by JAMES E. CHURCHILL
May is a time of abundance here in Wisconsin. The bitter
cold and snows of winter are gone and all but forgotten.
April rains have soaked the earth and awakened wild plants
that—warmed by the gentle May sun—are absorbing
minerals and manufacturing vitamins that will keep a food
forager clear-eyed and strong.
Some of this fare that we find and make much use of are
alfalfa, clover, thistles, violets and sorrel. Occasionally
we even go into the forest to pick a basket of fern
Alfalfa and clover, of course, are hay plants raised by
commercial farmers for animal food. This makes finding them
easy since they grow almost everywhere. Alfalfa has been
raised since long before recorded history and it probably
was originally gown for human food. Well it might be too
since — in addition to protein — alfalfa is a
very good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur,
sodium, potassium chlorine and silicon. These are called
trace elements and are often lacking in shallow rooted
plants but alfalfa — which can send its tap roots to
a depth of fifty feet — is unusually rich in these
nutrients. The plant is also one of the best sources of
vitamin K and contains enzymes that help the body to absorb
other foods. Nursing mothers can increase their flow of
milk by eating raw alfalfa or food containing the powdered
For wilted alfalfa pick, wash and chop two cups of the
fresh plant and place in a frying pan. Pour two teaspoons
of vegetable oil or bacon grease into the pan and add salt
if desired. Heat and stir until the leaves have wilted. Eat
Alfalfa and whole wheat bread is a recipe that uses dried
alfalfa leaf flour. This flour can be purchased or you can
make your own by drying fresh alfalfa leaves in a warm room
or in a very slow oven until they're brittle enough to
powder between your fingers. We make powder by hand or use
our Corona Grain Mill set very fine to reduce the dried
leaves to flour.
Measure out five cups whole grain wheat flour and 1/2 cup
alfalfa flour. Combine two cups scalded milk, 1-1/2
tablespoons bacon grease, one tablespoon salt and six
tablespoons molasses or honey. Dissolve one cake yeast in
1/4 cup lukewarm water and add two tablespoons of brown
sugar. Combine all ingredients and stir very well. Knead
slightly and place in a greased bowl in a warm room until
it doubles in bulk. Put the dough into two bread pans and
let it rise again until it doubles in bulk. Place in oven
and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat
then to 325 degrees and bake until done . . . about 80
minutes in all. This bread should contain enough vitamins
and minerals to fill an entire specification book.
Alfalfa flour can be sprinkled into soup or it can be eaten
raw. Many purists nibble the plant from hand right out in
the fields or after dipping it in salt water. Alfalfa also
combines well with other greens and it can be used with
clover to make a very appetizing salad.
Pick and chop one cup of alfalfa and one cup white or fed
clover. Find some sorrel or grape leaves if you can and
chop and toss in enough of either or both to give the salad
a tang. Now toss and add — a teaspoonful at a time
— bacon grease or other dressing to give your salad
the flavor you like.
Unlike alfalfa, clover can often be found growing in
wilderness areas . . . especially along logging roads and
in small clearings. Once, when I was fairly inexperienced
in finding edible wild plants, I went on a solo three day
"travel light and live off the land" backpack trip into the
Nicolet National Forest in Northern Wisconsin. On my second
day with little food I crossed a huge marsh, ciimbed the
hill on the other side and happened onto a patch of white
clover and sorrel growing side by side. I dropped my pack
right there and — pulling handsful of clover with one
hand and sorrel with the other — chewed as fast as I
could until the hollow in my stomach was filled. I've never
since passed a patch of white clover in the wilderness
without the warm feeling of seeing an old friend.
Clover can be used in soups, vinegar and cough medicine.
The soup is made by adding a few fresh or dried leaves of
the plant to a beef stock soup. We don't overdo this
however. A small handful of leaves to a large pot of soup
is enough to start with. After tasting the soup, we add
more if desired. Too much will cause the dish to taste like
I've heard that vinegar can be made by pouring 1-1/2
gallons of boiling water over one gallon of tightly packed
red clover blooms. Let the mixture stand overnight and
strain out the blossoms. Add one pound of brown sugar and
1-1/2 pints molasses. Dissolve one cake yeast in 1/2 pint
water and add that also. Place the mixture in a stone crock
and let it stand in a warm room until it sours. This takes
awhile as the sugar must turn to alcohol and the alcohol to
acetic acid. One thing that might speed the process is a
very large stone crock that exposes more of the solution to
Make cough medicine by adding one cup fresh red clover
blossoms to a pint of boiling water. Let it steep in a
covered earthen crock until cool and add one tablespoon
honey. Take a teaspoonful to control cough from colds,
whooping cough, virus, etc.
If you're still not convinced that clover is a valuable
wild plant consider that Nebuchadnezzar II, King of
Babylon, would wander into the fields and eat handfuls of
clover when the pressures of ruling got too great. After a
few days he would return, much refreshed, and make some of
his most brilliant decisions. Might help at tax time.
When we're gathering clover in our area we inevitably back
into or set down on a plant that is well protected by
nature: the thistle. Most grazing animals and people take
whatever steps are necessary to avoid thistles but we don't
because we know that the Canadian Thistle (cirsium
arvense) and the Bull Thistle (cirsium
lanceolatum) make good food. Even the sharp thorns are
edible after they boil awhile.
Bull and Canadian Thistles spring up here in amazing
profusion. I've heard that the county has one
pseudo-bureaucrat who's sole duty in the summer is to see
that people cut their thistles before the plants go to seed.
I wish him well because — to find all the young tender
thistles I want for greens — all I have to do is watch
for his signs posted along the highways. Somewhere very near
there's certain to be a good patch of young thistles just
waiting to be made into boiled or creamed greens.
I try to get young thistles when they're less than six inches
tall and cutting the plants involves some skillful
manipulation or the wearing of leather gloves. Sometimes a
bunch of thistles will seem to be alive the way they
porcupine around to stab you when you're not watching and I
place mine in a bag or box for carrying.
I boil the chopped plants until their thorns are soft and
salt and serve them when the thistles are well cooked. The
first time you try eating the plant this way you'll feel like
Superman when you nonchalantly chomp down what — a few
minutes before — was a stabbing mess of needle-sharp
thorns. Thistles also make good creamed or wilted greens but,
because of the broth-like consistency they give to water, I
feel they make the best soup of any green plant.
Make thistle soup by chopping (scissoring would be a better
word since an old pair of shears is the best thing I've found
for cutting up green plants) a pan of thistles. Push them
down in the pan and add just enough water to cover the
plants. Bring to a boil and let simmer for at least twenty
minutes. Now you can season this soup and eat it just as it
is or you can add some boiled fish, leftover rice or anything
else you happen to have. It's guaranteed to be good and you
can use this stock in stew.
Chop and boil about six thistles until the water has absorbed
most of the juice from the plants. As they're boiling, add
water as needed until you have two quarts of very dark green
juice or soup stock. Remove the plant parts and set aside for
use as creamed greens. Add to the two quarts of stock, two
wild onions — tops and all — or medium chopped
domestic onion bulbs. Use less if you like only a mild onion
taste. Now add 1/2 pound of fish and 1/2 pound meat. The
combination of meat and fish that I like best is 1/2 pound
diced browned venison shin and 1/2 pound fillet of bullhead.
If you're still city bound, use 1/2 pound fish or fish heads
and six to eight chicken feet or one package of chicken necks
Chicken feet are rumored to be available at very small cost
in some city meat markets and I hear many people buy them for
"dog food". This is the best part of the chicken for making
soup but the feet do require parboiling for three minutes to
remove their scaly skin before they're placed in the soup.
The feet also can be chopped after parboiling and before
being put into the stock.
Anyway , when you finally have your meat and fish
placed in the soup, add two cups cleaned and peeled arrow
head tubers or chopped potatoes, a few leaves of sorrel and
1/2 cup chopped cattail stems or celery stalks. Bring to a
boil, season well and simmer for about two hours. Taste
before removing from the fire and add seasoning if desired.
If anyone can think of a way to make a soup as good tasting
and nutritious as this for as little as this one costs I
would certainly like to hear about it.
The thistle parts we set aside can be made into creamed
greens. Chop or blend the cooked thistle until it is as fine
as puree. Place in a saucepan over a slow fire, add three
tablespoons butter or bacon grease and add one or two small
onions, tops and all. Stir in 2-1/2 tablespoons of cattail or
wheat flour and add one cup of milk or milk substitute. Stir
and cook until all the ingredients are well blended. Crumble
in some crisp bacon if you have it and serve.
When we gather thistles we try not to forget to pick a good
supply of sheep sorrel. Sheep sorrel is another wild plant
that was introduced to this country from Europe where it has
been raised as a pot herb for centuries.
Sorrel, sheep sorrel, sour grass or red sorrel (Rumex
Acetosella) is a low bunch-like plant that grows in acid
soil. It has arrow-shaped leaves and shallow, yellowish root
stalks. Sorrel can be spotted from long distances by the
reddish tinge its seed pods give to the fields in which it
grows. The leaves of this perennial plant have a decidedly
sour taste and we use only the green leaves as they lose
almost everything when dry.
Sorrel combines well with other wild things and a good
salad can be made with one cup of sorrel leaves and a cup
of fresh dandelion crowns. The crown is the white part of
the dandelion between the green part of the leaf and the
root. Slice the crown into small pieces and soak out any
dirt. Crispen the sections in cold water if necessary. Now
add some leaves of the sweet clover (Melilotus
Officinalis), too. Not many, just enough to smooth the
flavor of the dandelion and sorrel. This salad can be eaten
without dressing or it can be tossed with a couple strips
of crisp fried bacon, grease and all.
For cream of sorrel soup pick, wash and scissor into small
pieces two tightly packed cups of sorrel leaves (strip the
leaves from the rib and discard it). Heat four tablespoons
of bacon grease or butter. Stir in the scissored sorrel
leaves and cook until very well browned, being careful not
to burn them. Place in four quart soup pan and add a
tablespoon of whole gain wheat flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and
four cups of milk. This can be cow milk, goat milk, soy
bean milk or thistle soup stock. Cover the pot and simmer
for 1/2 hour. Add black pepper and serve hot.
To brew some sorrel and mint tea, place a double handful of
sorrel leaves and a teaspoon of dried mint leaves in a tea
pot. Cover with boiling water and let it steep for ten
minutes. Drink hot or cold. This tea contains vitamins
which will combat intestinal worms, kidney stones and
hepatitis. Besides that it's very good, especially if
sweetened with one teaspoon of honey to each cup of
Sorrel also can be made into a meat sauce, especially if
you have a blender. Dissolve 1-1/2 tablespoons of honey in
three tablespoons of hot water. Cool and add 1/2 cup finely
chopped sorrel leaves and 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar. Make
this early enough so the ingredients can set together for
at least 30 minutes (but not more than two hours) before
using. Now that we've explored some of sorrel's
possibilities let's take a walk into the moist woods where
we can find another plant that is just coming into its own
for food purposes.
About the middle of May, in the cool forests of Wisconsin,
ferns send up their green succulent stems. I know exactly
where the fern plantations will be because I spotted them
last summer when they were two feet high and so thick that
the forest floor wasn't visible.
I first became interested in ferns for food when I read
Louise Dickenson Rich's book, We Took To The
Woods, many, many years ago. However, I don't think
she gave the fern true credit when she said it tasted like
a cross between asparagus and swamp water.
I pick ferns when they're about six to ten inches high.
They're best before they've unfolded and while their heads
are still hanging down in a prayer position. I break the
plants off just above the ground and use heads, stems and
all. I've heard that the fern leaf, when mature, contains a
poison so I don't attempt to use the plants for food after
the leaves develop.
v Some people let the ferns develop a little longer and
pick them just as the tiny leaves start to emerge. These
folks don't use the immature leaves, however. They cut the
stalks off just under them and slightly above where the
stems are starting to get tough. This makes a finished
product that looks like asparagus.
The two species of ferns that I depend on for food are the
common bracken fern (Pteridium Aquilinum) and
cinnamon fern (Osmunda Cinnamona). Cinnamon fern,
of course, is the common "fiddlehead" that is sold
commercially along the Atlantic coast. Wherever you live,
however, there should be at least one species of this plant
that will provide you with tasty "asparagus" in the early
vThe bracken fern matures into a tall, thick-stalked plant
with great triangular leaves. It grows — usually on
high, well-drained and poorer soil — in huge patches
that cover the ground in both fields and forests. Here in
Wisconsin, the bracken is often found in cutover areas that
have reseeded themselves to poplar trees.
Cinnamon ferns usually grow in rich soil at the edge of or
in swamps and wet areas. They're generally later than the
brackens due, no doubt, to the longer time it takes for
spring to come to the marshlands. The shoots, when they
first come up, are reddish and exceedingly hairy with
tightly rolled heads. These heads gradually form into
upright seed or spore pods and, later, the leaves of the
plants come up.
So far as I know there are no poisonous ferns if the new
shoots only are eaten. I prepare these plants by pulling
the shoots between my fingers to strip away the "wool" and
then boiling the stalks in salted water for a few minutes
until they're tender. Serve like asparagus with salt and
Health food enthusiasts would probably rather steam ferns.
To do this, pick, wash and strip a bunch of shoots (a good
handful or two pounds). Tie the bunch together and place
them stalk down in a large pan or double boiler. Add 1-1/2
inches of water and cover the pan and fern tips with
another pan. Bring to a boil and hold for about ten minutes
or until the stalks are tender. Remove, drain and keep the
liquid. Slice the cooked ferns crossways with a sharp
knife, place in a bowl and stir in 1/2 cup chopped hickory
nuts, 1/3 cup of vegetable oil and the original liquid from
cooking the ferns. Return to the fire warm up to a simmer
and hold for five minutes. Pour over thin, whole grain,
wheat bread toast.
Almost everyone knows the delightful purple or blue flower
of the violet. This flower grows in almost every moist,
cool woods in the country and many ladies raise violets in
their flower gardens for the delightful color and fragrance
of the blossom.
The violet is a very good food plant and has been used
since the beginning of records for food and medicine. The
whole plant can be eaten: the blossoms in violet jam, the
leaves and stalks in salads and the roots — if you
care to go to the trouble — roasted. for a
v Violet blossoms make a very good drink when mixed with
wild honey and sumac juice. Pick any size container full of
the blooms. One good way to do this in quantity is to use
your fingers, slightly spread and palm up, as a rake to
slide through bunches where they grow thickly. Even when
the flowers are scattered, however, picking a pint or so is
no formidable task. Place the blossoms in an enameled pan,
cover with sumac juice which you have measured and bring to
a slow boil. When the liquid just starts to roll, add one
teaspoon of honey to each cup of liquid. Remove from the
fire and set aside to cool and blend for about one hour.
Drink hot or cold.
If I have a good handful of violet blossoms left over after
preparing this drink I make some violet pudding.
v Place a cup of tightly packed violet blossoms in a tea
pot or pan that can be covered. Add 1-1/2 cups of boiling
water and let steep until cool. In the meantime, mix
together four teaspoons of gelatine and 1/4 cup cold water
in a pan. Add 3/4 cup honey, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt and 1/2
cup lemon juice. Now pour the violet tea over the mixture
in the pail, place over heat and bring to a boil while
stirring constantly. Remove from the fire, cool, pour into
a mold and chill until firm.
v Violets can be used in salads also. Cut up leaves —
blossoms and all — and mix them into any salad. Or
chop leaves and stems only and wilt them in bacon grease
over a low fire . . . or just go out in the violet patch
and sit down and eat the blooms. Anyway you do it, you'll
be getting a prodigious dose of ascorbic acid and vitamin
A. Don't presume to eat a year's supply in one day,
however, as — like most fresh greens — violets
are a mild laxative.
Good luck. See you next issue.