University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Grazing Your Garden Perennials
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Although the convenience of local supermarkets and department stores means we no longer have to forage for food or make our own clothing, we could, if we had to, using many garden plants. Let me give you some examples.
For centuries yucca leaves served as a source of fiber for ropes, bags, and clothing for Native Americans, with the terminal thorn of leaves serving as a handy needle. They ground and used the roots for soap and as a shampoo, as the roots are rich in saponin. Roots of the native meadowsweets (Filipendula) also make a good detergent.
The meadowsweet has many other uses. Tubers of hexapetala were consumed in Europe in times of famine. The fragrant flowers of ulmaria are still used to flavor desserts, especially ice cream, and drinks such as teas. The flowering tops also can be used to dye wool black, or when used with alum, a greenish-yellow. The dry plant contains salicylic acid, the source of the active ingredient in aspirin.
The early spring flowers of primroses have a delicate sweet smell and can be added to fruit salads or made into a mousse and other desserts. Leaves of the primrose can be eaten raw in salads or cooked. They're a good source of vitamin C and minerals.
Most people don't realize that the daylily (Hemerocallis) also has many edible parts. I like the slightly sweet taste of the raw, open flowers. Or you can place an open flower in a fluted dessert cup, add a scoop of ice cream, and drizzle chocolate on top for a really unique treat!
Young roots and shoots of the daylily are tasty raw. The flower buds can also be eaten raw or slightly steamed, pickled, or made into delicious omelettes. Or add the wilted flowers to soups or stews.
Another common perennial, the lily, is used as a food in its native Asia. Boiled and then dried, this bulb is a key ingredient in the Japanese "namono" eaten during the Japanese New Year. Pollen of this perennial is nutritious and pleasant tasting and is often eaten sprinkled over food.
Before gathering and grazing in your garden, however, be sure you know your plants. Within the same genus, some may be edible, others toxic. For example, the genus Eupatorium contains the species pupureum or common wild plant Joe-pye weed, which when dried, has a vanilla odor and makes a pleasant tea. Another species within the genus, rugosum or white snakeroot, is poisonous. And of course, you should never eat any plants treated with harmful pesticides.
Some plants can be safely consumed in small amounts or through careful preparation. Leaves of tansy (Tanacetum) have been used in omelettes, yet in high doses this plant is toxic. Shoots and leaves of the butterfly weed (Asclepias) are eaten by Native Americans, who know to boil them before eating as parts of this plant can be toxic unless prepared properly.
Another example of a potentially toxic plant is the German iris. Its roots can be chewed as a breath freshener, but in high doses may lead to vomiting.
Even fiddleheads from the ostrich fern (Matteucia), a popular springtime treat in Vermont, may cause an upset stomach if not boiled for at least 15 minutes. These are also popular in Japan where they are called "kusasotetsu" when boiled and fried in butter or slowly cooked in soy sauce.
If you'd like to learn more about edible plants native to North America or naturalized, along with their uses, lore, and toxic properties, browse The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America by Francois Couplan, PhD., Keats Publishing, New Canaan, Conn., 1998. The author has a scientific background and writes from decades of first-hand experience with these plants and from living with native peoples around the world.
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