Who knew you could be an intrepid plant hunter in your own backyard? Ellen Zachos, that’s who. In her new book, Backyard Foraging—65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, Ellen describes a variety of edibles, from the more common—Jerusalem artichokes, elderberries and crab apples—to those in the “who knew?” category. Written in an engaging and lively style, with a good dash of humor, she invites you to consider dahlia tubers, stinky gingko seeds, and—the one that intrigued me the most—emerging unfurled hosta shoots.
Ellen gives the reader confidence to collect with clear plant pictures and solid descriptions, including look-alikes to avoid. She even features five distinctive mushrooms with advice for beginners—leave those with gills alone. She also adds a section on how to grow pre-inoculated mushroom logs, suitable for a cool greenhouse. Her enthusiasm for edible plant hunting will inspire you to locate at least one new discovery to bring into your kitchen.
The book is helpful beyond plant identification. For instance, I can recognize the round leaves of edible miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata aka Montia perfoliata ), but I’ve never known how to use it. Backyard Foraging offers suggestions and recipes for preparing what you’ve found. How about making milkweed flower syrup, acorn and oyster mushroom soup, or
Ellen launched her book with a terrific talk at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show this spring. Since then, she’s been on an extended book tour. Recently I caught up with her to find out which plants have most interested her audiences. “The key is that it’s a familiar ornamental plant they never knew they could eat,” she told me. “The hosta grabs a lot of people’s attention, but so does the garlic mustard, the native ginger, or the ornamental quince.”
At her presentations she brings prepared examples from the book’s recipes, such as spruce tips in shortbread, because as Ellen observed, “Nothing is more convincing than a delicious treat.”
Before one talk she artfully arranged a vase of garlic mustard greens (Allaria petiolata) on the table. In front of the greens she placed a bowl of garlic mustard pesto for sampling. “People were incredulous.”
Ellen reported that their reactions ranged from “You can eat that?” to “I have that growing all over my yard.” And then my favorite—“Can I buy a jar?”
No, but with this book, you can make it.