Wild Edible Aromatics

When I started learning and teaching others about the native prairie wildflowers and other plants found in my area, I discovered two plants that stand out because of their aroma. These are ones that are readily identified by sight but are especially remembered by my students because I would pick a few leaves from the plants and have them identify their familiar scents. They are Wild Bergamot (a.k.a. Bee balm) and Blue Giant Hyssop, both in the mint family.

Wild Bergamot (Mondara fistulosa) has showy pink flowers and light green leaves that impart a lemony scent. The leaves are used to make teas and oils. I collected one plant to use in a marinade.

Blue Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) has a purplish blue flower head and dark green, shiny leaves. The flower head and leaves are highly aromatic, with a licorice, or anise scent and flavor. Also used as a tea, it makes an excellent seasoning that pairs well with beef and venison.

I collected a half-dozen stems of hyssop to use both in the marinade and as skewers for the venison tenderloin that I cubed up for dinner.

Sweet fern is a deciduous shrub that I fell in love with the first time I ventured by foot into the brush prairie at Crex Meadows. Sweet fern is not a fern at all, but its leaves resemble ferns. It had a sweet, almost soapy smell that lifts into the air as you walk through a patch of it disturbing the leaves. It is one of the first plants to grow after a wild or prescribed fire, and it fixes nitrogen into the soils which provides nutrients for other prairie plants to grow in successive years. I picked a few branches of sweet fern for use in the marinade and to make an aromatic sachet to put in my closet.

Here is the recipe for the marinade and subsequent grilled venison skewers.

Marinade for 1 pound of meat:

  • Leaves and flower from 1 stem of wild bergamot, chopped
    Leaves and flowers from 3 stems of hyssop, chopped
    Leaves from 1 small branch of sweet fern
    1 Tbsp birch syrup
    1/4 cup crabapple vodka or red wine
    1 tsp salt

Combine marinade in bowl, add 1 lbs venison tenderloin cubes. Mix, cover and place in refrigerator for at least an hour.

Skewer marinated meat chunks onto 3-4 stems of hyssop with the leaves intact. Grill for 3-4 minutes on each side over hot coals.

The anise flavor is intense, as is the scent, and so delicious with the venison.

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