Island Science

What’s for Dinner? Nantucket’s Edible Nature

• by Dr. Sarah Oktay | Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station

Maybe I am hungry every time I write this column? This week I wanted to remind everyone of the incredible variety of natural foods on Nantucket. There are many fine restaurants on island, and this is Spring Restaurant Week so you should get out there and try some of the best food I have ever had in my life. Did you know that over fifty species of plants and animals endemic to Nantucket are not only edible, but tasty? Local chefs and mixologists use the island’s bounty and organic produce to put healthy vibrant food on our plates. You can explore the natural world while you learn about edible foraging. You don’t even have to resort to eating bugs. Just look around as you walk our trails or sail our waters; food is everywhere.

I was reminded of our edible planet while removing the highly invasive introduced garlic mustard with the Nantucket Invasive Plant Species Committee which is part of the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative ( Throughout the year we work on removing or treating plots of exotic invasive plants, create brochures explaining what to plant instead of plants not native to the island, and develop protocols for homeowners and land managers regarding invasive plant management. The past two weeks we have been pulling large stands of garlic mustard around the Old Mill and on Vesper Lane. The bad news is, garlic mustard is tough to eradicate and it takes several years of pulling them before they go to seed to make progress. The good news is you can make a tasty pesto from the leaves after blanching them. You can find a ton of recipes here:

Japanese knotweed is also a local pernicious edible invasive plant. This foragers’ blog, describes the plant and lists some knotweed recipes. Japanese knotweed is in the buckwheat family so it makes sense that we can eat it. Steve (Wildman) Brill, a semi famous forager and natural foods guru has recipes online here: . Brill also describes a hilarious incident that happened to him in Central Park when he was arrested for eating dandelions; his court case ended well when he was eventually hired to lead official city park tours that encouraged the foraging of the dandelion, one of nature’s super foods. Dandelions are abundant everywhere and every part of the plant can be used to make wonderful salads, teas, and wine. In addition to dandelions, there are many varieties of wild mint and herbs that make excellent teas that can be found throughout the spring and early summer months.

Other wild plants growing around the island used by Wampanoag’s and early settlers for food include wild onions, As you explore the trails at Squam Swamp and Squam Farm and elsewhere around the island you’ll find hazelnuts, hickories, and beech nuts. You may recall the cattail article I wrote two years ago (found at that describes the myriad of ways you can eat a cattail. If you look around the trail in the Serengeti you’ll find wild wintergreen. This website, shows you pictures of the plant and gives advice on when to start looking for it. Foraging in fall gives us a variety of mushrooms such as puffballs, black chanterelles, Boletus edulis, and chicken mushrooms. Make sure you know what you are doing though, consult a guide like the excellent online article “Mushroom Foraging” by Kara Cusolito ( and heed the advice found at Mushroom foraging clubs on Cape Cod are extremely popular and they can be a great source of information.

Our landscape and climate allow for a plethora of food. Fruits and berries that can be found on Nantucket include: beach plums, black cherries, rose hips (Rosa rugosa, also an introduced species), blueberries (high and low bush), huckleberries, dewberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, fox grapes, and cranberries. Our native beach plums (Prunus maritime) are blooming now. This salt tolerant and cold hardy plant produces drupes that make an excellent jam. By now, every trall-walking Nantucketer has already staked out blueberry and beach plum hotspots that look like they will produce well.

In the marsh we find Salicornia virginica also known as American glasswort, “sea beans”, or pickleweed. This is a favorite food to try on our marsh walks, every school group that visits has one student that is fascinated that so much of nature around us can be eaten and they insist on trying almost everything edible. Salicornia is a succulent salty herb that grows along the intertidal edges of salt marshes. Salicornia is delicious sautéed in stir fry dishes or as an additive to salads and it can be eaten raw right on the trail.

Our junior rangers really get into the edible plant kick each summer. When they lead nature walks they teach people about the many edible plants in the environment and also describe the medicinal properties of common Nantucket natives such as the juniper berries on the Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana). Smell one of the cones or berries later this year and you will easily detect the smell of gin, which has long been flavored with this plant. It has also been used as a digestive and as a kidney medicine. The junior rangers make sumac tea each year. The smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are 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. Don’t panic, these are not the poisonous varieties. You know what would go well with that tea? Some Nantucket native honey! There are many beekeepers on island and they all produce amazing honey. Recent research with the help of Nantucket students shows that this honey is very low in pesticides, maybe lower than mainland varieties, so definitely look for their product in stores and at the Farmer’s market.

We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on the types of game and sea life sustaining us now and long considered staples for the Wampanoag, the early Woodland peoples, and settlers over the past 400 years. Striped bass, blue fish, quahogs, little necks, oysters, blue crabs, bay scallops, lobsters (on the small side), bonitos, scup, summer flounder, false albacore, conch (whelks), blue mussels, slipper shells (sweetmeats) are some of the fish and shellfish produced in our harbor and surrounding waters. If you go on a charter boat or your own boat way offshore (20-70 miles) you’ll be able to catch large game fish like blue and yellow fin tuna, big eye tuna, blue and white marlin, mahi mahi and offshore sharks such as mako and blue. Fresh water ponds provide white and yellow perch, pickerel, snapping turtles, sunfish, and crappie. You can find some excellent information and get involved in a great pastime by checking out the Nantucket Angler’s Club website .

Back on land we find that deer, rabbits, and various water fowl, even squirrels (yep, I AM from Oklahoma) grace many Nantucket tables year round. I have been fortunate to attend dinner parties that were completely prepared using local native foods. Check out Sustainable Nantucket’s Farmers and Artisans Market which starts on June 7th to try locally grown produce and honey ( To read more, check out my 2012 Yesterday’s island article on Nantucket bounty at

Articles by Date from 2012