Friday, June 1, 2012

Foraging the forest: Clintonia Borealis, Blue-bead Lily

Sadly, it's much easier to create a desert than a forest. – James Lovelock 

Clintonia borealis. If you live in its range you must have seen it.
Recently when I was visiting my mother in the country I went for a walk with my best friend (Henry my Bouvier) up to the beach where we used to swim when we were children.

As usual I took the camera with me to photograph what was growing and to see the progress of nature.

One plant that I came across was the Clintonia Borealis (otherwise known as blue-bead lily). The common name is quite apt as after flowering shiny blue beads, about the size of a blueberry, form at the top of the stalk.

Clintonia forms large colonies.
What is Clintonia
Clintonia borealis is a perennial forest plant found in eastern North America. It is named after DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), an early naturalist and governor of the State of New York in the USA.

Blue-bead lilies are native perennials, growing to about 10-12" tall, usually found in large colonies. The leaves look very much like lady's slippers when they first emerge. If you don't know what you're looking at it can cause great excitement – hoping for a massive show of those beautiful native orchids later in the season. 

That's not to say Clintonia aren't beautiful. It's just they are far more common in our forests than the somewhat exotic Lady's Slippers.

Reproduction takes place via seed and rhizomes. They flower in May and June but it takes quite a while for a colony to develop. An individual rhizome will exhaust itself in about 15 years, but the colonies can be quite large, covering hundreds of square yards.

It's actually not fair to compare the flowers of Clintonia with Lady's Slipper, because they can't be less alike.The yellow flowers look very much like miniature garden lilies at the end of the stalks. Often they are arranged in pairs or up to eight in some cases. 

These are the mature berries, which are toxic.
Photo: peupleloup, Flickr ccl
The flowers are followed by the distinctive blue berries, which can be mistaken for blueberries by small children. Blueberry plants and Clintonia are not at all similar, but the berries do look fairly alike and can be mistaken by wee folk. 

They are somewhat toxic so care should be taken to educate your little folk if you live in an area where this plant is common. Ingestion of several berries can be enough to poison a child. I haven't been able to find out how many "several" actually means, so the quantity to eat is zero.

A very common plant
And common this plant is… Clintonia grows from Newfoundland to Manitoba, south to North Carolina and over to Wisconsin. It loves the rich soil of our coniferous and mixed wood forests and is an extremely common understory plant. It is not found in open spaces, and only grows in the shade. 

The leaves when they emerge look almost identical to Lady's Slipper.
A bit of a disappointment when they aren't... because they're so profuse.
Clintonia on your plate
Although we must avoid the berries, the leaves are edible. The young leaves of the plant are best while still only a few inches tall, before they unfurl completely. Young leaves are supposed to taste a little like sweet cucumber when raw. They can be chopped and added to salads.

As the leaves mature they become more bitter, but nothing I have read says they cannot be eaten when mature. In fact several sites suggest using the mature leaves as a "potherb." That's a term that means you can eat them by boiling. If using the mature leaves boil for 10 minutes and serve with butter, salt and pepper.

I have to admit I have not eaten Clintonia, but I very well may this year. As usual, please use common sense when foraging. When trying any new forage plant, eat only a very little at first to make sure you don't have any unknown allergies, and ensure that the area you are foraging in is free from pollution. Don't set in with a full-blown feats with all your family and friends...

One final note about Clintonia. I have read in the past that hunters used it as bear attractant. They rubbed the juice from the rhizomes on their traps. How unusual...


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