Beach Peas, Circumpolar Pea, Sea Vetchling
Lathyrus japonicus (alternately, L. maritimus)
Beach peas have a definite mystique. The are not pushovers, in that they are at their peak of ripeness for only a short time. Sometimes it takes many trips to the Beach Pea bed to determine when the peas will be ripe. and as often as not, something comes up, our nonforaging lives interfere, and by the time we return to pick the Beach Peas they are gone by, though and insipid. But that is what makes them so hauntingly desirable.
Because Beach Peas lose some of their sweetness when cool, it is best to serve them hot. When preparing a complex meal, save the Beach Peas for last. When everything is nearly done, pour the shelled peas into boiling water and cook for about ten munutes. Serve immediately.
Beach Peas are reportedly a favorite spring sea-side pick that can be eaten on the fly as a handy and tasty (though not filling) snack (with a small window of freshness before they get tough and not-so-tasty) or laboriously taken home and shelled–good on salads or reportedly as their own dish .
The inch and a half long beans yield tiny peas about half the size of a grain of rice. The native range of the beach pea ends north of this area, but the seed can survive up to five years in seawater and germinate once it lands on shore, where it plays an extremely important role in preventing beach erosion. The beach pea has a bit of a mixed reputation, as some members of the genus are poisonous (so be sure you know what you have picked before you see some miniature pea looking plant and start munching on it). According to the Native American Ethnobotany site from the University of Michigan, the stalks of the young Beach Pea were cooked and eaten as greens by the Iroquois.
Sadly, these are not *those* beach peas, whose range ends on the East coast in Massachusetts. And…well, narrowing down *which* member of the genus Lathyrus it might be has been a bit problematic (there are over sixty species in the US). And of course, knowing which species this is, is important if you want to consume it. Just remember, everything is only edible the first time!
Warning Plants in the genus Lathyrus, particularly the seeds, can be toxic to humans and animals if ingested. Sensitivity to a toxin varies with a person’s age, weight, physical condition, and individual susceptibility. Children are most vulnerable because of their curiosity and small size. Toxicity can vary in a plant according to season, the plant’s different parts, and its stage of growth; and plants can absorb toxic substances, such as herbicides, pesticides, and pollutants from the water, air, and soil.
The official warning from the e-nature entry
Sea lettuce is named partly for its appearance but also for its edibility. Along with many other types of seaweeds, sea lettuce has probably been eaten by various cultures around the world for many centuries; it is particularly well-known in Scotland. It can be eaten raw, dried or roasted, in salads, soups or stews. However, it should not be harvested in areas that may be subject to pollution.
Sea lettuce is a common sea side wild edible easily found in shallow rocky area of the coast, around the world. It is a very nutritious food, high in protein and dietary fiber as well as iron, iodine, aluminum, manganese and nickel. Unfortunately, it can easily incorporate pollutants, and should not be eaten from waters with high levels of pollution. While one description says it tastes like “zucchini or cucumber with a mineral aftertaste”, I honestly think sea lettuce (at least fresh from the ocean and rinsed) has the texture and consistency of chewing on a piece of Saran wrap with a metallic aftertaste…but I’m pretty sure that dried and used in soups, or with other seasonings, it probably takes on the flavor of whatever is cooking quite well. Coastal tribes even dried sea lettuce into cakes to be reconstituted in winter soups and stews.
Ecologically speaking, sea lettuce is quite important as a food source for a number of species, and as a early colonizer after disturbances to the environment. Additionally, excessive amounts of sea lettuce are a good indicator of eutrophication, a type of pollution where there is excess nitrogen in an aquatic system causing a decline in water quality which can lead to low levels of oxygen and fish kills. Sea lettuce blooms, when they die off and wash ashore let off toxic (and smelly) hydrogen sulfide gas which has even been suspected in a human death.
There are several species of sea lettuce, and as far as I know, all are edible. U. lactua itself is a bright green, nearly transparent ruffled sheet that can be found attached to rocks or floating free. Other species may have longer blade like “leaves” or may be flat and not ruffled. The plant can survive and thrive after it has broken free from its holdfast in floating mats, and are reportedly the best eating in the spring when they are still entirely green without white edges or streaks (after they reproduce).
Sea lettuce has two life stages that are isomorphic, meaning they have the same form. The sporophyte plant releases swimming spores, which establish in the sediment and grow into male and female gametophyte plants. These produce mobile male and female gametes, or sexual cells, that are released in time with lunar spring tides. The gametes fuse together, then swim to the bottom where they grow into the sporophyte plant once more.