What do dandelion roots, chicory roots, persimmon seeds, and beech nuts all have in common? Their descriptions in a book of wild edible plants will include the phrase “can be used as a coffee substitute”. Of course, none of these plants contain caffeine, that wonderful natural insect neurotoxin produced by Coffea arabica, but when properly baked, ground, and steeped they can produce a liquid that vaguely resembles coffee.
Or, so we are told. Does anybody actually do this?
The scientific name for “Cleavers” is Gallium aparine. It’s an annual plant which produces long stringy stems with whorls of tiny leaves. In early June it sets hundreds of pairs of small white flowers, which mature into round seed pods. It’s major distinguishing quality is that the stems, leaves, and seeds are all covered in tiny hooks. These hooks grab onto hair or clothing, allowing the plant to hitch a ride on passing creatures. Gallium aparine is classified in the family Rubiaceae which makes it a somewhat close genetic relative of coffee. My procedure from weed to mug was as follows:
Step 1: When the seeds have sufficiently ripened that they come off the stem with a gentle tug, pick them into a container for as long as you can bear the tedium. I lasted about 40 minutes and had only this small pile collected. Since everything sticks to everything, there doesn’t appear to be any way to expedite the process.
Step 2: Allow the seeds to dry for a couple weeks, and then sort out all the leaves and other debris. This is another tedious step. Perfection is not required, as the whole plant is edible. Total weight of seeds before further processing was 0.8 oz.
Step 3: Roast the seeds in a pan on a low-medium heat for about an hour. The idea is to dry and toast them, not burn them. If you have an oven (we don’t), you can also bake them at 350°F for an hour. The aroma during roasting smells of dark tea and arame seaweed. Final weight after roasting was 0.6 oz.
Step 6: Drink it! The result is surprisingly good. It doesn’t taste exactly like coffee, but it’s definitely similar. I thought it was like a cross between coffee and yerba maté. Less bitter but with some dark tones. Robin insisted on a similarity to carob.
Summary: If the coffee supply chain failed tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind drinking ground cleavers seed as a substitute. In reality, would i? Not likely. The effort is far too great for the result. About 2 hours of my time were required produce just 0.6oz of final product. You could improve matters by finding a closely related weed, Galium boreale, which looks almost identical but lacks the gene for the little hooks. This would make the plant easier to harvest and sort. You might also try direct cultivation, selecting for the largest seed heads, but I doubt any of these changes would sufficiently speed up the process.
During times of war and shortage, people have predominately turned to roots, nuts, or roasted grain mixes as a substitute. All of these have harvesting advantages over the tedious little cleavers seed. I’d love to try chicory next, as its tap root can grow to be quite large and only a few would have you set for a week. Unfortunately, it’s a somewhat uncommon weed around here, so I may have to wait until next spring’s dandelion crop before trying a roasted root.
So, since none of these plants contain caffeine, why drink them at all? Perhaps it’s just the pleasant ritual of a warm drink on a cold morning. In Oregon, the mornings are always cold.