Posts Tagged ‘Edible Plants’

Prickly pear cactus in Jamaica Bay. Photo by Klaus Schoenwiese.


By Erik Baard


In my youthful urbanite naïveté I used to view the idea of a flowering cactus as a discordant mixture of elements, a kind of vegetative platypus. Little did I know that June brings forth gorgeous cactus flowers in the dry spots of own archipelago. Take a moment to admire the prickly pear, or opuntia, flower above.


When photographer Klaus Schoenwiese and I stumbled across this example at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, I was quite surprised. I knew the species only as a backyard garden item, and had never seen it flower. Naturally, or quite the opposite, we’ve all seen plenty of paper flowers tackily glued to cacti of many species in decorative gardening stores.


The prickly pear is our city’s only indigenous cactus, but I won’t complain about a lack of choice. Until a few years ago I didn’t know we had any at all! Some uncharitably characterize it was a weed because of its hardiness and easy propagation (though because of that quality, but a happenstance encounter with it in the wild isn’t likely. Make your way to Jamaica Bay and hike a bit, or even kayak out to its islands.   


Prickly pear cacti feed a wide array of birds (so don’t pluck them from the wild, please), and they are consumed with relish (and as relish) in cultures stretching from Mexico (where the plant is on the national flag) to Sicily. The fruit is delicious on its own and is made into jellies and drinks. In a nice self-perpetuating cycle, while the fruit is fermented into alcohol, research indicates that the skin (known as a source of anti-inflamatory compounds) might help cure hangovers. The young, flat leaves, or nopales (in Texas, “cactus paddles”), are served at breakfast for a daily start that’s rich in fiber and nutrients while lowering the glycemic effect. Another amusing circle completed by this species is that while it threatens to prick us with two kinds of spines, eating it reportedly improves platelet function. Enjoy a few recipes here and here. Or simply look for its red insect feeder’s possible contribution to your next imported bright red snack or garment.


When you’re eating a prickly pear, also consider its pedigree in scientific history. A youthful Charles Darwin was fascinated by his discovery that this cactus’ anthers, the bulbous tops to stamen, curl over to deposit pollen when touched.


If you fall hard for this yummy, curative, sustaining, beautiful, and surprising species, please consider bringing some of that verve to the New York Cactus and Succulent Society, which will next meet on June 19 at the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church at 351 E. 74th Street, before taking a break for July and August. Treasurer Richard Stone remarked to me that the organization is at this time quite elderly and not up for field trips to see our local wild cacti. Some young blood (with opuntia-enhanced platelet function?) with a willingness to organize an annual Prickly Pear Day (hiking, cuisine) might help perpetuate this important group.


And maybe a local organic farm might consider growing these locally?

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Bladderwrack seaweed at Roosevelt Island. Photo by Erik Baard. 


By Erik Baard


One one the many torments my “poor, sainted mother” (as she calls herself) endured from me was a screamingly Pavlovian response to the jingle of the ice cream truck as it rumbled down 159th Street in Flushing, Queens, where I was raised. Little did I know then how intimately my love of the sweet dessert, the salty harbor, and my maternal heritage were bound.


A very common, yet fascinating, plant growing in our estuary is bladderwrack seaweed, scientifically known as fucus vesiculosus. Just a few of its other common names are popweed, black tang, rockweed, bladder fucus, seawrack, sea oak, black tany, cut weed, and rock wrack. I snapped the above picture of a healthy mat of its bubble form on riprap rock fringing Roosevelt Island (click to enlarge).


Bladderwrack is quite widespread in sheltered bays and inlets in the northern hemisphere, and has ancient pedigree. It’s a close relative of the first plants to colonize land. Of course the distinctive feature of this species is its air sacks, which lift fronds toward the surface, an evolutionary edge in the competition for sunlight for photosynthesis. Today beds of bladderwrack shelter young fish and crustaceans, and stabilizes intertidal sediment by slowing water movement.


You might not realize it, but there’s a very good chance you’ve eaten bladderwrack. Ice cream is one of the most common food products to include bladderwrack seaweed. Mass market foods often list it in the ingredients as simply “kelp” or note the chemicals derived from it, especially carrageenan. That thickening agent is named for the organism from which it was first extracted, Irish moss, known in Irish as carraig.


Iodine, beta carotene, and potassium are also refined from bladderwrack, though less often in recent years, and this seaweed has traditionally been used to treat thyroid illnesses and (with less solid evidence) obesity. Recent research also points to applications fighting estrogen-dependent diseases like breast cancer.


While people with certain medical conditions can suffer complications from consuming too many concentrated supplements made from bladderwrack, in Japan the plant is enjoyed as a popular food in its natural state. Sadly, there could be a pollution danger from eating bladderwrack growing in our harbor (as excited as we are about the estuary’s ongoing ecological recovery). Please consult the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection (dial 311) regarding any culinary experimentation.



Asian cultures are known for seaweed cuisine, but for thousands of years the Irish have eaten dulaman and dyed fabrics with it.


I can easily picture that kind of trade in a place like my maternal ancestral home of Sligo, Ireland. One of Ireland’s most popular traditional songs, about a monger of edible seaweed marrying (perhaps threatening to elope with) a seaweed dye monger’s daughter, makes that fancy all the more vivid. An interesting note on the lyrics is that in Irish, or Gaeilge, the gatherers and sellers of seaweed were addressed by the same noun as the product itself. That lends itself to some playful word-painting, comparing the fair hair and dark cap and black shoes of the suitor (or rogue?) to the top and base of the plant.



A ‘níon mhín ó, sin anall na fir shúirí
Oh gentle daughter, here come the wooing men
A mháithairin mhín ó, cuir na roithléan go dtí mé
Oh gentle mother, put the wheels in motion for me

Curfá: Chorus:
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn
Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland
Tá ceann buí óir ar an dúlamán gaelach
There is a yellow gold head on the Gaelic seaweed
Tá dhá chluais mhaol ar an dúlamán maorach
There are two blunt ears on the stately seaweed
Bróga breaca dubha ar an dúlamán gaelach
The Irish seaweed has beautiful black shoes
Tá bearéad agus triús ar an dúlamán maorach
The stately seaweed has a beret and trousers

(Curfá 2x) (Chorus 2x)
Góide a thug na tíre thú? arsa an dúlamán gaelach
“What are you doing here?” says the Irish seaweed
Ag súirí le do níon, arsa an dúlamán maorach
“At courting with your daughter,” says the stately seaweed
Rachaimid chun Niúir leis an dúlamán gaelach
I would go to Niúir with the Irish seaweed
Ceannóimid bróga daora ar an dúlamán maorach
“I would buy expensive shoes,” said the Irish seaweed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Ó chuir mé scéala chuici, go gceannóinn cíor dí
I spent time telling her the story that I would buy a comb for her
‘Sé’n scéal a chuir sí chugam, go raibh a ceann cíortha
The story she told back to me, that she is well-groomed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Cha bhfaigheann tú mo ‘níon, arsa an dúlamán gaelach
“Oh where are you taking my daughter?” says the Irish seaweed
Bheul, fuadóidh mé liom í, arsa an dúlamán maorach
“Well, I’d take her with me,” says the stately seaweed
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed

(Curfá) (Chorus)
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí, b’fhearr a bhí

Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best
Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí, b’fhearr a bhí
Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best

B’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn

The best in all of Ireland


The song has enjoyed many modern interpretations:








Celtic Woman


A dance remix


And fan of the song even gives it the anime treatment.


I hope all Irish love their mothers as much as they love dulaman seaweed!

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Spicebush, photo by Heather Sweeney

(Spicebush in Central Park, photo by Heather Sweeney)

by Erik Baard


So, yes, I was negligent or – even worse – trying to stretch material from the same edible plants outing. But sophisticated readers have demanded that I provide foraging tips for their high tea to go along with the recently posted recipe for cattail-on-a-hot-tin-roof sandwiches. All too happy to provide…



I went back to my best foraging source, Wildman Steve Brill. He advises that those seeking to match the delicacy of the tradition try spicebush leaves (in a photo above by Heather Sweeney) with a hint of ground ivy. Steep in boiling water for 20 minutes, sweeten to taste.


The spicebush also produces berries that are dried and ground into what’s often called “Appalachian allspice.” I recently used it for a pawpaw-and-beach plum cake I baked recently for a friend. Well, dear friend — I don’t bake for just anyone!


For more of an “Our Town”-soda-fountain-date kind of drink, Steve recommends sassafras tea. Scrub the roots of a sapling and simmer it for 20 minutes. Chill it and add sparkling water and sweetener for root beer! 


As always, it’s best to start out as a forager under the guidance of experienced naturalists like Steve. Wrong choices have severe consequences when it comes to eating wild plants! (Then again, Steve added this advice: “Try it on the in-laws first, or, if you’re a kid, your teacher.”)



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