Peter Dykeman and I are strolling through a sunny field in Rhinebeck looking for food – not garden crops, for which it is far too early, but edible wild plants. I’m expecting that the search will be difficult, somewhat capricious, like the morels that I recently harvested in a local forest (the mushrooms like elms, but cannot always be found under the trees). So it’s a surprise when he gestures towards a weedy bank, parts the thick foliage and cuts the stalk of a fresh shoot of leaves.
It’s a young pokeweed – the plant that later bears drooping, poisonous black berries on a red stalk. But it turns out the plant’s stem is edible: Dykeman peels off the green rind with a knife to reveal the tender white core, which can boiled in several changes of water and eaten. Dykeman cautions that the stem can only be eaten when it’s white, and never should be ingested raw. But otherwise, it’s a scrumptious food.
Another common weed, burdock, whose burrs attach themselves to your pants in the fall, is also edible. In the summer, the young flowerstalks of burdock can be peeled and the white core sliced into salads like celery or cooked in a casserole, he said. The roots of first-year plants can be dug up and peeled, sliced and boiled for 20 minutes until tender. The burdock, it turns out, is a veritable banquet.
A moment later, after peering around, Dykeman picks a leaf off a spindly white-flowered plant that grows everywhere: garlic mustard. (I think of it as a pestilent invasive.) He crushes the leaf in his fingers, sniffs it and offers it to me; the sharp garlicky taste of the tender green would definitely add zest to a salad. Dykeman also likes it on hot dogs.
If you were marooned in this field, unable to leave and without any snacks packed in your backpack, you could survive, so plentiful are the green edible things to be found here. You would need to have the guidebook that Peter Dykeman wrote with Thomas Elias – Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants, which was published in 1982 and is still in print, under the title Edible Wild Plants: A north American Field Guide – to know what to eat, because some plants are toxic and many others are either inedible or just not that tasty.
Timing is key: harvesting leaves, for example, when they are young and tender. Each edible plant yields up its harvest – be it leaf, stalk, flower, tuber, fruit, seed or sap – in the carefully calibrated round of the seasons, starting with the tapping of sugar maple trees in early March and ending with the gathering of black walnut nuts and smooth or staghorn sumac clusters in the fall.
“If you’re too lazy to do a garden, plow it up and leave it, and things that are edible will grow, such as purslane, lambs’ quarters and garlic mustard,” Dykeman said. The edges of ponds or wetlands are particularly productive; he points to a stand of cattails, which offers a wealth of food. He pulls up a young stalk and peels off the rind. The succulent core, white and pale green like a leek and known as “Cossacks’ asparagus,” is toothsome and delicious, juicy as a piece of sugarcane and with a mellow flavor, similar to celery.
When the young cattails emerge, one can cut them off when they are as big as a finger and still in their papery sheaths. Boiled, buttered and seasoned, they can be eaten like a corncob, filled with tiny kernels, Dykeman said. You can also shake out the pollen from the maturing flowering stalk, which “is very rich and high in calories” when mixed with flour, he said. Finally, the small sprouts that form on the roots in early spring can be dug up and eaten raw or cooked; the roots themselves, from the fall to early spring, can be washed, peeled and pounded into flour. “It’s one of my favorites,” he said.
Dykeman, who never goes out into the field without a small knife, digging tool and bag, earned a PhD in Environmental Education at Cornell University and started the educational program at Millbrook’s Cary Arboretum in 1973. The Arboretum, predecessor of today’s Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, acquired seeds from all over the world to increase the diversity of trees and shrubs that could be grown in this area. The director was Thomas Elias, who had written field guides on trees and shrubs. Elias was asked by Time Mirror Books to write a book on edible plants. Euell Gibbons’ classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus had been a hit, and Time Mirror wanted to cash in on the enthusiasm that it had generated. Elias recruited Dykeman as co-author, covering the collection and use of the plants.
Dykeman had been interested in trees since attending high school in Pawling and learned about edible plants while studying with Dr. Richard Fischer at Cornell in the 1970s. “Environmental Studies were big back then,” he said, noting that school districts in New York State were planning to add Environmental Education to their curriculum. Sadly, it didn’t happen. Today, “People are asleep. They’re not reacting to environmental problems like climate change. There’s so much money available to deny climate change and toxicity in foods; the only funds available for counteracting these problems come from donations.”