Carrion berry in summer and now when it’s looking a little –well, more than a little — worse foe the wear.
But at its peak its edible and I’ve even posted a menu here.
These pics were taken where there’s a sizable colony, right after the concrete steppers over the water on the trail at the bottom of Green Road. Bon Appetit!
If you’ve been reading the “Plant Matters” column in Badger Sportsman for a while, you may have noticed that the topics have been alternating between edible plants and invasive plants. If you remember last issue’s article on wild parsnip, you may have thought that I’ve gone off pattern when you read the title of this one.
Carrion? Really? In case you don’t know what carrion means, it’s basically road kill, or dead meat. And you know how less than pleasant that smells! But carrion flower is edible and not disgusting at all.
Not many people can readily identify carrion flower. It grows throughout Wisconsin along fencerows, at the edges of swamps, woods and fields and in other places with rich soil where it can receive full sun. You may have seen a young carrion flower shoot in spring or a vine with the purple balls of berries in fall and thought, “What the heck is that?” and gone on your way. Whenever I’ve seen the plant, there’s just one; it doesn’t form colonies or overspread an area.
The name of the plant comes from the unpleasant smell of the flower – yup it smells like a dead animal. But before it flowers, the shoots and young leaves are edible, and the awful smelling flower later produces edible berries.
Carrion flowers are perennial vines that die back to the ground every winter. But when they shoot up in spring, they grow very quickly – up to six feet in two weeks. By the time you notice them when they first come up, they look like asparagus plants that are just a little further along than you’d like asparagus to be for harvest.
When the vine gets too heavy to support itself, it slowly bends sideways and lies over onto neighboring vegetation. This vine is really smart. When it first comes up in early spring, it grows straight up toward the sunlight. As the leaves grow on the trees overhead and begin to shade the plant, it leans over so its leaves can take advantage of as much light as they can get.
The vines grow from six to ten feet in length. The smooth, round stems can be up to an inch thick. Sometimes, again like asparagus gone a bit too far, the stems have ridges running lengthwise. The vine forms hefty branches and as the year progresses, they go from green to dark green to reddish-brown.
Greenish white flower balls form in early summer and these flowers develop into green balls of berries that turn blue-black by late summer. Each berry is less than a half-inch in diameter, but the berry balls are several inches across and contain up to 80 berries. Berries remain on the vine throughout the winter. Many Indian tribes relished the berries, but I haven’t tried them myself and I can’t find any research that tells me what they taste like. Any takers?
The shoots and young leaves of the carrion flower are also edible. Shoots are collected in mid to late spring when they are from a few inches up to three feet tall. If they don’t snap off easily, as asparagus does, you are too late. Sometimes you can still break off the more tender tops of the shoots wherever they break easily. This will take some experimentation. When the top is broken off, the plant doesn’t die, but instead produces several branches that grow from the broken point. Later in the summer, you can harvest the tender growing tips of these branches for greens.
Carrion shoots are more tender than asparagus and have a milder flavor. They can be eaten raw as a trailside snack, in salads, in stir-fries or stews, or boiled or steamed and eaten with butter, salt and pepper.
The tuber, or root, of carrion flower can be dug up any time of year and roasted and ground into flour. This flour can be used half and half with wheat flour, made into jelly by boiling 1 tablespoon per cup of water, or diluted and sweetened for a cold drink.
Unless you are already familiar with carrion flower, you probably won’t recognize the shoots in spring when they are tender for picking. The best plan is probably to spot the vines in summer or fall when they are in flower or the berries have developed, and mark the spot for the following spring.
Roasted Carrion Flower Shoots
1 3/4-2 lbs. fresh carrion flower shoots
1/4 c. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. lemon zest
1/2 t. dried oregano
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 – 2 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 – 4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
Preheat oven to 400F. Heat olive oil, minced garlic, lemon zest, oregano, and red pepper flakes in a small pan over low heat until garlic becomes golden and oil becomes fragrant; remove from heat and allow to cool. Cut carrion flower shoots into pieces of desired length and toss them with infused olive oil. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and crumbled feta cheese.
Roast in oven for 10 minutes or until cooked to your liking. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and squeeze the lemon over the carrion shoots, being careful to catch the seeds. Serve hot.