“This clearing burned down to the ground last year”, my friend told me as we walked through a clearing on our way to his black trumpet patch. As we waded through the clearing, I started noticing some new plants I’d never seen. Long, serrated, light-weight leaves. They were tall too, and some of them were begining to make flower buds. I could see the flower buds put them in the aster family for sure, but beyond that, I was going to need a little help. I snipped a few leaves and brought them home.
Once I got back to my apartment I walked through the courtyard with my mushroom hunting backpack, and stopped when I saw the exact same plant growing in the courtyard. I grabbed a few new leaves, since the other’s I’d grabbed earlier in the day were wilted to beyond recognition (they’re pretty flimsy). A couple googles hit pay dirt. Erichtites hieraciifolius, synonyms being American burnweed, pilewort and fireweed, and, it was edible, technically.
The flavor was intense, and not necessarily in a good way. Some asters have a strong flavor that is just too much, giant ragweed comes to mind here alongside burnweed. Generally with plants I want to eat, I want them mild tasting, or slightly bitter. Plants that have strong flavor (excluding general garden herbs) that make you brace yourself won’t get much use in my world as I’m out to eat mass quantities of wild greens as vegetables. I’m never going to be eating mass quantities of burnweed. I resigned myself to let the burnweed be, and I forgot about it for a few years.
I was reminded of it again in 2018 when my friend Marie Viljeon posted about eating the plant as an herb in mango salad recipe in her new book “Forage Harvest Feast” (I definitely reccomend grabbing a copy). It’s a great book, filled with fun ideas for using wild plants, mushrooms, and other ingredients for those of us who appreciate living close to nature.
The key: use fireweed like an herb
I went in the cooler, grabbed a mango and a couple leaves of fireweed from a neighbors yard, and put them together. It was a perfect match. The aster flavor is never going to be pleasant as a cooked green, but as an herb it’s pure genius. The bright, herbal quality comes through as a perfect counterpoint to the intense sweetness of mango. From there, add a little fish sauce and aromatic oil and you have yourself one pretty damn cool mango salad.
Mangos weren’t the only thing that I liked the burnweed with though. The intense sweetness is a great pairing for the strong herbaceous quality of the burnweed, but other fruits were great too. I found that the fruits that I liked best with the flavor were those kind of along the same lines of the mango: sunbelt fruit, ripe, juicy things with aromatic flavors bordering on tropical: peaches, pinneaple, passion fruit, watermelon (esp yellow) would all be great.
Here’s my second favorite salad recipe so far (since I didn’t have any mangoes at home). If you haven’t had peaches and tomatoes together, give them a shot, it’s a great change of pace when they’re a bunch of both of them around in the late summer.
- With a plant that has such a powerful flavor, I found I like the young, tender plants the best. Young plants allowed me to use whole leaves and young, tender flower buds, all in small amounts.
- I have only been using the plant raw, I thought it was under-whelming cooked.
- Don’t bother trying to dry it like other herbs: it doesn’t keep much flavor.
Heirloom Tomato-Colorado Peach Salad with Fireweed
- Equal parts ripe tomatoes and peaches
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- Leaves of fireweed to taste
- Red onion shaved as thin as possible, to taste
- Virgin sunflower oil extra virgin olive oil, or another finishing oil you like
- Combine all ingredients just before serving. Double check the seasoning for salt, herbs and oil and adjust as needed, then serve immediately before the tomatoes begin to weep their juice.