Spring foraging retrospective: Knotweed pickles, ramp salt, and hickory syrup

By El Lower, Michigan Sea Grant GLANSIS research associate

Summer is already on its way, but I’m still working through a supply of foraged spring ingredients here in my kitchen from both native and invasive species! Today I’ll be highlighting three wild foods you can find in the Great Lakes region that I’ve been cooking a lot with over the past few months: pickled Japanese knotweed (from an aggressive invasive plant), ramp salt (from a native plant that needs to be harvested with care), and shagbark hickory syrup (from a native tree that can be harvested any time of year!)

Knotweed pickles, dehydrated ramp leaves, and hickory syrup. Photo: El Lower

Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica/Polygonum cuspidatum/Fallopia japonica) is an extraordinarily invasive plant that’s notoriously hard to kill. Although its bamboo-like stalks and cream-colored flowers are striking to look at, its deep, widespread root network makes it extremely difficult to manage, and it grows so vigorously that the shoots and roots can break through pavement and even house foundations. You can learn more about how to identify and report Japanese knotweed in Michigan from the state’s invasive species website — and if you have some in your neighborhood that hasn’t been treated with herbicide yet, you can eat it!

Knotweed is related to rhubarb, and has a similar tangy, grassy flavor. Some people use it in cobblers or other sweet baked goods, but I decided to make refrigerator pickles with the shoots I removed before I reported the infestation so it could be treated. They have a texture like pickled okra, and while the heat softens them a little, they are absolutely delicious in a quiche (my favorite use for them!)

Japanese Knotweed Pickles

  • Japanese knotweed shoots, leaves removed, cut into segments or rings
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, lightly smashed
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  1. Pack the knotweed into a sterilized mason jar (see this article for a guide to sterilizing jars in a hot water bath).
  2. Heat all other ingredients to a boil on the stove (turn on your fan if the vinegar smells strong!), and then pour over the knotweed shoots in the jar. 
  3. Allow to cool to room temperature before refrigerating. Pickles should be good in the fridge for several weeks.

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a species of native wild onion that are all the rage at farmer’s markets in the spring for their sweet, delicate flavor. However, overharvesting of wild populations has threatened this species in some states and provinces — pulling the plants up by the root kills them, and it takes years for patches to regrow. 

Try not to buy ramps with their roots attached, as this high demand has put them in jeopardy — if you forage for them yourself, be sure to do so responsibly (and safely — ramps have some toxic look-alikes like lily-of-the-valley, so be sure the plant you’re considering smells unmistakably like garlic, use a reliable field guide, and consult with experts if you’re unsure.) Instead of uprooting the whole plant, leave the roots and bulbs in the ground, and try to harvest only one leaf per plant from only a few plants per patch using a clean knife. A smaller harvest conducted using sustainable methods ensures that ramps will remain part of the ecosystem and can be responsibly enjoyed for generations to come!

Ramp specimens collected for identification purposes: in all other cases, take only one leaf per plant to protect the health of your wild population! Photo: El Lower

To make our small harvest go farther and last longer, we decided to make ramp salt — ramps have a short season, and by dehydrating them to use as a seasoning, we can now enjoy their delicious onion-y flavor all year long. As a bonus, this method also works great with other wild alliums like onion grass (Allium vineale), which is invasive; harvest and eat as much of that species as you want. Give it a try on popcorn, roasted vegetables, or buttered toast sometime!

Ramp Salt

  • Ramp leaves
  • Sea salt
  1. Wash the harvested leaves well and dry them, then place them in a dehydrator in an even layer and dehydrate them at 100 degrees for about six hours, or until the leaves are brittle and fully dried. (Your house will smell powerfully of garlic bread.)
  2. Use a blender, mortar and pestle, or spice grinder to grind the leaves to a fine powder.
  3. Mix 2 parts ramp powder to 1 part sea salt and use as a finishing salt. Enjoy!

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is a native tree that you can harvest from year-round, unlike most species in our snowy Great Lakes climate, because you can use that distinctive peeling bark itself to make a delicious syrup for waffles, coffee, and more!

A shagbark hickory exhibiting its characteristic — you guessed it — shaggy bark. Photo: El Lower

Unlike maples and birches, which people tap to harvest sap for syrup production, shagbark hickory syrup is essentially a simple syrup made from a tea infused with toasted bark plus an equal amount of sugar. The flavor and smell are somewhat like a praline — nutty, with notes of vanilla and spice. It’ll make your kitchen smell like the holidays year-round! I highly recommend trying this syrup anywhere you’d normally use maple syrup, like with pancakes, as a sweetener in baked beans or part of a marinade for grilled meats, and in whiskey cocktails. It’s absolutely delicious.

Shagbark Hickory Syrup

  • Hickory bark (about a handful — a little goes a long way)
  • White sugar
  • Water
  1. Be gentle when harvesting your bark! Break off dangling pieces that are hanging well off the trunk so you don’t damage the tree, and avoid any pieces covered with lichen, which can give your syrup a bitter flavor.
  2. Wash the bark briefly, dry it, and break it into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
  3. Toast the bark in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Your kitchen will start to smell wonderful at this point.
  4. Put the toasted bark in a saucepan with enough water to just cover it, and simmer (not boil!) for 30-45 minutes. Boiling will also make the syrup bitter, so keep the heat low.
  5. Strain and measure the hickory “tea”, then add it back to the saucepan along with an equal amount of white sugar: this will result in a 1:1 simple syrup. 
  6. Stir to dissolve the sugar and let it simmer for an additional 15 minutes (or longer, if you want a thicker, more concentrated syrup that’s closer to the texture of honey).
  7. Pour into sterilized mason jars and store in the fridge until ready to enjoy.

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