Fiddlehead season has come and gone, but foragers are always looking for a new challenge. If you love foraging for fiddleheads at the start of spring, consider the challenge of finding and harvesting Indian cucumber, a small native perennial plant with a scrumptious, turnip-like root.
Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana) is a forest plant that you may not have known is edible. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is found throughout the Eastern and parts of the Midwestern United States, as far north as Canada.
The time is about right to start searching for them, too.
“You could start now, but they’re not big enough, really,” said Tom Seymour, naturalist and author of “Wild Plants of Maine — A Useful Guide, Forager’s Notebook, Foraging New England,” who is based in Waldo. “I like to wait until July or August.”
Though they are not as culturally ubiquitous as fiddleheads, some Mainers have been foraging for Indian cucumbers their whole lives.
“I’ve been picking [and] eating Indian cucumbers since I was a little girl,” said Seneca Corriveau, a forager in Oxford County. “These are one of my favorite snacks to find in the woods. They taste like a cross between a raw potato [and] a cucumber.”
Even Mainers who did not grow up hunting for Indian cucumber are starting to get curious, especially with the extra time allotted for outdoor activities by the pandemic.
“I like teaching my son about the plants around us, and he thinks eating wild food is so fun,” said Kari Tracy, forager in Cumberland County.
A born-and-bred Mainer, Tracy said the Indian cucumber was much more delicious than other foraged treats, like dandelion greens and violets.
“The consistency was potatoey, but tastes very similar to a fresh pickling cuke,” she said. “It really was good. Most wild things I’ve tried I really wouldn’t describe as tasting ‘good’ but this did.”
Seymour, for his part, said that he doesn’t think Indian cucumbers taste like cucumbers at all, but the flavor is unlike anything you have ever tasted.
“It’s sweet and kind of nutty,” Seymour said. “A lot of people rank it as the all-time wild plant and for pretty good reason. I have lots of favorite wild plants, that’s at least in the top 10. Maybe the top five.”
Identifying Indian cucumber
The Indian cucumber is easily identifiable by its two tiers of leaves. The lower tier has on average seven leaves growing radially in a circle — “like a star,” Seymour said. The second tier further up the stalk is usually smaller and has fewer leaves — usually around three, Seymour said — with tapered ends.
“The final thing about Indian cucumber [is that] the stalk is covered with something like lint,” Seymour said. “You can rub it off with your finger.”
Some Indian cucumbers will have tiny chartreuse flowers with dark red styles hanging below the uppermost tier of leaves. According to Seymour, whether the plant is flowered or not does not make a difference as to whether it is mature. Instead, Seymour goes by height.
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“You really can’t see the root [and] it’s the root that we eat [so] I go by the height of the thing,” he explained. “If it’s only 10 to 12 inches tall or less, I like to let it go until it’s about 15 to 18 inches or so.”
In the late summer, the plant produces dark purple berries. Though tempting, they are inedible.
“I don’t think they would make you sick, but I don’t eat them,” Seymour said.
Beware though: Starflower (Lysimachia borealis), which can be toxic, looks similar to Indian cucumber and they often grow near one another. Starflowers only have one tier of leaves, not two, and the leaves generally vary in size. Seymour said they also do not grow as tall as Indian cucumber, maxing out at only fix or six inches.
Finding Indian cucumber
Seymour said that Indian cucumbers thrive in very specific conditions: mixed growth woodlands with loose, loamy soil and mottled, dappled sunlight are ideal.
“They’re a little harder to find,” Seymour said. “They’re not everywhere, whereas fiddleheads, [if you] find a slow moving stream, you’ll probably find fiddleheads. Sometimes you get a few [Indian cucumbers] here and there and sometimes you get a pretty good-sized colony. Once you know what they look like and find a patch, it’s always easier to find more. ”
Still, the plant can be found throughout the state, from southern Maine to Aroostook County. Eric Hendrickson, a forager based in Aroostook County, said that he commonly finds them in the eastern section of Baxter State Park. Bangor-based forager Christina Berube said that she found patches of Indian cucumber just outside of Bangor on Parks Pond Bluff.
“I was hiking along the trail, not even looking for them, and stumbled upon a whole patch,” Berube said.
Seymour said looking by trails is a great place to start.
“Don’t go aimlessly walking about the woods,” he advised. “Walk the trails and look to the side of them, where they’re starting to hitch a little.”
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Eating Indian cucumber
Harvesting Indian cucumber roots, Seymour explained, can be tricky. Unlike a carrot or radish, the root of the plant grows laterally under the surface.
“If you pull it up by the stem you’ll break the root,” he said. “You reach your fingers down and find the crown, and then you grasp it and you wiggle it and pull sideways.”
The tuber-like structures have fine, hair-like roots that can be easily rubbed or washed off. Indian cucumbers are most often eaten as a trailside snack, but crispy, crunchy roots can also be pickled or used in salads.
“Typically, I would just wipe them off on my pant leg before popping them in my mouth,” Corriveau said. “However, [once] I rinsed them off, added a little butter and put them into a little tin foil type packet and cooked them for a few moments over the fire. Cooked, they might remind you of a less sweet parsnip.”
Seymour, however, prefers his raw.
“I’ve read about people pickling them, which I think is an awful thing to do,” he scoffed. “It would probably change the texture and the taste [and] it’s so good on its own.”
Conserving Indian cucumber
Conservation is always an essential element of ethically foraging. Because the act of harvesting Indian cucumber kills the plant — after all, there’s nothing left to grow once you have eaten its root — is perhaps especially important in this case.
Josh Fecteau, a naturalist and blogger based in Kennebunkport, said that though Indian cucumber is a tasty treat with an “excellent reputation” among foragers, he rarely harvests them himself because they are scarce where he lives.
“I rarely harvest this plant because populations near me tend to be small and harvest is lethal to the plant,” Fecteau said. “Additionally, a typical root provides only a bite or two of crunch. In areas with denser populations, more moderate harvesting may be appropriate.”
Fecteau said to make sure there are at least three other healthy plants within a three foot radius that are left to grow in order to avoid depleting the resource.
Plus, if you leave some, you’ll have more next year.
“Often when you find a bunch of mature ones, you’ll find little ones around,” Seymour said. “Go back next year and they’ll be mature.”