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Helicopters Everywhere!

Updated: Apr 11

The days are getting warmer, and spring should be evident in your backyard and neighborhood with birds singing and plants growing.  This is a great time to start learning to identify plants whether edible or not.  With that in mind, you are responsible for what goes in your body so always be 100% sure you have correctly identified the plant you are about to eat.  Also, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion on whether a specific plant is edible or not.  More on that later.  Please refer to the January post for more information on safety and ethics when considering wild edibles.


Maple sp. – Acer sp.  This includes, but is not limited to Red, Sugar, and Silver Maple, with Box Elder thrown in.



Maples, who are native to the US, is the one I’m going to be talking about.  Non-native maples will probably have the same uses, but since I don’t know, please do your own research before consuming them.  Maples have opposite leaves and (except Box Elder) have the recognizable maple leaf shape (think Canadian flag).  Maple leaves have 3-5 lobes with a vein or rib going to each lobe that originates at the leaf stem.  Think of it as duck feet with a toe extending out to a point, with webbing in between. 


The trees start life with smooth, tight bark that cracks and gets rougher (and sometimes shaggy-like the silver maple on the left) as the tree gets older.  The box elder leaves are opposite and compound with 3-5 leaflets (see pic at right).  With 3 leaflets, they can look a little like poison ivy leaves!  The twigs are usually green, while the rest of the branch is pale grey to brown.  Maple seeds (also called samaras) are winged and come in 2 per stem.  Maple trees are very shade tolerant, so expect to find them everywhere, from sunny lawns to deep woods.  Box elders are often found close to water, which is their preferred habitat, but will grow elsewhere as well. 




I’m sure everyone has heard of getting maple syrup from sugar maples, but it may surprise you to know that you can get maple syrup from all maples, including box elder. Sugar maple and box elder have the highest sugar content. To get the syrup, tap the tree (bore a small hole, then direct the sap into a container) when the daytime temperature is above freezing while getting close to or below freezing at night. The sap is then boiled down to the desired sweetness. 


It will take about 21 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.  The leaves of maples are also edible.  Like most greens, they are best when young and tender and can be eaten raw or cooked.  You might also experiment with older leaves by picking them, allowing them to dry, and then stripping the veins out of the leaf before crushing/powdering them to use as a soup thickener. 


Last but not least, the seeds are edible.  These are often called helicopters because they twirl like helicopter blades when they fall.  In a high wind, it can look like it’s snowing helicopters!  Red and silver maples produce seeds in the spring, while sugar and box elder produce in late summer/early fall. 




In the spring, red maples are easily recognized by the red or orangey-yellow samaras all over the tree.  Silver maple seeds look like green leaves from a distance but close up; there is no mistaking them as seeds with wings.  If you are able to pick them when the wings are soft, eat the whole thing, but after the wings stiffen up, it’s more enjoyable to eat just the seeds.  The red maple seeds and wings can be a little bitter raw, but silver maple tastes a lot like raw peas.  After the wings harden up, remove them before eating raw, dried, or roasted seeds. You may want to shell them if you find the outside distasteful. 


Once dried or roasted, you can grind them into flour.  If the seeds are too bitter for you, try boiling them to leach out the bitterness.  As with all trees with nuts/seeds, flavor can vary from tree to tree, so taste around:).   Look-a-likes may be sycamore, sweet gum, and possibly tulip poplar.  These trees all have alternate leaves and do not have samaras.  Ash trees may be mistaken as they have samaras and compound leaves like box elder, but ash leaves are alternate, and the samaras are single, as opposed to the double maple leaves.



Learning wild edibles can be a bit challenging, especially as so much of that knowledge has not been treasured but looked down upon and lost.  Because that is the case, I have encountered instances where a plant is called inedible/poisonous while another author or someone I know says the same plant is edible.  This is why it’s important to do your own research and get more than one opinion.  Two cases from my own experience.  The first concerns speedwell, specifically Persian speedwell.  For years, I have thought (and taught) that it was not edible. 


This year, a friend of mine told me that it is edible, and in doing more research, that seems to be the case.  I haven’t eaten it yet, so don’t rush out to get some on my say-so.  This made me feel dumb, but more importantly, it raised the possibility of a new edible for me!  The other instance was when I wrote in last month's blog that the violet-lookalike lesser celandine should not be eaten.  Imagine my surprise when I received a book by a notable author who says that the tubers of lesser celandine can be eaten!  Always be open to learning new things. For me, that is one of the challenging yet enjoyable reasons to dive headfirst into this hobby. Learning wild edibles can definitely be an interesting journey, and the rewards can be tasty!


 

About Me:

John Miller loves the outdoors and enjoys learning about all the things the Creator has made.  He enjoys hunting, fishing, backpacking, and finding new moths.  While looking into prepping in 2008, he realized that developing skills such as knowing wild edibles and bushcraft skills were more important than storing food. Ever since then he has been learning and slowly working on the skills of these two disciplines.  He currently lives in Cleveland, TN with his wife Rachel and six children.

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