On Feb. 24, the University of Maine continued its winter gardening series with “Nibbling on Natives in Your Backyard and Beyond,” a free webinar for students and staff. The UMaine Department of Horticulture hosted the talk, and Kate Garland, a horticulture professional for UMaine Extension, moderated it. Russ Cohen, author of “Wild Plants I have Known…and Eaten,” who also is an expert forager, was the main speaker of the webinar. He gave a presentation on over two dozen common backyard and houseplants that are edible.
Cohen is a natural food enthusiast and naturalist that grew up in Weston, Massachusetts. He grew up spending a lot of his time in the woods. After taking a mini course in edible botany in his second year of high school, he grew fond of the subject, and turned it into his passion. He discovered that over two dozen varieties of edible plants surrounded Weston High School. Currently, Cohen resides in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he continues to lead nature talks and walks. Normally, he leads over three dozen walks a year, where he shows people edible plants that they can find all around them.
Cohen has been awarded dozens of awards for his service to natural sciences, including the Environmental Achievement Award from Save the Bay (Rhode Island) in 1993, the Environmental Service Award from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions in 1997 and the “River Hero” award from the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance in 2015, as well as several others. He has since set up a nursery near his childhood home in Weston, growing over 1,000 species of plants representing over one-third of the 170 New England native edible species.
During the talk, Cohen went over several New England edible plants that are common in backyards. He spoke about basswood, which is a common street tree. Basswood is commonly found on countryside roads, and has edible leaves that are best eaten after being cooked. The leaves are asymmetrical, and are shinty when emerging in the spring. They can then be eaten raw or cooked and have a bland flavor and slightly mucilaginous texture. Other, and arguably more highly-regarded edible parts of the plant, are the flower blossoms, which arrive at the onset of summer and make a tasty tea with multiple medicinal values. Each flower cluster consists of about six to 10 yellowish-white flowers that give off a pleasant, lemon-honey fragrance.
Cohen also discussed wild lettuce. Wild lettuce produces leaves all the way up the stalk. Wild lettuce is typically used to make medicine, and has pain relieving properties.
“Wild lettuce with fat terminal lobes are more bitter from the get go,” Cohen stated.
Cohen’s work has been incredibly beneficial to people looking for what plants are safe to eat naturally. Students looking for more information on Cohen can find information of his travels in the article, “Russ Cohen’s Wild Edible Adventures,” by Cathy Walters. The webinar provided lots of helpful information to students, and Cohen hopes to continue these talks in the future.