28 July 2013

Chasing Lovage, Stumbling on Plantain

In which caribougrrl and Fefe Noir go whale watching, take note of some foraging opportunities, get outmaneuvered by some sheep, make way for the caterpillars, and provide you with some tips for picking and preparing a couple of seaside edibles.

It started the way these things usually do.  We were out for a coastal walk, looking for whales.  A minke was swimming along the shoreline, quite close, but we were up a cliff and having trouble keeping our eye on it.  So I scrambled out on a rocky head for a better look and once there, I noticed in a crevice next to me a plant I vaguely recognized.  I knew I should know what it was but just couldn't conjure it up.  So I did what you do in those situations; picked a couple of leaves and crushed them between my fingers then inhaled.  Celery-like.  So I stuck it in my mouth, like you would, right?  Contemplating the flavour (celery-parsley-fresh air-ness) and trying to bring the name of the plant to mind, I heard a stern voice behind me.  Fefe Noir.  "Did you just eat something?"

"Noooo...," I said in my most convincing (er, I mean transparently-guilty sounding) voice.  I have a habit of lying about stuff like this even, or perhaps especially, when I know it's abundantly clear that I'm lying.  I don't know why I do it.  Survival instinct?  No, I didn't hear a noise that sounded like that bear over there, it must be your imagination..  Of course I wasn't trying to break that large branch into firewood  by standing on one end and pulling up the other end; you must be seeing things.

Young love-age.
"Lovage!" I shouted as it came to me.  "Scotch lovage!"

Then the important question: Fefe Noir squinted at me and said, very slowly, "Are you sure?".  I don't know why she's always so skeptical.  She doesn't know how I'm still alive.

I had to admit, no, not absolutely certain.  Pretty sure.  Ninety-six-point-seventy-five percent sure.  So I picked some and stuck it in my pocket, to identify later.  I scoured the area though, several small plants, none looking big enough to cut back just yet, but maybe in a couple of weeks.  The whale by then was almost forgotten, until it surfaced so close to us we could hear the blowing.  Lovage forgotten.

After consulting with both Peter Scott's field guide to edible plants of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Peterson guides for both edible plants and wildflowers (and despite the conspicuous absence of scotch lovage from the Peterson guides), I was able to convince Fefe Noir that I was indeed correct about the identification.  We started talking, obsessively, about what to do with it specifically for the blog... and while making this decision over the next few weeks, we seemed to see it everywhere we went.  In one place where the scotch lovage was so abundant, we could have literally picked bushels and hardly made a dent... it was, of course, a day when we weren't ready for it and we were too far from home to consider going back for some later.  Aside from a bit of seaside nibbling, we left that field of lovage alone but we did stop there for a picnic.

Seaside plantain is the sort of plant you walk past and
walk over without really seeing it.   It's worth paying
attention to.
Now, recall that I have been flipping through my edible plant guides, and I may have been poking around the miracle of the internet to see how other people use lovage... and thus checking out other seaside edible plants.  And there we were, sitting on the ground and right next to me is a plant I recognize.  A plant I've seen all over the place for years, but I didn't know was edible until very recently: seaside plantain.  I couldn't recall having read anything about there being similar toxic plants and I couldn't quite recall how it's meant to be used, so I did what I do best and picked a leaf and stuck in my mouth.  I was contemplating the slightly bitter but otherwise strangely tasteless raw leaf when I heard a stern voice behind me... 

So here's the thing.  Both scotch lovage and seaside plantain are extremely common along the coast of the north Atlantic ocean.  Until you are ready to use them, then the plantain remains happily abundant but the lovage disappears.  But, you're thinking (and you're right), we had seen lovage, lots of it, and taken note of where it was.

Most of the places we'd been to were with visitors from away... so places a bit far-flung for a quick trip for a fistful of lovage, or places that you visit because they are nature preserves and, well, protected, so picking lovage isn't cool (much less permissible).  No problem.  Although there wasn't very much lovage in that first place I spotted it, some time had gone by, so we knew it was a sure spot for how much we needed.  However, I failed to mention earlier in the post that this particular area is part of a municipal pasture.  Did it cross my mind that if I was interested in eating scotch lovage, the local sheep might likewise be interested?  Admittedly, no.  Lesson learned.

A multitude of similar coastal trails visited, thousands of plantain plants, no lovage.  So we finally went back to the place we harvested the plantain (skipping the lovage at the time because we were evidently over-confident about being able to find it closer to home).  We brought the dogs to kill two metaphorical birds with one metaphorical stone, making it feel a bit less like back-tracking.

One last amazing thing before you get to the how-to below:  the scotch lovage which was still right where we left it was already occupied when we arrived.  A couple of short-tailed swallowtail caterpillars were busy munching on loveliest of lovely scotch lovage plants.  There was enough lovage to share (thankfully) and we carefully harvested stems from parts of the plant not being used by the caterpillars.

Short-tailed swallowtail caterpillars are strongly associated with scotch lovage.  And very pretty too.


Identify, pick and use seaside plantain and scotch lovage.

Seaside Plantain Plantago juncoides (also known as Goose Tongue)

Seaside plantain tends to grow in colonies.

The Peterson guide aptly describes seaside plantain as a "homely" plant.  It's low growing and generally found in colonies above but close to the high tide line (though looking at how it's distributed, you get the sense that wave action is part of how seeds are dispersed; it's not uncommon to see a lone plant here or there, up a cliff face or much further inland than the others).  We have found it on pebbly beaches, in rock crevices, and interspersed with black crowberry on coastal heaths.  The leaves are fleshy with a deep groove through the length and although some grow straight, many of the leaves curl and curve around in strange ways.  Flower stalks are erect and are topped with a tight elongated cluster of greenish-yellowish flowers.

Pick only 1-3 leaves from each plant (fewer from smaller plants, more from larger plants) being careful to not pull the roots of the plant up.  The leaves twist out of the plant fairly easily if you are selecting younger central leaves... the older the leaf, the more bitterness it has, so we stuck to the younger leaves.  If they are resisting plucking, they are probably too old anyway.

Since this was the first time we used seaside plantain, we stuck to the recommendation in all the field guides consulted: we boiled the leaves in a small amount of water and served with butter.  They hold their shape during cooking and the flavour is slightly salty and bitter like rapini, the texture similar to asparagus but slightly chewier.  This would be an excellent green to serve with lamb.

As a **cautionary note**:  Apparently in areas where there are salt marshes, a similar plant called seaside arrowgrass accumulates cyanide in the leaf.  Avoid confusing the two!  Seaside arrowgrass leaves grow more or less straight up (rather than curling) and are not grooved.  My suspicion is that it's difficult to confuse them side by side, but if you are salt-marsh wanderer, be mindful.

Scotch Lovage Ligusticum scothicum (also known as Scots Lovage, Sea Lovage, Sea Parsley, Sea Celery)

Scotch lovage is very similar to flat leafed parsley in appearance and taste.

If you are familiar with herb garden varieties of lovage, you will have no trouble spotting this plant.  We found them on pebble beaches, in crevices of rocky outcrops/rocky heads and in coastal heaths.  Plants are bushy and tall (10-60 cm) with clustered white or greenish-white flowers in an umbrella-like shape (similar to yarrow and other carrot-family flowers).  The leaves are alternate on stalks and composed of three flat three-lobed leaflets with toothed edges.  Veins in the older leaves are visually prominent ranging from dark green to reddish-purple; but are not terribly prominent in the young growth.  When you crush the leaves, they smell heartily of celery.  Black and short-tailed swallowtail caterpillars are strongly associated with scotch lovage (and other wild parsley or parsnip-like plants).

Like any perennial herb, it can stand cutting, but since we share wild plants with wild (and, apparently, domestic) animals, we left the vast majority of the plant intact.  For use as a fresh herb, select thinner stems; for use as a cooked herb go ahead and cut some of the older, thicker stems.  The flavour is (not surprisingly) very similar to flat-leafed parsley but with a strong celery note and the taste of sea-air, probably from the saltiness.  Use as you would use parsley or celery leaf.  We made tabbouleh, one of our favourite parsley dishes.

Fefe Noir's Seaside Tabbouleh

1 c. whole grain bulgur (cracked wheat)
juice of 1-1/2 lemons
2-inch piece of preserved lemon, rind only, finely diced
1 tomato, finely diced
1 bunch scotch lovage (or substitute parsley from your herb garden), leaves only, minced
sprig of fresh mint (bonus points for wild mint, we couldn't find any), leaves only, minced
2-4 spring onions (2 if they're large, 4 if they're small), finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed
salt to taste
a goodly grind of black pepper

Pre-soak bulgar:  In a non-reactive bowl combine bulgar with the juice of 1/2 lemon plus enough water to make up 1 c. liquid.  Let sit overnight (or if you didn't plan ahead, give it at least 2 hours for the bulgur to absorb the water).

Combine all remaining ingredients with soaked bulgur (don't forget the other lemon, juiced).  Let sit for at least an hour before eating to let the flavours combine.  Serve at room temperature.  

Another excellent side for lamb... we may have a meal here... 


The lovely Bella did some seaside foraging of her own while we were out gathering lovage.  She's rather fond of
getting getting some extra calcium by scavenging crab shells discarded by gulls.

Seaside Foraging: Lovage and Plantain on Punk Domestics

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