Does A Bear Eat Corn In The Woods?

Anyone walking in the woods for the first time, might be excused for wondering why corn was growing in bunches, straight out of the ground. Those corn cob shaped growths are a parasitic plant called Squawroot, or (not surprisingly) Bear Corn.

Squawroot (Conopholis americana), lives on the roots of Red Oak trees. They appear to have a symbiotic relationship, where they both benefit from the exchange, and, in turn, we benefit by the fact that Squawroot is both edible and medicinal, (as is the fruit of its host, the oak}.

It can be dried and used as a medicinal tea to treat the symptoms of menopause and hemorrhaging of the uterus, hence its common name. But like most medicinal plants, it has many other uses.

I have known for some time that Squawroot was medicinal, but it wasn’t until last year that I began to consider its edibility. So, I harvested a few pieces of “corn”, with the intent of exploring ways of making them palatable.

I started by sampling the raw plant. It had a nice crunchy texture, except for what we in the botanical world call the “little wingy things”, which were like chewing on fingernail clippings. Not only that, but the taste was mouth-puckeringly astringent. As they feed on oak trees roots, I assume this was due to Tannic acid. Anyway, it was immediately obvious that raw wasn’t the way to go.

I decided that boiling in a couple of changes of water would remove some of that powdery bitterness. After about a minute of simmering, I tested a piece and I noted that it was getting tender, but still had all those tough bits, that now reminded me of the shards at the bottom of a popcorn bucket. The longer I boiled the spears, the more tender the flesh became, but the popcorn fingernail problem persisted. I changed the water several times, and I even added vinegar to the final change of water, but nothing seemed to overcome that bitterness. So I now had a soggy, bitter vegetable, covered with sharp little shards. Yum!

Not to be defeated, I sat and patiently plucked all the scales from one of the spears. It wasn’t difficult work, but it took far too long. Once it was descaled, I cooked and tasted it. It was tender, with no shards to get jammed between my teeth, but, it still tasted like the bottom of a bird cage.

So, what I discovered was that, if you take the time and effort to remove the scales, you end up with an unpalatable vegetable, that is better used for its medicinal properties. With that in mind, this year, I’ll make an infused oil, and leave the eating to the bears.

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