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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

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bristly yellow foxtail en masse sm

Yellow Foxtail. A very beautiful grain grass. That is why it is the background of the header on every page on this site.


Season: Late Summer to Early Fall


Urban, Rural or Both: Both


There are a few different plants in the Bristly Foxtail Family. And just to confuse matters, there are other grasses called Foxtails. A warning: Some of the other grasses called "Foxtail" are dangerous to animals, especially dogs & cats. For more information, follow pages on this Google search link: foxtail grass dogs. Most often, the dangerous ones are on the western side of North America, but not always. The dangerous ones are in the family Hordeum, while the Bristly Foxtail I'm writing about for grain is from the family Setaria. Sadly, many websites show pictures of the wrong one - this is why it is always important not to trust the "common" names, and double check with the Latin names.

The Bristly Foxtails are the wild ancestors of the two Millet grains grown as grain crops in Asia. What I don't understand is why this is not a better regarded food grain. It is good tasting in all three I list below, prolific, almost ignores drought, and does well on soils that are tougher for other plants. In all honesty, I'm the only person I know that eats these wild "noxious weed" grains. Other wild food experts don't mention these Bristly Foxtails as far as I'm aware. I can't find any recipes on the web that mention them unlike almost any other wild food, and that is odd, because some people eat really awful plants like the Garlic Mustard and the Pokeweed, and even the carcinogenic Bracken Fiddle heads and Canada Ginger, yet here we have a tasty, nutritious, wild grain that is the wild cousin of the commercially grown Millet, and nothing. Maybe there is something I don't know.

I'll never forget the first time I became aware of these. My partner Pamela and I were driving along country roads south of London, Ontario in Corn and Soy country in the fall in the mid to late 80's. In one ditch, in a remote area was a sea of what I now know are the Giant Foxtail. We were both taken by them - how beautiful they were. When we got home, I looked up in my books (before the Internet) and found it was the Giant Foxtail. In the comment section the book said this was the wild ancestor of one of the two common, commercially grown Millets in Asia. We went back, harvested the seedheads with scissors and pillow sacks, went home, cleaned, and used the grain. I've been hooked on them ever since. When I'm out walking or biking and find these ripe, I always stop and eat my fill of raw grain and continue. They give great energy and are very satisfying. When they are freshly ripe, they are not hard, but chewy and nutty tasting.

So, how do you use them? You can snack on them raw, fresh off the plant. Make sure you chew them well. Don't eat too much, as they get more filling after 10-15 minutes after eating them, and too much can leave an indigestion feeling - like eating too much at Christmas or Thanksgiving meals - these grains are a very dense, protein rich food, so a little goes a long way. You can gather them, dry them, and store them like Millet you buy, and use them as if they were. For making them like rice use 2 1/4 cups water to a cup of dried grain, bring to a boil, turn down and simmer covered for about 45 minutes to an hour - until the water is gone and the grain is soft. Or, after drying them (or fresh), you can grind them into flour and mix with other flour you use at a rate of about 15% for bread. They give a distinct nutty flavor. When dry, they grind well in a coffee grinder or grain mill, but when fresh, they bog up the grain mill, so just use a coffee grinder for fresh grain. By the way, I mean one of those coffee grinders that have the spinning blade, sort of like a very tiny blender. They are usually between 10-20 dollars new, and are easy to find at most stores that carry small appliances.

They make a very good veggie burger. Make them like rice above, add that to some finely chopped and fried or stir fried onions, garlic, carrots, parsley, basic, oregano, pepper and whatever else you want to try - including of course any wild veggies you may have gathered. Mix well the cooked grain and the cooked vegetables. Make into patties and fry, broil or bake. Use in burgers like you normally would after that. Very good. Some things to add while mixing are: crushed nuts (awesome with Hickory Nuts or Black Walnuts) , sunflower seeds (very nice), tofu smashed up, boiled, drained and dried on a fresh tea towel, mashed chick peas or mashed kidney beans. With the beans, chick peas or tofu, you get a very good complete protein with the grain. Once you have made them into patties, you can freeze them by separating with wax paper and putting a few in baggies.

So, how do you know which is which? The Giant Foxtail nods, that is, the seedhead droops over giving it the name "Nodding Foxtail". The Green Foxtail often nods too, but the Giant Foxtail is larger with much bigger leaves than the Yellow or Green Foxtail. If the seedhead is nodding and green, check the leaf upper surface. More often than not the Giant Foxtail leaf has small hairs on it, while the Green Foxtail does not. If still not sure and you have a magnifying glass or binoculars (see here), check the edges of the leaves. The Giant Foxtail has very tiny serrations on the leaf edges, while the Green Foxtail does not. Also, if the leaf edges are curled upward, it would be the Green Foxtail, but they don't always do that. With the Giant Foxtail the seedhead (flower spike) is always light to medium green when unripe, and light brown to tan when ripe or close to ripe. If the seedhead (flower spike) is yellowish before it is ripe, it is the Yellow Foxtail (Setaria glauca). If it is a reddish hued green or purplish hued green, it is most likely the Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis). If you find a green seedhead in the spring, it would be the Green Foxtail, as the Giant Foxtail won't grow the seedhead until summer - it is a warm weather grass, while the Green Foxtail can grow in cooler weather. If the seedheads are longer than 15 cm (6 inches), and the grain is spherical, you most likely have the Foxtail Millet (Setaria italica). The Foxtail Millet is the tallest of the group - up to 2 meters (6 feet) tall, with leaf blades that are wider - 3 cm (1 1/4 inches). I've never seen the Foxtail Millet where I live, but if you do find it, you have the best of the bunch.


Growing these plants in your home garden:

For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Foxtail page.




Giant Foxtail (Setaria faberi). Synonyms for Setaria faberi: Setaria macrocarpa & Setaria autumnalis. Other common names include: Faber's Foxtail, Chinese Millet, Chinese Foxtail, Giant Bristlegrass, Japanese Bristlegrass and Nodding Foxtail. Not native to North America, it came from Asia, and is a hated weed of farmers, where it can really cut down on harvest of the intentional crop - especially corn.

This one has by far the largest grain size of all three listed here, plus each seedhead has a lot of grain. This one will be your best bet if you are harvesting to dry and use through the year if you have a choice.


Description:


Giant Foxtail Setaria faberi range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


bristly giant foxtai seed head and leaf

Giant Foxtail (Setaria faberi), notice the huge leaf that looks like a small leaf from corn - this was an unusual 3 cm (1 1/5 inches) wide. I was waiting to eat the grains from this one, but when I went back to check on it one day, there was a truck parked right on it, and it was crushed.


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Giant Foxtail drawing showing leaf shape. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. Wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)


Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis). Known also as green Bristlegrass. It is from Eurasia, and it too is a hated weed of farmers. This one can grow multiple generations per season unlike the Giant Foxtail - which means you can find ripe grain very early in the year, and right into fall. This one is your best bet for eating raw in small quantities when out walking or biking. You have to find it and harvest this one before it is fully ripe, because it drops the grain very quickly after ripening - the whole process of growing, ripening and dropping seed is on fast forward with this one. I really like this one raw, the grain has a rich, nutty taste and chewy texture fresh off the seedhead before it has had a chance to dry out. When I'm out walking or biking and see this ripe, I take a break to have some. Put a jacket or shirt on the ground under it, clasp it with both hands gently, lean it over the shirt and rub back and forth. Do this for about 5-10 seedheads, blow over it to blow away the chaff, and you have a nice snack with a few sips of water.


Description:



Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


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Typical clump of Green Foxtail. (Patrick J. Alexander, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


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Green Foxtail unripe. (Patrick J. Alexander, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


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Green Foxtail unripe close up. (Patrick J. Alexander, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


foxtail ready to harvest

Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis). This one is ready to harvest, in fact, it has already lost some grain - a few days before would have been better.




Yellow Foxtail (Setaria glauca or Setaria lutescens or Setaria pumila). Setaria glauca often refers to the cultivated variety of this plant, or can be a synonym. Known also as: Yellow Bristlegrass, Golden Foxtail, Foxtail millet, Pale Pigeongrass, Summergrass, Wild Millet and Pearl Millet. And, this one has a ridiculous number of Latin names as well on top of the three above: Pennisetum glaucum, Panicum pumilum, Panicum imberbe var. pumilum, Setaria glauca var. pumila, Chaetochloa lutescens and others! This is the worst naming mess I've seen. That said, it does point out this is one well studied plant.

The flower spikes when immature have yellow bristles with green center and are upright - they don't nod over like the Green or Giant Foxtail. Grain is good tasting fresh before drying, and good for drying for later use. This one tastes most like commercial Millet you find at health food stores, but in my experience is not as nutty tasting as Green Foxtail, but the difference is small.


Description:


Yellow Foxtail (Setaria glauca or Setaria lutescens or Setaria pumila) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.

foxtail close and group

Yellow Foxtail up close.


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Yellow Foxtail drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 165.)


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Yellow Foxtail drawing with excellent detail on grain. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Hitchcock, A.S. (rev. A. Chase). 1950. Manual of the grasses of the United States. USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 200. Washington, DC.)





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