From the age of 5 to 12, I repeatedly tried to poison my little brother.
Not intentionally, of course. I love him more than all the wild strawberries in the world. His near-demise came every time I force fed him what I dubbed “garden stew” — a concoction that I cooked up using ingredients from our front lawn and garden. Uprooted onion grass, wild mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, basil, mint, and water all went into the bowl.
Then, I would angle my mother’s compact mirror so the sun would bounce in and surely, within minutes, boil the soup to palatability. The fact that I did not poison him is a victorious accomplishment — I was an edible ecologist child prodigy! Okay, okay, I wasn’t. But you know who was? Linsey Lee.
Lee, now the head of the M.V. Museum’s Oral History Center, moved to the Vineyard in 1971, shortly after completing a year of college, in which she studied English and botany. “I was totally into plants at that time,” she told me. Lee had just planned to be in the Vineyard for the summer, but then she saw the chokecherries blossoming and I said, “Well, I’ve got to wait and watch the berries come out!”
You probably know her for her stirring accounts of some of the Island’s most notable characters. But in the ‘70s, Lee was focused on a different sort of oral history. At age 23, she published “Edible Wild Plants of Martha’s Vineyard” (later republished in 1999), a forager’s guide to every plant on every square foot of the island.
“In some ways,” Lee said, “this is probably what got me started on doing my oral histories. It really was a big jumpstart for the rest of my life.” That first summer, Lee spent a lot of time helping Felix Neck co-founder Anne Hale collect plants and flowers around the Island. Besides that, Lee just “loved wandering around.” “I had a little scooter and I would just go around the Island,” she said. “I knew the Vineyard from visiting as a child.” Every day, she would explore to her heart’s content and identify the plants around her.
“I knew how to identify them from my college classes and reading books. I would knock on people’s doors and I would ask if it was okay if I looked around people’s properties, and they would say ‘yes,’” Lee said.
Nostalgic for the days when the Vineyard was a “true wild paradise” Lee reminisced, “I would go up on Tea Lane and think how beautiful it was, with the lilacs and everything.”
Over the years, residential development and a steep increase in population has rapidly changed the Island’s landscape. Although Lee had to make many omissions between her 1975 and 1999 editions of the book, she said that one can still find many species on the Island, if one knows where to look.
Eating the Island
I have always been fascinated with the idea of surviving off the land as in the times of hunter-gatherers. In recent years, as a plant-based eater, some of this curiosity likely stemmed from the desire to explore alternative food sources, besides the ones I could find in my local Stop & Shop or even farmers market.
Upon picking up Lee’s book at Bunch of Grapes last summer, looking for an excuse to adventure around the Island and learn more about edible plants, I was instantly enamored of the idea of living based on her book a la A.J. Jacobs.
But, where to start? There are 66 plants, including nine mushroom varieties, listed in the book. Even though I am a resident for the whole summer, surely I wouldn’t be able to do every plant justice. So I asked Linsey Lee. “Just wander around,” she said.
With a glass collection jar and my guiding tome in tow, I set out on my quest.
Beach Rose Syrup
My first stop, Beach Road: one of the prime locations for the Island’s iconic beach plums and roses (Prunus maritima, Rosa rugosa). The Cape and Islands region is one of the few places in the country where the fruit and its flowers grow wild. As a little girl, I would touch the smooth tomato-looking orbs as we marched through the dunes to the beach, and threaten to eat them in front of my family, who believed them to be poisonous. I never followed through, and therefore have been curious about their taste for many years.
According to Lee, the plum is not suited for raw noshing; It must be jellied, juiced, fermented, or sugared. And to my disappointment, the plum part of the plant does not fully ripen until Mid-August, so I settled for beheading the pink and white flower heads. I was careful to collect them away from the road, where Jeeps and Subarus zoomed past, blowing exhaust on the perimeter.
In the book, Lee recommends preparing them for a candy, jam, or syrup. I decided rose syrup on pancakes sounded positively elegant so I dried the petals in the sun, crunched them into smaller pieces, and boiled them into a sugar water solution until viscous. The next morning, I cooked up a stack of whole wheat silver dollars and drizzled the rose gold syrup all over.
Irish moss seaweed pudding
On a spontaneous trip to the South Beach with friends, I scavenged for Irish moss seaweed. I had forgotten my field guide at home (rookie mistake), and was perplexed by the variety of kelp laid before me. Every few steps, I knelt down and scooped up what I thought looked like the picture of Irish moss that I had in my brain. When I returned home, I was disheartened to find that I was way off-mark, and the seaweed I had collected would not boil down to a gelatinous substance suitable as a pudding starter. This foraging excursion, in terms of gaining an edible result, was a failure. But I did learn a valuable lesson: never forget your field guide.
I supplemented my research with other titles such as Rodale’s “21st Century Herbal” by Dr. Michael J. Balick. Evidently, I needed some more guidance on my journey to become a legitimate naturalist. I contacted the best on-Island plant expert that I knew of: Suzan Bellincampi, director of the Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.
To Bellincampi, foraging is the perfect marriage of her two favorite things, “eating food” and “a love of nature.”
She runs many programs at the sanctuary, and often takes groups on edible education tours. In the space of an hour, Bellincampi gave us a crash course in plant identification using her own book “Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.”
Bellincampi took us through the steps of identifying a plant that was growing all around us. First, she asked, Is it a tree, shrub, or vine? Next, What’s the arrangement of the leaves? And finally, What is the texture of the leaf edges? Each identifying category has a corresponding number, which leads you to a glossary of plant species. “You want to use all your senses,” she said, as she snapped a Sassafras branch and instructed us to sniff — it was reminiscent of lemon.
At one point on our hike, Bellincampi said, “Right now, you’re surrounded by edibles.”
This conjured up the candyland scene from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” in which all the children gorge themselves on everything from the dirt to the tree bark. Well, the reality does not include rivers of hot chocolate, gumdrop toadstools, or Gene Wilder with his cane gesturing wildly. But, it does include minty grass and a whole unseen world of flavor.
Suzan told me that her affinity for the natural world also started early, “I’ve always had an affinity for marine life and plants,” she said. In practicing ecological identification, though, she voiced her preference, “Birds are great, but plants stay still.”
Suzan Bellincampi’s Dos and Don’ts:
Eat invasive plants
Eat younger plants, they’re less bitter and more fresh
Look into a conservation’s rules before picking
Pull plants out by the roots
Harvest on preserved/conserved land
Eat mushrooms without a serious understanding
Eat a plant that another organism might need more (for example, milkweed to butterflies)