By Kendra Murray.
Were you looking forward to spring even before the winter solstice arrived? I was. Cold weather and I do not mix, and there’s truly something special about watching everything around you slowly come back to life. Birds are chirping, trees are budding, and it’s prime time for foraging for your own wild edibles.
Having worked in land conservation for the past few years, I’ve become well acquainted with many different plants growing wild in the forests and fields of southeastern Massachusetts. Luckily for us, dozens of plants right in our own backyards are fit for consumption. As farmers’ markets and farmstands prepare to launch for the season, often nature already has her first crops ready for harvest.
Before you head into the woods to forage your own food, it is suggested that you first go out with a guide or do extensive research (or both!). (Read our “Herbalism Through the Seasons: Spring” for even more tips.) If you are even slightly uncertain about the plant you are about to harvest, leave it. Foraging is fun; ending up in the hospital is not. Also, it is imperative that you have a landowner’s permission to forage wherever you go. Some land trusts and public walking trails, though not all, discourage foraging. In addition to being courteous and helping you avoid charges of trespassing, speaking to the landowner where you are foraging will allow you to ascertain the property’s management plan and whether or not pesticides and other harmful chemicals might be applied for landscaping purposes or control of invasive species. These can be dangerous to your health.
One of the most familiar edible plants is the fiddlehead. Fiddlehead is simply another term for a fern that has yet to unfurl. Before you head to your backyard and start picking your ferns, know that the edible variety is called an ostrich fern. If you see a fiddlehead covered in hair or fuzz, do not eat it. Aside from peaches, it’s generally not a good idea to eat any hairy plants. Ostrich ferns have a brown sheath that covers them. To reiterate, the stems and the actual fiddlehead are always smooth. Many varieties of ferns have a hair-like covering; leave those in the ground. If you can’t find any ostrich ferns on your hike, some garden centers carry them. I planted a few in my backyard after a visit to Garden in the Woods in Framingham, which sells only native plants. It’s worth the trip! Also, many local grocers and specialty shops carry fiddleheads in the springtime. Fiddleheads are an easy side dish—boil them for about ten minutes, drain, and then saute in butter or olive oil with a little bit of garlic. Yum!
Another great wild edible is burdock. If you’ve ever come home after a walk with little burrs stuck to your shoes, this plant is the culprit. Burdock is a biennial, meaning that it has a two-year growing cycle. In its first year, burdock puts out a set of leaves that are relatively low to the ground. In its second year, the plant will grow a tall stalk that produces burrs (the inspiration for Velcro). The best time to harvest burdock is during the plant’s first fall or second spring, before it sends up its flower stalk. You can harvest in a plant’s first year before the fall as well, but the yield will be much smaller. Burdock grows a long taproot which becomes larger with age. To harvest, dig around the root until it is loose enough to remove from the ground. The leaves are edible, but the root is what many foragers seek. Burdock root is used in Chinese and Japanese cuisine and can often be found in Asian markets if you’re unable to find any in your backyard. It’s a great addition to any stir-fry or soup and is also delicious pickled and eaten as a side dish. In addition to these plants, many invasive plants can be a tasty addition to your plate. Invasive plants are not originally from this area and often will spread rapidly and outcompete native plants. Eating them is a great way to help get rid of them in your landscape.
One incredibly aromatic invasive is mugwort. Mugwort tends to grow in patches. The leaves look somewhat like a fern, but with a silvery underside. If you run your hand across the leaves and smell them, there will be an unmistakable almost sage-like scent. Before hops were widely cultivated, mugwort was used to flavor beer. Mugwort also is used in many Asian dishes such as desserts, rice cakes, and pancakes. Mugwort leaves can be harvested and hung to dry. Once dry, leaves can be crushed and used as a seasoning for meats, seafood, and stews. You can also make a tea from the dried leaves. Although more studies need to be conducted to confirm its efficacy, mugwort tea has been used for depression and other mental health problems.
Another wild edible I find noteworthy is Japanese knotweed. This highly invasive plant can quickly take over an area. It looks a lot like bamboo but is a member of the buckwheat family. It is best harvested in April or May when the shoots are young. Many describe knotweed as similar in flavor to rhubarb. It is great as a substitute for rhubarb—strawberry knotweed pie anyone? Knotweed also has medicinal benefits and is the main ingredient in many herbal remedies against Lyme disease. Many landowners treat Japanese knotweed with herbicides as it can be nearly impossible to remove otherwise, so this is one wild edible where you really need to make sure that you check with the owner of the property before foraging.
If you need help identifying the plants around you, there are many great options out there to assist you. The Native Plant Trust has a very useful online database called “Go Botany,” which lists thousands of New England plants, with photos and descriptions for easy identification. And there is the popular app called Seek which allows you to hover your camera over a plant and it will tell you what it is. It is generally very accurate, though any technology is subject to some error. Also, check out events at your local land trusts and public trails. Many offer guided plant ID and edible-specific walks. Happy foraging!
Kendra Murray works in land conservation at the Dartmouth Natural Resources trust, where she often finds herself among wild edibles. When not at work, you can find her in her less wild garden, harvesting the season’s bounty!