Island Science

Harvesting Wild Island Food

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

One of the most charming and frankly useful things about the island is the variety of edible plants, fungi, and animals that exist naturally in almost every corner of the landscape. Over the past several years in this column I have introduced a cornucopia of foodstuffs, from berries to shellfish without even going into detail how deer, waterfowl, rabbits, and fish can supplement the menu. Our restaurants capitalize on the bounty our island farmers, apiarists, mushroom growers, and small scale livestock growers provide. I see from a recent Yesterday’s Island/Today’s Nantucket column that Chef Jenn Farmer and I feel the same way about the bounties Nantucket has to offer in the article Food-forthe- Psyche.php.

Fall is a normal time to be thinking of harvesting and food as we all start to approximate our version of storing up for the winter. It is not unusual to go to a dinner party on island where half or more of the food has been gathered, fished for, or foraged in some way and prepared for a festive occasion. Wild food that can be found on island and in the surrounding waters include wild fox grapes, scallops, quahogs, cranberries, little necks, sweetmeats, cattails, rabbit, deer, huckleberries, blueberries, black cherries, blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, mushrooms, beach plums, waterfowl, many species of fish, eels, wild onions and garlic … the list is virtually endless.

Looking for something more exotic? In our junior ranger program, the kids make wild smooth sumac tea at least once a week. It tastes like a zippier version of “Red Zinger” tea and is not only beautiful but tasty. In North America, the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are sometimes used to make a beverage called “sumac-ade,” “Indian lemonade” or “rhus juice.” This drink  is made by soaking the drupes in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid  through a cotton cloth and sweetening it. These are not the poisonous varieties. Native Americans also used the leaves and drupes of the smooth and staghorn sumacs combined with tobacco in traditional  smoking mixtures.

Late summer island visitors are immediately drawn to the rosa rugosa for the beautiful bright red rose hips. A native of East Asia, the salt spray or beach rose became established on our shores long ago.  Rosa rugosa was initially introduced to the United States as a garden and landscape ornamental around 1845. It was first reported as escaped from cultivation on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts in 1899 and 10 years later it was recorded throughout the island. Now cascades of costal dunes and beach bluffs are covered with this plant that is almost synonymous for Nantucket (perhaps a metaphor for the early  colonial settlers). Perfect for teas and jelly, the rose hip is the seed pods of the beach rose and it  provides anywhere from 8-40 times more vitamin C than the same weight of orange. Rose Hip tea is also zippy and tastes quite a bit like smooth sumac.

Walking Squam Swamp you’ll find hazelnuts and hickories and beech nuts. If you make sure to have an experienced mushroom forager with you like Dr. Ernie Steinauer, director of Nantucket’s Massachusetts Audubon properties or Larry Millman, Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative “mushroom guy,” you’ll be able to find a variety of mushrooms around the island that are not only edible but delicious. I have heard you can find chanterelles, chicken mushrooms, and puffballs among the several island mushrooms, plus a few transplanted morels. The excellent online article “Mushroom Foraging” by Kara Cusolito ( clearly describes the caveats one must remember when foraging for mushrooms. Going with an experience mushroom forager and using a guide book with vivid and clear pictures and description are key ingredients for avoiding an upset stomach. Although only a few mushrooms will kill you, a splitting headache or nausea is no way to spend a fall evening. That being said, once you began to look, you’ll find something you can eat although New England and especially Nantucket are not the mother lode of mushrooms like the Pacific Northwest is due to its substantial forests and misty days.

It’s easy to see how the Wampanoags were able to live in relative luxury with a wide choice of wild foods available. In addition to the obvious choices and the literally dozens of medicinal plants on island, the first islanders ate wild potatoes, garlic, and onions. They harvested cranberries and ate them fresh and dried. They ate deer and fish and shellfish. Their middens (shell piles) provide evidence of a varied and plentiful diet that included lots of oysters and even raccoons, moose and a caribou or two that had wandered down here from the north. From a website that discusses early Wampanoag diets ( ) I found more information on the typical  and sustainable diet of the first people on Nantucket. “Roots and tubers of plants such as bulrush,  cattail, Jerusalem artichoke and groundnuts were added to soups. Meat included deer, moose, beaver, rabbit, skunk, turtle and raccoon. Most of the red meat was consumed in the fall and winter. Turkey and goose were hunted in the late summer and fall. They did some  farming of corn, beans and squash, but these were supplemental during the summer and mostly for winter storage. In the fall, various types of nuts, such as hazel, hickory, beech, butternut, chestnuts and white oak acorns were collected. Berries were also harvested and eaten fresh as well as dried for storage.” As a bit of an aside, I loved this article detailing what was and wasn’t eaten at the first Thanksgiving: .

Sustainable Nantucket has started to really capitalize on the eating local movement by advertising and assisting local small farmers in their Nantucket Grown and Community Agriculture programs. And  people on island are embracing that heritage, raising bees and chickens and goats, growing edible  flowers and mushrooms, and contributing to a burgeoning and more diverse crop of produce.

Our distance from the mainland is one of the contributing factors for insuring that we have a good harvest of a variety of wild foods. We don’t have to worry about pollution from underground sources because we have an isolated aquifer with no major industry to pollute it. Only airborne pollutants upwind of us can contribute any particulates. Our weather also helps to insure that, most of the time,  something edible will be ready to harvest somewhere on-island. Mild winters, wet springs, and when we are fortunate like this past year, sunny summers, keep our wild food plants plump and harvestable.  Each year the ebb and flow of the grape, blueberry, and beach plum harvest is dependent on rainfall and the number of sunny days. Although we do have some grazers and the deer are the bane of any year-round gardener; off-island grazers can be even more of a problem. We also don’t have to worry as much about cultivars “diluting” our wild plants, although some do. Our clean harbor water and healthy eel grass beds support the only wild bay scallop fishery in the world. If we wanted to, we could eat  many of the species of algae found in the harbor, like sea lettuce, and no trip to the marsh is complete without trying the salt tolerant (halophyte) plant Salicornia which is more commonly known as  glasswort or pickleweed. Kids love to be able to learn about nature by eating it—most nature walks really are young foodie strolls. I have had a few visiting students who wanted to try everything, “edible” or not. Our marshes support a variety of crabs including the delicious blue crab.

Slightly offshore you’ll find blue mussels especially if you look over by Tuckernuck and in the surrounding shoals. Their cousins, the ribbed mussels, provide an important marsh function, but they are not nearly as tasty. Many islanders supplement their larder with lobsters caught in traps surround the islands. One of my favorite surprises is more along the lines of an after-dinner mint. While walking in parts of the Serengeti, look closely on the ground and you’ll see wintergreen. In the spring you’ll find a variety of mints, wild greens, and herbs. You can learn more about what you can find on island in  many places. You might also want to check out The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts, 2nd edition: How to Find, Identify, and Cook Them” by Katie Letcher Lyle which can be found on island at Bookworks. Make sure to visit the Farmers and Artisans market before it closes or  stop by or call to order from an on-island farmer, gardeners or bee keepers. This year at the County Fair I picked up honey from four different apiarists. A new favorite locally owned and grown food product is the Nantucket Mushroom, whose native mushrooms are available at 40 Polpis Road. I hope you’ll get outdoors and start doing some foraging and that you’ve had time this past summer to pick the bountiful harvest that surrounds us.

Articles by Date from 2012