Edible Ornamentals: Ptelea trifoliata

The hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) is a large shrub or small tree native to swaths of low-lying regions of Eastern North America that is quite rare in Ontario, restricted to a few localities along the north and eastern shores of Lake Erie, most notably Long Point Provincial and Point Pelee Provincial Parks where it grows along sandbars or beaches. I have only ever seen it in the wild at a third location where it spontaneously occurs, Rondeau Provincial Park along with other uncommon oddities such as the dwarf chinquapin oak (Quercus prinoides), but that’s another story for another time.

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Although not very frequently encountered in a truly wild situation, hoptrees (also known as wafer ash and/or stinking ash even though this species only has a superficial resemblance to true ash trees in the Fraxinus genus) are quite hardy and can be deliberately planted outside of their native range which includes much if not most of southern and south-central Ontario. They often succeed in any moderately fertile, well draining but moisture retentive soil that is in part sun through to full shade.

Individuals are either male or female, and sensibly the female individuals produce the characteristic wafer-like seeds which are comprised of a flattened disc which encloses the seed (that contains one or sometimes two genetically different embryos) surrounded by a paper-like tissue which permits the seeds to be distributed by the wind. These fruits are produced in large, congested clusters that mature from a vivid light green through to a dark brown and often persist on the trees through the winter and into the following spring. The blossoms of both genders are wonderfully fragrant and attract the attention of a multitude of native insects and pollinators.

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The fruit of the hoptree are of particular interest as they posses quite a few medicinal compounds which exhibit anti-bacterial, anti-rheumatic and digestive tonic properties. The most common namesake for the species, hoptree, implies that it has also been used in the production of beer. I have seen reference to this relationship many times but have failed in tracking down an actual recipe in which the fruit (most likely when still green in mid-summer) has been used and in what amount. The anti-bacterial and mild preservative properties known to the seeds make them additionally suitable as a hop substitute.

This means, naturally, that I am going to have to step up to bat and figure this one out myself. Stay tuned for when I get around to harvesting some of the samaras (botanical term for the day meaning winged fruits/seeds) and boiling them up with some malt. I’ll probably start off with a small batch just to see how things go and then perhaps try brewing up a larger amount if it looks promising. Until then, there’s nothing like (re)acquainting yourself with a plant then taking a stroll through Plants for a Future. Guaranteed to get you lost in the world of botany for at least 20 minutes at a time. Anything longer and you’ve got a chronic case of the plants.