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According to Wikipedia and a few other sites, “the primrose path” refers to a life of luxury. I’m not sure what that has to do with the primrose that grows wild here in BK, because Evening Primrose a.k.a. Oenathera biennis is definitely roughing it.

Evening primrose is native to the U.S., but it seems to prefer parking lots to wilder areas. It hunkers close to the earth in hurricane season (which is why Sandy didn’t wipe it out), only to grow tall in gentler months. And far from being a food that needs the pampering of spring and summer’s warmth, evening primrose offers us a four-season harvest.

Right now, you’re looking for a ground-hugging rosette (“rosette” is a leaf arrangement where all the leaves are in a circular pattern and joined at one central point to the root. Think dandelion). Some people think it almost looks succulent. (It’s not). The mostly smooth-edged, up to 5-inch long lance-shaped leaves do have a noticeably white central midrib. If you scrape away the soil at the base of the leaves you’ll notice that the tops of the carrot-shaped taproots are almost always pink or reddish. The rest of the root is light brown to tan.

Evening primrose is a biennial. This means that the plants that started growing from seed this year didn’t flower yet. They are still those ground-hugging rosettes. Those are the ones you’re going to eat as both a root and a leafy green vegetable.

The roots are sweeter after a frost or two, but even then they have a little bit of a bite. Raw, this is very similar to a radish. Cooked, they taste more like turnips. The roots have a slightly mucilaginous (the polite way of saying “slimy”) texture. This makes them wonderful in soups and stews, which they will thicken a bit without any noticeable slime factor. Raw, try them minced and marinated in salad vinaigrette dressings for 20 minutes before tossing them with the rest of the salad ingredients.

This is a really tasty food, plus it’s something you can harvest even in winter. So I’d hate to see you discouraged by the “mucilaginous” factor. If that’s a real turn off, roast chunks of evening primrose root tossed in rosemary oil along with other root vegetables. They will be delicious even to okra-phobic folks.

You can also eat the leaves attached to the root. They are lightly mustard-y, and I like them best stir-fried in combination with other greens.

Come late spring or early summer, the plants will send up a 3-5 foot flower stalk. You can continue to eat the leaves that grow on the flower stalk. The flowers that eventually appear have four bright yellow petals. They have a “landing pattern” on them that is only visible to us under ultraviolet light, but which is clearly visible to pollinators.

In late summer, the plants produce narrow seedpod capsules somewhere between 1/2 to 1-inch long. Once these mature and start to dry up and turn brown, the tips separate and flare out like a little tutu. Break one of these capsules in half, and you can shake out numerous tasty and good-for-you seeds (they contain an oil that is good for premenstrual breast soreness, rheumatoid arthritis, and menopause symptoms). To use the seeds, lightly toast them first in a small, dry skillet for 2 minutes over low heat until they just begin to become fragrant. Use in any recipe that calls for poppy seeds (I’m thinking muffins).

To sum up: Fall through winter and into early spring, you’re eating the roots and rosette leaves. Mid-spring through early summer, you’re eating the flower stalk leaves (these are a little more pungent than the winter/spring basal rosette leaves). Late summer, you’re going for the seeds.

Where can you find evening primrose? It’s growing in every Brooklyn park, but is even more prevalent as a weed in community gardens and parking lots. Careful with the parking lots – you might want to have the soil tested before harvesting from those.

Warm Potato and Evening Primrose Root Salad
Serves 3, recipe can be doubled

  • 1/2 pound potatoes, scrubbed clean and chopped so that they are in approximately 1-inch pieces (fingerlings can be left whole)
  • 8 ounces evening primrose roots, scrubbed clean and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons rosemary oil or extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Leaves from the evening primrose roots, or 2 oz. arugula
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (the cheap supermarket stuff is fine here)
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  1. Preheat oven to 400F.
  2. Toss the potatoes and primrose roots with the oil and salt. Transfer to a cast iron skillet or other wide, heavy-bottomed pan that can do time on the stove as well as in the oven.
  3. Roast in the oven, tossing or stirring often, until the root veggies are cooked through and starting to brown, 20-30 minutes. Transfer to stovetop.
  4. Add the evening primrose or arugula leaves and the garlic. Cook over low heat, stirring, about 2 minutes until the leaves are fully wilted.
  5. Raise the heat to high. Add the balsamic, mustard, and syrup or honey. Cook, stirring constantly, until most of the vinegar has evaporated. Taste. Add salt and pepper if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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3 Responses to Foraging Brooklyn: Down the Primrose Path

  1. Leda says:

    Thanks, Steve! I’m looking forward to your new foraging book, too. And I will definitely try the immature evening primrose stalks this spring!

  2. Planet Earth says:

    Hi Leda,

    Congratulations on this column/blog. Can’t wait to see your new book, which I’d be happy to review. Everyone interested in foraging should buy it. Hope it does great!

    I enjoyed your common evening primrose article. I didn’t know you could eat the roasted seeds. I can’t wait to try them!

    You didn’t mention that the flowers are edible. They’re insubstantial, but add some nice color to salads.

    Last spring, I saw a stand of immature flower stalks, and it struck me that they might be delicious peeled, like burdock or curly dock. I tried them, they were fantastic-tasting, raw or cooked, and it took me only 30 years to make this discovery. The season is short, but let me know what you think when you try them.

    For people who don’t like the okra-like sliminess of the roots, you can purée them after simmering them in stock or non-dairy milk (I’m a vegan), to make a cream soup or sauce. Instead of perceiving sliminess, it feels like the soup has been thickened with arrowroot, kudzu, flour or cornstarch (I don’t use the latter because it’s refined.)

  3. Pingback: Upcoming Workshops with Leda Meredith | Leda's Urban Homestead

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