my daughter, “How do I tell if they have pollen.” She replied, “You look.” I thought the pollen had to be shaken out of the fuzzy cattails. Actually the pollen is found on the spindle-shaped spike at the top of the cattail. Run your fingers along the spike and deposit the pollen in your collecting jar. Some spikes may have pollen and some may not, since the pollen may already have fallen from some.


Here’s how we prepared these:

Stir-fried Milkweed Tops, Daylily Buds, Cattail Hearts, Scallions, and Broccoli

You can substitute wild onions or wild garlic for the scallions, if you can find any. My wild spring onions were gone at the time I made this dish.

Flowering milkweed tops must be boiled in two changes of water before adding to the stir-fry, so bring these to a boil in water to cover, drain and add more water. Bring to a boil again, and drain again.

  • To make this as a meat dish, the chicken, shrimp, beef, etc., should first be cooked in a little cooking oil (or bear fat, if you have this on hand).
  • Add broccoli and cattail hearts and stir fry till tender.
  • Then add milkweed tops, daylily buds, and scallions and cook till heated through.

This may be seasoned with soy sauce and served over wild rice or regular rice.

Miso Soup with Wild Greens and Daylily Buds

Miso soup is so quick and easy to make, and so adaptable to different ingredients, that I like to keep the basic ingredients on hand to make a quick soup, as a treat.

4 cups water

¼ cup dried bonito flakes

One or two handfuls lamb’s quarters leaves, young sour dock, young dandelion or plantain leaves, or other wild greens

One small handful daylily buds

4 scallions, sliced (or wild onions or garlic)

½ cup miso paste

Bring water to a boil. Turn off heat, add dried bonito flakes, and cover for five or ten minutes, until bonito flakes sink to the bottom of the pan. Drain and throw away the bonito flakes. Add greens and simmer for five minutes. Add daylily buds and scallions. Cover and remove from heat, and let stand for two or three minutes. Mix in miso paste and serve. (Miso paste is always added after removing from heat; it should not be boiled.) Soy sauce may be added, if desired.

Other possible additions to miso soup: There really isn’t much you can’t include in miso soup: grated carrot, thinly shaved red cabbage, tofu cubes, wild carrots, arugula, even thinly sliced potatoes—whatever! If you have stinging nettle available, a tea of stinging nettle makes a very fine vegetable stock by itself, and can be substituted for the bonito flakes.

Banana-Egg Pancake with Cattail Pollen

This recipe came from Teaching Drum Intentional Community, where it was a great favorite! It doesn’t sound very good, but it is actually a marvelously delicious, filling treat. And gluten-free, too. Try it even if you don’t have cattail pollen. It doesn’t need it.

2 ripe bananas

2 eggs

½-1 cup cattail pollen (optional)

½ cup nuts (optional)

½ cup dried, unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)

Mash up the bananas and mix in the other ingredients. In a heavy iron skillet brown in butter, lard, or bear fat on both sides. Serve with butter and honey.

Za’atar (Made from Sumac Berries)

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that can be used to flavor many dishes. It is often used, along with olive oil, as a topping for pita bread, but it’s also good on vegetable and meat dishes, and there are many recipes for cooking with it.

Recipes for za’atar are highly variable and, in some families, a carefully guarded secret. I make a very simple version, with thyme as the only ingredient besides sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. Many other recipes include marjoram and oregano. This is a recipe to experiment with—but go easy on the herbs at first, until you feel confident you’re not over-doing. They can easily make the mixture too strong. To be honest, I can easily imagine adding a little cayenne powder to this to jazz it up.

½ cup sumac powder

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1 tablespoon powdered dried thyme

2 teaspoons coarse salt

Mix together.

How to Make Sumac Powder

Okay…. Obviously we are talking about foraging here—and not about running by the nearest Middle Eastern market for sumac powder, or ordering it online.

Gather ten or twenty bunches of sumac berries on a dry day, when you see that the berries have turned red. Rub the berries free from the stems. Try to use mostly very red berries, but don’t become obsessive about this.

Put the berries into an electric spice mill or blender and whirl them around until most of the velvety red powder has been removed from the small, hard seeds.

Dump the seeds and powder into a sieve or flour sifter (held over a bowl) and rub until all the red powder has fallen into the bowl. If you are using a sieve, rub with the back of a spoon. Throw away the seeds.

Continue in this manner until you have all the sumac powder you want for the time being. (The sumac berry bunches will keep very well in a Tupperware container for processing at a later date—such as next year.)

Now you have sumac powder. It has a tart, almost lemony flavor, and a rich red color.

How to Toast Sesame Seeds

Put the sesame seeds in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium heat and toast until they turn light brown, stirring more or less continually.

To Serve

The easiest—and one of the best—ways to use za’atar is as a flavoring for warm pita bread. The pita can be spread with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar, or just dipped in olive oil and then dipped in za’atar. Pita can also be brushed with olive oil, spread with za’atar, and heated in the oven.

Za’atar is also delicious sprinkled on roasted chicken or broiled fish, either before or after cooking. You can sprinkle some on raw or cooked vegetables or dips, or sprinkle over salads, or sprinkle on devilled eggs or potato salad, instead of the more traditional paprika.

This is a nice spice to take on the family camping trip, to give everyone a warm feeling of eating wild foods, as they sprinkle it on the nacho cheese dip.


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