by Wendy Mitman Clarke
The first time I bit into a wild persimmon--I had found it on a beach along the Rhode River--I had the same reaction as did Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame: "If it not be ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awrie in much torment." In more contemporary parlance, I felt like my lips were going to peel right over the top of my forehead. Unripe, the fruit of the persimmon tree, or wild fig, is a yellowish orange, about the size of a plum although more oblong, and fiercely astringent. Ripe, however, in late fall when it's more brown than yellow and the pulp inside is a bright orange, it's juicy, sweet and versatile in cooking.
It's reassuring to know that someone as astute as Smith made the same rookie mistake I did, taking a bite of an unripe persimmon. But it's also intriguing to realize that the same fruit that sustained Native Americans and early settlers to the Chesapeake is still out there to enjoy. The next time you paddle a kayak or cruise your boat up a river lined with the thick, green arrow-shaped leaves of arrow arum (sometimes called tuckahoe, although this name is often also given to a similar wetland plant called pickerelweed), think about how valuable it was to the Eastern Shore's Native Americans; they used the pulverized roots for making flour and cooked the fruits and ate them like peas. If you were so inclined, you could do the same.
There are dozens of native plants--trees, wildflowers, shrubs, vines--that provide this link to the Bay's past, if only we know how to identify them and when to harvest them. When it comes to the latter, we of the 21st century have a lot more to learn than our forebears. Out of necessity, they knew how to shop in the woods and along the beaches. We know how to shop at the Food Lion. Still, some of these plants are right under our noses when we're out there cruising on the Bay. With a couple of guidebooks and a little effort, you could treat your crew to a breakfast of fresh perch, fresh red raspberries and a pickerelweed omelette. Just hold off on those persimmons until they're good and ripe.
What follows is a brief list of common native plants fairly easy to find along the shores and low woodlands on the Bay. One hefty caveat: Don't forage for wild plants without first researching them and being able to accurately identify them, as well as when parts of them are safe (and good) to be harvested. Just because they're coming from nature's table doesn't mean some plants can't make you very sick or provoke an allergic reaction. Identification can be tricky, as the name "tuckahoe" shows; whether you're looking at pickerelweed or arrow arum is best determined by researching the plants by their scientific names, Pontederia cordata, or Peltandra virginica, respectively. See the sidebar [page 71] for a selection of guidebooks.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
You'll have to do some exploring off the beach to find pawpaw trees, since they like to grow near stream banks in low woodlands. I've seen them near the headwaters of the Tuckahoe River at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Md., and in the woods at Jug Bay on the Patuxent River. But once you do find them take note, because in late fall the banana-like fruits on these tropical-looking trees are well worth the effort of harvesting.
According to Donald Culross Peattie's 1991 A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, the first reference to the pawpaw was in DeSoto's expedition in 1541 in the Mississippi Valley. "Naturally an edible fruit of such size was important to a host of conquistadores always near starvation," Peattie writes. Native Americans used them, as did early settlers, and they were reportedly a favorite of George Washington (who liked them chilled) and Thomas Jefferson, who planted them at Monticello.
They develop the most fruit when they have sunlight, says Chris Frye, the state botanist with Maryland's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "Look for a tree on the streamside in a sunny gap," he says. With enough sun, the trees can grow up to 40 feet, though most are more shrub-like and between 8 to 20 feet tall. The fruit, which resembles a stubby banana and grows in a cluster similar to bananas, is also called the custard apple. It's yellowish-green until it matures in late fall, darkens and turns nearly black. That's when you want to pick it and eat it right off the tree or use it in a variety of recipes. "They're substantial," Frye says, "they can weigh damn near a pound. And very tasty. They're worse than bananas, though, in how quickly they go bad."
Pawpaws are loaded with vitamins A and C. Some books recommend picking them while still green and storing them until ripened, while others say the fruit tastes best when allowed to ripen on the tree. You can find more pawpaw recipes at the Kentucky State University website, www.pawpaw.kysu.edu, which also has just about everything you wanted to know about pawpaws.
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
These trees are common in dry woodlands and along sandy beaches. They usually grow to no more than 60 feet tall and many are much smaller. As they mature their bark becomes dark and breaks up "into square scaly thick plates, reminiscent of charcoal briquettes (very unique)," says the Virginia Tech Forestry Department. (Another striking description of the bark is "alligator hide.") The leaves are leathery, shiny and dark green. Related to ebony, the wood is extremely dense and strong, used for handles for carving tools, and, back in the day, golf club heads.
Persimmons are among the Bay's most storied native fruit trees. Captain Smith (and I) learned the first thing about them that Native Americans were already well familiar with. According to Peattie, the Lenape Indians of what is now Pennsylvania and Delaware called it pasimenan. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers boiled persimmon seeds as a coffee substitute, Peattie writes, and the fruit has been used to make syrup, breads, pies, puddings, and even dried and eaten as a winter staple.
Many guides suggest waiting until after the first frost to pick persimmons, and many also advise avoiding the skin entirely: "We wonder how we survived the many we consumed as children," write Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker in Joy of Cooking, "because the skins resist digestion and can form waddy balls, as obstructive as hair-balls in animals."
Any way you go after them, you'll have heavy competition with critters like opossums, birds and raccoons, who devour the fruits wholeheartedly. "When they hit the ground you'll sometimes see gangs of raccoons all piled up and feasting on a big crop," Frye says. "I'll always stop and get a half dozen. I'll stick the whole thing in my mouth and spit out the seeds."
Shadbush (Amelanchier arborea, Amelanchier canadensis)
This deciduous tree or shrub and the fruit it produces goes by many names, among them shadblow, Juneberry, Indian pear, Saskatoon and serviceberry. Well known along the Bay's tributaries because its brilliant white blooms in early spring historically signalled the start of the shad run. The trees develop sweet berries by midsummer (hence the name Juneberry), about the size and color of a blueberry and with almost as many culinary uses. Stories have it that the name serviceberry also stems from seasonal timing when the circuit preacher could again begin making his rounds after winter's end, although another interpretation says serviceberry referred to the time when the ground finally thawed enough to lay the dead to rest and hold services for them.
If you want to scope out a good shadbush for your summer harvest, go for an early spring cruise and look for the feathery white flowers with five petals that will stand out in the still-brown landscape. (Don't mistake them for dogwoods, which also have white flowers but which bloom later when trees are beginning to get leaves).
According to Frye, the shadbush was extremely important to Native Americans who dried its berries and also crushed them with dried meat, nuts and melted fat to make pemmican. Blackfoot Indians would move their summer camps to places where the berries were just ripening, and Iroquois women used the berries to regain strength after childbirth. One of the biggest obstacles to harvesting serviceberries is competition; the locals, especially birds, foxes and opossums, love them. Use them as you would blueberries, in pies and jellies.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
Maybe I have a particular fondness for these venerable trees because my father loved black walnut cake, and it wasn't unusual for him to bring home a whole paper shopping bag full of the round fruits in which resided the seed, the nut itself. "Of all the native trees in America," writes Peattie, "the black walnut is the most valuable save only the pecan, and in the traditions of pioneer life and rustic childhood it is even more famous. In a more innocent age nutting parties were the most highly prized of children's festivities in autumn throughout the eastern forest belt."
Once abundant in the primeval hardwood forests here, its fine wood was harvested and used for cabinetry. Now it's quite rare, although once you find one you can't miss it. The trees can grow as tall as 120 feet, preferring rich, moist soils in lowlands and river bottoms. The long compound leaves have 15 to 23 smaller, pointed leaflets off a central stem, and the fruits are about the color of tennis balls (and nearly the size too). They ripen in September and fall from the tree, and that's when you want to collect them. Let the fruits dry before removing husks, and use gloves you don't care about, since the dark dye in the husks will stain everything it touches. Richard and Mary Lee Medve (authors of Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States) suggest letting the nuts dry several weeks before cracking them to remove the meats.
Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)
Found predominately in the Virginia portions of the Bay, the stately pecan tree needs little introduction. Anyone who's ever eaten pecan pie knows why this tree, with its relatively thin-shelled nuts, was prized early in American history and remains so. "The Creoles soon came to appreciate it deeply, using it as early as 1762 in that heavenly confection known as the New Orleans praline," writes Peattie. Even before settlers began to move west beyond the Allegheny Mountains, traders and trappers brought pecans east with them, and they became known as "Mississippi nuts" or "Illinois nuts." Jefferson planted them at Monticello, Peattie says, and so liked them that he sent some to Washington at Mount Vernon, who wrote in his journal of May 1786 about a row of "Illinois nuts" he had planted.
The trees are the tallest of the native hickories and can grow as high as 120 feet, with leaves as long as 20 inches comprised of up to 17 pointed leaflets along the central stem (similar to the black walnut). The nuts of the tree are rich in antioxidants, contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals including folic acid and vitamins A and E, and are rich in unsaturated fat. According to the Virginia Tech Forestry website, the nuts can be harvested anytime after the outer husk (or shuck) begins to open. If the nutmeats snap when bent that means they're ready to use or store. You can store them in the refrigerator for up to six months and even longer in the freezer.
White Mulberry, Red Mulberry (Morus alba, Morus rubra)
Red mulberry is native to our region, while white mulberry was introduced during colonial times in hopes of developing a silk industry. That didn't happen, but the white mulberry did thrive in rather poor soil and dry conditions. Sylvan Kaufman, conservation coordinator at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Md., says it's hard to tell the two apart, and when it comes to eating their fruit, it doesn't really matter if you can make the distinction. These deciduous trees can grow to 70 feet and produce in late spring piles of dark berries--much the same color as blackberries but more oblong and narrow--so many that they're sometimes considered an annoyance by homeowners. The downside to mulberries is that they can be hard to reach and a little seedy, and when picking them the stem often stays attached, so you have to get rid of it before using the berries in recipes. If you pick them too soon they're tart, but once ripened they're sweet, if messy.
Red Raspberry, Black Raspberry (Rubus strigosus, Rubus occidentalis)
I grew up eating red and black raspberries off the vine wherever I could find them, and there are lots of places on the Bay to find them. (Sorry, but I just can't divulge the locations of my favorite patches.) They grow like weeds along roadsides, beaches, on the edges of woodlands, and the biggest problem with harvesting them is avoiding their thorns (the red ones are less spiky than the black ones) and getting there before all the critters beat you to the crop. They're rich in calcium, phosphorous and vitamin C, and you can freeze the fruits easily; one of my favorite treats is to freeze red raspberries and then drop them like ice cubes into drinks or simply eat them one by one like tiny frozen pops.
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
Let's say you've anchored in a cozy creek and it's a warm summer morning. You dinghy into the public landing nearby and stroll along a narrow country road with little more than the flies and red-winged blackbirds flitting in and out of the cornfields keeping you company. And there, as you walk along beside the road, you find an enormous patch of bright orange flowers nodding at the ends of tall green, leafless stalks. These are daylilies. Each bloom lasts only for a single day, but all parts of this plant can be used through spring and summer. Young, tender shoots can be prepared like asparagus (be careful, though, not to confuse them with iris or daffodils). Lee Allen Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America suggests preparing the young flower buds like green beans, and using the crisp white tubers early in the year in salads. The most commonly used parts of daylilies are their flowers, which are used for fritters, but make sure you wash and dry them well, and Joy of Cooking recommends picking them while the dew is still on them.
Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa)
Walking along a beach on the southern Bay you may come across something that looks remarkably like a cactus. And you wouldn't be wrong in your assumption--it is a cactus. The prickly pear cactus is a Bay-region native and it shouldn't really come as a surprise to see them here in our sandiest flats. What is more surprising is that this low-growing perennial, considered a weed by most, is actually an intriguing food source. Its fruit is a cone-shaped capsule that is widest at the top and tapered at the base, about an inch and a half long. As it ripens it turns from green to maroon, and its flowers are bright yellow. If you're careful and use gloves to pick the fruit, you can use it to make jellies and even cactus juice. And according to Peterson's guide, the flat pads, called cladodes, can be peeled and steamed like green beans.
A search at www.cooks.com turned up several recipes for prickly pear, including grilled Mexican shrimp with prickly pears and curly pasta with vegetables and prickly pears.
Not Native But Still Noshable
Some edible plants in our region aren't native but they still deserve honorable mention just because they're so delectable. Two obvious ones are wild asparagus and figs.
Wild Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
This plant was introduced in the United States by early settlers, and while you commonly find it in cultivated gardens, it's a tough perennial that withstands poor sandy soils. So it's a natural for the roadsides and back edges of beaches on the Bay. It flowers in May to mid-June on long feathery stems, but if you see it then you've waited too long to harvest it. Come back next spring and pick the tender thin shoots between 6 and 12 inches tall that look exactly like asparagus you'd buy in a store. Steam them or use them in soups and quiches.
Common Fig (Ficus carica)
Thomas Jefferson planted them in his fruitery at Monticello and it's easy to see why; when the figs ripen on the big tree behind the garage at my brother's house on the Little Wicomico River, I could stand there and eat them all day. Introduced from the Mediterranean and the tropics, fig trees do well in the southern Bay and even farther north when they have a southern exposure and are protected by a wall or barrier that shelters them from the northern winter winds. Once the fruit ripens it doesn't keep long; my sister-in-law places them in egg cartons in the fridge to prevent them from bruising. I like them best right off the tree, but they are great in preserves and, when dried, in cakes and salads.
Read Before you Eat
Any guidebook on eating plants will tell you to do your research thoroughly first so you don't make a mistake in identification that could make you sick or worse. Here are some good sources to learn about edibles native to the Bay and the surrounding region:
' Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely, Md., 410-634-2847; www.adkinsarboretum.org
' Common Plants of the Mid-Atlantic Coast, by Gene M. Silberhorn
' A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America, by Lee Allen Peterson
' The History and Folklore of North American Wildlflowers, by Timothy Coffee
' Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States, by Richard J. Medve and Mary Lee Medve
' The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern Region)
' The Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, by Donald Culross Peattie
' The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders
Also, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plant database at plants.usda.gov, as well as the Virginia Tech Forest Biology and Dendrology Educational site at www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro.
Pawpaw Ice Cream
From Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States, by Richard J. Medve and Mary Lee Medve
3 cups uncooked pawpaw pulp
1 cup orange juice
5 tablespoons lemon juice
11/2 cups honey
zest from one lemon peel
3 cups cream
Whip pawpaw pulp, lemon juice and peel, orange juice and honey until fluffy. Stir in cream. Pour into cake pan and freeze.
Pawpaw Custard Pie
From Mountain Country Cooking, St. Martin's Press, N.Y., 1996
1 cup 2-percent milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup cream
1 cup pureed pawpaw pulp
Mix the ingredients as you add them, beat together the milk, cream, eggs, sugar and pawpaw. Pour the custard into a pie shell and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat and bake at 325 degrees for 20 more minutes or until a knife inserted near the pie's center comes out clean.
From Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, 1975 edition
2 cups persimmon pulp (put through a colander)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Beat in: 3 eggs
1/2 cup melted butter
11/4 cups sugar, white or light brown
21/2 cups light cream
2 teaspooons cinnamon
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Bake the pudding in a greased 9-by-9-inch baking dish in a 325-degree oven about one hour until firm. Serve with cream or hard sauce.
From Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States
2 cups flour
3/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup persimmon pulp
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup sugar
Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl. In another large bowl combine sugar, butter, eggs and persimmon and mix at slow speed. Add flour mixture and continue mixing at slow speed. Add nuts and continue mixing. Grease two bread pans. Place half of batter in each. Bake at 325 degrees for 60 minutes.
From Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States
1 quart Juneberries
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup flour
1 pie crust shell and top
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar 1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
Mix Juneberries and raisins and place in pie shell. Mix sugar, salt, cinnamon and flour and sprinkle over berry mixture. Sprinkle with lemon juice and dot with butter. Cover with pie crust and cut vents into crust. Brush melted butter on surface and lightly sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until done.
Black Walnut Cookies
From The Silver Palate Cookbook, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
3 sticks of butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs 2/3 cup shelled black walnuts, finely chopped
3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla. Sift flour with salt and add to creamed mixture. Mix well. Wrap dough in wax paper and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. When thoroughly chilled, roll out to 3/8-inch thickness and cut with a 1-inch diameter cookie cutter. Place 11/2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Sprinkle cookies with black walnuts and chill again 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake cookies for 15 minutes, or until they're evenly and lightly browned. Cool on a rack.
From The Silver Palate Cookbook
Crust: 2/3 cups confectioners' sugar
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 pound (2 sticks) softened sweet butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking pan. Sift sugar and flour together. Cut in butter until fine crumbs form. Pat crust into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes; remove from oven.
Topping: 2/3 cup melted sweet butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
31/2 cups shelled pecans, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup honey
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Mix melted butter, honey, cream and brown sugar. Stir in pecans, coating them thoroughly. Spread over crust. Return to oven and bake for 25 minutes. Cool completely before cutting into squares.
From Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States
1 quart ripe mulberries
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 package pectin
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Remove stems from mulberries and wash in cold water. Mash the mulberries and squeeze through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. Save 2 cups of mulberry juice. In a saucepan, combine the juice, water, lemon juice and sugar. Mix thoroughly. Bring to a full boil. Add pectin and stir constantly. Keep mixture at hard boil for 1 minute. Skim off foam. Quickly ladle into hot, sterilized jars. Seal with paraffin.
Raspberry Summer Pudding
A variation from Weight Watchers Simply Delicious Cookbook, Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 2002
9 slices of firm white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
5 cups of fresh mixed red and black raspberries
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Line a 1-quart bowl with enough plastic wrap to hang over the sides by about 3 inches all around. Then line the bowl with 7 of the bread slices, trimming to fit just below the rim; reserve the trimmings. Combine the fruit, sugar and orange juice in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until the fruit is just softened. Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fruit to the prepared bowl; set aside the juice. Top with the remaining 2 slices of bread and the trimmings to cover. Drizzle with 1/2 cup of the juice. Fold the plastic wrap over the top of the pudding to cover. Place a plate, smaller than the mouth of the bowl, on top of the pudding. Set a weight such as a 28-ounce can on top and refrigerate overnight. To serve, remove the weight. Invert the pudding onto a serving plate, remove the plastic wrap and cut into wedges.
From Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States
11/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon basil
dash of garlic salt
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
10 daylily flowers
3/4 cup milk
Sift together flour, baking powder and garlic salt. In another bowl, beat milk and eggs together. Combine mixtures with basil and cheese until smooth. Wash flowers, clip off stems and pull out stamens and pistil. Pat dry with paper towels. Dip blossoms into batter and deep fry until golden brown. Place on paper towels, salt and pepper to taste.
PRICKLY PEAR JELLY
Pick prickly pears (wear leather gloves). Take off spines. Rinse the fruit and place in kettle, adding enough water to cover. Boil until quite tender, squeeze through jelly bag or jelly press. To every 21/2 cups of juice add one (13/4-ounce) package of powdered pectin and boil for a couple minutes. Then add 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 31/2 cups of sugar. Stir often and boil hard for 5 minutes. Pour in jelly glass and seal with paraffin.