Roots & Shoots, Flowers & Seeds
by Christine Conley
Like the back of my hand, I know this island—its dirt roads, turns, dips, and vistas. I know its seasons, winter to fall. And yet, after all these years, I still keep discovering things that keep it new and exciting for me. These days, I look at my home in a different context—through a forager’s lens. What once was a passive appreciation for a plant is now a much more active and conscious awareness: Where does the plant grow? What grows around it? How does its appearance change throughout the seasons? I even wonder what the plant tastes like and how best to cook it. Suddenly, I’m scouring the landscape not just with fresh eyes, but hungry ones, too.
Sometimes I stumble on a useful plant that’s been living just under my nose. It’s kind of embarrassing. I blush and smile stiffly. “Good to meet you,” I say. “I’m sorry we haven’t met sooner.” The common evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, is just such a plant. It lives in “edge” environments—roadsides, fields, and recently disturbed soil. It’s a biennial, and in the two years that it’s alive, it appears in two different forms. In the first year, it stays rather short, forming a flat basal rosette shape; it doesn’t shoot up and grow its easily identifiable flower stalk until the second year. The single upright stalk (sometimes branching) grows more or less erect to an average height of three to five feet and is flanked by alternate lanceolet leaves (longer than wide and tapering to a point—like a spear) with conspicuous white veins that are in contrast to the light-to dark-green leaves. Inch-wide, four-petal yellow flowers top the plant. The flowers come into full bloom each evening beginning in early summer and ending in fall. If you’re an Islander, no doubt you’d recognize those flowers. But you might not have realized, as I didn’t, that the whole plant (not just the flowers) has edible parts, each available in a different season.
In late spring or early summer, the young flower stalks can be snapped off, stripped of leaves, and peeled and eaten much like celery. In summer, the flowers themselves make a tasty addition to salads, soups, and stir-fries. Fall and winter don’t mean the end of the giving season for the evening primrose. You can dig up the taproots in the first year, when the plant is still squat and unassuming in its rosette form. Peeling and boiling renders the white root more tender (much like a beet), and helps to subdue the spicy flavor which some people find unpleasant. Once the flower stalk begins to grow in the spring of the second year, the tap root becomes too tough and fibrous for good eating.
Lastly, the seeds are edible too. Look for the dried remains of the evening primose flower stalks, and you’re in a good spot to search for first-year tap roots and old second-year seed pods. The seeds can be roasted and eaten plain, ground, or crushed to extract the very same evening primrose oil that you pay a hefty price for in health stores. According to Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest, this oil contains the highest amount of gamma-linolenic acid—an essential fatty-acid that the body does not produce naturally—of any known food substance. It’s been credited with healing properties that help with everything from PMS to heart disease. Who knew such a useful plant was growing along the driveway and around the mailbox? Next time I notice the common evening primrose, I’ll reintroduce myself politely—and pay it some respect.