Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Foraging Yucca Blossoms- Wild Edibles

Yucca is probably one of those foraged plants that people most commonly get confused with something else that they buy in the grocery store. (Plantain is probably the only plant that gets confused more often.)
Yucca, the wild edible, spelled with 2 c's, is in the asparagaceae family, and is related to asparagus.  It is completely unrelated to the plant yuca, spelled with one c, manihot esculenta, also known as cassava or manioc, used to make tapioca.
I just had to clarify that bit before continuing, because it is a very common mistake people make, so common, in fact, that I've seen foraging articles mistakenly write that you can eat yucca roots. You can't. You eat yuca roots, not yucca roots. Roots of the yucca plant were used to make a soapy lather for cleaning things, as they are full of saponins. You eat any of those and your stomach will not appreciate that.

Yucca is a family of plants that is native to America and grows all over North and South America. In addition to the yucca that grows wild in the Americas, there are also cultivated varieties of yucca, which are planted in gardens, etc... around the world. Yucca isn't native to my region, but I see it planted all over, both in public parks and private yards.

Yucca plants have spiky, sharp leaves, that grow out from a central point. That's probably where one variety of yucca is known as "spanish bayonet", because the leaves really do look like swords. During early to mid summer, the yucca plant sends up an asparagus like stalk, which them opens up into beautiful flowers. These flowers are what you eat. Apparently you can also eat the asparagus like stalk before it flowers, but I've never tried that, and you can also eat their fruit, but I've never seen the fruit growing locally.

Most of the yucca growing in the US is low, evergreen shrubs.


Here's a picture of my friend, ButterPoweredBike's local yucca plant. (Read more about how she forages yucca here.)


I think that's a gorgeous picture of the yucca plant, but unfortunately, I couldn't take a full picture of my local yucca plants. They're trees, and as much as I tried to fit the entire thing in one shot, I wasn't really able to.


Well, actually, I was able to, but you see that I needed to take it from such a distance that you can't really see any details.


So, here it is in parts.



The bottom of the tree has rough bark for a very short little bit, and then the spikes start. The spikes grow down, to the side, and up.

I've seen local yucca trees ranging in height from 5 or 6 feet tall to a good 15 feet tall.

When standing at the base of the tree, looking up, this is the view you get. 


...If you're lucky, that is.

If you're not lucky, you'll get a view like this.


What's the difference, you ask?

Accessibility.

As much as you may be sporty and don't mind climbing trees, the yucca tree is probably one you won't want to be climbing. Its leaves are sharp at the tip and along the sides- they'll slice you and give you a paper cut like cut should you run against the leaves the wrong way. So unless you're able to stand up either on the ground, a rock, or a freestanding ladder and reach the flowers, you won't be able to pick those yummy edibles.

When you want to pick them, you'll ideally need scissors, which you'll use to cut the bottom of the flower stalk. You can try to do what I sometimes do when I didn't come well prepared to forage and bend the stalk back and forth a few times until it snaps off. But I'm warning you- twice so far it happened that when I was doing this, the uppermost part of the tree snapped off, not at all what I had intended.

I see many flowering yucca trees, and probably can only get the flowers from one quarter or less of them for this reason.

Of course, if you have yucca shrubs growing near you, ignore what I said about that.

So, what do these yucca flowers look like?


See the long, thick green stem in the middle, with lots of thinner green stems branching out of it, to which the flowers are attached?

The flowers are either white, off white, whitish green, or whitish purple. They've got 6 teardrop shaped petals, and have a light green pistil in the center surrounded by quite a few pistils (the reproductive part of the plant).



Yucca petals taste pretty similarly to artichoke, but slightly more bitter.
I suggest only eating the petals, and making sure to cook them first before eating, despite some foragers saying that you can eat the reproductive parts in the center, and that you can eat them raw. The one time I tried to eat the centers, my throat and lips started itching me, which I've heard is a common reaction, especially if you eat them raw.

To showcase yucca's artichoke like flavor, my friend, Butter, marinates yucca blossoms with olive oil, lemon, and garlic. I made those as well and really liked them. 
I then used those marinated yucca blossoms in a potato salad, in a recipe that calls for marinated artichoke hearts. It was terrific. (I think it was this recipe, with a few changes.)


I also blanched yucca blossoms in salted water for a few minutes, strained them, then tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic, and served them alongside chicken with za'atar spice mix for a Mediterranean themed meal.


This dish with yucca was made with sauted potatoes, onions, peppers, brown lentils, and whole yucca flowers, and while it tasted pretty good, using the reproductive parts of the flower was a bad idea as it left my throat pretty scratchy.


Yucca is commonly eaten in omelets, and I've also seen it being used in soups and in pestos, though I've tried none of those yet.

Next time I pick yucca petals, I want to prepare them with honey, thyme, garlic, salt, and forage pine nuts, in a recipe similar to how I have prepared cardoons, a relative of the artichoke with a very similar taste.

Use only the fresh, crisp looking, unwilted petals. I don't think there is a problem using them per se, only they don't look so nice, so I assume the flavor isn't as good.

As for foraging tips, medicinal uses, nutritional info...

There's no poisonous look alikes, fortunately. Unfortunately I have been unable to find out nutritional or medicinal uses for yucca plants. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

I highly recommend foraging yucca petals. Just one stalk will get you enough flower petals for a meal or two or three. If you live locally, go quickly, as yucca flower season is coming to an end.

Have you ever seen yucca plants before? Are they shrubs or trees? What color are their flowers?
Have you eaten yucca? If so, what did you think of it, and how did you prepare it?
If you haven't, but you've seen this plant around, does this description help enough that you'd feel confident to forage it?


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