Thursday, February 16, 2012

Catkins, can we eat them?

Catkins of Western Birch (Betula papyrifera var. commutata)
After following a string of notes about the edibility of birch catkins on the Forageahead list-serve I decided to see what ethnobotanical literature and a little experimentation could teach me.  Catkins are an important springtime food for several species of birds, but can humans eat them? 

Daniel Moerman’s book Native American Food Plants contains several accounts of edible catkins in the desert SW.  The young pistillate catkins of Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) were eaten by the Acoma, Isleta, Jemez, and Navajo; Rio Grande Cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. wislizenii) catkins were chewed on like gum by the Pima and Havasupai; the Pima also ate the pistillate catkins from both Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens) and Goodding’s Willow (Salix gooddingii). 

Ray Vizgirdas and Edna Rey-Vizgiradas wrote in their book Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada that staminate catkins from White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia) and Mountain Alder (A. incana) are edible and high in protein but do not taste very good.  Further north, on the Coast of British Columbia, Harriet Kuhnlein and Nancy Turner reported in Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples that the green staminate catkins of Red Alder (A. rubra) were eaten by the Straits Salish.

Anecdotes from the wild food community include the late wild food enthusiast Storm, who published a very detailed experiment with Red Alder catkins here.  Storm ate Red Alder catkins every day for 10 days with no ill effects.  He experimented gathering the pollen as well.  Greg Tilford reported on Red Alder catkins in his book Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West saying that they are edible and high in protein, but best left as survival food since they don’t taste very good.

Today I went on a short walk through an urban area in Bellingham and picked staminate catkins from 4 members of the Birch Family: Hazelnut (Corylus avellana), Western Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera var. commutata), European White Birch (Betula pendula), and Red Alder (Alnus rubra).  The Hazelnut and Western Paper Birch catkins were already releasing pollen, the Red Alder will probably release pollen in a week or 2, and the European White Birch in 2-3 weeks.  Katrina and I sampled catkins from each species both raw and cooked.

Catkins of Red Alder, Western Paper Birch, European White Birch, and Hazelnut (from left to right)

Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) catkins
The Hazelnut catkins grow in clusters of 1-3 that hang throughout all the smaller branches.  Catkins are 2-4 inches long and relatively soft and flexible.  Raw, they had a texture like dry sawdust and a mild, bitter flavor.  Boiling for 5 minutes in salted water improved the texture to that of wet sawdust and mellowed the flavor.  They were not disagreeable and we found that the catkins with more developed flowers to had a better taste.

European White Birch (Betula pendula) catkins
The European White Birch catkins also grow in clusters of 1-3 at the tips of very slender, drooping branches.  At ¾-1 ½ inches long, the catkins are smaller and more firm than the Hazelnut catkins (though they are less phenologically advanced).  We found the raw catkins to have a crunchy texture with a bitter, piney flavor.  Cooking slightly softened the catkins, but increased the bitterness and gave them the taste of leaves or sap.

Western Paper Birch catkins
The Western Birch catkins grow singly from multiple points along the previous year’s new growth.  Catkins are 1 ½-2 ½ inches long, soft, and flexible.  Their flavor raw was astringent and piney, but less intense than the European White Birch.  Boiling produced and aroma like grass or peas and darkened the water to a greenish yellow.  The cooked catkins tasted more bitter than the raw catkins.

Red Alder (Alnus rubra) catkins
Our final taste test was of Red Alder.  Catkins are 1 ½-3 inches long, hard, dark green to reddish, and arising in terminal clusters of 2-5.  The raw catkins had an acrid, fir needle taste with an astringent after taste.  They exploded in the boiling water releasing their pollen and a mildly sweet aroma akin to sap and boiled nettles.  The cooked catkins were very resinous and had a milder flavor than the raw catkins.
Boiled catkins on a plate ready for taste testing

At this juncture, I would have to agree with Tilford in categorizing catkins as survival food.  However, I can hardly expect that my first experiment with a little known food would yield incredible results.  I will continue to taste these catkins throughout their development and in the years to come, and perhaps time and experience will unlock the grouse’s secret to making the most of catkins.

Please note that I have included a link to my ethnobotany and wild food digital library on the right hand site of this webpage (near the top) for those of you that want to check out the books that I referenced.
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