Feeding on weeds

No need to spray Roundup on that invasive plant. Instead harvest it for lunch.

Mr. Reno says Euell Gibbons used to live on berries, pine cones and Grape Nuts …

Mr. Reno says Euell Gibbons used to live on berries, pine cones and Grape Nuts …

Photo By David Robert

His feet sink into the soggy mud. He reaches for a cattail, sticks his hand down into the marshy goo and pulls up the plant by its root—or its rhizome, to be botanically correct. He holds out the dripping plant.

“Is this it?” the student asks our instructor, Evert Broderick.

Yup, that’s what we’re digging for—lunch.

Not that we’re exactly starving. Broderick, 47, the instructor for TMCC’s Edible and Medicinal Plant Workshop, has fed us weeds since early this morning. I’m tagging along with Broderick, his partner, Kim Powers, and about 18 students who are learning where to dig for desert onions, how to harvest chokecherries and the many uses of mugwort.

The cattail is rinsed and peeled. The edible part is a tender inner portion of the stalk near the base. I take a piece. It’s layered like an onion but mildly sweet. Definitely an improvement over the stringy white starchy stuff in the rhizome I’d just eaten.

Just so happens you can eat many parts of a cattail, Broderick tells us.

We aren’t surprised. In the past six hours, we’ve eaten parts of cottonwood trees, pineapple weed, tumbleweed, thistles, steamed milkweed flowers, wood roses and even stinging nettles (also steamed). We’ve hiked up hills to clumps of ephedra—and sampled Mormon tea. We’ve eaten weeds I recognize from my back yard, like common mallow, a deep-rooted bugger that sets up shop in my decorative rock.

So cattail? Why not?

Rhizomes. Stalks. In late spring, the enlarged, green, hot-dog shaped portion of a cattail can be boiled or steamed and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. Mmm. But that’s not all.

“Euell Gibbons calls cattails the ‘supermarket of the swamp,'” Broderick says, referring to a widely read naturalist. He holds up a container of fine yellow powder—pollen.

Cattail pollen was a staple in the diet of the Stillwater Paiutes, who used it as a kind of flour.

Broderick flings a handful of pollen into his mouth. He can’t talk for 30 seconds. Then he cautions us against inhaling pollen and says the powder is dry.

“Like peanut butter?” someone asks. “Does it stick to the roof of your mouth?”

He passes around the pollen. I sample a spoonful. Not bad. Rich, sweet—finely textured.

One woman points out a weed growing at the edge of the marshy area.

“Hey, is this like a wild parsley?”

“No, that’s poison hemlock,” Broderick says. “Let’s take a look at it. Every year, people die in the United States eating hemlock after mistaking it for an edible plant.”

It’s good to know what not to eat, we agree.

Unfortunately, Mr. Reno made the common mistake of confusing the edible camus with its similar-looking cousin, death camus.

Photo By David Robert

While we’re smelling hemlock and taping a sprig into our plant ID binders, Powers pulls a treat out of her pack.

“I’ve got cattail pollen cookies!” she says.

Broderick, looking the part of lean, tan explorer, wears a blue outdoorsman shirt, well-worn sandals and tan North Face shorts with odd circular patterns. He wore these shorts on a hike through a cloud forest in northern Ecuador last year. A guide took a fig from a parasitic plant, cut it in half and stamped the resinous dye on his clothes.

“It was so cool, what my guide was doing, that—wow,” Broderick says, “I wanted to do that too.”

Broderick, a Reno massage therapist, has been interested in all things botanical since he was a teenager. As a Reno High School junior in the 1970s, he first read outdoorsman Bradford Angier’s book Survival With Style: In Trouble or in Fun … How to Keep Body and Soul Together in the Wilderness.

“It talked about edible plants,” Broderick says. “And I was just really interested in it.”

We talk in the grass outside of the Patagonia Outlet during a break. Actually, we’re sitting on grass—and mowed-down plantain, a hardy weed.

A plantain poultice treats spider bites and bee stings. The narrow leaves, eaten raw or cooked, are high in vitamins A, C and K. The flowering heads taste like mushrooms.

Interest in this annual spring workshop has been growing.

“The public in general is just more aware,” Broderick says. “People do more less-structured things outdoors, like going out and hiking. … [As far as] interest in the environment, like so many things in life, we start to value them just as we’re about to lose them.”

Broderick doesn’t expect that his students will go out and make weeds a dietary mainstay.

“It’s about making connections,” he says. “We really value what we understand and what we can make use of. My hope is that people develop a better relationship with plants and with the planet in general. If I had a mission statement, that would be it.”

While learning to identify edible plants could be useful in an emergency, for some students the information just adds to their survivalist training.

One workshop participant, Chris Moore, 25, is planning a 13-day survival trek into the Utah wilderness this summer. Moore graduated from UNR with a degree in international affairs. He’s lived in China and traveled through Europe and Africa, visiting around 30 countries. Because he wants to continue to travel, revel in new experiences and get paid for it, he joined the U.S. Army. He can’t see himself ever sitting in a cubicle.

“You have people sitting in offices, and they don’t like their jobs but there’s nothing else to do,” Moore says. Survival training results in a mental shift. “You could drop me off in front of a forest, naked, then come back and pick me up two months later, and I’d be 20 pounds heavier and fully clothed.”

Love your greens

Want to make your own salad out of weeds and flowers? Boil up a balm from the balsam poplar? Learn how the Donners might have survived the winter by eating the inner bark of pine trees?

You can learn more about growing things in our locale by joining the Nevada Native Plant Society.

In summer, members go on field trips to check out wildflowers and intriguing plant communities from Reno to eastern California. The group holds workshops and meetings where members recount firsthand experiences and present wild-plant info.

A newsletter, journal and occasional reprints of botanical articles keep members on top of environmental issues such as the preservation of native plants in their habitats.

A year membership for an individual, family or group is $15. Visit http://heritage.nv.gov/nnps.htm or write: NNPS, P.O. Box 8965, Reno 89507.