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Early Spring Roots: Edible Evening Primrose

Leafy wild greens aren’t the only edible plants available on PEI in early spring – you can find wild root vegetables too! Some of the best are roots of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis).

Evening Primrose is a common, native plant found along trails, roadsides, fields, and disturbed areas across the Island. You’ll likely notice it most in mid- to late summer, when tall spikes of bright yellow flowers appear on second-year plants. This is the plant that gives us Evening Primrose oil; while that may be its best-known product, the entire plant is also edible. Don’t waste your time with the bland leaves, though. It’s the roots you want.

Photo 1: Evening Primrose basal rosette.

Evening Primrose is a biennial (hence the ‘biennis’ species name). It starts out as a rosette of leaves close to the ground (Photo 1). They’ll often be red or red-tipped, but to confirm identification look for that light-coloured vein running up the middle of the leaf. Our other early spring rosette-forming plants (such as the Hawkweeds [Hieracium spp.] or Common Mullein [Verbascum thapsus]) lack that distinctive vein and have varying degrees of hairs or fuzz. Evening Primrose seed heads often survive the winter (Photo 2); that’s a good place to look for young plants in spring.

Photo 2: Last year's seed heads indicate a good spot to search for Evening Primrose in spring.

You can dig roots of first-year plants in the fall, or first- and second-year plants in the spring. You want plants with those basal rosettes only; once the second-year plants have started to grow a vertical stem, the roots are no longer edible. The long tap roots are most easily dug with a trowel, but if you come across Evening Primrose when you are unarmed (as I usually do!), it’s not that hard to dig them by hand. As you would expect, early spring roots of second-year plants are considerably larger than their younger relatives (Photo 3).

Photo 3: Evening Primrose first year root (left) versus second year root (right).

Evening Primrose roots can be cooked like carrots or parsnip. I wash and peel larger roots, and just give smaller roots a good cleaning with a kitchen scrubbie (Photo 4). I boiled and mashed this batch and enjoyed it with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper (Photo 5). If serving Evening Primrose to guests, you can puree cooked roots in a blender to improve texture and appearance. (For more suggestions, check out the wild food recipes section of this blog).

Photo 4: Evening Primrose roots prepared for cooking.

Many references say Evening Primrose has a peppery flavour, but I’ve never found this with either raw or cooked roots. I’d describe it more as a mild combination of parsnip, turnip, and potato. I have two theories for the peppery versus mild difference. It’s possible that Evening Primrose roots taste different depending on where they are growing (like terroir with wine). Or it could be genetic differences among those eating it (akin to how some of us think cilantro tastes like soap while others love it). If you give Evening Primrose roots a try, let me know if you find them peppery!

Photo 5: Evening Primrose roots cooked and mashed, topped with butter, salt & pepper.

Early settlers found Evening Primrose to be so beautiful and useful that they shipped it back to Europe. It’s now well-established there and considered invasive in some areas. Although very common on PEI, it is a native plant here so take care not to over-harvest it. My usual rule is to only take no more than one plant for every ten I find. Fortunately, Evening Primrose is typically abundant where found, so I rarely have trouble sustainably collecting this wild vegetable. Another part of PEI-untamed!

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