Spring is here and with it comes elm samaras: a tree seed you can eat that tastes like fresh green peas, and one of the most unique wild edibles available to foragers in the spring.
Today I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about these over the past few years of gathering. I’ll go over how and when I harvest, as well as how I cook with them.
The seeds of elms are called samaras. All elms I’ve seen have seeds that are edible, but, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on Siberian elm samaras (Ulmus pumila) as they’re the best I’ve had.
Sam Thayer says Slippery elm (Ulmus Rubra) seeds are equally good as good as Siberian elm. I’ve been told other species like Chinese elm (U. parviflora) are good too, but they’re not as widely available.
The only others species of elm samaras I’ve had are American (Ulmus americana), which aren’t quite as good as Siberian elm. American elm samaras have more tiny hairs and are smaller than the rounded, winged fruit of Siberian elm.
Sam Thayer writes that some people have reported developing an allergic reaction to American elm samaras, so make sure to try small amounts if those are the only ones available to you.
Siberian elm: An invasive edible
Sustainability is a big topic in the foraging and wild food world. The good news about samaras is that arguably the best tasting ones come from an invasive tree.
As Sam Thayer writes in the Forager’s Harvest, Siberian elm trees were brought to the U.S. in the 1860’s from Northeastern Asia. The tree is rugged, hardy, and, unlike American elms, resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. Now, if only those invasive trees could start producing morels!
Hunting and Harvesting
The harvesting window is very short for these, so you need to work quickly. On a good year, I can easily harvest a couple grocery bags full of samaras in an hour from one or two trees, but timing is crucial.
Here’s some quick tips I think are helpful.
- You’re looking for trees right as the leaves begin to unfurl. For me this is usually Mid-April, depending on the year.
- Walk on the edge of the woods, sunny fields or trails. The trees there will have lower branches you can reach. As these trees get more sun, they give the largest amounts of samaras, from my experience.
- Choose light-green, tender samaras in bountiful clusters without too many elm leaves. Fruit with tough or papery wings are too old.
- U. pumila is often planted as an ornamental or shade tree. Sometimes I’ll harvest from trees on the street if it doesn’t see much traffic (pollution).
- When they’re ready, hit all of your spots. My areas produce for one week.
- I bring a metal coat hanger, uncurled, and use the hook part to gently lower hard to reach branches.
- Bring a blickey or a container you can secure to a belt. Having two hands free will double your harvesting speed.
Once you bring them home, you want to chill the samaras down by putting them in a zip-top bag in the fridge. Don’t forget to channel your inner deer by stuffing your mouth full once or twice. They’ll never be fresher than the moment you pick them.
Besides eating fresh, you can also collect the fruit to harvest the central seed. Some people have compared the nutty taste to sunflower seeds. I don’t doubt they’re good, but processing these is a lot of work for a little return, so I don’t see myself trying that any time soon.
The way to eat
The golden nugget of wisdom I have to share with you here is a mindset, not a harvesting hack. Samaras are small, and there’s a difference between having a couple as a trail nibble or putting a few on a salad, and eating them like a vegetable.
To really appreciate them as more than a garnish or a cute sprinkle, you need a bunch. I recommend starting with at least a gallon bag.
The real beauty of this fleeting, gourmet ingredient is hard to appreciate until you eat them in a portion similar to other foods. You can eat them in salads, and they’re good, but cooking opens up a new world.
If I cook samaras, it’s usually in soup or broth. Toss them in at the last minute and watch their color transform to a vibrant green. Lightly oiled and toasted on low heat they also make a fun garnish or snack (see above).
The tender, papery covering softens and reminds me a bit of tiny pasta I used to chase around my bowl as a kid. To me it’s a bit like eating elf food, and the kind of eating spring is all about.