EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES
PUGET SOUND’S EDIBLE TREES
By Sumi Hahn
Photo by Lara Ferroni
Arthur Lee Jacobson once threw a party where all the food came from trees. “Retsina wine, birch beer, pine nuts, apples and oranges, pecans, coconuts. People could bring things if the items fell within certain parameters.”
A well-known Seattle plant expert, Jacobson further explains. “Trees produce something that’s edible, like an apple or orange. Or an edible product that has to be shelled or husked, like a pine nut, or an olive, which has to be processed elaborately. There’s also tree sap, like maple syrup from the Sugar Maple.”
Streamlined and streaked with gray, Jacobson has that slightly off-kilter otherworldliness typical of people who spend most of their time outside. As he talks about eating trees, he seems more ageless forest sprite than lifelong Seattleite, until a salty burst of invective breaks the spell. “I hope you don’t mind swearing,” he adds mildly.
He mentions hearts of palm in the next breath, but with pungent disapproval. Removing the soft interior of the edible palm kills it. Instead, he suggests, eat their flowers, which bloom in spring.
All these trees and their foodstuffs can be found here in Seattle, and Jacobson, whose affinity for urban trees is exhaustively documented, knows where to find them. His best-known book on the subject, Trees of Seattle (2006), is a thick compendium of Seattle’s 1,400 tree varieties that’s both scientific and idiosyncratic—a combination delightful to read.
Especially entertaining are Jacobson’s unexpected tasting notes of edible tree parts. Of the edible berries of Seattle’s ubiquitous Madrona tree, he writes: “They taste good, but their texture and tiny seeds are annoying.” And of the equally common Japanese maple: “The young, unfolding leaves of many (especially purple-colored cut-leaved ones) are sorrel-flavored, excellent additions to salads. Not only superior to most other maple leaves, they’re also better than those of the Sorrel Tree!”
“I’ve eaten more plants than anyone I know,” Jacobson admits. “I like to not only observe with my eyes, but to touch, sniff and taste as well. It’s a fuller way to live.” He has even tasted poisonous plants. “But I know what I’m doing,” he cautions. “No one should ever eat an unfamiliar plant.”
When we start walking outside in Volunteer Park, Jacobson’s indoor reserve falls away, and his mind seems to burst wide open. “There’s this whole world of edible trees, and in spring, a huge opportunity for young, tender greenery.” I can almost see him salivate. “The time, though, is very fleeting. For each species, less than two weeks.” He waves his hand at what looks like a large pine tree.
“Hemlock, a coniferous native. A wonderfully edible tree—the young tender greenery is mildly sour and agreeable, almost like sorrel, with an ever so faint hint of pine in it. The young leaves are chartreuse, limp, soft, and dull, and you can get them in May or June.”
He pauses. “Unfortunately, the name is the same as the poisonous plant that killed Socrates. The poisonous plant, however, looks like a gigantic parsley.”
He leaves the trail to break off live twigs of Sweet Birch. He starts chewing it and tells me to do the same. It’s an odd, unforgettable sensation, to be walking in Volunteer Park with my mouth full of stick. I keep chewing, wondering what for. Quite suddenly, the lovely cool of wintergreen blooms in my mouth.
An involuntary gasp escapes my lips, and he smiles. “Tastes like candy, doesn’t it?” That’s when I grasp the potential of everything he’s told me. Would it be possible, perhaps, to make a salad exclusively of trees?
The party maven in him is inspired by the idea. “If you threw a party at the right time of year—May, perhaps April—you could have a salad of young tree leaves and flowers. But you’d really have to know what you’re doing. Individual plants will be early or late depending on their location. You have to know where to look. Just like when you’re cooking, you know when the vegetables are done.” A rare man indeed, who forages and cooks by instinct.
“When I make my salads, whether in the wild or taking a walk in the park, I get what’s available. Plain old lettuce salad bores me.” He looks up at the tree canopy, searching for inspiration.
“You could use the tender young seeds of Elm. They’re lettuce-y, bland, and pale—nothing to jump up and down about. But the Big Leaf Maple—those flower buds and flowers have some crunch, and they are delicious raw or stir-fried. Maples in general—Japanese maple especially—have young tender edible leaves. Most coniferous trees, the young needles are OK to eat as well.” Deodar Cedar, Coast Redwood, and Dawn Redwood, he adds, “are some of the better ones.”
“The Common Hawthorn—that’s easy to find. The leaves, flower buds and flowers can be eaten, in small quantities. American Beech has a fresh, tangy astringent taste in April. For some onion-y flavor, there’s the young leaves of the wonderful and undeservedly rare Chinese Toon Tree, or the Chop Suey Tree. Only four places in the city have it, one being the Arboretum.”
No arboreal salad bowl would be complete without flowers. “The young finger-like petals of Star Magnolia, in white or pink. They have a basic petal-y flavor.” [He dismisses the other magnolia blossoms as “too large and too awkward for a salad.”] Other edible tree blossoms Jacobson recommends are “the sweet, fragrant Wisteria-like flowers of the Black Locust tree”; “the mucilaginous flowers of the Linden tree, if you like okra and similarly slimy stuff;” and, “as a garnish, the pink blooms of the Chinese Red Bud.”
He stops and contemplates the willows by the fountain. “I’ve eaten many willows, but the Gold Twig Weeping willow is the only one worth eating. The others are too bitter.” He pulls down a low-hanging pine tree branch to show me where the immature pollen cones will appear in late spring. “They are delicious—moist and sweet, and often colorful. They must be plucked when full-sized, but not yet dried-up.”
Any tree he would keep out of the salad bowl? “Well, there are lots of those. Such as eucalyptus—I have the tallest eucalyptus in Washington State in my back yard. Definitely not edible. It has the flavor of Vicks Vapo Rub, the texture of leather, and is waxy and astringent. Worse than eating the brown fuzzy skin of kiwis.”
Since he’s the expert on eating trees, I ask Arthur what he would recommend as a dressing. “A mild vinaigrette that doesn’t overpower the leaves. Even a light oil, frankly, would do. I’m one of those odd people who don’t salt their food.”
I don’t think I’d take his advice here—I’d use garlic, lemon, maybe mustard. And salt, for certain. If I’m going to eat a tree in spring, I want to relish the experience.
See www.arthurleej.com for more information on Jacobson’s book, Trees of Seattle, and his springtime edible wild plant tours.
Sumi Hahn is a retired restaurant critic (Times-Picayune, Seattle Weekly) who moonlights on www.sumisays.com when she’s not her children’s chauffeur.