||One fine day in mid-March,
here on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, found
me scouting my new landscape for wild edibles. Old salal
berries, huckleberries, rose hips, various leaves and
roots, sweet hemlock tree cambium, licorice fern,
earthworms—all fine tidbits for the table. Since there
were not many mushrooms this time of year to draw my
attention, I actually looked upward once in a while, a
direction my forage-vision doesn’t usually go. Leaf-out
of deciduous trees and shrubs had just begun, when I
noticed that the red alders (Alnus rubra) were
sporting thousands of fresh catkins, or hanging spikes
of male flowers.
"Why not?" I asked myself as I pulled a catkin off its perch
and chewed on it. Along with a slightly nutty taste from the
yellow, powdery pollen, the catkin structure itself was crunchy
and pleasing, if not a little bitter.
The questions ran through my mind:
1.Are alder catkins edible?
2.Are they also digestible?
3.Does their nutrition warrant their collection?
||Alder catkins and pollen.
Around here, alders seem to limit their distribution to river
banks, lake shores and low-lying sedge bogs. They also do well
at abandoned homestead sites and on old logging roads,
presumably due to the removal of competitive species as pioneers
cleared their land. In March, the male (5-12cm) and female
(2-4cm) catkins emerge just before the leaf buds rupture. My
focus here involves the male catkin and its edibility.
When eating a plant for the first time, I like to initially
experience it raw—usually any possible gastrointestinal
irritation will manifest itself at that time and I can then
assess necessary preparation techniques. For ten days I ate ten
raw catkins in the morning. Then for 20 days I ate 20 boiled
catkins (after drying and collecting the pollen). At no time did
I feel any ill effects.
I have found one reference to eating alder catkins. The
Plants for a Future Database (www.pfaf.org), which holds
ethnobotanical information on over 7000 plant species, says that
the catkins have been eaten raw or cooked and are rich in
protein. It also adds that the catkins are astringent and have
been chewed to alleviate diarrhea. Here I would add that
although I was initially concerned about the digestibility of
catkins, there have been no signs of incomplete-breakdown or of
unusual intestinal complications during the length of this
Catkin nutrition seems to have been little-studied, so I will
divert my focus to the pollen found in and on the male catkins.
To walk from my cabin to the nearest alder stand, pick a
half-gallon of catkins (which yields about six tablespoons of
pollen), and return home takes about 90 minutes. If I may
extrapolate from data regarding nutritional composition of
hand-collected pollen (www.fao.org), six tablespoons—or roughly
three ounces—of alder catkins pollen may contain:
- 0.6 oz of crude protein
- 1/3 oz of simple sugars
- 1/6 oz of crude fat
- 1/3 oz of starches
- all amino acids necessary for human health
- over 40 vitamins and minerals
- trace amounts of glucose oxidase, an antibacterial
I find alder catkins to be a refreshingly seasonal dietary
addition, especially when boiled (I liken the taste to corn and
potatoes) seasoned with western coltsfoot ash-salt or added raw
to boiled worms. Boiled alder seedlings have also proven to be
meal-worthy. I will definitely enjoy them while they last and
look forward to experimenting with other catkin-bearing trees
and shrubs in the area.
Text and Photos by Storm
Copyright Walter Muma
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