Wild Tropical Flavors of the Upper Midwest

We won’t find feral mangoes or papaya here–but it’s pretty cool that at least a few of our native and naturalized flora feature flavors very reminiscent of the tropics. I’d met some of these plants before; it just became thematic for me over the last year. There are more than these–some I’m currently forgetting, and some, I’m sure, that I haven’t encountered yet.

If you haven’t, may you meet some of them soon!


The first time I ate a really good, ripe mayapple fruit, I wanted to turn into a small wild hog for the day, rooting through the entire woods until it became too dark to see under the umbrellas of leaves, and continuing by smell until I fell asleep satiated in the midst of a patch of plants. At its best, the pulp of the mayapple (you really only want the pulp, not the skin, pith or seeds–and the fruit has to be fully ripe, without a trace of pale green remaining) tastes to me like the best pineapple guava we used to get in the co-op’s produce department: fragrant and floral, with a bit of tanginess. Incomparable, and one of those treasures you feel blessed to find in any quantity; every summer I watch the patches in the woods I frequent, and I almost always miss the perfect day, returning to find that fortunate animals have eaten them all, or that a summer storm has knocked all the fruit off to let it rot on the ground–and leave seed for more mayapples. Oh, those rare times of abundance, though.


You can find at least one entire good book on papaw. I hardly want to write about it here. Kind of like a banana must be when you eat a truly tree-ripened specimen that’s not our familiar Cavendish? I don’t know, but probably. Like an amazing custard. Decadent. Fleeting. Huge. Magical.

Female Spruce Cones

Wow. I love spruce tips, as a tea and culinary herb, and use them in all kinds of applications. When my friend Amanda brought the big, tender, maroon young female spruce cones over last spring, though, I was blown away. Passion fruit. A little hint of citrus. A luscious, floral flavor and intoxicating aroma. I still can’t believe it. We put some in a spicy jelly, and in a ghost pepper hot sauce that vanished from the market table almost instantly. It’s so good. We only had a little last year, and I’m tremendously excited to try more.

Dame’s Rocket Flowers

A subtle revelation. Dame’s rocket greens are great–such a mild and pleasant mustard for cooking, and you can get a ton of them quickly around here, as long as you’re certain an area hasn’t been sprayed to kill the previous season’s flower stalks (which, um, they so often seem to do after the plant has gone to seed in many of the spots I’ve noticed–thus merely poisoning the area and making a perfect seed-bed for the next year’s plants). The flower, surprisingly, has a nice little taste of something like sweet cherry tomato crossed with a flavor that, when amplified a bit, really reminds me of fruit punch! This may qualify as “faux-tropical,” but it’s not like anything else I’ve tasted from here. We made a jelly from it, and a wild-fermented vinegar that, while fully acidified, remained stubbornly sweet and sippable. At my park ranger job, I was experimenting with repeatedly dead-heading the Dame’s Rocket on an erosive slope, rather than yanking its roots out of the ground. We’ll see what the effects of that are this season; in any case, it’s always a blast to make interesting food from a plant you’d ideally like to discourage.

Prickly Ash

Blissful summer day. Poor year for chanterelles, even in this spot that’s been so abundant the last few years–this spot I’ve visited so many times, but always have to stumble around to find again. I swear the whole shape of the land changes every time; the cliff face gets closer or farther away, and the bend in the trail that tells me to head downhill disappears or doubles. It’ll rain tomorrow, and my dad & daughter friends, who I’ll try to guide here by text while I pay the bills at home, will find a marvelous harvest of all kinds of fungi. Today, though, it’s me and my three-year-old companion, who insists on being carried back to the car while he holds the basket containing our three or four mushrooms.

Just before we get out of the woods, I see a few little trees off the trail, their branches covered with clusters of little, round, bright red berries. Definitely not in any of the forms I’m familiar with from highbush cranberry, honeysuckle and bittersweet. It has to be prickly ash, which I’ve been wanting to find and try this year, especially since reading ForagerChef’s posts on the plant. The vicious-looking thorns, leaf pattern, size and bark color are all right, and a few minutes of checking sources while my kiddo complains makes me certain enough to loosen a few berries, rub them between my palms, and swooning when I breathe in the spicy citrus scent. I try one, and an amazing, complex flavor covers my tongue, which almost immediately starts tingling, just like it should. I offer some to Miksa. “These are de-LICIOUS.” We each eat a handful as if they were plump, sweet and juicy, instead of grainy, weird and magical, and then I drive home with my mouth completely numb, perfectly happy with the outcome of our foray.

A couple of weeks later I find a lot more at a beloved county park that I’ve visited to harvest an humbling quantity of wild plums. While I’m picking up plums from the edge of one grove, an Asian woman comes around the corner with her two young sons, who immediately run up to help me gather fruit. We all talk for a while, and, as we’re finishing up, I think to offer them a taste of the prickly ash berries I’d bagged up earlier. The woman tastes a few, and her face brightens. “This is my hometown! It tastes like Szechaun.”

Zanthoxylum americanum is indeed a close relative of the Szechuan peppercorn, and, in fact, you’ll sometimes find it just sold as “prickly ash” in Chinese grocery stores. It’s our only native member of the Rutaceae (citrus) family, and it’s delightful that it’s a native plant, since it’s so widely despised, forming thick and vicious thickets along pasture and field edges (and probably performing some valuable roles there for our own human purposes, like dissuading some animals from moving from one area into another and browsing on things we’d rather have them leave alone; I don’t know this–I’m just guessing).

In any case, prickly ash does provide a wonderful, unique citrus flavor that you don’t generally find among Midwestern native plants. I love its fresh and numbing aspect, as well as its more peppery flavor once it’s been dried and ground. Look around for some proper Chinese recipes, and you’ll find countless uses for this spice. So far, I’ve enjoyed it the most sprinkled on stir-fried meat and veggies, especially in homemade kimchi–as well as in my favorite hot sauce of the 2021 season, with Thai chilies, lemongrass and dehydrated kimchi ground into a spice powder. It’s also been a revelation as part of a subtle spice mix suggested for Pao Cai, a traditional Chinese ferment described in Sandor Katz’s gorgeous recent book . I want to use it everywhere.

Cow Parsnip

On foraging walks I almost always, when introducing cow parsnip, say that I love it, but that it’s not to everybody’s taste–and then people always seem to love it.  It’s definitely one of my favorite wild vegetables; with a handful of foraging friends around here, I’m an enthusiastic member of the cow parsnip fan club.  Now that I’ve started using the seeds as spice as well, it’s a plant that I can taste in some form through most of the year.

Heracleum maximum, as its fabulous Latin name suggests, gets huge–bigger than everything but ragweed you’re likely to see in South Central Wisconsin.  Big leaves, tall stalk, wide umbelliferous flower–everything about it is big.  There’s also some big fear about it–like common parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), its sap can give people pretty nasty blisters if their skin is exposed to the sun following contact.  The phototoxic effect can also be found in more familiar, domesticated members of the Apiaceae; when I worked in a produce department, several fair-skinned co-workers found that, if they went outside for lunch on a bright day after plunging their arms repeatedly into a sinkfull of water and celery, they’d end up with some nasty burns.  As with parsnip, though, the fear of Heracleum is a little overblown.  Nobody gets rashes simply by brushing against a leaf or stalk.  It’s not a difficult plant to harvest carefully, and it won’t hurt you on the inside.

I do keep the warnings in mind, though, when I’m tempted to lie down among the early greens of cow parsnip and rub my face around on its soft, fuzzy surfaces.  Those early greens taste like a cross between celery and fennel, but far better than either, with a hint of citrus and a flavor that’s perfume-ey, in a good way.  I like them a lot as a raw nibble.  In a soup (especially a classic chicken soup, with spring-dug wild parsnip roots and ideally a big handful of chopped wild leek greens), they’re just fabulous.  Samuel Thayer reports that this plant is so widely used in traditional European cuisine that its name is the generic term for soup vegetables in many cultures (“borscht” is its Russian name, for example).

As the leaves grow, so do their stems, and then the big flower stalk gets going.  These are my favorite parts of the plant–crunchy and wonderful, with an amplified flavor that offers more sweetness, and a soothing aspect I particularly enjoy, and that’s common to some other plants in the family.  The stems and stalks taste different from one another; both need to be peeled (the skin is pretty fibrous), and the stems are a little trickier, so I end up eating more flower stalks out of laziness.  The stalks also get nice and thick just before the plant flowers (after which they’re too tough to eat).  They’re hollow, and I’ve come to love slicing them in half lengthwise, stuffing them with goat cheese, and drizzling honey over them.  Here, as in many other applications, I’d switch them out for celery; their flavor mellows with cooking.  Tip: peel them right away, or they’ll become much more difficult to deal with quickly.

I have yet to work much with the unopened flower buds, though I absolutely will, this year, try making fritters (here, as with the use of the seeds, ForagerChef Alan Bergo is again a fantastic resource).  I’ll also try fermenting the stalks, which Alan says is repulsive–but I have to try–and I need to see what happens if I make a jelly and a vinegar from the flowers. They’ll probably be weird.

Over the last year I’ve begun using the seeds as a seasoning.  On their own, they’re the part of the plant that people on my walks are not likely to enjoy.  They’re definitely strong and kind of soapy, but that doesn’t disqualify them from use; ever had a dish with too much rosemary, or too much fennel?  It’s just a matter of balance.  Cow parsnip seeds (called golpar in Middle Eastern cuisine), as Mr. Bergo observes, go well with other carrot family spices, especially cumin.  For the market, I’ve made a couple of weird things in which they really shine: a kumquat and sour orange-based marmalade in which the golpar brings out the subtle hint of fennel in the kumquats, and a jalapeno hot sauce with numerous wild Apiaceae seasonings.

Ecologically, it’s a great plant to harvest around here.  We have a lot of its favorite habitat–woodland and grassland edges, near water, as well as wide, deep ditches–and, in those spots, it’s incredibly abundant.  Carrot/parsley family plants tend to produce huge numbers of seeds; in areas where we’ve harvested pretty heavily for years, the cow parsnip population has only grown, probably because of seed bed that will most likely last for decades, and maybe because of all the garlic mustard we’ve removed from the patches every season.  removal we’ve done every season.

I can’t wait for this spring’s first cow parsnip!  Like so many wild plants, there’s nothing really to compare with it at any grocery store or farmers’ market, at least in this country.  If you don’t learn it this April and May, look for it later, when its Herculean stature becomes its best identifying feature, and take a nibble of this wonderful plant.

Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica. It’s a wonderful food plant, easy to gather in large quantities. It’s delicious, with a deep green flavor that reminds me a little of seaweed. Nettle is a nutritional powerhouse, famously higher in iron than just about any plant food, boasting a good deal of protein and a suite of beneficial micronutrients. It’s been employed medicinally by European types for ages.  I’ve had multiple friends who’d gone through many medications for severe seasonal allergies, and daily drinking of nettle tea has been a boon to them.  If you can take the sting, it also helps with arthritis and muscle pain when you rub it on the sore area.  I’ve recently heard a lot more about nettle seeds as good medicine to support adrenal functioning. Along with a handful of other plants, nettle seems very good at holding back waves of garlic mustard. That’s a personal observation, and I’m curious about its broad accuracy–but, in any case, this old import (wood nettle is our native species) seems to have naturalized here beautifully.

In any case, I’m supposed to be primarily making a post on how to cook this plant.  When they’re only a few inches high, you can eat stinging nettles raw, if you’re bold.  I don’t do it much.  I tend to pan-fry them (no chopping necessary) in olive oil or bacon fat, sprinkling it with a little water and a little salt. They’re even better with ramps or garlic greens.  Young nettles make a great soup; blend them in stock with cream.  I’ll update this post sometime with a recipe for nettle malfatti, an Italian dumpling that knocks my socks off.

The main things to know are that nettles are better than spinach, and that frying, blending, blanching and drying for tea all dismantle the stingers.  Any recipe is likely to start with a 30-second dunk in boiling water.

More soon!

Sochan (cutleaf coneflower)

sochan1Rudbeckia lacinata is a prolific plant in prairie areas, especially near lakes and marshes, all around the Madison area.  Sochan has been an important food plant for the Cherokee in particular, and, once you get to know it, it’s easy to see why.  Young sochan shoots are delicious raw, and even better prepared simply, gently cooked in olive oil or bacon fat with a tiny amount of garlic and a little salt.  The flavor reminds me of green beans, but better, with a hint of the slight pepperiness (it’s not the right word–I’m searching for a good description) characteristic of its other edible cousins in the Aster family.

Each plant provides plenty of tender leaves, and cutleaf coneflower tends to grow in large clusters.  Later in its life cycle the leaves change shape and get pretty large, and cutting off the flower heads in the summer will bring on a fresh, secondary crop of leaves.  The larger and later leaves have a more pronounced “aster” flavor, and require more chopping and longer cooking, but they’re still delicious, and at this stage provide a lot more bulk.

In the spring, look for last year’s distinctive dried stalks and their seedheads.  If you get to know the plant later in its season one year, it becomes easy to recognize it at the beginning of the next season.  Sochan is great in soups and quiches, with eggs, or as a side dish on its own.  It’s a mild but flavorful wild green, well worth introducing to your diet.

For more on sochan, check out the Forager Chef’s site, and–as he’ll recommend–Samuel Thayer’s extensive account in his unsurpassed Incredible Wild Edibles.