It is always good to learn about the wild plants growing on and adjacent to your homestead.
In many cases, these plants are edible, and can make a great addition to your salads, soups or stews, or great complement to the poultry and meats you raise on your homestead as well.
One great pant you should learn more about is honewort. Chances are you have plenty of this plant growing on your homestead, or at least nearby.
Here is everything you need to know about foraging and using honewort.
What is Honewort?
Cryptotaenia canadensis, known better as honewort or Canadian honewort, is an herbaceous perennial in the Apiaceae (carrot) family.
It has minute, short blooming flowers, and a fresh taste. This plant can survive a wide range of conditions but prefers moist soil in shady areas.
All parts of the plant are edible, but foragers have their preferences. This is a tasty wildflower that complements many dishes but is also a delight on its own.
Honewort prefers moist soils in shady woodlands throughout eastern North America and while it’s not too difficult to distinguish from other members of the carrot family, foragers should still practice caution and ensure they can identify it with confidence.
Honewort is a flowering perennial that grows between 1-3ft tall. The plant’s small, nondescript flowers only bloom for one month of the year. The flowers are then replaced by small ribbed fruits containing seeds.
The plant can blend in around the forest, but if you look closely, honewort has several distinguishing characteristics. The flowers, leaves, and stem all have their own subtle, but unique characteristics.
The upper stems of honewort branch out into tiny umbels, or flower stalks. These umbels are only 1.5” to 3” across.
Each umbel is made up of 3-10 umbellets, which are each made up of 3-10 flowers. Each flower, which is only ⅛”, has five white petals and five white stamens.
If you look very closely, you’ll see that each petal curls upward, and each white stamen has a yellow tip. The flowers bloom in the summer, but only for one month. Then a schizocarp grows in its place.
After the blooming period, schizocarpic fruit replace the flowers of honewort. The fruit is ribbed and between 4-7mm long.
Much like bananas, immature schizocarps are green, and turn dark brown as they ripen. Eventually, a schizocarp splits into two mericarps. Each mericarp contains one seed.
Honewort flowers, while very small, provide nectar for pollinators. The flowers are not fragrant, nor do they have a strong taste.
However, swallowtail butterflies frequently feed on honewort nectar. The plant is also a host for eastern black swallowtail butterfly larvae.
Several species of pollinating wasps, bees, and beetles also rely on honewort for nectar. Such as halictid bees and wild carrot wasps.
Gardeners looking to build a sanctuary for pollinators can rely on honewort to provide lots of summer nutrition. However, they might also attract the parasitoid ichneumonid wasp.
Honewort leaves grow in compound trifoliates. The leaflets are double toothed and sometimes They can be ovate or elliptical with round or wedge-shaped bases.
Leaves growing near the base of the stem are the largest. Leaves get smaller as they ascend up the stem. Honewort leaves can grow up to 6” long and 4” wide.
Individual leaflets usually grow up to 4” long and 2” wide. Since honewort grows in shade, the leaves are dark green. They are also very popular in foragers’ kitchens.
Honewort stems are green and smooth. They don’t have any hairs growing along them.
The stems are light green and have one leaf per node. If you look closely at the lower half of the stem, you’ll see elongated membranous sheaths forming around the petioles.
These sheaths make the area of the stem they cover cloudy or milky, while the rest of the stem is a vibrant green. Like leaves, the stems are edible and a popular parsley substitute.
Honewort is native to North America and grows abundantly in eastern Canada and the eastern half of the United States.
The plant also grows in the Midwest but gets sparser the further west you go. It can survive a range of environments but thrives in more specific conditions. You’ll be hard pressed to find it farther west than east Texas.
Honewort thrives in shady woodlands throughout Canada and eastern/central United States. The plant can survive moist to semi-dry soils.
However, it prefers moist soils rich in organic matter. The most important thing is that honewort does not get too much direct sunlight. Full shade or partial sunlight are all honewort needs.
Honewort grows in hardiness zones 4-8. It can survive winter low temperatures between -30℉ (-34.4℃) and 20℉ (-6.7℃).
In the United States, honewort grows most abundantly on the east coast and throughout the Midwest. However, it also grows in Arkansas and some regions of Texas.
You won’t find it in arid climates, such as those of the American southwest. As its scientific name suggests, it also grows in eastern Canada.
Honewort has a taproot system. Instead of growing clusters of long, fibrous roots, a honewort plant has one dominant root from which smaller, secondary roots (rootlets) grow.
The roots, like the visible parts of the plant, are edible. They have a taste comparable to parsnips. The roots never get overly bitter with age, but they do become tougher.
Generally, younger plants are more popular than mature ones. Because there is one central root, the plant does not spread by rhizomes.
Since honewort is an edible wildflower, it’s very important for foragers to be able to distinguish it from other wildflowers.
Although the carrot family is most famous for a big orange vegetable, there are poisonous species as well.
One example is hemlock, which in ancient cultures was pressed into a juice for condemned prisoners to drink.
Sanicula odorata, better known as clustered black snakeroot, is another member of the carrot family.
This perennial reaches between 1-2 ½” ft tall. Snakeroot also has compound leaves. However, leaves usually have 5 leaflets, but leaves along the upper stem might have 3.
The leaves are also smaller than honewort leaves. Snakeroot leaves are typically only 2” long and 1” wide.
Upper leaves are also stalkless. Like honewort leaves, snakeroot leaves are hairless and toothed.
It’s easier to distinguish clustered black snakeroot from honewort when the flowers are blooming.
Snakeroot also has umbels, but the flowers are green and yellow, as opposed to the white of honewort flowers.
Snakeroot also prefers moist soils and shady environments. So, it isn’t uncommon to find it growing alongside honewort.
Osmorhiza longistylus, known better as anise root, is another perennial in the carrot family. Like honewort, it grows in shady woodlands, and reaches about 1-3ft tall.
Being in the same family as honewort, it’s not surprising that it grows very similar flower umbels. Two plants in bloom next to each other in the wild might seem indistinguishable to a novice forager.
Anise root is also edible but has a different flavor. Also known as sweet Cicely, this plant has a sweet, licorice flavor. It is popular in desserts, but you might be disappointed if you were expecting honewort and tasted something so cloying.
One distinguishing factor of anise root is that it is much more aromatic than honewort.
Honewort does not have any odor, but anise root smells like licorice. Even though the plants have similar flowers, anise root has different leaves.
Anise root leaves are compound like those of honewort, but each anise root leaflet is divided into three sub-leaflets. When you examine the leaves closely, the plants are much easier to tell apart.
Conium maculatum, better known as hemlock, is the easiest of the three to distinguish from honewort, but it is also the one with which you must practice the utmost caution.
Hemlock is highly poisonous, and consumption will result in the worst case scenario.
This biennial grows throughout the United States, and has become a nuisance in some eastern states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Like honewort, hemlock has white umbel flowers with five petals each. The stem is hairless, and the leaves are toothed. Like honewort, hemlock thrives in shady areas, such as woodlands.
However, hemlock can grow much taller than honewort, sometimes reaching 8ft tall. The flowers are also much more noticeable, and the clusters can span 2-7’ across.
The flowers bloom between June and August in its second year. Hemlock that hasn’t flowered has a strong, foul odor.
This alone will inform you not to harvest this wild plant. However, if you find honewort and notice it growing around what could be hemlock, do not harvest it.
You do not want to take home honewort that has any hemlock residue on it. If it can kill Socrates, it can kill you.
Unlike some parsleys, all parts of honewort are edible. But foragers have preferences about which parts they cook. Some think the stems taste better than the leaves, and vice versa.
One thing foragers agree on is that honewort tastes a lot like parsley. This makes it a popular garnish. The most popular parts of honewort to cook are the roots. Forager-chefs also note that the plant is best when tender.
More mature leaves and stalks are tough, but the leaves do not get overly bitter as they mature like those of other perennials. Honewort is also rich in vitamins and nutrients.
Honewort leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves are rich in iron. Raw leaves can be used alongside lettuce in salads.
Although the plant doesn’t have a strong odor, foragers say the leaves have a crisp, celery-like taste. The raw leaves can also be chopped finely as used as a seasoning, like parsley.
The leaves can also be steamed and eaten like a vegetable. But if you are steaming honewort leaves, be careful not to overdo it. The leaves only need to steam for one or two minutes.
Honewort has a taproot system. The dominant roots can be dug up and cooked like parsnips. Many foragers note that honewort taproot has a slightly sweet taste.
To roast honewort taproots, wash the roots thoroughly. Once they are washed and dry, chop up the roots and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Cook at 400℉ for about 25 minutes. Allow to cool before eating.
Roasted taproot can be hearty itself or served as a side dish with fish or chicken. In Asia, roots are chopped up and used to season salmon. The roots contain beta-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A.
Honewort seeds have a slightly sweet flavor that makes them popular in desserts. The flavor is subtle, making it perfect for breads, and biscuits, or as a secondary flavoring in cakes.
They can also be used as a spice. Honewort seeds can also be used in ferments, soups, and salad dressings. You should wait until fall to harvest seeds.
Since the flowers bloom between May and June, you have to give the schizocarp time to develop and drop the seeds. However, their versatility, ranging from desserts to sauerkraut, make them worth the wait.
Honewort is not difficult to grow. However, sellers suggest that you plant honewort from seeds.
The plant can survive in a wide variety of conditions but thrives in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. The plant also does best in the shade. Here are a few tips for growing honewort in your garden.
- Make sure your garden has adequate shade. Honewort can survive, but not thrive, in direct sunlight. Many gardeners plant it alongside taller plants that can provide coverage.
- Soil should not only be moist, but also rich in organic matter. Don’t be afraid to supplement the soil with compost. Just don’t overdo it.
- If you are planting from seeds, sow the seeds along a weed-free patch during the late fall or early winter. The snow will end seed dormancy and allow for germination.
- Bare root plants you are transplanting can be planted in the winter, so long as the soil is not frozen. You want to make a hole in the soil that is longer and wider than the largest root. Water the plants immediately after transplanting.
- Because the plant has so many poisonous relatives, it is safer to plant from roots or seeds you buy from a nursery than from foraged honewort.
In Japan, the honewort relative, mitsuba, is cultivated and sold as a vegetable.
Some scientists, however, consider mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) and honewort two varieties of the same species.
Honewort is known for its parsley-like flavor, and mitsuba is also called “Japanese parsley.”
Mitsuba has some different physical characteristics. For example, mitsuba flowers are even harder to notice than those of honewort. Mitsuba only has 3-5 flowers per umbel.
Unlike honewort, mitsuba leaves often get bigger as they ascend up the stem. You’ll find wide, stubby leaves towards the top of the plant, instead of the bottom.
Some mitsuba leaves also have a dark but subtle purple coloring.
The flavors of honewort and mitsuba are indistinguishable.
However, mitsuba can easily become invasive in the United States. Thus, it is better to buy it at a Japanese store or try it when you are in Japan. And you should stick to Canadian honewort in your own garden.
Mitsuba can be used to make soup with mushrooms and meat. All you have to do is combine mitsuba in stock with crown coral mushrooms and tender game meat, such as squirrel.
Simmer the mushrooms for 5-10 minutes while seasoning the broth with salt and pepper. Garnish the soup with olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice. Use one cup of broth per person.
Of course, if you don’t have mitsuba, Canadian honewort will give you the same excellent taste.
Despite all of its beneficial properties and the fact that it is a native plant, honewort can become a real nuisance on a farm or homestead.
It usually reseeds itself in empty patches of land in the winter. If you aren’t careful, honewort can take over vacant spaces in your garden.
But because the plant loves shade, you should plant it surrounded by taller plants. This way, the honewort can thrive with limited space to reseed.
However, it won’t hurt to also check around your garden for honewort seeds. Instead of letting them germinate, take them to the kitchen for your next baking project.
Honewort can freshen up any dish, or be a hearty, healthy meal in itself. Just remember to practice caution when foraging, and pay close attention not only to the honewort, but the plants surrounding it as well.
If you see poisonous plants growing around the honewort, then do not forage from that patch. It may also be a good idea to call park rangers. If you are growing honewort in your garden, then you and pollinators will have ample food.
Be sure to collect the seeds around fall for your holiday baking. be careful not to let it overspread!
Overall, if you haven’t already added honewort to your list of plants you should forage when you’re out in the woods, you should start searching for it as soon as you can!
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.