Wild Edible Wednesday!
Our last wild edible blog of the year...so let's do a two-fer! This has been such a fun journey with you all, and sharing this information with all of you has been a great joy. Today we are talking trees. Big, beautiful, shade giving, wind-protecting, leafy trees. One variety is found here in the mid-west and in more southern areas, the other is found everywhere. Here we go!
For hundreds of years, cultures around the world have used willow for headaches. Correct that...thousands of years! As far back as the Assyrians (4000 B.C.), there is evidence of using willow as a pain reliever. However, the willow also exhibits anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antipyretic (fever reducer), antigesic (produces immune response), and antiseptic properties, and was paramount in the discovery the world's foremost pain killer. That's right, folks, in case you were unaware, by extracting the salacin from the willow bark and crystallizing it to create salacitic acid back in 1853, Aspirin was born.
Prior to scientists chemically manipulating the properties of the willow to make it easier to consume and in the proper quantities, people would simply chew on a willow stem, or peel a little bark from a fresh shoot and either suck on it, or make tea out of it. It does not matter the willow species, they all have a certain amount of salacin in the bark, but the white willow has the greatest concentration, then black willow, then weeping willow. No matter, they all work. Anything aspirin can do, willow bark can do. This includes giving you an upset stomach if you are sensitive to aspirin. The good news, however, is there is now scientific proof that willow bark does not cause the liver/stomach/esophogus issues that Tylenol and Ibuprofin does. It also grows in abundance. Have you ever tried to kill off a willow tree? Good luck. (Again, it goes back to manna. See blog post #1 for details).
So how much willow bark can I safely consume? Great question. Here is the most common dosage for bark tea: 1-2 tbsp bark chopped fine, 1 cup boiling water. 3x daily.
I have read dozens of stories of people who work outside and routinely chew on a small twig when they feel a headache coming on. Note: They are very bitter!
I would suggest, with the world getting upside down and supply chains beyond fragile, that you locate your nearest willow tree and harvest twigs whenever you can. Dry them and store them away in glass jars until you need them. They can be ground into powder and added to any drink. Honestly, who cares if it tastes yucky and bitter, so does Tylenol if you chew them up. I just want to know I have a back-up plan.
The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman (Element Books, 1996). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1319610310000578, https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/willow-bark
Our next edible tree is one that grows in such abundance on our property, it has taken over most of the hillside. In fact, I have seen evidence of it colonizing in other parts of the property this year, and I may have to get aggressive at removing it! With that said, I bet I can find a good use for the ones I dig up...
scientific name: sassafras albidum
Oh how I love this tree! First off, let's identify it. Look at the photo above, and notice the 5 or so leaves at the very bottom of the branch. There are three distinct leaf shapes on the Sassafras tree: the duck foot, the mitten, and the simple leaf. I could give you the true scientific names and explain them in detail, but seriously, look at the leaves and tell me what you see. This is such an incredibly unique feature of this tree: three different leaves on the same stem.
If crushed, the leaves are aromatic and citrusy, reminiscent of root beer. And that, my friends, is exactly what we are going to discuss!
You do not actually use the leaves for this purpose. Rather, young, raw leaves can be eaten like salad, or they can be dried and ground into powder to make a stew flavoring/thickener, commonly used as gumbo seasoning. Commercially it is sold as "gumbo file`". On average; 1 oz. sells for $12. I am so in the wrong business.
The leaf buds can be pickled and used as capers, and the small twigs make excellent aromatic toothpicks. But enough small talk, let's talk ROOT BEER!!!
Dig the roots in late winter or early spring before the trees start budding and new growth begins. As I have learned on my own property, Sassafras sends up hundreds of shoots each year so dig, dig, dig. Now that you have a bucket full of sassafras roots, let the fun begin!
Before I give you the recipe, I need to cite a concern from all the big pharmaceutical companies and the FDA...Sassafras root contains safrole. In very high quantities over an extensive amount of time and in a controlled environment, safrole was shown to potentially cause liver cancer in lab rats. So please, do not feed Sassafras roots to rats. There, now that we have addressed that, let's get on with it.
Try to collect only small roots from tiny saplings if possible. They are much easier to clean and process.
Begin by washing the roots thoroughly, then chop into 1/2" pieces until you have 1 full cup. Put the roots into a small pot and cover with 4 cups of water. Add 2 cloves, 1/2 tsp anise seeds, 4 allspice berries, (bonus points if you use wild spice berries!) and a 1" cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 25 minutes. Stir in 2 tbsp molasses and continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or fine sieve lined with a flour sack towel. Rinse the pot, Add the liquid back into the pot, mix in 1 cup sugar (use raw cane sugar please) then heat slowly over med/low, simmer until sugar melts, (optional: Add 1/4 tsp vanilla extract). Remove from heat and let cool. (It should be syrupy)
Once cooled, pour 1/3 cup syrup over ice in a glass, and add 2/3 cup soda water. (1-2 ratio).Enjoy your root beer!
EVERY RECIPE IS DIFFERENT! Make it your own by adding ginger, brown sugar, licorice, mint, or dandelion root. Have fun with it.
If you want fermented root beer (actually why it is called beer) I have linked a recipe below.
We will definitely be doing this again this year, and maybe even making it a class with our B&B guests. Paired with some home made ice cream...that is the epitome of summer!
Thank you all for hanging out with us the last couple of months and learning about food and medicine you can find in and around your back yard. Sometime in mid january, I will start a new blog about common herbs that we all know and grow, and what their uses and benefits are, not just how great they taste. I promise, these will be things you already have in your kitchen and nothing you have to go find at a specialty market.
Until then, have the Merriest Christmas, or a perfect Hanukkah, and keep your lights shining. We will get back together soon.
God bless you all!