by Roger Klinger
The new year began with a wonderful snowfall that was magical and beautiful to behold, coupled with bitter cold temperatures that kept the insulated blanket of snow on the ground for a while, which is wonderful for the natural world, including our human gardens.
For many years, I have noticed that a good snowfall means an abundance of new plants, as somehow the minerals in the snow seem to help certain plants propagate. One of the plants that always seems to send out an abundance of tiny seedlings after a snow is the beautiful wildflower Echinacea or purple coneflower, which we grow in abundance on our land. In recent years I have added another native perennial wildflower to our gardens; it is in the same family but is quite different from the rosy purple coneflowers that we love.
Rudbeckia lanciata or Green Headed Coneflower is a gem of a plant native to our mountain habitats, and it is beyond tough and vigorous. A few years back, a dear friend and serious gardener who passed away recently gave me a handful of these plants that he pulled from his driveway gravel, but he warned me that they can take over. I planted each of them and for 4 years watched them grow bigger and taller each year, but they never spread or showed up anywhere else. The plants grew to about 3 feet across and often topped six feet in height, and every fall they were covered with a multitude of beautiful yellow daisy-like flowers with green heads. I fell in love with them, as the flowers were so abundant and usually lasted until early November. I thought Jim had been exaggerating about their invasive nature until the next year, when it seemed like there were about six dozen baby Green Headed Coneflowers sprouting up everywhere in the landscape.
Ever since, we have given away dozens of these beautiful plants to friends, but about a year ago I discovered something new about the plants that delighted me beyond belief: these native coneflowers are a choice edible plant and tough winter green that remains as one of the Cherokee people’s most prized wild vegetables.
The Cherokee name for green headed Coneflower is “Sochan.” For thousands of years, the Cherokee have relied upon these plants as a treasured wild green, often combining them with creasy greens and other wild herbaceous plants. The flavor is distinct and tasty, especially when harvested in late winter and early spring, since by summer the plants become much stronger in flavor and even too bitter, though the taste can be moderated by mixing in milder greens like violet leaves or chickweed. The plants are loaded with nutrient and minerals.
The way most Cherokee prepare them today is by boiling the spring greens for a few minutes, then pouring off the water; later in the season I do the same, but I add a second change of water if they taste too strong. The Cherokee also dried the greens to preserve them throughout the depth of winter, but I haven’t yet tried this method.
A year ago, I visited Alan Muskat’s home and saw he had a section of the yard dedicated to Sochan — it was like a carpet of greens growing wall to wall. They were very tasty in late December as I boiled them lightly then sautéed them with garlic, onions and spices. I thought, this is an ideal plant in our landscape, giving more nutrients than kale or chard — and it’s perennial, with no weeding, no seeding, no covering with hoops… carefree, wild and abundant! My kind of plant!
Sochan is very easy to identify when flowering, and the premier time for harvesting the plants for a food source is early spring when the plants are low to the ground in a basal rosette stage. Its leaves are variable in shape; starting at the base they are pinnately compound and moving further up the stem they become deeply three-lobed and then become simple towards the flower. The leaves feel roughly hairy on the upper surface if you rub your fingers down towards the base. This sandpaper-like texture is most noticeable if you rub your fingers down the outermost edge of the leaf. The undersides of the leaf are smooth with a slightly silvery sheen.
Sochan also has medicinal uses. The roots have similar properties to coneflower extracts and have immune system boosting properties when used as a tea. However, numerous references suggest pregnant women avoid using Sochan in a tea form, although the greens have been used traditionally to boost iron levels during pregnancy. Southwest tribes used sochan flower petals for treating burns.
Sochan is an amazing native wildflower and well worth learning about. This hardy perennial can be found throughout North America with the exception of California and the Northwest. You’ll be amazed at how abundant and common it is throughout our mountain region.
As Always, Be Careful!
I recommend watching these plants for a whole season, coming back for a season or two so you can make sure you know what you are eating, because in the young stages Sochan leaves could be mistaken for some commonly found but seriously poisonous look-alikes in the carrot family.
Also, numerous references suggest that pregnant women should avoid using Sochan in a tea form.
Contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.