Along the coast, certain edible plants can be found in abundance. A select few can be found on just about any of the North American coasts. Let’s take a look at some of these beach plants.
When most people see the orach plants (Atriplex spp. – there are several species) on the beaches above the high-tide line they think they are looking at a lamb’s quarter plant. The very common lamb’s quarter is a European native which today can be found in disturbed soils just about anywhere in the world. It is one of the first plants a wild food forager learns about because it is widespread, easy to identify, and quite useful in a variety of dishes.
Orach is in the same Goosefoot family as lamb’s quarter but in a different genus. Orach is visually similar to lamb’s quarter, bearing pale green leaves coated with a whitish film that is rubbed off easily. However, orach leaves have a unique shape that resembles an arrowhead with backward pointing barbs (a shape botanists refer to as hastate).
Orach is often widely scattered and rarely forms in dense patches. When you take a single leaf and taste it there is initially a mild saltiness that may give way to a hint of bitterness. Once rinsed, young orach leaves can be added to a salad, but you probably wouldn’t use these leaves as a primary salad ingredient because they are a bit on the strong side.
I like them best when they are rinsed well and then cooked with other greens for a green dish or a stew. They are like spinach or lamb’s quarter once cooked.
I once took some seed and found the orach plant grew very well in my urban Southern California backyard. In fact, when grown in my backyard instead of the beach, the leaves were significantly milder and actually tasted good in a salad. The plant readily reseeds, so if you like the plant you can have it in your backyard “forever” assuming your plants get some water and shade.
Sea rocket (Cakile edentula and C. maritime) is very common along the high tide areas of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. It’s a semi-succulent sprawling plant whose beautiful little four-petaled, white–to-lavender flowers betray its membership in the Mustard Family.
Sea rocket leaves and tender portions are not good in a salad because it’s too much like eating strong horseradish. However, I have on a few occasions had the good timing to be around the plants in the late winter after rains, when hundreds of tiny sprouts were coming up under the sprawling plant. The young sprouts are tasty in salads and also make a good addition to soups and stews.
The leaves and tender portions can also be cooked as greens or added to other stews, as well as clam or fish dishes. I recommend you do a quick boil, drain the water and then cook again. This makes them tasty and palatable to most people. Then you can cook them into whatever recipe you choose.
Glasswort (Salicornia spp. – there are several species) is an interesting and beautiful low-growing plant appearing in the back bays and salt flats just slightly inland. The plant consists of more or less erect succulent stems of translucent green that turn red in the fall. During the fall these plants also produce lots of seeds that waterfowl frequently eat.
Nibble on a few of the stems and it’s tasty, mild and a bit salty. It goes well with salads and makes a good addition to cooked greens and vegetables too. Yes, you can cook it by itself and you really should so you get to know its flavor. However, glasswort seems to work best when combined with other foods.
It does make good pickles. Take the tender young stems, rinse them and then pack them into a jar. I cover with raw apple cider vinegar, but I have also used the juice from a can of olives or jalapenos. You could use regular pickle juice as well. I like to refrigerate for a few weeks before eating them.
When Glasswort starts to turn red in the fall it gets too tough to eat, so this is a seasonal food.
NEW ZEALAND SPINACH
New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) is found primarily along the Pacific Coast, where it sometimes grows thickly in mats above the high tide line.
When I realized New Zealand spinach grew wild all along the west coast beaches I collected it for both salad and cooked greens. Pinch off the tender tips and use the plant just as you’d use ordinary garden spinach.
When you see the plant on the beach it does resemble garden spinach. The difference is New Zealand spinach sprawls over a much larger area, whereas garden spinach is typically a single erect stalk. Also, New Zealand spinach is perennial.
More than 30 years ago I took a few roots of New Zealand spinach and planted them in a large hillside experimental garden measuring about 40 by 40 feet. As long as the plant was given water periodically it spread and spread, and my regular harvesting resulted in even more growth. Since this plant required very little care and provided year-round food, I have long regarded this as one of the ideal “survival garden” plants that should do well wherever there are no periods of sustained frost.
Cattail (Typha spp.) is a freshwater plant, but since so many streams flow into the ocean I have always found cattails not far from the coast. Cattail consists of long flat green leaves – often up to 6 feet long – and a characteristic flowering spike that looks like a hotdog on a stick. There are many foods from the cattail plant, and this is determined by the season. In spring, before the plant begins to flower, the tender shoot can be tugged out of the ground and the green outer layers peeled away. The white inner core is tender and has a flavor reminiscent of cucumber.
Another easy source of food from the cattail is the flower spike, but you have to pick it before the spike turns brown and becomes inedible. The green spike is not all that great raw, but if you boil it, and butter it, it’s very much like eating corn on the cob!
These are not the only foods you’ll find on the beach, but they are some of the most common edible plants found in many beach areas.
Christopher Nyerges has been leading ethnobotanical classes and field trips since 1974. To learn more about his classes and books, contact him at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or SchoolofSelf-Reliance
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.