Food Foraging: Maple Syrup, Prickly Lettuce, and Calamus

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Acorns are perhaps THE emblematic foraged food.

People like me dedicated to food foraging know the month of March in Wisconsin can be a beauty or a beast. It can be a
time for picking tender greens from the sunny side of field
knolls or it can be a time for spending the best part of
the day shoveling through deep snow. One thing is
practically certain, however: March is the time for
sap to run in the maple trees.

Making Maple Syrup

The equipment required for turning this sap into maple
syrup — good eatin’ anytime — is very simple.
All we really need is a brace and bit, a few elderberry
stems, a whittling or paring knife, some lightweight pails
and a few nails.

Our bit should drill a hole about 1/2-inch in diameter and
the pails should each hold at least two gallons. Nails 10 d
or larger will suffice for hanging the buckets on the maple
trees and the elderberry stems (for spiles) should be green
wood and not so much larger than the bit that they can’t be
quickly shaved to fit the holes we drill. We’ll need a fire
for boiling off the sap, of course, and I use the barrel
stove in my garage for this purpose.

There’s a little trick to making sap spiles out of
elderberry stems, and although I covered the technique elsewhere I’ll outline it again here.

First, find a patch of elderberries (Sambucus
— maybe the same patch you harvested
berries or blossoms from last year—and saw off enough
stems (1/2 inch or larger in diameter) to allow four inches
of length for each spile. Trim off the branches, saw the
stems into four inch lengths, and force the white center out
of each piece. This center is a soft pithy material and it
can be pushed out with the right sized rod. It can also be
burned out.

Use a wire about the same size as a coat hanger and heated
red-hot to burn the soft core from a spile by picking up
the four-inch length of stem and inserting the hot
wire — gingerly — into one end. Smoke will rise and
you’ll feel little resistance as you push the wire
completely through the spile. If it pushes hard, remove the
wire, re-heat it, and try again.

Burn out the centers of all the sections of elderberry stem
this way. Then take your pocket knife and, near the end of
the spile that will be inserted in the tree, shave away a
flat surface at an angle until the center hole
is visible. The spile will be inserted flat-surface-side-up
and will help to guide the sap into the bucket. If you
don’t have any elderberries in your area, use metal tubing.
I’m told that bush dwellers in some areas make a tube of
rolled-up birch bark and cut the holes in the trees with a

At any rate, when I have the necessary equipment together
to start tapping, I go out into the woods to a stand of six
large maples that I know. Each tree stands about one foot
in diameter — large enough to be tapped twice, with one
spile on each side of the trunk — and yields from 15 to
30 gallons of sap in a good year.

To do the actual tapping I drill a hole into the tree about
chest high. The hole should be deep enough to go through
the bark and into the sap wood—about three inches
total—and should be drilled slanting slightly toward the ground
so that the sap will run down and out.

The next step is to insert the spile into the hole. Trim the spile if you have to, but the fit must be
tight to be effective.

Now, you can notch the spile and hang your bucket
directly on it, but I’ve found that this method is subject
to accidents. I prefer to drive a nail above the spile and
through one corner of a piece of building paper. I then
hang the bucket from the nail and the building paper forms
a roof over the pail so that rainwater, pieces of bark and
other foreign matter—which greatly reduce the quality
of the sap—can’t get into the container. Sap is only
3% sugar anyway; if you dilute that with rainwater you
have a lot of work ahead of you just getting the sap boiled
down. Foreign matter in the syrup will sometimes give it an
off flavor, too.

Maple syrup producers in Wisconsin now almost exclusively
use heavy plastic bags for collecting sap. These bags are
sealed around the spite in the trunk for the same reason
that I put the building paper roof over my buckets. A food
forager could likewise use a plastic bag if he had one and
if he didn’t have any prejudices against that material. My
philosophy regarding plastic, though, is that I’ll use it
if I’m recycling it. I like to think this is turning the
enemy back on himself. I won’t, however, become dependent
on it.

I dump my sap buckets twice a day and try to boil down the
sap every day. This boiling down is best done in a large
flat pan, can be a very lengthy process, and is complete
only when the sap is thick and sweet enough to please your

If you want your syrup to be of the same consistency as is
generally sold, you’ll have to boil it until the
temperature rises to seven degrees above the initial
boiling point of the liquid. This, of course, will vary
somewhat, depending on your elevation above sea level.
Here, water boils at 209°F. Therefore, syrup is made at

When boiling down maple syrup be very careful not to get it
too hot and scorch it or it’ll be kinda’

Scorching is especially a problem during the final few
minutes of the change from syrup into sugar.

If you continue to boil your sap after it has reached the
syrup stage, it will eventually granulate into soft sugar.
You’ll know when that happens because a little sap taken
from the kettle and cooled will crunch between the teeth.
When it hits this stage, I remove the sap and stir it
constantly until it’s cool. This results in a creamy soft
sugar that can be spread like butter or spooned onto
breakfast cereal.

Hard sugar is made by further cooking the syrup to the
sugaring stage, which is generally designated as
234°F. When you have your sap heated to this
temperature, pour it into molds to cool. The sugar will
harden into the shape of the mold and can thus be formed
into animals, plants, or other objects which find a ready
market (especially during the holiday season).

Once made, both maple syrup and sugar can be used for many
delicious recipes and either one should be more healthful
and less harmful to the body than white sugar. I’ve read
that some of the missionaries and early settlers sustained
themselves very well on a diet of just maple syrup and corn
meal. There are also accounts of Indians living on maple
sugar for days at a time and other reports of how Indian
families in this part of the country made large quantities
of sugar and — since they used no salt at
all — sprinkled it on their meat. This was probably
more healthful than our current inclination to salt

I use maple syrup to cover wheat cakes in the morning, put
it on my whole wheat bread, and substitute if for white sugar whenever I have
it. It also makes a
mighty good syrup for canning fruit. No one has really
appreciated maple syrup or maple sugar, however, until
they’ve poured or sprinkled it over wild rice on a cold
winter morning with the snow piled deep around the cabin
and the wood stove radiating a gentle heat.

Get your chops into this delicious little treat by
sprinkling a cup of wild rice into three cups of lightly
salted boiling water and boiling for 45 minutes or until
the rice is tender, then serve it with milk, maple
syrup, or maple sugar.

Keep in mind that it isn’t absolutely necessary to tap
sugar maples to make sweet syrup. Gibbons tells about
tapping all the varieties of maple—even the
sycamore—and Angier says that the Bushmen along the
Peace River tapped birch trees for the syrup they made.

If I lived where there were no sugar maples I would
certainly experiment with whatever large deciduous trees
were in my area. You should also be aware that there are
trees that can be tapped for syrup in the Mid-South too. It’s not exclusively a product of the North.

I personally think the art of sugar-making could be
expanded to a much greater degree than it is,
especially in back country areas.

Folks who do live in a sugar maple region shouldn’t
overlook the possibility that they can make some extra
“bread” from the trees on their homestead. A good-sized
maple may yield a gallon of finished syrup which, will find
a ready market at a price of $15. Concentrated further into
sugar, the products of the maple tree are also readily
saleable and are very easy to both store and transport to
distant markets.

Maple syrup cooperatives, each of which is really a central
evaporating station for boiling down the syrup, are
operating in some areas. Producers tap the trees, put their
sap in special containers and bring it to the evaporators.
The sap is purchased there after being tested for sugar
content and the producer gets paid every time he brings in a
load. Since money can be scarce on a homestead this time of
year, many back-to-the-land people should welcome such an

By the way, there’s a good book for any of you folks who do
want to learn the maple syrup business. It’s Helen and
Scott Nearing’s, The Maple Sugar Story, which I’m
glad to see listed on MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ bookshelf. This is the book,
back in ’58 or ’59, that started me thinking of a way out
of the system.

Just about the time that maple sugaring winds down for the
season, many green plants will start to send their
succulent stems up through the ground, which is very
handy for the food forager who’s probably getting a little
tired of winter meat and sprouts. One of the best of these
plants is prickly lettuce (Lactuca Scariola ).

Foraging Prickly Lettuce

Some botanists say that domestic lettuce was derived from
the prickly lettuce, and well it might have been since
“tame” lettuce resembles wild lettuce in about the same way
a domestic fruit resembles its wild counterpart. Our
domestic lettuce is a pale, mild, insipid character which
can’t stand competition and must be tended with great care.
Prickly lettuce on the other hand, is often seen elbowing
its way up through strong weeds such as burdock and
thistles. It isn’t discouraged by trees either. I’ve
seen it growing many times in rich woods, especially
under oaks and hickories.

Prickly lettuce shoots appear in our area early in April.
The slightly yellowish leaves look and taste like tame
lettuce when very small. Later, as the plant matures, it
grows from a leaf-clasped stalk to a height of three or
more feet.

In its early stage prickly lettuce looks like a thistle,
especially since its yellow flowers resemble the blossoms
of some Canadian thistles. Close inspection of the plants
will dispel any confusion, however, because the Canadian
thistle has sharp stabbing thorns while the thorns of wild
lettuce are only a mild rasp.

Prickly lettuce can be used in many different ways: mixed in salad, with toasted soybeans, and with fish, to name
just a few.

Mixed salad is prepared by picking two packed cups of
lettuce leaves, about one cup of dandelion crowns, and a cup
of watercress… if you can find that much. After the
ingredients are gathered, wash them thoroughly and crisp
them in cold water or in the refrigerator. When they’re
good and crisp, place all the ingredients in a large bowl
and toss with your favorite salad dressing.

Dandelion crowns, by the way, are the white leaf base found
at or below the surface of the ground. They’re harvested by
cutting out and saving the section of the plant below the
leaves and above the roots.

Watercress, the well-known plant from the supermarket, can
also be found growing in most cool, fast-flowing streams.
Harvest watercress by scissoring it off at the top of its
very loosely rooted roots. Pulling it up kills the plant. But let’s get back to wild lettuce.

Wilted lettuce and soybeans makes a good main dish,
especially in the springtime. Grind some soybeans, which
have been soaked overnight and toasted in the oven, into
coarse flour. Heat some bacon grease in a fry pan to the
frying stage and drop washed lettuce leaves in, a few at a
time. Stir the leaves to coat them with bacon grease. As
they wilt down, add more greens until the pan is full or
until you have enough to satisfy your appetite. Continue
stirring until all the leaves are well coated and, just
before removing from the fire, sprinkle ground soybeans
over the wilted greens. Stir slightly, then remove and eat
the combination while it’s hot.

Something else which is very good, and which probably
closely resembles a Chinese dish, is prickly lettuce and
fish. During March and April a number of fish make their
spawning runs up small streams. One of these fish, found in
many areas mostly unprotected by regulations, is the
sucker. I spear and trap all the suckers I can get for
smoked, canned, and fried fish and I also use some for
greens and fish. Now suckers, classified as rough fish,
have one disadvantage: they’re very boney. Since I don’t
like fish bones when I eat my greens and fish, I use an old trick to separate out the good meat. This
separating takes a little time but it’s worth it.

I first skin and clean a large sucker and place it in a
lightly salted pan of water. Next, I put the pan on the
fire and boil the sucker for a few minutes until the meat
will flake off the bones. I remove the fish then, let it
cool and separate the meat from the skeleton with a fork.
It takes close inspection to get rid of all the bones but
the delicious taste makes it worthwhile.

When I have a cupful of the meat cleaned, I steam a
colander full of washed wild lettuce greens over a kettle
of water for a few minutes. When the leaves begin to wilt I
mix the fish into the greens, cover the whole thing and let
it steam for about 15 minutes more. I remove the dish from
the fire at that point, possibly add a little soy sauce, and
enjoy its tasty goodness while it’s hot. Then I sometimes
top this meal off with a little piece of calamus candy.

Foraging Calamus or Sweet Flag

Calamus, or sweet flag, is a tall leafy plant that vaguely
resembles cattail except for leaves that are much narrower
with a more yellowish-green color; a marsh full of
calamus is about the same shade of green as a marsh full of
cattails that are starting to dry up.

The flowers and seeds of the calamus are borne on a spadix
that projects from the side of the leaf. Strangely
enough, the plant can reproduce either from the roots or
from the seeds, possibly because the seeds are
produced only by plants that grow in water all year ’round.
Calamus does grow well in seasonal marshes too (where it
reproduces by extension of the roots). Folks who have a
damp place on their homestead could plant a few of those
roots there and soon have a plentiful supply of a very
useful plant.

Sweet flag roots can be dug from their shallow hiding
places beneath the surface of a marsh. I then wash mine
very well, cut them into inch-long pieces, and dry them in
the attic for about a week. When the roots are dry, I place
them in a quart jar until I’m ready to use them.

Calamus root is used for calamus candy. It’s a tasty and
healthful morsel worthy of almost anyone’s attention.
Here’s my recipe:

Dig, wash and peel a good handful of young calamus root.
Cut them into pieces about one inch long, the same as for
the dried roots (Which are just as good to use as the
freshly picked ones. Sweet flag retains its sturdy
flavor for quite some time). Oh yes, it is best to use only
the young root stalks of the calamus as the older,
yellowish ones are too tough and strong-tasting to be
really good.

Place the roots in a pressure cooker set at 15 pounds and
cook them for about one hour. Then cool the pressure
cooker, remove the top and drain the water. The roots
should be tender at that point, but they may be a little too
strong-flavored to suit your taste. If so, add fresh water
and boil them for five minutes. Drain and repeat the
procedure if necessary. Three changes of water should tame
almost any young root.

Don’t discard the water you drained from the calamus.
Instead, place it in a clean jar and cover it to keep as
calamus tea. This tea is used for upset or sour stomach and
is usually taken cold with a dash of honey. I can
personally vouch for its capacity for taming flatulence of
the stomach caused by soybeans. As much as I like that
particular dish, I’m glad to have my supply of calamus root
handy when I eat it.

At any rate, once the young sweet flag roots have been
cooked until they’re tender, I drop them in a sauce pan. I
next cover the calamus with maple syrup and let the roots
simmer for an hour (twice as long won’t hurt a thing). When
the mixture has cooled, I enjoy the sweets heartily for
days or until the candy is gone. I’ll admit that this
calamus candy does take a little getting used to, but it
never leaves that sour aftertaste in the mouth that comes
from eating chocolates.

Candy and tea are not the only products that can be made
from calamus. Along about April when the emerging sweet
flag plant is just a short stalk, you may also want to try
it as a dish of mighty tasty greens. Pick a good quantity
of the stalks, peel away the bitter rind and steam them.
Serve them with vinegar and oil or with a little soy sauce.

Now it just happens that early spring finds another plant
(which will complement the sweet flag to form a fresh
salad) growing into its most edible stage, and that
plant is sheep sorrel. It’s a
low-growing plant with arrow-shaped leaves and is usually
found in sour soil. The tangy vinegar-like taste of sheep
sorrel together with the rather insipid tasting leaves of
the calamus combine to make a scrumptious fresh salad.

Pick and chop at least two cupfuls of new sweet flag shoots.
Further pick and chop at least two cups of sheep sorrel.
Toss both plants into a large bowl with a little bacon
grease and two slices of bacon which have been crisply
fried and then crumbled. That’s delicious enough to close