Foraging is a wonderful way to connect with nature and provide nourishment for the body and soul. However we need to take a few things into consideration before we start.
As with all foraging I advise that before eating any wild plant or mushroom, you confirm your identification for yourself to your own satisfaction, and do not consume unless you are 100% sure that what you have is correct.
Please ensure you are foraging within the bounds of local laws and regulations and on land which you have permission to be on or that is open to the public. If you are unsure contact your states DNR or local authority.
Take care to always inform someone of where you are going when you enter the wilderness, and take enough food and water and some form of emergency communication. Also wear proper clothing to avoid injury and to protect from things like mosquitoes and ticks which can carry disease.
My dozen things…
Ramps are probably the most ubiquitous herald of spring for most foragers in large parts of the US. This member of the Allium genus (onion family) is often referred to by many as Wild Leeks, but also sometimes called Ramps, Ramp, Ramsons, Spring Onions, Wild Garlic, Wood Leeks, etc. This plant is so iconic that one of the major cities of the Midwest, Chicago, is actually named after a large cluster of Ramps discovered in the 17th century. Shikaakwa (Chicagou) was the name for Ramps by the local native tribes.
All parts of the plant are edible. In the spring historically Ramps have been dug up by the roots so the entire plant, from bulb to leaf can be cooked and eaten. Traditionally in native cultures they would harvest only the leaves (or even only a portion of each leaf) as greens. In Europe a similar species, Allium Ursinum, known as Wild Garlic is also primarily harvested for its leaves, as the bulbs are not as large and easily dug up as with Ramps. I like to preserve Ramp bulbs through pickling, and the leaves in pesto. You can freeze the plants also for use throughout the year.
Whilst common and abundant in many areas care must be taken to harvest sustainably, as it has been shown that overharvesting can occur, especially in high traffic areas such as the forests in close proximity to large cities. A good rule of thumb is to try and take as small a percentage as possible within a colony, and certainly no more than 5% of a patch in any one year, to allow the patch to regenerate. I also like to go back to my patches in fall and spread some seed around by hand whilst I’m mushroom picking, to ensure an even re-seeding.
Fiddleheads, or fiddlehead ferns are the green furled fronds of a young fern, used as a spring vegetable. It’s been an important part of Native American cuisine but you also see fern fronds being eaten historically in France, and parts of Asia. The primary species we are seeking out in the Midwest is the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia stuthiopteris) growing in damp areas often in swampy or riverside woodland. The Ostrich fern has a U shaped groove in the stem and a brown papery sheath. Be careful not to confuse this species with inedible or even toxic fern species (Bracken fronds can be considered carcinogenic).
Fiddleheads are mostly boiled or steamed and eaten fresh but you will also find people freezing them for year round consumption or another favourite is pickling. I like to pickle my fiddleheads with some ramp bulbs for added flavor. Please take care to cut as close to the furled portion as possible to allow the plant more chance to regrow and do not harvest all fiddleheads in an area.
This much maligned plant (Fallopia japonica) is classified as an invasive species in the USA and therefore often falls foul of burning or poisoning for fear of it spreading. I feel this is a shame as it is in fact a highly nutritious and delicious alternative to Rhubarb, being from the same family, and eaten in Japan as Rhubarb where it is known colloquially as Tiger Stick. There have been small scale studies in Germany showing that intensive harvesting can actually be more effective as a control method than spraying, so not only can you save money, and avoid using harmful herbicides, you can eat for free in the process.
You will find it growing along waste ground, riverbanks and railroad tracks, or anywhere it manages to grab a foothold. It’s easier to spot the tall architectural stalks of the previous years grown in late fall through winter, and return to the patch in spring for the fresh shoots.
The plant is best harvested at the “Asparagus” stage where the shoots have get to develop substantial foliage and are 2-8″ approximately in height. As it grows larger it tends to get woody.
The plant also contains high levels of Resveritrol, the healthy compound in red wine. If you check the supplements in your local health food store you’ll probably find a Resveritrol supplement made from Japanese Knotweed. Japanese Knotweed is part of the Buhner protocol, the leading herbal treatment for chronic Lyme Disease.
Ironically on of my preferred ways to use it is by making a wine. Take any rhubarb wine recipe and increase the weight of Knotweed by around 50% as the flavor isn’t quite as strong as its cultivated relative. You’ll be graced by a find rosé wine.
Another excellent use is as an ingredient for chutney. I like to adapt something like an onion marmalade recipes but substitute half the onion or more for Knotweed. Goes great with cheese. I’ve also been experimenting with a Knotweed hotsauce, its very versatile.
There are no concerns about sustainability when harvesting this plant because its considered invasive, however care must be taken to try to prevent its spread to gardens etc so take care when harvesting to do all trimming on the area of current growth, and don’t allow pieces of plant material to be distributed elsewhere.
Probably one of the most commonly talked about spring edibles. Several edible members of the Morchella genus occur in the Midwest and whilst I personally think Morels are overrated, they are one of the most prized of edible fungi. In the Midwest one common habitat is around dead Elm and Ash trees. Care must be ensured to distinguish their honey comb like cap structure and hollow form from that of the potentially deadly poisonous Gyromitra (False morel) genus.
Morels make a great vehicle for stuffing and can be filled with both meat and vegetarian options. Another great way to stretch them throughout the year is to make a morel butter which you can add into dishes, this helps when you only found a few and want to enjoy the flavor year round.
Nettles have been eaten around the world for thousands of years, a highly nutritious green they lend themselves to any dish that calls for spinach, but can be pressed into service as a replacement for cabbage or other leafy greens. There are two main species of nettle you may encounter, the top photo is Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle, the most commonly consumed and found on disturbed ground.
The other species in the basket above is Wood nettle (Laportea Canadensis) this is as the name suggests an inhabitant of shady woodland, mostly mixed hardwoods. The leaves can be eaten in the same way as the stinging nettle, caution is advised as the sting for some can be very painful. Gloves and thick pants are recommended when harvesting.
Stings are neutralized by heat or by crushing, so blanching, cooking or blending make nettles perfectly edible with no risk of stinging your mouth. My favourite way to preserve nettles is to blanche for a few seconds in boiling water, press out the water and shape them into balls and freeze on a tray before transferring to freezer bags. This produces a wild version of the frozen spinach balls you can find in the store, but with better flavor and higher nutritional content. Nettles have around 3.5 times the amount if iron by weight than spinach and they are also 6% protein.
If you retain the cooking liquid from your nettle blanching you can use this to make nettle beer.
Nettle Beer Recipe:
- 1 Gallon of Nettle Tea (your blanching liquid)
- 2 Lemons
- 3/4 to 1lb of brown sugar or a mixture of sugar and molasses (Hydrometer reading of 1040-1050)
- A bittering/hopping agent . You can use some cultivated hops, for a wild option I tend to use Creeping Charlie, or any bitter herb such as Mugwort or even dandelion.
- Yeast (you can use a store bought brewers yeast or you can culture your own wild yeast. See here for instructions on how do do this https://www.growforagecookferment.com/how-to-make-a-wild-yeast-starter/)
- Yeast nutrient 1tsp
Squeeze the lemons and add the juice to the nettle liquid. Add the sugar, and stir until fully dissolved. Add you bittering agent. Leave to cool. Strain and add to a fermenting bucket or brewing jug/demijohn. Pitch your yeast, fit an airlock and allow to ferment out. When bottling prime your bottles with 4grams of sugar per 500ml for bottle carbonation.
As with Japanese knotweed, Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is considered an invasive. Every year acres of this plant is pulled or sprayed when it’s actually been shown to be the most nutritionally dense leafy green plant that’s ever been studied. Garlic mustard, as the name suggests is in the Mustard, or Brassica family, and thus related to your favourite grocery store cruciferers such as Kale, Brocolli and Cabbage.
The young leaves make an excellent addition to a salad, the flower buds and flowers are edible and used in salads or garnishes and my personal favourite are the young flower stems whilst the plant is in the pre flowering stage can be peeled and cooked like Asparagus.
Again as with Knotweed you can harvest as much of this plant as you like as it won’t negatively impact the environment through picking. You will often find large stands of garlic mustard on waste ground and in forests dominating forest clearings.
This mushroom, Cerioporus squamosus, is a common springtime find on dead stumps, logs, and dead standing trees. It’s often considered a consolation prize by some as it tends to be found on dead elms primarily, which is one of the habitats people search for Morels. As the name suggests its patternation is similar to that of the back of a female pheasant. It has a distinctive melon/cucumber aroma. Some people find this off-putting but I enjoy this mushroom cooked on a high heat until the edges caramelize.
Harvest when small, around hand sized, or before they become fibrous and hard to slice.
Scarlet Elf Cups
This fungus Sarcoscypha coccinea, is almost entirely overlooked by most in the Midwest, more commonly eaten in Europe and even until recently most guidebooks listed them as inedible or not worthwhile the Scarlet elf cup has a pleasant mushroomy taste and firm texture. I also like to eat small amounts of this mushroom raw. Whilst it’s not normally recommended to consume and fungi raw, the elf cup doesn’t seem to cause any issues for most and it makes a wonderful little canapé receptacle.
This is the same species as you will find in the grocery store (Asparagus officinalis), Wild Asparagus essentially just being semi-naturalized cultivated Asparagus that’s spread naturally through bird seeding or wind distribution. You’ll find this precious wild gift strewn along ditches and rural roadsides. Try to avoid picking along major roads or areas of obvious contamination. As the Asparagus that we eat is just the young spring shoots of the plant, the easiest way to spot this elusive prize is to watch out for the large bushy mature plant in summer and mark the location for the following season
Lagging far behind Ramps both in terms of popularity and recognition but no less edible or useful are the wild onions. Primarily in the Midwest we are talking about Allium Canadense. You will also find the very similar Allium Vineale, a European non native in parts. Both appear like chives, as upright grasslike or tubular leaves with a strong onion/garlic smell and taste. If you dig the bulbs you will find a small onion, around the size of a cocktail onion. The tops I mainly use as a substitute for chives. The bulbs can be used any place you would use onion but can be a little labor intensive. I prefer to pickle them and use them as a snack.
Wild Onions (Allium canadense) top of photo, Ramps (Allium triccocum) bottom.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a low growing plant considered a weed by some, and likes nutrient rich soils which is why its often found taking over patches of garden. An excellent base plant for a salad I would use it in place of lettuce as it has a pleasant not overwhelming flavor. It would also work well as an addition to soups and for juicing. It’s fairly easy to identify once in flower as the closest lookalikes are the pimpernels which have red or yellow flowers, also the underside of the leaves in those have small black spots wheras Chickweed will be clean and green.
Also classed and an invasive in many states, Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a powerhouse of flavor and nutrition. A member of the brassica family this plant will later produce clusters of white 4 petal flowers which are also edible. The young spring growth should ideally only be taken from clean flowing water. I recommend picking the tips from above the waterline to mitigate the risk of any contamination. For an extra stem you can always cook your watercress in a soup or stir fry etc to eliminate any risk from bacteria or parasites. Watercress is very healthy for you, boasting impressive figures for folate, vitamin C (more than oranges) and iron amongst others. It can be pretty fiery so this vegetable is not for the meek of palate.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you all enjoy a bountiful spring.
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