Cross-country foraging with Ellen Zachos

20th JULY 2020 / BY KATE

Forager Ellen Zachos takes us along on her annual inter-state road trip in the USA. We travel east to west through 8 states and 3 time zones. Join us for the edible journey along the way, spying some familiar and some not so familiar plants. Thanks for having us along Ellen.

Ellen has been a part of our extended foraging family since 2014 when she came to Islay and we took her across the island on windy hills and peat bogs in the pouring rain. Six years later she still guest writes for us at The Botanist when she isn’t out in the field. 

EZ: Every summer we make the trek: 2,000 miles from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, Michael at the wheel, me hanging out the window, watching how the land changes: the color of the soil, the water (or lack thereof), the plants. For most of our lives we were east coasters, but six years ago we left the temperate rainforest (44 inches of rain/year at sea level) for the high desert (14 inches of rain/year at an altitude of 7,000 feet).

We kept our cabin in Pennsylvania, and every summer we drive east, to visit friends and family, swim in a glacial lake, and marvel at the hundreds of shades of green that we just don’t find out west. Sure, by the fourth day in the car, my back may complain a little, but I look forward to the trip every year. And all along the way, in the Rockies, on the prairie, or crossing the Mississippi, I find delicious edible, drinkable plants.

New Mexico (NM) –Milkweed

Just as we left New Mexico, the showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) was starting to bloom. I hated to leave them and their sweet perfume. It’s one of my favorite plants and I use the highly fragrant flowers in syrups (for cocktails), shrubs, naturally fermented sodas, and jellies.

Travelling in the time of Covid was sobering. Traffic was light, hotels were mostly empty, and many restaurants were closed. I doubt if this one will re-open. But the pandemic means nothing to Portulaca olearaceae. In the empty parking lot of this Texas restaurant, I found lemony, crunchy purslane.

Texas (TX) –purslane in the Shack’s parking lot

Oklahoma (OK) – Meliot

The white and yellow flowers of sweet clover (Melilotus species) are everywhere in Oklahoma. Melilot has a naturally sweet, vanilla flavor, and can be used as a dried herb or infused in liquids.

Melilot is a legume, and can fix its own nitrogen, which allows it to thrive in poor soils, like at this rest area. It’s a very successful weed.

Missouri (MO) – Daylily

Bright orange flowers make daylilies easy to spot, even at 70 mph. I often find big stands on abandoned homesteads. The house may have disappeared, but the garden lingers on.

At this stage both the unopened buds and the orange petals are ready for harvest. Here are some buds I pickled for a ‘Dirty Lily Bud Martini’

Illinois (IL) – Queen Anne’s lace

Carrot flavor below ground, juicy fruit flavor in the flower. How is that possible? And the flower’s pollen contains enough yeast to make a ferment naturally and make a tasty soda.

Most people consider Queen Anne’s Lace a weed, but my mother always kept it in her garden and I think she had the right idea.

Indiana (IN) – Bee balm

Bee balm is everywhere: at gas stations, along country roads, and lining the highways. It’s another plant that needs nothing from us, spreading in great swaths, delighting foragers and pollinators alike. Both the flowers and the foliage have a wonderful, strong, oregano flavor.

Ohio (OH) – Elderflowers

2020 has been a tough year for humans, but an excellent year for elderflowers. Their bright white flowers are easy to spot from the car. I collect some for cordial and “champagne”, but leave enough behind to be pollinated, so I can go back for fruit at the end of summer.

Pennsylvania (PA) – Milkweed

Turns out I didn’t need to feel sad about missing the milkweed back home in New Mexico. The day after we arrived in PA, I found masses of Asclepias syriacain full bloom. Its fragrance is intoxicating, and I plan to make the most of it.

We considered staying home this summer, unsure of what to expect driving thousands of miles during a pandemic. Fortunately, foraging and social distancing go hand in hand. (When was the last time you ran into a herd of foragers in the woods?) And summer travel lets me forage in a wide range of ecosystems across many different states. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you are feeling inspired to find what might be around you or you just want to sit back and take in some more from Ellen, here are some previous articles with The Botanist. They all contain a glorious wealth of information with further reading:

>> Introducing Ellen

>> The art of tincturing

>> Seizing scents

Find her at She also offers digital online courses at

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