Not Your Ordinary Market

Spring 2020 Issue

Natural Foods Abound in the Outdoors

As the snow recedes nature offers a bounty of fresh food long before the garden has anything to harvest. Take advantage of the warming spring days to search out new additions to your seasonal dishes.

Understanding the edibility of wild plants is a nearly lost art, but it doesn’t have to be. Tom Elpel of Pray takes a particular joy in sharing the patterns and palatability of wild foods through his primitive living and wilderness focused classes, as well as his numerous books, including Foraging the Mountain West.

As someone who’s spent his life honing primitive skills and understanding the natural world, he sees the springtime as a veritable feast. “It’s just a matter of finding a sunny, south-facing bank,” he says.

Delicious and nutritious dandelions

Early in the season, dandelions are a harbinger of spring providing an exceptional source of vitamin K, plus vitamins A, C, E, along with iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. On top of it, they boast 8 times more antioxidants than even spinach.

“Dandelions are one of the best,” he says because they’re easy to identify, are nutritious, and are very versatile. “Add them to any dish.”

Mikaela Matakis of Havre uses the blossoms to make a delicious dandelion jelly. She says to pick the flowers in the morning when they’re at their sweetest. Then pinch and twist the yellow petals out of the flowers, discarding the green bract before they turn to fluff. She infuses the yellow petals to create the juice to make the jelly.

Elpel also likes individual dandelion flowers dipped in pancake batter and fried. “Those are the best. Although when we’re doing a group, we gather the flowers and scramble them into the batter, and make straight up pancakes.” Either way, it’s impossible to go wrong.

Questionable morels

As the earth warms look for the tasty morel mushrooms in conifer forests, particularly after a burn year, along with among cottonwoods near the rivers as the season progresses. While they can range in colors of yellow to black, morels are most easily distinguished by having the heavily ridged and pitted cap attached directing to the stalk. And when you cut it in half, the mushroom is hollow.

A false morel will often have a cap that hangs free of the stem, plus have a more brain-like appearance. They’re also not usually distinctly hollow on the inside. When in doubt, toss it out.

It’s also important to note that any wild mushroom is best handled and cooked as you cook meat. Food poisoning from rodents and bird contamination actually makes more people sick than a mistaken mushroom.

 If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em

Dandelions make sense to eat, but many people are surprised to learn that Canada thistles, those noxious weeds many of us battle, are equally palatable.

“The leaves are quite tender,” says Elpel. “Chop them up fine.”

In reality, members thistle family are very edible. The white-flowered, native elk thistle helped save Truman Everett, an early Yellowstone explorer who was lost for 37 days in 1870. He survived by eating the roots, but the stalks are also nutritious.

Water-bound bounty

Springtime is also an ideal time to utilize cattails. “My favorite part is to use the tubular shoots in the spring. Pull the green stalks, peel off the outer layers, cut off the end (that sits in the water), and peel off the outer layers. Eat them in a salad. That’s gourmet food right there,” says Elpel.

Later in the spring or the early summer, he says capture the pollen by shaking the heads into a bag or bucket. Mix in with flour to make pancakes or other baked goods.

Feast on the prairie

For those living on the open grasslands, prickly pear cactus is a surprisingly delicious food, once you tackle the spiny exterior.

“The thing with prickly pear is I’ve tried to burn the spines off, but couldn’t get off all of the tiny hairs of the glochids located at the base of the larger spines,” says Elpel. These tend to make eating them less enjoyable, although he points out that some varieties are less prone to this issue. In this situation, all he had to do was slice the pads into green bean like strips.

In instances when you can’t relieve the exterior of the prickles, slice the pad and scoop out the jelly-like interior. He says it’s perfectly edible raw, and is often used to thicken soups and stews.

Bursts of color

To brighten spring salads, the lemony-yellow blossoms of yellow bells and glacier lilies are tasty and beautiful. Yellow bells are the welcoming sight as the snow recedes early in the season. The flowers are edible, along with the leaves and corms (similar to a bulb), which are cooked or eaten raw.

This holds true for the iconic glacier lily growing in masses following the snow’s recession in sunlit areas. The brilliant flowers have a mild flavor, and while the leaves are edible, Elpel says they have a funny aftertaste.

The prize of the glacier lilies is the corm. In the realm of the grizzly, it’s common to see swaths tilled from them digging this nutritious food source. For eons, indigenous people also harvested them, eating them fresh, along with drying or cooking them.

Ethical harvests

While it’s good to understand the edibility of species at our fingertips, it’s equally important to harvest ethically and respectfully. With slow-growing species, such as yellow bells and glacier lilies, over-harvesting is distinct concern.

While leave-no-trace principals are often sited, the actual act of digging the corms is best done to mimic nature. Elpel points out that when the grizzly bears dig up the plants, they use their long claws to rake up the sod.

“The act of tilling the ground can stimulate the growing of more,” he says. Like a bear, don’t take every one.

Be careful with some species

Although so many plants are good and edible in our landscape, there are certain groups that are best to avoid, even if there are edible varieties within them.

Elpel points out that some of the deadliest plants in North America reside in Montana, including the water hemlock and poison hemlock. They are both related to carrots, the same as the edible cow parsnip, but to avoid confusion, he says, “It’s a good idea to stay away from that family entirely.”

“We also have a lot of death camas in Montana,” he says.

One of the varieties has a white flower with bulbs like an onion, but without the onion smell. “The leaves are V-shaped on meadow death camas,” he says.

And while the blue camas of is highly nutritious, and the plants are easy to distinguish when in bloom, it’s safer to err on the side of caution. Two bulbs of most death camas varieties are enough to kill a person.

Montana is a bountiful place. As the world awakens in the spring, take some time to stroll through the greening landscape to discover the delicious options out of our backdoors. 

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