Note: This is the first of three parts about Minnesota communities and their enthusiasm for wild edibles.
The club-headed shoots are a delicacy in the Hmong community, prized for their flavor, like asparagus with a tangy, slightly bitter aftertaste. They turn up at community meals and can be boiled in soups, stir-fried with meat, or even turned into a spring tea.
Xiong likes the flavor of the early spring edible enough that he’s transplanted a couple dozen shoots from his brother-in-law’s backyard in St. Paul to his land in Wyoming.
It’s one of more than a dozen wild foods he gathers when out hunting or fishing, from watercress and fiddlehead ferns to wild asparagus, oyster mushrooms and prickly ash berries.
Like Southerners, who have gathered ramps and other wild greens for generations, many in the Hmong community have a deeply rooted tradition of edible and medicinal plant knowledge. And spring, when new shoots are bursting out all over the woods, is one of the busiest times to find wild edibles.
“I first started eating stuff my parents were tasting, stuff that had a bitterness to it,” said Xiong, an engineering assistant whose parents grew up in Laos. “As I got older, I acquired a taste for it.”
Beginning on hunting trips with an older brother as a teen, he also developed an interest in foraging — enough to start a Facebook group, Hmong Foragers, five years ago. The group has slowly grown to almost 200 members scattered across the country.
“I started it because of my interest, to draw people in and share what they find — and hopefully learn something,” he said.
Into the woods
On a day in late April, Fort Snelling State Park was closed because of flooding, and most of naturalist Kao Thao’s education programs were canceled.
But in a short walk around the park’s temporary headquarters at the nearby chapel, he spotted half a dozen wild edible plants. First, a stand of wild onion in the chapel’s landscaping. A little farther along, some Solomon’s seal, and then daylilies, which have edible bulbs.
Deeper into the park, he pointed out the tiny, teardrop leaves of a stand of first-year garlic mustard, along with dandelion shoots.
In a good year, when the park isn’t closed with flooding, buses of students and elders from Hmong community centers might be arriving at the park by now. Thao said Hmong elders are immediately engaged when they visit the park.
“When they come out, they don’t wait around for you to talk,” he said. Instead, they scatter along the paths and start looking at plants, swapping stories about their food or medicinal uses.
Thao has come up with a list of more than a dozen wild edibles that he’s seen at community gatherings, from Solomon’s seal and fiddleheads, to watercress, lamb’s quarter, amaranth, wild mustard, garlic mustard and dandelion. More recently, he’s seen people harvest silver maple samaras, aka “helicopters,” ash tips and the spring ephemeral meadow rue.
Most of the knowledge about edible plants is transmitted by word of mouth. And Thao himself educates many through his outreach work and wilderness survival classes. But he’s still often surprised by the plant knowledge of many elders.
On park visits, for example, elders will take plantain leaves, crush them and use it as a salve if someone is bitten by mosquitoes.
“There’s no plantain in Laos. So how does that knowledge transfer?” he said. He said in some cases, elders have invited American Indian speakers to teach them more about native plants — tapping the knowledge of the indigenous people of their new home.
New home, new tools
Retiree Deng Vang said he first noticed wild greens while farming near his home in Eau Claire, Wis. — including lamb’s quarter, green, leafy purslane, and amaranth, which has a counterpart in Laos. It’s also often sold at farmers markets in Minnesota.
He also ran across many wild mushrooms when he was hunting or walking in the woods with his wife, and turned to YouTube and Google to learn more.
“I was just curious at first,” he said. “I’m fascinated by seeing a lot of mushrooms in the woods and not able to eat it. So that triggered our learning.”
He now gathers split gill — a mushroom he ate in Laos and Thailand — and oyster mushrooms while out hunting, along with cattail, wild garlic, stinging nettle and fiddlehead ferns. Most of the wild foods he gathers are for himself or his wife — his five children so far haven’t shown an interest in wild foods beyond eating berries.
“I told my kids, ‘If the world comes to an end, I will have to be in the woods by myself. I will survive and not you guys,’ ” he said, with a laugh.
A survival skill
As a kid, Twin Cities chef Yia Vang remembers drives where his dad would pull over by the side of the road, grab a garbage bag and jump out of the car to harvest wild greens.
“Our car’s parked by the side of the road, my mom and dad’s in the ditch, they’re cutting wild asparagus, or my dad would be parked in a boggy area to go get some watercress or whatever. I’d be so embarrassed. I would sink down in my seat, I’d cover my head, and think, ‘I hope my friends don’t see me,’ ” he said.
Vang who runs the local pop-up restaurant Union Hmong Kitchen, said foraging was a survival skill for many Hmong immigrants.
“Elders didn’t forage because it was trendy, sexy and you could put it on Instagram,” he said.
As the community established itself in the United States, the need to gather wild foods — and the curiosity and knowledge passed down with it — has dwindled. But Vang still sees a deeply rooted urge to forage in his trips to the grocery store.
And he regrets not learning more about wild plants from his parents, who now only occasionally go out to find watercress or other wild greens.
“There’s two ways to look at foraging,” he said. “There’s that, We don’t forage any more because we don’t need to forage. Or, We forage because it reminds us and brings us back to what we know.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy. It tells the story of our people,” he said.
Trisha Collopy is a multiplatform editor for the Star Tribune.