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.

hoptree3
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.

9 comments

  1. Tom, I planted one of these on the front of my property this past spring, it is doing well! I am looking forward to watching it grow.

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  2. There are several large groves in the wild along the very eastern Canadian shore of Lake Erie. We called them penny trees. If stressed, they tend not to produce fruit. I have experimented with propagation methods, with some success, but would like a handbook of sorts on this. In thier limited natural habitat, the locals often confuse them with poison ivy and then extirpirate them from thier property. Here much education is needed. I’m also looking for an old-time beer recipe, which would likely be from The States where common hoptrees are more common. They are good ornamentals, again, if you know what they are and how they can be ornamentaly trained.

    Kevin

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    1. Hey Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment. From what I have (or rather have not) been able to find, there seems to be very limited online information about ferment recipes that include hoptree. I’m sure that there are some recipes in old books but these would probably be very difficult to track down. To a certain extent it may be easier to develop a recipe that works through trial and error. Once the fruits are fully grown but still green this coming summer I am going to attempt a few different recipes which will use hoptree as the sole flavour and bittering component in the beer.

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      1. I’m traveling in the southern States now and tend to frequent old bookstores. I’ll also ask an historian friend if she could check academic subscription archives for old-time recipes. I like your ideas of experiment – the mother of invention. ….. k

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    1. The recipe from last year failed.. I have a feeling that it may have been issues with sterilization. I wasn’t using my own equipment and so not everything was as up to my own standards as I would have liked and alas.. I am going to try again this year though. The samaras on the hop trees are about as big as they are going to get and you want to get them before they begin to dry out.

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    1. Hey Alex! Thanks for your comment.

      I have only made the recipe once and was fairly conservative with the hop tree samaras, since I had next to no idea how it was going to turn out. For 1 gallon of beer, I used 25g of hop tree cones and got a hint of flavor from them. Looking back on the result, I’d add a bit more than that. I also divided that amount up into thirds, adding one third at the start of the boil, the second half way through and the third right as I removed the wort from the heat.

      I also didn’t use any hops in this recipe, and so it was quite malty but had a unique but subtle bitterness. There’s definitely room for improvement. I hope to be able to work with it again soon!

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