Wild Food Foraging: Pond Lily, Squirrel, Nettles and More

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Pond lilies are delicious prepared in a variety of ways.

Pond Lily

The pads of the pond lily float like green fairy rafts
almost everywhere in the world that there’s calm, placid
water. That’s a mighty handy fact to know, too, because the
plant will furnish good, flavorful food for the forager
from the time it emerges in the spring until it disappears
under the ice in winter. If you can find the huge, spongy
roots of this wild vegetable during zero weather, it’ll
even provide a satisfying meal then.

The white pond lily (Nymphaea odorata) and yellow
pond lily (Nuphar variegatum) have pads that may
be a foot in diameter. Large cells in the huge, ribbed
leaves make the foliage spongy and buoyant enough to float
on the water’s surface. This foliage is both tender and
tasty when properly prepared.

The stems beneath the lily pads are thick and the roots
look like something you’d see sticking out of a foraging
dinosaur’s mouth. They can be six feet long, the size of a
man’s wrist and covered with a brown skin and “eyes”. These
eyes are the sprouting points for the plant’s flower stems
and leaf stalks. The stalks grow from the semicircular
scars and the flower stems later develop on the

I harvest the leaves by wading out into a patch and pulling
them loose, stalk and all. When I’ve gathered a half dozen
of the large pads and stems I take ’em home and wash them
very well. This cleansing is necessary since the plant is a
favorite resting place for a considerable variety of
insects and reptiles. Once the leaves are washed I cut them
into pieces with a sharp knife and use them for pond lily
soup, September stew (acorn, squirrel and pond lily
fritters) . . . and, naturally, for greens. There’s nothing
wrong with pond lily leaves raw either, especially when
you’re munching the first tender pads of spring.

Pond lily leaves gathered anytime during the growing season
(although, again, early spring growth is best of all) make
good greens. Simply chop the pads into noodle-like strips
and boil them in one change of water. The addition of a
little bacon doesn’t hurt a thing.

Steaming works very well with pond lily leaves too, and is
usually the way we prepare this part of the vegetable.
Older, tougher pads may require 20 minutes of the treatment
before they’re “just right” and ready to eat with a pat of
butter and seasoning.

For a change of pace with these greens, we also like to
cover a cup of chopped wild or domestic onion and two cups
of chopped pond lily leaves with water and simmer them for
twenty minutes. During the last five minutes we add a pat
of butter and some whole grain bread crumbs. When you
remove, drain and serve this dish, you can drink the juice
or use it for pond lily soup. Backpackers will find that
any of the freeze dried onion mixes will work as well as
boiled raw onions in this recipe, and everyone who tries
the dish will soon discover that pond lilies get tougher
and require longer cooking as the season progresses.

Pond lily soup will brighten any fall day. Start a
kettleful by simmering a pound of deer or moose leg bone
for an hour or until it starts to get tender. At that
point, drop in a good-sized chunk of bacon to simmer along
for about another hour. When all the meat is tender, remove
it from the fire, cool and chop into inch-thick cubes. Put
the chopped meat back in the liquid, slice a double handful
of pond lily leaves and any other vegetable you might have
and drop them into the stock. Cook until the leaves are
tender, then season very well and serve piping hot.


Now it happens in September or October that all the
ingredients for pond lily fritters are just waiting to be
used by the food forager. The first ingredient and probably
the hardest to find is squirrel meat. This isn’t to imply
that there aren’t plenty of squirrels . . . it simply means
that securing one is harder than picking a plant. A most
sporting and time honored way to do the job is by hiding
very early in the morning in an oak or hickory thicket and
waiting quietly until one shows up for harvest with a
well-placed .22 bullet. Many folks (like me) who aren’t
sure of their aim use a shotgun while others (the real
experts) gather bushytails with a slingshot or bow and

If it happens that you don’t have a gun or other weapon and
still want to catch a squirrel, there are other ways. One
of the fastest is to take a pocketful of rocks and throw
them at a squirrel in a tree until you either very luckily
hit and stun him or — more likely — he gets
scared and scampers into a hole.

If the hole is too hard to get close to, keep searching out
squirrels until you have one in a hollow that you can get
to. Then find a piece of barbed wire about four feet long
and thread it into the opening until you touch the little
varmint. When you feel the wire make contact, bend a handle
on your end and twist until you have the squirrel’s tail
wrapped up. Then pull him out and dispatch him.

Now I know from experience that an army of animal “lovers”
and misinformed conservationists are going to arise and
smite me for mentioning this. Please remember, though
— before you write — that I’m only trying to
help homesteaders who honestly are endeavoring to forage
food and need whatever help they can get.

When you have the squirrel, clean him by chopping
off the head, feet and tail and cut a slit across the skin
in the middle of the back. Insert your forefingers in the
slit and pull the halves of the hide away from each other
and off the body. Then cut a slit from between the hind
legs to between the front legs and pull out the intestines
and organs. Cut the meat into quarters, wash or wipe off
the blood and cool the chunks in the refrigerator or in
cold water.

The acorn part of the stew can be picked up under oak trees
almost anywhere in the world except the far north.
Remember, however, that acorns have to be shelled, ground
and boiled in at least three changes of water to make them

When you have acorns ground into flour, mix 1-1/4 cups of
the meal with one teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon
salt and add enough water to make a sticky dough. Then
divide the quarters of squirrel in half, salt and pepper
the pieces and roll them in the acorn dough. Finally, take
large pieces of pond lily leaf, parboil them in salted
water for at least ten minutes and roll the batter-coated
squirrel meat in individual wrappings of leaves. Place in a
350-degree oven for about one hour or until the meat is

The leaf of the pond lily isn’t the only part of the water
vegetable that’s good. The unopened buds — which are
best before the flower starts to show — and the roots
can be eaten also.

I enjoy the buds boiled a few minutes in salted water or
steamed and served with melted butter or yogurt.

The flower buds can also be pickled. Pick and wash about a
quart of the unopened blossoms and pack them into a mason
jar. Heat to boiling a mixture of one cup apple cider
vinegar, 1/4 cup salt and 1/2 teaspoon alum. Pour the
solution over the buds, add water to fill the jars, throw
in a pinch of dill if you have it and add a red pepper or
two. Seal and let stand for about two months.

Pond lily buds, flowers and leaves can be wilted in
vegetable oil or bacon grease also. Just cut them into
bite-sized pieces and stir ’em around in hot grease until
they’re well-coated and turning brown at the edges.

As huge and abundant as lily leaves are, the underwater
portion of the plant probably outdoes them in sheer mass.
As mentioned before, the roots and stems are huge and long
with a skin that looks like something left over from
prehistoric times. When pulled up by storms, ice, beavers
or muskrats they’ll often float around until they finally
lodge and start a new colony. Loose, floating pond lily
roots can be used for food . . . but sometimes
they’re soft and half rotten so I always pull my own. A
turtle hook works very well for this and, occasionally, the
long tentacles come up as a bonus when I’m gathering lily
leaves and stalks.

Now the interior of the pond lily’s root is soft and
spongy, but very clean and white. In fact it looks like
it’d be good enough to eat as soon as it’s peeled. Not so.
Sections of the water vegetable’s underpinnings do have to
be peeled, of course . . . but even then- they’re too
bitter to eat.

Accordingly, the way to prepare a pond lily root is to,
first, pull it up (easy) and, second, peel it (somewhat
difficult due to its spongy and tough nature). I use a very
sharp knife and still have to saw a bit to get the brown
skin and the “eyes” shucked away.

When I’m down to white root, I cut it into thick slices and
boil the pieces in several changes of water until the pulp
loses its acrid taste. Adding vinegar to the water also
helps neutralize the bitterness and prepare the sections of
root for baking, french frying or floating in soup.

Baked pond lily root is made by half filling a medium-sized
baking dish with the processed slices. Add a large double
pat of butter. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and add 3/4
cup of water in which a potato has been boiled and mashed.
Cover with parboiled pond lily leaves and bake at 375
degrees for about 25 minutes.


When I get tired of eating pond lily roots I’ll probably
look for some nettles before the frost has laid them low,
because the common stinging nettle is one of the best
plants to bring inside for “forcing” in the basement.

A nettle root is forced or grown inside by placing it in
moist sand in the basement . . . and just waiting for it to
send up its white stalk. This young shoot and its leaves
are both very good and very nutritious . . . they can be
eaten raw or cooked into any vegetable or meat stew that
you might happen to be making. First, however, before we
can plant it we must dig the root.

I try to spot this wild vegetable — which usually
grows in a colony — after a fall rain. When I find
one I cut the stalk off and dig up the good-sized root,
surrounding dirt and all. The more soil that can be left on
the underground portion of the plant, the sooner it’ll
start to grow in the basement. Figure on about a dozen of
these starts for each person you intend to feed over the

The nettle sprouts are pinched off when they’re about four
to six inches long and then are boiled for just a few
minutes and served with a pat of butter . . . or they can
be used in any good fall soup. We like to add one cup of
the chopped shoots to two cups of beef stock, simmer for 20
minutes, add salt and pepper and eat hot with whole grain

Planting the roots in boxes of sand in the basement, of
course, is only one of many uses of the nettle. Early in
the spring the young plants are very good greens and are
packed with almost unbelievable amounts of vitamin C and
vitamin A.

Now as most country people know, the nettle does possess
sharp venom-tipped thorns that will raise welts on your
skin at the slightest touch. The venom affects livestock
also and it’s very seldom that animals will eat green
nettles. After it’s cut and dried in hay, however, the
plant makes very good fodder . . . and cooking changes the
caustic acid in nettles into nourishing people food.

We pick nettle greens with gloves on and wash the spiny
leaves by stirring them in a pan of cold water with a
long-handled spoon (so we don’t get stung by the venom). It
sometimes takes a change of water to clean off all the
clinging dust and insects. When the nettles are washed we
drop them into a saucepan that has a closefitting lid, and
boil them for two or three minutes in about 1/4 inch of
water. They make their own juice so, if the fire isn’t too
hot, only a very little water is needed. When the greens
are cooked, we serve them with a pat of butter and drink
all the juice that’s left when we drain them.

Nettle is also good when cooked with other greens —
such as sour dock (Rumex crispus ) — to give
a variety of flavors. The good thing about using these two
in combination is that the juice from sour dock seems to
have a beneficial effect when rubbed on the welts that will
surely develop if you accidently touch the nettles. Of
course the caustic acid that generates the swelling will be
neutralized in a few minutes by the body anyway . . . so
sooner or later — sour dock or no — the welts
are bound to disappear.

Another dish that can be made with young spring nettles or
the shoots forced in your basement is nettle pudding. Wash,
chop and cook one heaping cup of nettle greens. Add one
large, chopped onion or a half cup of wild onions. Process
a cup of milkweed flower buds by boiling them in two
changes of water for one minute each time. Add the buds to
the nettle mixture. Then for flavor and body mix together
1-1/2 cups of ground deer meat (hamburger will do) and
three slices of diced bacon and add to the pudding fixin’s.
Season with 1/8 teaspoon of salt and a good sprinkling of
sage. Tie the mixture into a clean, white cloth and boil
for about an hour in a large kettle. Serve with milk gravy
or butter.

The nettle has other uses too. Fibers from the plant can be
made into one of the finest cloths. Also, it’s a wonderful
herb for curing scurvy and vitamin A deficiency. The
ancient herbalists used nettles as a remedy for rheumatism,
poisoning. from other plants and a long list of assorted
ills. The good old nettle, then, deserves recognition for
things other than just the skin rash it produces on unwary
folks. Paradoxically, a plant that has a well-known flavor
but is almost unknown itself is wintergreen.


Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), checkerberry,
teaberry, mountainberry and partridgeberry are all local
names for small, shrubby, recumbent plant that sends up
little, hear shaped green leaves and a fruiting sprig from
a slender stem that creeps among — sometimes under
and sometimes on top of the leaves. Later in the year the
sprig will bear bright red berries. All of the plant
— the leaves, the twigs, and the fruit —
contains wintergreen oil . . . the flavoring that’s used in
candy, toothpaste, food and a host of other products. By
some strange quirk of nature this is the same oil that’s
contained in the huge black birch (Betula lenta)
tree that was described in an earlier issue of

One of the chief uses of wintergreen is the tea made from
the plant. We brew ours by picking the leaves after they’ve
turned red and then drying them . . . September and October
is a good time for this. When they’ve cured we grind a
quart of the leaves and place them in a jar. Then we cover
the powder with a quart of boiling water, seal the
container and let it stand in the warm house for two days.
The longer it sets the stronger the tea, and the redder the
leaves the pinker the liquid will be.

This tea can be drunk warm or cool but if we heat it we’re
very careful not to boil the solution since that seems to
make it lose most, if not all of its flavor. Most people
like to strain the “grounds” out but I find I like the
taste enough to swallow them along with the liquid. Nothing
. . . but nothing cures a headache for me as fast as a
good, warm cup of wintergreen tea, swallowed grounds and
all. Wintergreen tea is also very refreshing and warming to
the body.

A pink wine can be made from this tea by stirring four
pounds of honey into three gallons of the strained brew in
a stone crock. Add a cake of yeast and let the tea ferment
for about two weeks under a cloth. When it quits bubbling,
siphon the liquid off into bottles. Cap the containers
tightly and let the concoction age for about a month . . .
longer if you have the patience. Chill and serve.

Wintergreen berries have a very delightful, cool taste that
goes really well in flavored gelatin or eaten in a
delicious yogurt.

This yogurt is made by substituting wintergreen tea for the
water that would normally be used to dissolve the powdered
milk. It’s well to add a teaspoonful of liquified gelatin
to each cup of the yogurt mix also. Otherwise, proceed as
usual, slip in a little honey or other sweetener if you
desire and eat the dish as a snack or dessert.

Ground Cherry

Another plant that makes a fine dessert is the ground
cherry (Physalis pubescens). The ground cherry is
a sprawling plant that usually doesn’t get over eight
inches high. It’s almost indistinguishable from a multitude
of other weeds until late summer or fall when it bears its
fruit in a Chinese lantern type of husk. This husk is
almost always straw-colored and is very often found growing
in bunches. Eaten alone, ground cherries are a little too
sweet for me to enjoy so I combine them with hazelnuts for
a raw dessert that’ll make almost anyone smack their

Pick, husk and wash about a quart of ground cherries. Set
the blender at its lowest speed, drop the cherries in and
chop them for a few seconds. Remove and replace with a pint
of hazelnut meats that you’ve picked and shelled. Chop the
nuts in the blender for a few seconds, mix them with the
chopped cherries, add chilled milk, a very little cinnamon
and stir very well. Place the mixture back in the
refrigerator, chill and serve very cool. That’s good