Sochan, pound for pound, is one of the best greens I’ve eaten and to sweeten the deal, is one of the cornerstones of traditional, and severely under-documented Cherokee cuisine.
You might be thinking, Alan, I’m a forager, and if it’s as great as you say, what is sochan and why haven’t I heard of it before?
There’s a couple reasons for that, although, like a lot of things, it’s a multifaceted issue. Sochan (Rudbeckia laciniata / cut-leaf coneflower) is well documented to be one of the hallmarks of wild plants the Cherokee use as food, but that documentation, from what I can find, is mostly online, with only a few little known books discussing it’s uses. This can make it hard to track down information, since like with many plants Native Americans used, the knowledge was passed down orally, through the generations, not written down.
Believe it or not, the best reference I’ve found on it isn’t from a Native American, but from my friend Sam Thayer in his new book Incredible Wild Edibles. Sam is passionate about Sochan, and he passed that passion onto me. Thanks Sam. It goes without saying, if you want a super in-depth discussion of this plant, buy his book, if you don’t have it already.
Previously, documentation was in some printed books, but as there was no English translation for it, (The Cherokee name was So-Cha-Ni) it wound up being lumped into the simple category of vegetables for an audience of mostly plant-illiterate white folks like me, and what a shame that was.
The beauty of sochan is that it’s another green you can add to your diet that you can eat, easily, in large quantities. Unlike the classic dandelion that has turned people off of foraged food for plenty of years, sochan, especially combined with other mild greens like nettles, lamb’s quarter, amaranth and violets makes a dinner fit for a king. The beauty to me, aside from the history, is the balance of flavor, mild enough where skeptics and children will clean their plates, but flavorful enough to wow any chef I know with it’s individuality, and bright flavor.
Where does it grow?
Sochan has an impressive range, stretching from Appalachia to Maine up into the Upper-Midwest, and going as far west as Montana and creeping into Northern Arizona. Unfortunately, all my friends in the Pacific Northwest and Texas will be out of luck, from what I can tell. Sam has a great map of the habitat in the book I described earlier.
As far as terrain in your location. I’ve found most of my sochan likes areas with rich soil. At the farm in Wisconsin where I forage, it loves the old country road and it’s dark, wet soil that’s surrounded by ponds on either side. I’ve also found it in other areas on the shores of rivers, especially the Chippewa near Menomonie. The valleys in Wisconsin have been great for me too, forest edges and forests along rivers have given great crops. Basically, to start I’d look for dark soil near some sort of water, as that’s been the best for me.
Don’t want to hunt? Grow sochan in your yard.
I’ve also seen it show up randomly in gardens, as in the picture of my girlfriend’s mothers porch below where it volunteered last year. That being said, it might make a great addition to your garden, and it will definitely be in mine.
Look for flowering plants in the summer to plan for next year’s harvest
When all the plants are young, and without the flowers, it can be tricky to pick apart what plant is what. I find that it really helpful for me to keep tabs on patches where I suspect things are growing, checking in on them here and there to see when their flowers show. Once you see what the tell-tale, cone-shaped flowers look like, notice the height (it can grow to 10ft tall) and see the large space between flowers on the flower stalk, sochan sticks out like a sore thumb. I found a good number of patches looking for flowering plants in the late summer, returning back in the spring when the plant is young and tender.
Like with everything else, moderation is good. I found I got more leaves by allowing some on the plants to grow, and not taking all of the leaves from a single plant every time I harvested. Cutting the flowering stalks off and keeping an eye on them can net you late summer/early fall harvests of tender greens and shoots too.
Harvesting fall leaves
The leaves in the fall are a little different than those in the spring. Sam says that the fall leaves are his favorite to eat, and I really liked them as well. So, if you find some, make sure to go back in the fall, the leaves are wider, and handsome looking, see below.
How does it taste?
I struggled to contrast the flavor with other things until I spoke with my friend, Foraging personality and recent transplant from Britain Mathew Normansell. Mathew reminded me that, botanically, sochan is in the family Asteracae, meaning it’s in the same group as sunflowers and many, many other wild flowers, who will all have similar looking flowers that loosely resemble sunflowers.
Galinsoga is an aster, and so are dandelions, look at some pictures of their flowers and you’ll see what I mean. The flavor of sochan could, at first be likened as “celery-esque” but that celery-like flavor is more specifically, to me, the flavor shared by many different Asters. It’s a slightly herbal flavor, but not overpowering, err, not overpowering to start.
The older the sochan, the stronger the flavor
As the plant grows and matures, the flavor grows in strength, and the stems become too tough. Eventually the leaves will be tougher too, but a long cooking can still break them down enough to make a meal, and I’ve served it at restaurants in it’s older form, as long as it’s cut into bit sized pieces, and cooked thoroughly, preferably in something tasty like duck fat or bacon drippings.
This is the beauty of working with plants throughout the year. How Sochan will look on your plate changes throughout the growing season. In my mind, the styles of working with the plant can be separated into 3 parts:
These are the first, young shoots of Spring. At this point in the plants life cycle, the entire thing can be thrown in the pan and cooked quickly like a small leafy green.
2. Leaf and shoot
The early Summer/late Spring. The stems are longer now, but still edible, slice the stems up into bite sized pieces and sweat, then add the greens and wilt together. Alternately, blanch the leaves and stems whole, then chop, and cook in a pan.
3. Leaf only
The final eating stage of the year. At this point the stems are too tough to be enjoyable, and the leaves should be cut into bite-sized pieces to avoid any textural issues.
Sochan, especially older leaves that have a strong aster flavor can take some stronger flavor pairings than something with a delicate taste, like a nettle. That being said, the classic wilted green pairing of plants+pork, lard, or smoked pork is excellent here.
Sochan vs Look A Like Buttercup
Buttercup (Ranunculus) species can look similar, and grow in the same areas with sochan. Technically it’s inedible, and eating enough could make you sick, but it’s not something deadly to worry about like hemlock. Get to know sochan and it’s easy to tell them apart. Here’s a few comparison photos.
The importance of wild plants like Sochan to the Cherokee is beyond the scope of this simple article, but here’s a couple books where I know Sochan is mentioned if you’d like to read up more on the cultural significance. One book in particular I have been searching for, as it’s out of print. If you live in the Southern United States, or would be able to find a copy of it at a Library, I would pay handsomely for a copy, should you come across one.