Knowledge of Botanical Families enhances your learning process
[PHOTOS: from top, Sow thistle, Dandelion, Chicory]
[Nyerges is the author of “Foraging Edible Wild Plants of North America,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has been leading outdoor classes since 1974. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.]
During the field trips that I’ve conducted for the past 35 years, I show participants how to identify common edible plants, and we make a simple meal on nearly every field trip. Some of these most common wild edibles can be initially learned after a few hours – or days -- of focussed study, and practice. Once you take the time to learn the key features of these plants, and after you’ve watched them throughout a growing season, you’ll know them whenever and wherever you see them. One by one by one is how I’ve learned about wild edibles. And though there is no shortcut to this learning, you can accelerate your comprehension and mastery of ethnobotany if you also learn about plant families.
Some examples of common plant families include the rose family, sunflower family, goosefoot family, mustard family, mint family, and so on. Botanists group plants together by their similar floral, fruit, and leaf characteristics, with the floral characteristics being the most important. You’ll note that many of the traits of plants (poisons, alkaloids, medicines, foods, etc.) often run in families. There are obviously many exception s to this, but plants that are related by floral characteristics often share other traits as well.
For example, one of the largest plant families is the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). This is a huge botanical family, consisting of about 21,000 species of plants, divided into approximately 1,300 genera. It’s such a large group that botanists have sub-divided it into groups or tribes. Depending on whether the particular botanist is a “splitter” or a “grouper,” you’ll find from 11 to 13 groups in the Sunflower Family.
Today, let’s focus on just one of those groups or tribes within the Sunflower Family. Here in California, I use The Jepson Manual of the Higher Plants of California, published in 1993. [There is some such reference used by botanists for every part of the U.S. and much of the world. It would enhance your learning to obtain the official book of flora for wherever you live.]
When I was in high school and studying from the 1925 version of Jepson’s manual, the Sunflower Family was divided into groups called tribes. One of these tribes used to be called the Chicory Tribe, though in the latest edition it is simply referred to as “Group 7.” According to Dr. Leonid Enari, the former chief botanist with the L.A. County Arboretum, the Chicory Tribe of the Sunflower Family consists of no toxic plants, and all that are palatable can be eaten.
THE CHICORY TRIBE
If you already know how to recognize a dandelion, or a chicory plant, you’re familiar with the Chicory Tribe.
As I reviewed the genera of the Chicory Tribe, many consisted of only one species of a plant not commonly known. Where I live, there are as many natives as there are exotics.
Perhaps the best general statement that can be made about the Chicory Tribe is that none are known to be poisonous. I have eaten many of them, raw and cooked, including the ragweeds (Agoseris sp.), whose pollen is often responsible for allergies. Tasting a bit like medicine, it is nevertheless palatable.
I have also eaten the malacothrix greens on numerous occasions. These western natives are called prickly lettuce and desert dandelion, among other names, suggesting they have been eaten. As they mature they are incredibly bitter, and therefore I only regard the very young growth as palatable.
Another member of this Tribe, Picris, has only one species, an introduced plant known as bristly ox-tongue. The leaf actually looks like a big tongue, covered with soft spines. Though edible, it is not palatable when raw, and even cooking does not entirely reduce the stickers. I would only use it for food if I had nothing else available.
Fortunately, most parts of North America have many of the common members of the Chicory Tribe, such as chicory, wild lettuce (Lactuca), sow thistle, dandelion, and salsify, all exotics.
If you’re already familiar with a dandelion, then you’re well on your way to learning to recognize this entire Tribe. Note that the flowers of these are composite, that is, each flower is composed of a tight group of individual flowers. What appears to be a single dandelion flower is in reality up to several hundred flowers clustered together.
RECOGNIZING THE CHICORY TRIBE
Here are some of the key characteristics which help you recognize the Chicory Tribe:
First, there is the composite “dandelion-like” flower. It doesn’t have to be yellow, as it may appear white, orange, blue, etc.
Also, the tip of each “petal” is 5-lobed. You might have to look with a magnifying glass to see this.
In addition, there is generally a milky sap when you break the leaf or stem.
I recommend that you begin by studying the dandelion, and then attempt to identify other members of this tribe by these guidelines. However, don’t eat any of these until you have positively ascertained that it’s actually in the Chicory Tribe. Even then, many of the members of this Tribe are very bitter, and some are fibrous. Even though none are toxic, that doesn’t mean that all are readily palatable.
In other words, don’t eat anything until you’re positive, and even then go slowly!
The leaves of dandelion are incredibly nutritious, but also bitter. Cooking can reduce the bitterness. Young sow thistle, lettuce, and chicory leaves can all be used raw; as they mature and get bitter, they are best cooked like spinach, or added to soups, stews, and other cooked dishes.
The dandelion, sow thistle, chicory, and salsify all have edible roots. All should be cooked to tenderize. Sow thistle roots tend to be the smallest, but the size of all of these will depend on the richness of the soil they’re growing in.
These roots – primarily chicory and dandelion -- also have a long history of being dried, roasted, ground, and used as a caffein-free coffee substitute.