Pineappleweed: A Modest Morsel
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Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) is a humble wildflower of roadsides, lawns, and trail edges that can be found across nearly all of North America. (In the US, it is only not reported in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.) A relative of German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), pineappleweed flowers have a sweet, fruity, pineapple-like smell when crushed. Like chamomile, it is used medicinally as a sedative, an antispasmodic, and an anti-inflammatory.
Finding and Identifying Pineappleweed
Pineappleweed is commonly found in sunny, open spaces such as city parks, lawns, roadsides, and along sidewalks and trails. Despite this abundance, it is often overlooked because it's so small and shy. Unlike its showier relatives in the Aster family (such as daisies, dandelions, and sunflowers), the flowerhead on this plant is tiny (about 1/4 to 1/3 inch across) and lacks ray flowers (think the outside "petals" of a sunflower), containing only disk flowers (think the inside circular part of a sunflower.) The flowers are dome-shaped and a yellowy greenish color. When crushed, they emit a sweet pineapple-like smell.
The leaves are finely dissected, producing a feathery or fern-like effect. They are usually around 2 inches long and 3/4 inch wide. The plant itself can reach heights of over a foot, but in mowed areas they can be as short as 2 inches.
Pineappleweed has a few lookalikes, but none of them are poisonous; so the worst that could happen is you pick something that doesn't taste that great. Among them are black medic (Medicago lupulina) and mayweed (Anthemis cotula.) The flowers of black medic look superficially similar, but the leaves look more clover-like than fern-like. The leaves of mayweed are quite similar, but the flower is more yellow than yellow-green and has white ray flowers. But the best way to distinguish pineappleweed from them is the smell! If it's not sweet and fruity, it's probably not the right thing.
Like chamomile, the part of the plant you want is the flowerhead. This presents a problem; the flowerheads are so small that it takes a long time to accumulate enough to use in a recipe! They are typically around 1/4 inch across, but in heavily mowed areas I've seen them as tiny as 1/8 inch. This problem can be tackled in a couple ways: either get some friends to help you, or preserve the flowerheads until you have as many as you need.
The flowers can be dried on a flat sheet. The ideal drying conditions are high ventilation and low humidity. Heat and sunlight- though effective at drying things- also damage the delicate compounds that provide medicinal properties, as well as delicious flavors and aromas.
If you plan on doing some sustained harvesting over the course of a few days, you can stick the flowers in the fridge. They also seem like something that would freeze well, but I haven't tried it personally.
When picking pineappleweed, go for the flowers that are more yellow than green. The greener ones are older and don't have as strong of a flavor. It's also a good practice to crush the flowers and smell or nibble them every now and then, to ensure that they're in their prime. In my experience, the quickest way to harvest them is by pinching the flowerhead off with your fingernails. Scissors and knives feel too cumbersome for such small plants.
Finally, be aware of potential contaminants when picking. As a flower of roadsides and lawns, it may be exposed to dangerous chemicals from pesticides or car exhaust; and those growing in parks and along sidewalks may have come into contact with dog feces. Try to avoid polluted areas if possible. The good news is that the roots and leaves of plants typically absorb more contaminants than the flowers and fruit, so most of them can be washed off. For more details, see the urban foraging page.
Pineappleweed is similar to its cousin German chamomile, and has been used as its substitute in herbal remedies. As a sedative, it can help relieve anxiety and treat insomnia. Its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties aid with menstrual cramps, and stomach and intestinal pains.
To make a tea, infuse the flowers with hot water in a covered cup or container. It's important not to use boiling water, as that will destroy the delicate aromatics that confer medicinal properties. Keeping it covered will also help preserve these. Use a nonreactive container, such as glass, ceramic, or porcelain. Stainless steel is okay, but other metals and plastics are best avoided.
**Note: Some people experience allergies with pineappleweed. When first consuming, try a little bit and wait a day. If no symptoms appear, you're probably good to go!
Pineappleweed can be eaten simply as a garnish for salads, soups, and other dishes. It also makes a delicious tea; see the section above for details. It is excellent infused into heavy cream or coconut cream and whipped into a topping, or used in a recipe that calls for those ingredients. Just be aware that some people experience allergies with pineappleweed (see note above.) Personally, I get an itchy throat when eating it. But it's so tasty; it's hard to resist!
Pineappleweed Coconut Ice Cream
I actually made a recipe instead of just winging it!
The taste of this ice cream is divine. The coconut flavor marries well with the fruity, pineapple flavor of the flowers. Using honey brings out the floral essence. Topped with lime slices and/or mint, it's a dish fit for a queen!
2 cups coconut cream (buy some or make your own)
1 1/4 cups fresh pineappleweed flowers, washed and dried
1/4 cup light honey
To make your own coconut cream, stick a few cans of full fat coconut milk in the fridge for 8 hours or overnight. To encourage separation of cream and water, be careful not to tip or shake the can. It should separate into a semi-solid layer (the cream) and a watery layer. Carefully scoop out the cream and reserve the watery part for drinks or smoothies. I used three cans of coconut milk to get two cups of cream. You may need more or less depending on the brand. If it doesn't separate, you may need to try a different brand.
Wash the pineappleweed using your favorite fruit and veggie wash. Dry thoroughly before using. It may take several days to collect enough flowerheads for this recipe. I did it in three days, and stored the washed flowerheads in the fridge in the meantime.
Infuse the pineappleweed flowers in coconut cream by mixing both into a small stainless steel pot and placing over medium-low heat. Slowly heat to a simmer, stirring to avoid scorching. Do not boil, or it will ruin the delicate aroma and flavor of the flower. Turn off heat and infuse for 45 minutes. Keep a lid on it to help preserve the delicate flavor. The coconut cream thins out as it heats. Do not leave to cool completely, or it will be too thick to strain.
Strain the flowers from the coconut cream using muslin or several sheets of cheesecloth. You really want to squeeze as much liquid out as possible. The flowerhead remains can go into the compost.
Taste the infused coconut cream. It may have too much pineappleweed flavor, or not enough. There is typically more variation when cooking with hand-harvested wild species. Also, keep in mind that after adding honey and freezing, the flavor will be slightly more mild.
If it's too flavorful, add more coconut cream. If it's not flavorful enough, store the cream in the fridge. Pick, wash, and dry more flowers and repeat steps 3 to 5 above. Chances are you won't need another 1 1/4 cups of flowers; most likely another 1/4 - 1/2 cup will do.
When the infused cream reaches the desired flavor, stir in honey. It should dissolve fairly easily because the cream should still be warm. Then taste the mixture. Add more honey if you want it sweeter.
Chill in fridge 8 hours or overnight. It should come out at least thick enough to coat a spoon.
Follow manufacturer's instructions for ice cream making. I have a Donvier ice cream maker, which contains a metal bucket that needs needs to be in the freezer for at least 7 hours. Therefore, I placed the bucket in the freezer at the same time I refrigerated the coconut mixture.
When both coconut mixture and ice cream maker are ready, churn the mixture for about 15 minutes until it reaches soft-serve consistency. If desired, place in freezer-proof container and freeze at least a couple hours to harden.
If refrozen, leave at room temperature four to five minutes before serving. Garnish with lime and/or mint if desired.
This recipe calls for coconut cream, but I imagine it works just as well with dairy cream.
If you are vegan or for some other reason don't want to use honey, cane sugar should substitute just fine.
You can use dried pineapple flowers instead of fresh. You will need less of them, since all the water is evaporated out. I would guess about 2/3 cup dried, but you'll have to fine-tune it.
Hopefully this is a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, or in this case, a flower by its flashiness! Despite its small size and plain color, pineappleweed packs an enormous flavor. With medicinal benefits to boot, this is a flower that you'll want to keep coming back to year after year.