Wáǧačhaŋ wanáȟča kiŋ yáta oyákihi he? Can you eat cottonwood flowers?
I’ve been working with cottonwood buds to make medicinal salves, but when I walked by our neighborhood trees and noticed that the buds had burst open to reveal these red flowers (technically called catkins, not flowers), I wondered if they were edible. I tried one — it tasted almost like broccoli, but a bit bitter, with nothing of the taste/smell associated with cottonwood buds and stems.
Since most things taste better fried, I gathered some to take home and experiment.
The first step in cleaning them is to remove the shells of the cracked-open bud:
Finished pile of peeled flowers:
Compost bin full of shells:
I did my gathering over several days, during which time the flowers still growing on the trees matured and elongated, growing to look more like velvety, fuzzy caterpillars.
After washing them in water and patting them dry, my first step was to soak them in goat’s milk briefly:
Then a dip in cornmeal:
Then briefly frying them in grapeseed oil:
After they came out of the frying pan, I added a bit of salt. I experimented with other seasonings, both sweet (honey or brown sugar) and savory (various herbs). I came to the conclusion that just salt is best, and allows the flavor of the wáǧačhaŋ wanáȟča to stand on its own. This is the finished product, which I served to my Ethnobotany class:
Mistakes I made, to avoid:
-Cook these the same day that you pick them. Overnight, the flowers will start to open up more, produce more pollen, and disintegrate. If you must pick them ahead of time, keep them in the fridge in a bag with a paper towel.
-Don’t wash these with water until you’re ready to cook them.
-If you wait too long in the season to pick the flowers, they will start to dry out and lose their taste.
-I’ve heard in Lakota country that people consider the flowers to be “famine food,” but I thought they were pretty good.
-If you have a strong reaction to bitter undertones in foods, you probably won’t like them.
-In my research, I found that the Japanese fry these tempura-style at a later stage of their growth. They look very beautiful this way from the pictures I found.
-There may be other spices that work well with the flavor of these buds, but I haven’t found the right one yet.
-After writing and posting this, I found that another blogger had written and posted pretty much the same exact thing. We each came to our conclusions independently, but here’s the link if you want another source.