Thursday, May 19, 2011

Who Are the Plants in Your Neighborhood?

Black Locust Tree
"Earth was not built for six billion people all running around and being passionate about things. The world was built for about two million people foraging for roots and grubs."
 -Doug Coupland (Canadian novelist and writer)
            If I were ever stuck on an island and had to bring one person with me for survival, my dad would be it. To those who have been reading this blog on a regular basis, this may strike you as funny. My father is not the easiest man to get along with – add contrariness with a touch of OCD, and you get a recipe for crazy parenting. It’s a miracle we still talk to him.
            But my dad has a skill that trumps all of that: He is the king of foraging. When we were children, my dad would constantly mortify us by, in his words, “borrowing from nature,” or in other words, stealing various plants and fruits on public parks, neighbors’ houses, schoolyards – you name it. Unless someone had a gun parked over the plant, he would take pluck and pillage. Mulberries, garlic ramps, wild grapes, dandelion greens, chrysanthemum leaves, the list goes on and on. Because my dad was the opportunistic forager, my poor mother’s purse basically became his foraging basket. My mother has yet to forgive him for ruining her Gucci handbag sometime in the late 80’s….
Single Black Locust Flower
         He is now visiting me here in Berlin and he is doing his Linnaean best to catalogue every edible species on our block. (And thankfully, he has learned to keep his hands to himself.) So for the next couple of posts, we will be picking and eating wild plants – all courtesy of Omnieater’s dad.
So today’s plant is the black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia). Native to North America, it has been introduced quite successfully to Europe, Southern Africa and Asia. The tree is common in urban areas, due to its ability to tolerate pollution, harsh winters and poor soil well (it’s a nitrogen-fixer!). Furthermore, as it grows large rapidly, it makes for an ideal tree for city beautification projects. In fact, if you look, you probably have them in a park near you.[1]
        While the bark and leaves are poisonous, the flowers and the seeds (they are legumes, thus produce bean-like pods) are edible. However, the seeds contain toxalbumin robin, a poison that must be heated to destroy its toxicity.  But the flowers (see picture), which have a 10-day blooming period, can be eaten right away. (In Korea, they are considered a hiking snack). They have a sweet floral/herbal taste that is similar to that of elderflower (which we will cover later when the season comes!).
           But what to do with them? Beyond the obvious garnish on a dessert, it makes for an excellent base for cordials, which then can be used for desserts, cocktails, marinades, dressings; basically whatever you would use a flavored syrup for. But before you go stripping your neighborhood tree, here are a couple of generic tips for foraging.
1.     If you aren’t sure of what it is, DO NOT eat it. Always double check with a good foragers’ guide. Also, if you are a novice forager, try to find an experienced forager to go with the first time around – so you don’t get lost or accidentally land in the hospital.
2.     Make sure the area from which you forage is free of chemicals and debris (as in dog poop) – thus your neighbor’s super manicured lawn is not a good choice (they are filled with toxic pesticides and fertilizers).
3.     Do not be piggy and strip a plant dry. Take what you need and save some for the animals that need them. Even in the case of plants such as nettle and dandelions, some form of life depends on them in the ecosystem. Remember, we share the earth.
            With that in mind, go forth and forage. And my dad? Well he still can be a pain. But then again, I can too. All his little personality bugs - his rectitude, the brute honesty, the competitiveness, and his Darwinian universe- are my personality bugs. And while my 16 year-old self would hate to admit it, I still have a lot to learn from dad – and about nature – human and otherwise. I can only hope to leave those lessons for the next generation – my daughter. And I hope that I don’t have to embarrass her by eating everything off the road.

Black Locust Flower Cordial
            This is dead easy. Just a couple of notes. Make sure your flowers are clean and dry. Second, use a non-reactive bowl (e.g. plastic or glass) as the citric acid will react with metal bowls. And third, you can usually find citric acid online or in the canning/jam section of the grocery store. And remember to sterilize your glass bottles and caps. If you don’t know how to do that, this website shows you how:

Yield: About 1.5 liters
20 large black locust flower heads
5 c. of water
7 c. sugar (granulated)
2 unwaxed lemons (organic is best for this recipe)
2 oz. of citric acid

1.     Shake the flowers gently to rid them of any insects, and place them into a large non-reactive bowl.
2.     Pour sugar and water into a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar completely dissolves.
3.     While you make the sugar syrup, zest the lemons into wide strips (vegetable peeler works wonders) and place zest in the bowl with the flowers. Slice the remaining lemons, discard the ends, and place into the flower bowl.
4.     Pour boiling sugar syrup into the flower bowl and stir in citric acid. Cover the bowl with a clean, sterile cloth and let the mixture steep for 24 hours at room temperature.
5.     Strain cordial through a sterile cloth lined sieve into sterilized bottles. The syrup also freezes well as ice cubes or in plastic bags.

[1] The plants are quite common across North America. In Chicago, where I grew up, they were everywhere. The evolutionary hardiness, in terms of poor soil tolerance (in areas that are heavily polluted or disturbed, the black locust will readily grow to full size), has condemned it to an “invasive species.” (This is still up for debate within the biology community.)
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