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Foraging in the Southeast: 3 invasive plants that make for good eating

by Timber Press on May 22, 2015

in Food

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Garlic mustard, wild rose, and kudzu. Three plants that are invasive and edible.

Become an invasivore and eat your way to a healthier planet with help from the author of Southeast Foraging.

I often get asked, Why do you forage? I forage because I love how rich and diverse nature is in the South and I love food. Foraging leads you to delicious, nutritious wild foods, is sustainable, and helps you to be a more creative cook.

Foraging for wild edibles is undergoing a renaissance in the United States. Whether it is the logical extension of the farm-to-table movement or the result of decades of American reforestation, foraging is an experience no longer claimed just by hunters and campers. We are living in a fortunate moment when you might find local edible wild plants on your dinner table at an urban restaurant. You might be able to take a community foraging class taught by a local expert who lives in your neighborhood. You may even find yourself in your own backyard plucking some wild ginger for your morning tea or gathering dandelion greens for the evening’s salad.

Kudzu. Image: Joe Potato/iStock

Kudzu. Image: Joe Potato/iStock

KUDZU
Pueraria montana var. lobata

Have you ever been walking in the woods in August and smelled something grapelike and floral? Chances are, you smelled kudzu blooming. Kudzu, in the pea family, was originally brought to America from Japan, where they cultivate it for the root. The powdered root will thicken liquids so they are clear, not cloudy like with wheat flour. The young leaves taste like bland spinach.

How to Identify
Kudzu is a semi-woody perennial vine that climbs up to 100 feet and sprawls all over the place. Its three alternate, ovate leaves are 4 to 6 inches long. The flowers, which are pealike and purple, grow 4 to 8 inches long and smell like grapes. The large tuberous roots look like gigantic sweet potatoes and grow for miles underground.

Where and When to Gather
Kudzu grows in fields, woods, and along roads. It lies dormant during the winter, sprouts out in late spring, and grows through the summer. Gather the young leaves in late spring before they get tough. The flowers bloom in August and last for a couple of weeks. The roots are best in the fall and winter.

How to Gather
The leaves and flowers grow attached to the vine by a thin stem. Use scissors to cut the flowers and leaves from the vine. Use a shovel to dig up the roots.

How to Eat
The young leaves have a bland flavor, but are excellent as a green in place of spinach in quiches and lasagna. You can also fry them like potato chips. The flowers are my favorite part of the plant. They have a strong grapey, floral fragrance. The best way to capture that fragrance is by making jelly. Peel the roots before using, because the skin will lend an off flavor to foods. Once peeled, cut up the roots and grind them in a food processor to make a powder, which can be used just like cornstarch to thicken liquids.

How to Preserve
The young leaves and flowers should be stored with a damp paper towel on top in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Store kudzu powder in an airtight container in a dark cupboard at room temperature.

Future Harvests
There is no need to limit your harvest of kudzu. It is impossible to get rid of.

Warning
Kudzu is an extremely invasive plant that covers hillsides and the sides of roads throughout the South. It is frequently sprayed with herbicide, so use caution when picking. Never gather any part of kudzu from roadsides or any place where herbicide may have been sprayed.

Wild rose. Image: Lisa M. Rose

Wild rose. Image: Lisa M. Rose

ROSE
Rosa species

Wild rose blossoms come in different shapes and colors, and are all fragrant and edible. The rose hips make nutritious jelly.

How to Identify
There are several different types of wild rose in the Southeast, including multiflora rose, pasture rose, and rugosa rose. Wild roses have edible fruit called “hips.” The size of the flowers and hips vary from species to species. Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a hardy perennial with climbing or trailing branches that form dense thickets. The flowers are white with five petals and protruding stamens. The leaves are alternate, feathery, and compound. Multiflora rose comes up along fences, woods, pastures, and open fields. It flowers in late spring for several weeks before giving way to the hips. The rose hips ripen in the fall and will persist on the bush if animals and birds do not get them. While rose hips are known for their high vitamin C content, multiflora rose hips are not worth using because they are small and they do not have much flesh. Pasture rose (Rosa carolina) is low growing, with pink flowers that bloom after multiflora rose. It too does not have very big rose hips. Another species of wild rose, R. rugosa, which is native to parts of Asia, has hips that are big enough to use; rugosa rose is commonly planted as an ornamental.

Where and When to Gather
Wild roses love sunny areas at the edge of woods, in flower beds, in disturbed soil, along fence lines, and in open fields. The flowers bloom in late spring and are easy to find because of their strong, sweet fragrance. The rose hips are not ready until late fall in the Southeast. They will be dark red and slightly soft when ripe.

How to Gather
Clip entire branches with the flowers attached. Be careful while handling the flowers because they are very delicate. Gather the hips by using your hands to pull them off the stems, but be careful of the stems’ prickly thorns. You can also clip a stem with several hips attached.

How to Eat
My favorite part of a rose is the petals. They have a sweet, heady scent. The best way to capture the fragrance is by infusing the petals in a liquid. Jellies, custards, and syrups are all excellent ways of using rose petal infusions. The nutritious hips can be used to make wine, tea, jelly, and vinegar. To use the hips, cut them in half, and scoop out the hairy seeds and discard.

How to Preserve
Keep the rose petals with damp paper towels on them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Can the jellies or syrups made with the petals. To preserve the hips, first remove the hairy seeds, and then you can freeze them for up to three months for later use.

Future Harvests
Multiflora rose and pasture rose are invasive (as is rugosa rose, which grows more in the Northeast than the Southeast), so you can take as much as you want.

Garlic mustard. Image: Leda Meredith

Garlic mustard. Image: Leda Meredith

GARLIC MUSTARD
Alliaria petiolata

The young leaves, young shoots, and flower buds of garlic mustard have a strong garlicky mustard flavor that can be used for soups, stews, and meat dishes.

How to Identify
Garlic mustard is a biennial that grows in a basal rosette up to 3 feet tall. It has kidney or heart-shaped leaves that grow up to 2 1/2 inches wide and are coarsely toothed. The flowering stalk shoots up in the second year of the plant’s growth. The flowers at the top of the round, smooth stalk look similar to other mustard flowers: they are small, white, and four-petaled and produce four-part pods containing numerous dark, elongated seeds.

Where and When to Gather
Garlic mustard grows in rich soil in the understory of forests. The best time to gather is March through May.

How to Gather
Gather garlic mustard by pulling the whole plant out of the ground. By doing this, you are helping the forest by removing an extremely invasive plant.

How to Eat
The young leaves can be turned into pesto or used sparingly as a base in soups or stews. The young shoots are milder than the leaves. Pull off any leaves from the shoots and lightly boil or steam the stems. The flower buds can be used as a topping for roast beef sandwiches and hot dogs. The leaves of the first-year rosettes and mature plants are usually too bitter to use.

How to Preserve
Keep garlic mustard with a damp paper towel on top in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Future Harvests
Garlic mustard is an extremely invasive weed that chokes out native vegetation. Take as much as you want.

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Bennett.auphoto2_CaryNorton THUMBNAILChris Bennett is a forager, writer, teacher, and trained chef. He is the cheesemonger for Whole Foods in Birmingham, Alabama, and enjoys working with top chefs in the area to provide wild edibles for their restaurants. He has been featured in Birmingham magazine, Cooking Light, and The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook. He is a frequent speaker at various venues, having presented sessions at the Atlanta and Charleston Food and Wine Festivals. He has also blogged for Garden and Gun magazine. Chris offers workshops on seasonal wild edibles at Hollow Spring Farm, his family’s farm in Pell City, Alabama, leading eager participants with adventurous palates to graze on wild riches.

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Click image below for a look inside this book.

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“A fabulous field guide to sustainable, adventurous eating down South.”—Library Journal

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 jean Spruill July 14, 2015 at 10:13 pm

I love Kudzu jelly made it every year till the stink bug invaded haven’t found any clean flowers since and they are so many of those bugs there is no way I would make jelly with them there, they for sure would cause the jelly to be bad, do you know of anything I can do to get those stinky things out of the blooms My grandchildren and friends sure miss getting my jelly

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