University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

While native peoples, and then early settlers, foraged in the wilds for edible plants, you can forage in your garden for edible flowers and other plant parts.  But do so safely.

Before gathering in your garden, be sure you know your plants. Within the same genus, some may be edible, others toxic. For example, the boneset genus (Eupatorium) contains the species or common wild plant Joe-pye weed (purpureum) which, when dried, has a vanilla odor and makes a pleasant tea.  White snakeroot, another species (rugosum) within the genus, 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 northern areas, 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.

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 one species (vulgaris, syn. hexapetala) were consumed in Europe in times of famine. The fragrant flowers of another species (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, and has been used medicinally in Europe.

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, the lily "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.

Leaves of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla) are astringent, and sometimes added raw to salads.  It has been used medicinally since ancient times, the drops of water that gather on leaves used in alchemy, hence the scientific name.

Flowers of violets (Viola) can be added fresh to salads, or crystallized into candies.  The leaves are nutritious, containing Vitamins A and C and healthful minerals.  Add violet leaves to salads, cook as a vegetable, or use for soups.

Dahlias grow from tubers which aren’t hardy in northern climates and have to be dug over winter and stored in a non-freezing place.  These tuberous roots have been eaten in parts of Mexico, dating back to the time of the Aztecs.  They are sweet, similar to a Jerusalem artichoke.  The sweetness is from the sugar inulin that diabetics can easily assimilate.  Dahlia flowers make nice additions to salads.

More information on edible plants native to North America or naturalized, along with their uses, lore, and toxic properties, can be found in The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America:  Nature’s Green Feast, by Francois Couplan, McGraw Hill Publishing.

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