Sulphur Springs – Corvallis, Oregon.
Hardiness Zone 8a
Date of photos: January 21, 2018
Today’s field search takes me to Sulphur springs just north of Corvallis, Oregon. Temperatures rose into the mid 40’s F with a constant drizzle of winter rain and almost no wind. Credit granted to a measure of cabin fever lent to todays exploration. My quest begins early this year with an interest of observing plant development from dormancy to harvest. The goal is to revisit common sites and particular plants of interest periodically (weekly or monthly) to produce a chart of progress. This chart will offer myself and others an annual expectation as to when our favorite wild edibles can be harvested. Monthly Field Search post will be published publicly during this first years trial. Be sure to follow this blog if you are interested in keeping up-to-date.
– Henry H.
My expectations were low in regards to finding any wild edible plants to eat. Winter had only officially begun one month ago. So it would be unreasonable to expect anything, right? Well that’s what makes exploring so much fun and why the Pacific Northwest is such an amazing wilderness. So lets take a moment to consider the few plants I did notice during the hour I tolerated a rain shower.
Looking closely at a Salmonberry branch reveals leaf buds swelling and beginning to emerge. On shrubs and trees this is a good indicator that the plant is waking up from dormancy. Salmonberry are the earliest of berries in the Pacific Northwest to produce fruit. You can typically expect to harvest these as early as May or sometimes sooner. As soon as the leaves begin to develop it’s also a good time to check for new stem shoots growing from the base of the shrub. The shoots while still tender can be boiled (to remove its tannic-like tartness) and eaten as a vegetable. Probably not choice but a food source nonetheless.
Like the Ostrich fern the Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) produce choice fiddleheads, in my experience tasting as good as chicken! The window to harvest these fiddleheads are very short, usually lasting just a of couple weeks. I wasn’t expecting to find any in late January and as you can see this years growth is still tightly curled up. However because of its short harvest season I am keenly interested in how early it will begin to develop. Stay tuned.
Though not edible I’ve always been intrigued by native orchids. The Rattlesnake Plantain is a terrestrial orchid with an interesting history. It was once believed that because its markings resemble that of a snake then it must be good as a treatment for snake bits. They were also considered a variety of plantain because the leaf structure is like that of the Broadleaf and Narrow leaf plantain (Plantago species). Hence its name came to be. Some indigenous ethnic groups of the Pacific coast considered them “good-luck” charms. The children made toys out of the leaves by rubbing and separating the top and bottom layers, then inflating the leaf like a miniature balloon. I’ve tried it myself years ago and it’s not as exciting as one might think. (Reference material from: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar Mackinnon)
The Hairy Honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) is another non-edible yet interesting plant. I’ve only rarely seen these in bloom in the past ten years that I’ve taken notice of them. The flowers can be plucked and the sweet nectar water sucked out as a little treat. However in a more practical sense the branches were used by Natives as a source of material for weaving, binding and lashing. The berries are reportedly inedible and may even be poisonous. (Reference material from: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar Mackinnon)
Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa) is a beautifully ornate plant and is the official state flower of Oregon. Its edible berries typically ripen mid-late summer though it still serves as an attractive plant when not in fruit. The berries are tart in flavor and as a result are not eaten in large quantities. They however are reportedly used to make jam and wine, recipes that need adding sugar. The bark yields a bright yellow dye due to presence of the alkaloid berberine. Both the bark and berries have a history of medicinal use with some indigenous ethnic groups. I’ve only taste tasted the berries on a few different occasions but think I will make an effort this year to try a recipe with it. (Reference material from: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon)
The Fairyslipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa) is another favorite wild flower of mine and is always a treat when you can catch these in bloom. The new leaves sprout from a corm (bulb-like root cluster) and once the seasons warms a little the flower stalk will follow. Flowers somewhat resemble a decorative slipper in colors of white with pink, violet, or purple hence the name fairyslipper. They are extremely fragrant if you can get close enough to smell its blossom. The corms are edible and were eaten by the Haida. They reportedly have a rich butter-like flavor and were coined the nickname black cod grease. However due to over-picking and a neglect to their natural habitat they are now endangered. Therefor it is frowned upon to even pick these let alone eat them. (Reference material from: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon)
On my hike I came across this part of a watershed where Cattail (Typha latifolia) is evidently abundant. There are a few edible parts that I was particularly interested in. Typically in early spring the new shoots can be broken off and after peeled of the outer leaves the tender insides are eaten. In my curiosity I wanted to see how many new shoots had begun to grow. Even in late January I managed to find a few as you can see in the following pictures. They’re still too young in my opinion to break off and eat but I suppose one could in a pinch. However this time of the year is a great time to search out the new rhizomes for a high starch snack. According to H.D. Harrington in the book Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains, the starch extracted from the rootstock can contain up to 80% carbohydrates and up to 8% protein making this an ideal survival food.
Young Cattail shoot in late January seen among the other grasses.
This Cattail shoot measured a little over a foot tall but as you can see by the time you peeled off the outer leaves there wouldn’t be much for the edible greens.
The edible rhizome of the Cattail. I dug up these two root stocks to try out according to Harrington’s suggestion. The beauty of edible roots is the assurance of food even in seasons of dormancy.
Cooking the rhizome took minimal effort and was fairly easy to harvest. In my opinion the texture was fibrous with a pasty-like starch that melts in your mouth. Fibers are inedible and were spit out. The starch was reminiscent of corn and potato minus any sweetness associated with corn. Not bitter, nor sour either. A desirable hint of buttery flavor in the starch. After cooking the pasty texture was more tolerable and overall flavor/texture profile quite enjoyable. The starch left in the boiled watered would make a great thickener for soups, stews or gravy. For the complete process from harvest to taste testing consider the video in the side bar.
Of course there were many other edible plants such as your common “weeds” but I’ll be posting those on my next field search when I look around downtown Albany.
If you enjoyed this article please be sure to share it on your favorite social media website and click the follow button for email updates on my future field searches. The following books
Natures Garden and Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast are available for sale on Amazon. Both are in my personal library and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in learning more about the many uses and rich history of plants in North America. Thanks for reading and Happy Foraging!
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