Feast from the forest: foraging for edible plants in Japan.

In the opening poem of “Kokin Wakashu” (“Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”), the Emperor writes about harvesting sansai (wild plants). The emperors of the Heian and Nara periods made it a rule to seek sansai in the forests in order to collect food and predict the harvest.

Amateur botanist and retired English teacher Kosaku Wada says Japan has relied on sansai to stave off starvation on a number of occasions in its history, especially in times of drought or natural disaster. This includes the aftermath of World War II, when Tokyo residents took to the hills to find nutrients in sansai staples such as warabi (bracken), tara-no-me (angelica) and kogomi (fiddlehead ferns), among other edibles.

Today, sansai seekers are not driven by hunger. The predominantly elderly Japanese men and women who scour the hillsides and grasslands in spring and summer every year have a different agenda, mainly getting ahold of tasty and nutritious plants provided freely in nature.

“I love the idea of sustainable, natural gardening without pesticide or artificial fertilizer,” Wada says.

Wada credits his interest and much of his knowledge of sansai to the books of Tomitaro Makino (1862-1957). Born in Sakawa, Kochi Prefecture, at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), Makino is known as the “Father of Japanese Botany” for compiling the first encyclopedia of plants in the country. He named more than 2,500 plants in the course of his research — 1,000 new species and 1,500 new varieties — and the Makino Botanical Garden in his home prefecture was named in his honor. Like Makino, Wada also hails from Kochi.

Chris Summerville, one of Wada’s sansai acolytes, has his own favorite wild plant: yabu-kanzō (a double tawny daylily, not to be mistaken for kanzō, or wild licorice). Plentiful in grassy patches and fields in early spring, yabu-kanzo can be cooked in soup or made into tempura, two common ways of handling sansai. It typically has a hint of onion taste when fried in butter.

While Summerville simply steps out into his yard to harvest yabu-kanzo, Wada doesn’t even have to go that far. His plants grow on and around his 66-sq.-meter deck in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. Some are wrapped around the deck’s railings, some emerge from holes in the flooring and many others flourish in planters. Out of the 50 or so plant delicacies that, quite literally, grow an arm’s reach away, fuki (butterbur) is his favorite.

Fuki is a bitter but versatile sansai that can be concentrated into a miso paste (fuki-miso), cooked with miso and rice, or enjoyed with a cup of sake. Fuki resembles rhubarb but has edible as opposed to poisonous leaves. The stems get fat and soft. Like a few other sansai, fuki can actually be purchased in supermarkets.

While harvesting is a breeze for both Wada and Summerville, others have to make more of an effort. To get the best picks, Takako Kitamura gets up at 3 a.m. during the sansai harvesting season and drives some 90 minutes to the best locations in the mountains around Kamioka, Gifu Prefecture.

Gathering sansai with her mother and grandmother was once an unpleasant chore that provided crucial supplements to her family’s meager diet, but a lot has changed since. Zenmai (Japanese royal fern) remains one of her favorites. Originally called “zeni-maki” for resembling a rolled up coin, zenmai is best picked when about 15 cm long. It is typically sauteed and served as a side dish with egoma (wild sesame).

“However, only the female plant is edible,” Kitamura explains, providing a quick biology lesson. “With most plants, the male and female parts can be found on the same plant. With zenmai and a few other varieties, however, the (fertile) male and female parts are separated into entirely different plants. The male zenmai leaves are too tough to eat.”

Dangerous dopplegangers

The case of rhubarb is a cautionary tale for wannabe sansai-pickers. While rhubarb stalks are delicious and nutritious, consuming leaves (in admittedly a ridiculously large quantity) can prove fatal. Of particular concern are other edible plants that strongly resemble poisonous ones.

Seri (Japanese parsley), for example, is a very popular sansai in spring but its evil twin, doku zeri (cowbane or water hemlock), is poisonous. While some label it as being extremely poisonous, Wada, who is somewhat casual about toxicity, says one can typically confirm the edible from the poisonous by nibbling the plant (the latter is typically bitter and hot).

Such cases of botanical doppelgangers are not uncommon. Shikimi (Japanese star anise) is a neurotoxic plant that resembles a typical acorn. Unlike the edible Chinese star anise, it is poisonous. The line on this species is not all bad, however; Buddhists often offer shikimi plants on ancestors’ tombs. Shinto followers, on the other hand, typically use sakaki (shrub cleyera).

The so-called three poisonous plants in Japan are doku zeri, torikabuto (aconitum) and doku utsugi (coriaria Japonica). Doku utsugi’s famous red berries can easily be mistaken for edible ones.

John Kallas, who leads “wild food intensives” and is the author of “Edible Wild Plants,” takes a common sense approach to sampling wild plants.

“If you are a reasonable student, you don’t just jump haphazardly into eating everything in sight,” Kallas says. “If you pay attention to what your body is telling you, your chances of (being in) any real danger are slim.”

In the majority of cases, he says, sansai poisoning will cause nothing worse than a rash or stomachache.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for wild mushrooms; harvesters should take care to properly identify a species to ensure it is safe to eat.

For example, some deadly species of Galerina bear a superficial resemblance to the psilocybin variety that are widely known as “magic mushrooms.”

The latter species were actually widely available throughout Japan before the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare added them to its list of prohibited substances in 2002. Some speculate they were banned in preparation for the 2002 Soccer World Cup, while others point to an incident in April of the same year in which a television actor was hospitalized after overdosing on mushrooms.

Plant parts

Wild plants are consumed in a variety of ways in Japan. Roots are typically popular, although leaves, stems, buds, seeds, flowers and, of course, fruit also provide nutrition. With some plants — lotus, for example — all parts are consumed.

Renkon (lotus root) in particular retains its unique crispness even after being cooked and can be found in many traditional Japanese dishes. Incredibly, scientists were able to grow a lotus from a 3,000-year-old seed that had been found during a Jomon period excavation.

In June, when bamboo sprouts are about 10 cm off the ground, takenoko (literally, “baby” bamboo) become the object of many sansai expeditions. To harvest, deftly snap this woody perennial grass at or below ground level, peel away the outer leaves, and boil them later in the day. Eating takenoko without condiments, cooking it with rice or combining it with su-miso (vinegar miso), wasabi or soy sauce are all dishes that would make a panda green with envy.

The most popular bamboo sprouts for sansai gatherers are moso (giant bamboo). Moso are best picked in late winter, even though the sprouts are barely visible. The very tip of the sprouts can be eaten raw but, due to a strong bitter taste, are usually boiled and eaten a variety of ways.

A more common variety, madake (literally, “straight,” or true bamboo, with no English translation), is available in many supermarkets.

While some sansai can be found in abundance, others are limited in supply and should be harvested prudently. As a result, sansai affectionados can get pretty secretive about their harvesting spots.

When Kumiko Nagano moved to a rural neighborhood in Shiga Prefecture, she looked for some way to connect with her neighbors and enjoy the outdoors. Local residents taught her where to get tasty edibles in her area.

“It’s fun to pick sansai with a friend,” she says. “However, everyone has their secret places.”

Secrecy is especially important for a delicacy like Japanese angelica buds, which are so prized they have been given the moniker “king of sansai.” Nagano enjoys the buds in soups or as tempura.

As with all trees, however, the buds for each season are limited, and harvesting too many can kill a tree. She notes that the “queen of sansai,” koshiabura (a flowering plant related to aralias), is highly recommended as well.

Nagano, who now freezes bracken to eat all year round, believes that the health benefits of eating sansai go beyond the nutritional “A”s and “B”s.

“You get the energy of the earth when you eat fresh mountain vegetables in spring,” Nagano says. “Animals want to eat it, too. It’s a way to detox your body of poisons that have built up over the winter.”

Invasive species

Wada believes the distribution of plants in North America, Europe and Japan are not dissimilar due to the long time frames they took to evolve. Still, each ecosystem is vulnerable to outsiders.

Foreign bullies such as North American crayfish have caused extensive damage to freshwater vegetation that predates native species, and there are similarly threatening plant varieties as well. Harujion (Philadelphia fleabane), for example, is a kind of daisy that tends to crowd out local plants. Meanwhile, ragweed (which goes by an equally dismissive name in Japanese, butakusa or “pig’s weed”) is another bad U.S. influence that can be a nasty allergen for hay-fever sufferers.

Japan has exported its own aggressive plants, including itadori (Japanese knotweed), which the World Conservation Organization labels as one of the world’s worst invasive species. Eighteenth-century plant enthusiasts picked itadori from the side of volcanoes and brought it to England, where it was used as an ornamental plant. Itadori, which is extremely resistant to chemicals, causes annual damage that is estimated to be worth £166 million (¥33 billion) in Britain alone. A 2014 article in the Independent newspaper notes that a tiny aphid-like bug is the best hope of controlling this plant.

Kuzu (kudzu) is another invasive plant that Japan has introduced to the world. Despite its aggressive nature, the root of the plant is soaked in water for several days to extract the starch before being dried and turned into a powder that eases an assortment of stomach ailments.

Wild plants are also harvested for uses aside from consumption. Wax is extracted from the nuts of haze-no-ki (Japanese wax tree), and is used to make handmade candles that are said to create less smoke and provide a softer light than regular candles. The fruit of nurude (Chinese sumac) was traditionally used in Nagano Prefecture to provide the body with salt; mountain climbers still sometimes chew the fruit for the same reason. Yama-urushi (Japanese lacquer tree) turns a beautiful crimson and is popular in ikebana. Finally, akebi (chocolate vine) canes have been used to make baskets or handles for teapots.

Then, there are plants that help preserve food dishes. Hoba-miso, a popular dish in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, contains miso and leeks sauteed on a huge magnolia leaf. Both kinds of persimmon tree — the one with astringent fruit that is dried because it cannot be eaten raw and the regular one — are found in the wild. In Nara, locals use the persimmon leaf to wrap sushi (kaki-no-ha sushi) because the leaf contains a preservative. Masu-no sushi in Hokuriku is wrapped in bamboo leaves for the same reason.

Wilding your domestics

Since traipsing through the forest or poking around vacant lots is not everyone’s cup of tea, Kallas says there is another route. As oxymoronic as it seems, he suggests making a garden of wild plants.

Kick it off like any other garden by tilling soil, adding compost and planting seeds. As weeds inevitably invade, identify and keep the edible ones, allowing them to grow alongside vegetables, while yanking the undesirables.

Taking this one step further, Kallas simply cleared a field before weeding out the undesirables; eventually, the entire area was composed of edibles.

While the first few years were fairly work-intensive, it gets easier. However, if you don’t harvest regularly or add compost, crowding will compromise the taste and nutrition of your edibles.

Wada suggests the opposite. As Masanobu Fukuoka wrote in the underground classic “The One Straw Revolution,” simply cast seeds among the weeds, inviting them to grow side by side.

“When you till and create a garden space, it’s a red flag for pests — especially monkeys,” Wada explains.

Finally, for those who would like to just enjoy the taste of sansai without getting their hands dirty at all, there are a handful of restaurants that specialize in sansai cuisine.

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