04 May How to Forage and Harvest native plants in Montana’s Great Plains
Prior to westward expansion, plains Indians survived and thrived in desert environments like the Montana Great Plains. They had a comprehensive knowledge of all living things around them. Foraging meant survival and to survive they had to learn about the plants and their uses through trial, error, and generational teachings. Unfortunately, today, we no longer search our environment for its uses because we no longer “need” to work as hard to get our food. Consequently, we have lost touch with our natural environment and do not gather like we once did. With mass farming and cultivating, it is not a necessity and to gather things we have to do a lot of research and learning on our own.
On the Missouri River we have had the privilege to get to know our environment more. It is important to us to give our customers the true flavors of Montana and the plants that surround us. We serve local meats such as walleye, pork, beef, lamb, bison, and elk. We also use local harvested crops such as wheat, barley, lentils, garbanzo beans, hemp hearts, and safflower oil. But what we really take pride in are the harvested plants that were native to the area. We enjoy sharing with people the flavors that they often don’t get. Let’s look at those plants and how we harvest, process and use them in our cuisine.
Cottonwood (populus deltoids)
We love Cottonwood trees and consider them to be the most dramatic tree on the river. The leaves are very loud with just the slightest breeze, they are fragile with shallow roots and brittle branches, often rot from the inside out, and we have witnessed them tip over or break with no wind around. We are proud to say that they are an abundant source on the Upper Missouri River. Unfortunately, with dams, cattle, invasive species, and environmental changes, cottonwood groves are not as abundant as they once were. What remains are older growths with little to no evidence of younger trees. We have been watching these trees fall (literally) before our eyes. Luckily, here in Montana there have been some conservation efforts through the help of Friends of the Missouri, Northwestern Energy, locals, and the BLM.
Cottonwoods are a hearty tree that grow along rivers and fresh water in zones 2 through 9. There are distinct differences between the female and the male tree. Catkins (flowering body of the tree) are more prevalent on the female tree with 3- to 8-inch long catkins that ripen into cotton fluff. Whereas the males have ¾ to 1 ¼ inch catkins that do not ripen. Despite the display of cotton, cottonwoods usually propagate through root sprouts instead. Furthermore, cottonwoods produce a rooting hormone that helps broken branches that float down rivers or streams to root in the banks, thus spreading their range. You can also plant a cottonwood branch with other plants you are trying to root and the hormone in the branch will help. Last cool cottonwood fact, the resin from the cottonwood or “bee glue”, bees use to seal their hives. Bee Glue from cottonwoods not only seals the hives but serve as an antimicrobial barrier for various bacteria, fungi and as protection from other harmful insects.
Bark, sap, leaves and catkins are all edible on a cottonwood tree. However, we prefer the catkins and the inner bark. Catkins are the flowering body of the tree. Males have small red catkins while the female flowers are light green seed capsules. Catkins can be eaten raw or cooked and consumed as snacks. In the spring the inner bark is sweet and people have used it as sweet additive to tea and cereal. The leaves are really bitter and will take some experimenting to see what you can do with them. However, they are edible. Although not very tasty or edible, buds are probably the most sought-after part of the cottonwood tree. They are high in antioxidants that can help swelling, skin irritation, sunburns and much more. The buds are the leaf buds that form in early spring. It is best to hunt for bugs after a spring wind and or in a grove that has some down branches that are still green. We gather the buds and infuse them in oil to make a salve. Below is a link to an online recipe like the one we have tried. Please note, if you are allergic to Cottonwood trees do not try any of the recipes. Below are some recipes and ideas on when and how to harvest these delicate pieces of the cottonwood.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Milkweed is the classic all-American wildflowers. They are on Montana’s Missouri River around July when they pepper the Missouri River landscape with beautiful purple flowers. While some farmers may despise it as a tenacious weed, we consider it to be a very useful native species. Still, it is assumed to be a crop weed that needs to be mitigated in farmers’ fields. Hence why it has the name weed so closely intertwined in its name. However, lucky for us it continues to persevere! Milkweeds have been gaining recognition around the country and are now being planted in home gardens to attract butterlies.
They are a very important source of food to a variety of insects. Their most notable and important role is that of feeding Monarch larvae. Milkweeds are the ONLY food that the larvae consume. Without milkweed there would be no Monarch butterflies. Milkweed plants have been harvested by humans for more than just the food and medicinal purposes. During WW II, children collected milkweed floss to fill life preservers for the armed forces. Today we are just starting to use it to stuff jackets, comforters, and pillows. It has an insulation affect that surpasses goose down.
Milkweed shoots, flower buds and pods are all edible. Milkweeds are edible from their first spring shoot until their pods become hard and start to produce silk fiber. Late spring is when the shoots start coming up from the old growth. These are great to pick until they are about 8 inches tall. They are easy to cook on the stove, grill, or oven just like you would green beans or asparagus. The flower buds are what comes next. When they first start to appear, you cut them off 2 inches down from the flower and onto the stem. They are great in stir fry and are like broccoli. The last and often most sought-after harvest are the milkweed pods. The pods are like okra and should be picked when they are immature and less than 1 inch long. Their adult pods will reach 3-5 inches long. When they are immature the seeds inside will be soft and white (no brown). Milkweed pods are great in stews, stuffed and pickled. Below are some useful recipes to try.
Great Plains Yucca (Yucca Glauca)
The great plains yucca fits in to the harsh environment of Montana’s as it is extremely cold and heat tolerant. This is the variety that is most seen in domestic landscapes across the US. On the Missouri, we are constantly dodging yucca on hikes and warning people about its pokey foliage. With its natural habitat being dry rocky soil, there is no wonder it is abundant in the Upper Missouri River Breaks. Yucca are characterized by its early spring white blossoms that extend up its stalk.
The yucca provides food and shelter for a variety of small insects, reptiles, and birds. The flowers attract lots of butterflies, but its most important role is to host the yucca moth. This moth is the ONLY insect that has successfully pollinated the yucca flower and the fruit that comes from it. The yucca also serves the moth and is the moth’s ONLY food source. Yucca’s roots, flowers and leaves were heavily used by plains Indians to make baskets, shampoo, and food.
There is a big difference between a South American Yuca and a Desert Yucca. Often times people get these two confused. The yucca (YUK-ka) in the wild has several edible parts ABOVE ground. The yuca (YEW-ka) has one edible part BELOW ground called Cassava Root. In Montana the ONLY edible parts of the yucca are the above ground bits such as flowers and seeds. Pick yucca in the spring when the flowers are freshly blooming. There are lots of recipes for yucca blossoms in eggs, soups, stews, and salads. We suggest that the first time you try the flowers, prepare them simply, so you can get acquainted with their flavor. People describe it as resembling that of artichoke. Besides for eating yucca, you can also use the roots and leaves for soap and shampoo. Below you will find a couple simple recipes for the flowers and our favorite soap recipe.
Wild Mint (Mentha Arvensis)
Montana’s native river mint (Wild mint) is a relative to the peppermint and spearmint that flavors a lot of American gum, tea, and sweets. On the Missouri River you will find it all over the place and often times step on it while getting in and out of the boat. If mint ends up in your garden or yard, expect it to take over and spread. They are very fragrant and if one is paying attention, they are easy to identify.
Mint is used as a source of food, insect repellent and medicinal herb. Mint has been used since at least 1550 BC. Although the river mint is a bit more bitter, it is a great replacement for other mints in recipes such as sauces, salads, dressings, dips, roasts, desserts, cocktails, and water infusion.
The edible parts of wild mint are the leaves and the flowers. When mint leaves are removed from the stem, mint leaves around it will keep growing and continue to be harvestable throughout Montana’s summer season. To harvest mint, simply pick the leaves and the flowers. You then wash it and decide what you want to do with it. You can eat it raw, cook it in your favorite mint recipes, make some cocktails with it or dry it for tea or later uses. Mint is such a versatile herb and there are a lot of ways to store mint for later. Below are some fun river mint recipes to try.
Cattails (genus Typha)
You have probably seen Cattails countless times in your life. They are common in almost all of North America and there are 3 species that you would most likely find in Montana. Cattail are found in stagnant water, such as ponds and back sloughs. Although you wouldn’t find them in the Missouri River, there are plenty around the area. Cattails are the quintessential plant for grouse and pheasants. Hunters come from all over to hunt around cattails because they make great bird habitat.
Due to their extensive growth, cattails can be considered invasive in some areas. However, they are great at filtering heavy runoff. That same runoff is what fuels the growth of bad algae. Cattails also help stabilize bank erosion on steep or windswept shorelines. Red-winged blackbirds and ducks rely on cattails for their habitat and protection. Finally, cattails serve as cover for fish such as largemouth bass, trout and other species.
Cattails are referred to as nature’s supermarket and almost every part of it is edible. The shoots or roots are called “corms” and you can eat them raw or cooked. The best way to cook them is like asparagus. They have a sweet taste like corn and have a similar earthy taste like a potato. The young buds can be cooked like corn cobs. As soon as the buds on the stalk start to flower, gather the pollen, and mix it into pancakes or other baked goods. There are some medicinal uses of cattail as well. The roots can be mashed into poultices and applied topically for insect bites, burns, swelling and cuts. Other uses of the cattail are fire starters, stuffing for clothing, torches, cordage, baskets, hats and shelters. Below are some cattail recipes and uses.
Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana)
Chokecherry bushes are abundant and native to Eastern Montana. Although they are not prized like, Montana huckleberries, they are our absoulte favorite. On the Missouri River we see chokecherries in a lot of the side canyons and coolies. In the spring chokecherries blossom with white flowers that quickly turn into green immature cherries. If the tree continues to get a good amount of water, the cherries start to sag off the tree and pull the branches closer to the ground with their weight. When the birds start to eat them, it’s time to start picking or they are gone in a couple weeks.
Chokecherry bushes belong to the rose family and are indicative to their name with an astringent high acidic taste. The plant has a long history of use and dates to the early 1700’s among native Americans. It was often used in ceremonies and was a great source of food and medicine. Just like prunes, the seeds, foliage, and bark are poisonous and contain hydrocyanic acid. When Meriwether Lewis was ill with fever and abdominal cramps, he made tea from chokecherry twigs. The next day he reported feeling better. Medical researchers now believe that small doses of hydrocyanic acid can stimulate respiration, improve digestion, and give a false sense of well-being. Furthermore, hydrocyanic acid is hydrogen cyanide, which was used as a lethal chemical weapon in WW1.
Depending on the year and area that they are growing, chokecherries are ready to harvest from mid-August to end of September. They are ready when they are almost falling off the bush and when they are hanging like grapes. You can eat them raw (spitting out the seeds) or you can cook them down. You can make pies, jams, jellies, syrups, and juice out of chokecherries. We serve chokecherry syrup on the river. Other uses of chokecherries are cough syrup because it is a sedative and expectorant. Check out some of our favorite recipes below.
Wild Woods Rose (Rosa Woodsii)
Woods rose can always be found on Montana’s Missouri in Riparian thickets. Wild roses grow throughout the breaks but are thicker on the lower river (Judith Landing to Kipp). However, wild roses are adaptable and can occur on prairies, plateaus, dry slopes, open woods, ravines, and thickets. They grow in areas that are 3500-7500 feet. They can thrive in both shade and sunlight. Furthermore, they are extremely fire resistant and often will flourish after a fire.
Wild rose peddles and leaves on the Missouri are grazed on by livestock, big game, porcupines, and beavers. Wild rose hips stay on the plant for much of the winter and many birds and mammals eat dried fruits throughout the snowy months. They produce good rhizomes and with their high level of survival rate and revegetation, they would make superb erosion control.
Harvesting Wild Rose
Almost the whole wild rose plant can be used for food and medicinal needs. While offering a great source of vitamin C and A, rosehips are used in Jelly, syrup, and tea. To preserve rosehip make it into a powder that can be used in smoothies and as a seasoning in baked goods. Rosehips are best to pick right after the first frost. Plains Indians ate the petals raw, dried them and made them into perfume or used them in salads, candied or syrup. Below are some wild rose recipes to try.
Morel mushrooms are unmistakable and highly coveted. All around the United States people know this mushroom to be a foraged delicacy. Due to their need for highly specific growing conditions and short growing season, they can be challenging for even the most seasoned mushroom hunters to find. River Morels grow from April-May and require soil temperatures consistently around 50 degrees with daytime air temperatures between 60 and 70 and overnight lows no lower than 40. They do best in moist conditions and are often spotted after spring rainfall, but too much rain can prevent or delay their appearance.
If you are lucky and have a keen eye, you can find little golden treasures along the Missouri Riverbanks. Every time we come across Morels on the river, we happen upon them and there is just enough for 1-3 bites. River Morels are the last to bloom and are not as abundant as morels that are blooming after forest fires. However, they tend to be the biggest morels. If you are lucky enough to snag some finds, make sure to savor them in some simple recipes that show off their delicious taste and texture.
Picking morels has been very controversial over the years. However, we like to play by the book. If it doesn’t affect our hunting why not do everything you can to help Morels. It is recommended to cut off or pinch the morel so that the base of the mushroom stays in the soil. For many reasons, it is recommended to use a mesh collecting bag. The most important reasoning to us is that air flow can reach your collected treasures and they won’t get soggy. Furthermore, even if it isn’t proven, we use a mesh bag to spread the spores. Why not do whatever you can to help them continue to grow. When hunting for river morels look along the riverbank and in nooks and crannies where decaying trees and leaves are growing. Once you are done collecting, make sure to soak the mushrooms in cold water to rid them of dirt and bugs. After they are all cleaned up, you can dry them for later use or cook them fresh. Below are some simple recipes that will bring out buttery natural flavors of Morels.
White Wild Onion (Allium Textile)
There are a variety of wild onions in Montana but the most prevalent onion on the Great Plains of Montana is the Wild White Onion. On April 12th, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote “found a great quantity of small onions in the plain where we encamped; had some of them collected and cooked, found them agreeable. the bulb grows single, is of an oval form, white, and about the size of a small bullet; the leaf resembled that of the shive.” Due to its very high aromatic characteristics, it is often referred to as wild garlic and or field garlic. It is a perennial, bulb forming species in the lily (Liliaceae) family and is native to North America. Among croplands onions are considered a noxious weed and do a great job multiplying. Onions are often mitigated around Montana.
There are a lot of health benefits of wild onion! Those health benefits include, anti-asthmatic, blood purifier, reduce blood cholesterol, and are loaded with vitamins and minerals. When made into a tincture, it is used to prevent worms and colic in children, and as a remedy for croup. It is also thought to have great bug repellent qualities. The juice of the plant has been used to repel moths, moles, biting insects and scorpions. There are some precautions and over consumption in large quantities can cause poisoning in some mammals. Dogs are particularly susceptible.
Harvesting wild onion
Montana wild onions are ripe on the plains in the early spring (May-June). As soon as the cottonwoods start to shed their sticky shell it is time to go find some tasty onions. When harvesting onions, it is up to you if you want to cut just the leaves for consumption or dig up the entire plant. Because they are perennials, we cut the leaves so that we can harvest the same spot year after year. After you have your desired amount, you can take them home to eat raw or cooked. Below is a great simple recipe that has a great use for wild onions.
There are so many edible plants that are not listed here. We only scratched the surface of what is out there. Some other favorites in the plains of Montana are prairie turnips, service berries, and dandelions. Whenever harvesting make sure that you only take what you need and make sure that the area is pesticide free. Finally, know the rules and regulations for the area you are foraging and always stay on public lands unless you have permission.