2013 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors

Eat the Aliens

Adirondack plant guru Jane Desotelle talks about why she digs nonnative species

Dandelion photograph from iStock

We’re surrounded by aliens. Aliens are everywhere—they’re in the woods, even in your own backyard.

What do you do with them? I eat the aliens. I’m drinking them right now—a cup of dandelion-root tea. Dandelion’s a wonderful plant. You can eat it, make jelly or wine with its flowers, make tea with its root. It’s a diuretic, helps regulate blood sugar and is good for the liver and gallbladder.

Just what are aliens? I have a general rule of thumb: if the plant was not here before white man came, it’s considered an alien. I have a list of 60 or so—including apples, asparagus, raspberries and daylilies. Some of these could have come on The Mayflower.

Are there new ones? With global warming there’s a shift in growing zones—3s and 4s are 5s and 6s. New species are coming up, some good, some—invasives—aren’t so good. They can crowd out other plants. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I’ve seen these changes.

Name an “invader” alien you’ve encountered. Garlic hedge mustard. In a couple of years there are solid mats of it where there weren’t any before. It goes into the deep woods and will take shade—the same place where you find wild orchids and other precious wildflowers. When I collect I pull it up. The best time is in spring when the soil is still really soft. And it yanks up easily without leaving baby roots. I break off the leaves I want, then I’ll hang the rest in a crook of a tree where it can dry out or I use black plastic “kill bags.” The plastic absorbs heat and the plant rots quickly.

Any others? Japanese knotweed. It gets really big and crowds out other plants—I’ve seen it in dry places and wet places. The shoots, when they come up in spring, look like reddish asparagus. I break them off and cook them like rhubarb—in sauces and jellies. Knot­weed is an excellent source of vitamins A and C. It provides potassium, phosphorus, zinc and manganese. It is said to help reduce bad cholesterol. And it’s an anti-inflammatory that has been used for treating arthritis and Lyme disease.

There’s also purple loosestrife. It is antibacterial and a wonderful herb for diarrhea and other bowel problems. It is astringent, which tightens tissues, and is mucilaginous, which soothes irritated tissues, such as nasal passages and eyes.

Why use our backyard plants? People are more concerned about what they’re putting into their bodies. For example, St. John’s wort, another alien, grows all over here. You can buy it at a drug store as an herbal depression remedy, but you’re not sure what you’re getting. If you learn how to identify these plants you can go out there and pick them at the peak of their potency. I do private walks with people who want to know what’s on their land—alien or native. In two hours we can find at least 50 plants that are useful to know. I teach them how to harvest them and use them. You never know what you’re going to find.

Learn more about herbalist Jane Desotelle, her lectures, plant identification workshops, recipes (including those below) and her Underwood Herbs products at or on Facebook. Jane’s a fixture at the Keene, Keeseville and Plattsburgh farmers’ markets (see market dates at

Be sure to harvest plants from uncontam­inated areas. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional.

Dandelion-Root Tea
Collect 2 cups of fresh dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) roots for every cup of dried root you need. I use 1 teaspoon of dried roots per cup of tea. Wash, chop and spread on a piece of cardboard to dry. Because these roots have a bitter taste, I roast them like chicory. Steep the tea 5­–10 minutes or more for the most medicinal value.

Dandelion Blossom Syrup
This is a very old recipe that most likely came from the earliest European settlers who brought this “weed” with them as a food and herb source.

A lemon or orange was a special treat for early settlers. This syrup was a way to make the most of one. The syrup can be used as a substitute for honey and is delicious drizzled on French toast or ice cream—whatever you’d like. Also, dandelion syrup is great in teas and can be added to medicine to help it go down easier.

1 quart dandelion petals. Be sure to leave as little green—the most bitter part—as possible. Collect blossoms in late morning when they are fully opened. Be sure to avoid insects as you collect.
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
Optional: ½ lemon or orange chopped, peel and all. This will give your syrup a lemony or orange taste. If you want pure dandelion flavor you may omit the lemon or orange. You may also substitute a ½ chopped tart apple, peel and all. The apple flavor is less obtrusive and the natural pectin will thicken the syrup more quickly. You can even add enough apple pectin to make a jelly.

Put blossoms and water in a pot (never use aluminum). Bring just to a boil, turn off heat, cover and let sit overnight. The next day, strain and press liquid out of flowers. Add sugar (and sliced fruit or apple pectin) and heat slowly, stirring occasionally, for several hours or until it becomes a honey-like syrup. Can in half-pint or 1-pint jars.

Dandelion Hot Cakes

1 cup white flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
¼ cup oil
½ cup dandelion blossom syrup or honey
2 cups milk
1 cup dandelion blossom petals, remove the green part

Mix dry ingredients. Add wet ingredients and mix together thoroughly. If mixture is too dry, add a little milk. Add flour if too thin. Cook on a hot greased grill. Serve with butter and dandelion blossom syrup.

Garlic Hedge Mustard Salad
The young leaves of garlic hedge mustard (Alliaria petiolata) can be added to salads—instead of commercial mustard leaves—for pungent flavor. It has a bite like mustard, but more of a garlic flavor. The older the leaves, the bitterer they become. The plant’s white flowers can also be used in salads or as a delicious edible garnish.

Japanese Knotweed Syrup
Wash and dice young Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) shoots. (If there are leaves on the plant the shoots are probably too tough to use.) Boil shoots in water, then mash to get the most color and flavor. Strain pulp. Add sugar, then boil to syrup stage. Can as you would jelly. This syrup is tart like rhubarb, so serve as a topping on ice cream, cheesecake—anything sweet.

Purple Loosestrife Tea
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) leaves, stems and flowers can all be harvested and dried for tea. Wash (check flowers for bugs), chop and dry on cardboard. I use 1 teaspoon dried loose­strife per cup—or stronger for severe diarrhea.

To soothe sinus infections or dry eyes, strain prepared tea finely. Dissolve 1/8 teaspoon salt per ½ cup tea before using it to wash the eyes or nasal passages.


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