Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring is Springing, and so are the Edibles

Young Ramps just starting to peek out.
Hello! Did you miss me? I wasn't the best blogger last fall, and I certainly was absent all winter. I had plans too. . . I was going to do book reviews during the winter months, but I just couldn't get excited about writing them. No more promises this year. . .I will post when I have something to share, and I won't when I don't.

Anyway, spring is back, kind of--due to the harshness of the season, it's about 2 weeks behind where it usaually is right about now.

If you are new and curious, now is actually a good time to start getting into foraging. Edibles aren't quite as abundant or as large as they will be in a couple of weeks, but they are in some ways easier to spot, as they generally come up earlier than cultivated plants. Of course, they are also harder to ID, since most websites and books don't show the young plants, they only showcase mature specimens.

With that in mind, there are some photos I would like to share, which showcase some of the things popping up right about now,

Before I begin, I want to reiterate the ground-rules. Proper identification is the responsibility of the harvester. I am giving you clues and tips as to how I identify things, it is your job to confirm them with reliable sources to your own satisfaction. If you are ever in the slightest doubt about a plant or mushroom--don't eat itAlso, don't harvest edibles from areas that may be contaminated. This would include areas that may have been exposed to pestasides, fungasides and weed-killers, areas near highways or busy streets, areas that may have had industrial or chemical run-off, and areas frequently trafficked by people walking their dogs. Finally, this guide is for Early Spring (usually late March to early April) in the Northeast, only! That is to say, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and north to Ontario and Quebec in Canada. What grows in your spring might be totally different. Even in the Northeast, remember to factor in "early" and "late" spring conditions.

There are at least 4 different edibles growing as "weeds" in this garden in front of my work's office building. (Also one decayed sock.) As you can see, they come up before most of the cultivated flowers, and they spread more abundantly--providing attractive ground cover and and the lovely green of spring long before anything that we plant will arrive. NOTE: the daffodils growing here are toxic.

Some wild mints, like this one, will be short, but well-established this early in the year. I suspect this is Spearmint, or a hybrid, or close relative. Others may not yet be up, but will be following soon.

Stinging nettles, at this stage of life, the stingers are very close together, and I need gloves to harvests--because I can't avoid getting stung. However, the plants are very young and tender, and you can use the whole plant for most dishes. Remember to blanch or dry completely to remove the sting.

Stinging nettles are a species introduced from Europe, so I feel ok harvesting the whole plant. Wood nettles, native to the Americas, will come up later.

For ID purposes, note the deeply serrated leaves, which are roughly spade-shaped, though they get longer and narrower, becoming elongated ovals as they mature. Stinging nettles (unlike wood nettles) prefer full sun, or partial shade if they have to.

Also, they sting. A lot. Stingers are located all along the stem, and along the underside of the leaves.

Japanese knotweed is juuuust coming into harvesting stage. Here, a young shoot is about 6" high. Note the reddish-purple, spade-shaped leaf. I prefer to wait another 2-3" (which can be as little as 2-3 days) to harvest, because most of this plant is the top--which has a mucilaginous (fancy word for slimy) texture, worse than okra. 

Check out my page on how to ID Japanese Knotweed.

Note: the small, glossy green leaves covering the ground in this picture are Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and are toxic. The plant produces bright yellow flowers. Lesser celadine is also an invasive, so it's interesting to see who will win the war of the invasives: the Ranunculus or the knotweed.
Field garlic, (wild garlic or yard onion), is very easy to spot, appearing in tufts which currently dwarf most other plants. Later in the year, they will be harder to find.

I will do another post on how to ID this plant, which is actually very easy, but for now know that the whole plant is edible. The hollow, tube-like leaves can be used fresh or cooked, like chives, (though they taste much more pungent and garlicy) or they can be made into a sauce or pesto. The bulbs can dug up and used like garlic, but it's best to use the largest ones, since they require a good deal of cleaning.

Field garlic is an introduced species, though generally not considered an invasive one. Harvest it judiciously, from areas where it is reasonably abundant. You can take the bulb, but don't take all of the largest bulbs from a tuft, as that will slow down new growth.
The ubiquitous garlic mustard is still available, though I personally don't like to harvest it at this time of year. These small leaves, seem to have the bitterness concentrated. However, in Denmark, they seem to consider this stage a delicacy, using it in small amounts to add a pungency that cuts through and contrasts with richer foods. 

Also consider digging up for the root, which will be small, but have a pungent, horse-radish like flavor, especially when mixed with vinegar.

All of the excellent photos here of garlic mustard are curtesy of my friend the Wild Forager. Check him out on Facebook, or at

An excellent leaf for identification,
shot by my friend, the Wild Forager

At this age, the leaves form very nearly round fan-shapes, with pronounced scalloped (indented) edges. They are dark green, sometimes with purplish or brown tinges. The indentation of the veins on the leaves are pronounced, though they are the same color as the rest of the leaf. The leaves are on delicate petioles, (stems), which are also frequently brownish or purplish. They appear in clusters, like shown, called basal rosettes--and they come up from a single root.  

There are many plants called Trout Lily (also sometimes called Dog-Toothed Violet, though they aren't violets), from the genus Erythronium. All varieties have elongated leaves, which are distinctly mottled, resembling a speckled trout--hence the name. The species around here (americanum) has yellow flowers, which generally curl backward. There appear to be 6 petals, but in actuality, 3 are apparently sepals. The plant will only have 1 or 2 leaves, which are nearly flat against the ground, or somewhat elevated.

Some varieties of trout lily are becoming threatened, and even endangered. Though this one isn't, yet, it is facing the same challenges that many spring ephemerals (like trillum, ramps, and spring beauty) are facing--habitat loss and competition from invasive species (like knotweed and garlic mustard). Since foraging this plant involves eating the bulb, (killing the plant), only harvest from areas where they are incredibly plentiful--covering yards of ground. The plants are slow to reproduce, so only take, at most 10-15%, even then.

Generally I find it's just better to consume other plants, which have little or no ecological ramifications. Or eat the invaders which are destroying our early spring wildflowers.

Recent research indicates that the decline in spring ephemerals may be contributing to the decline of the bees, as they need early spring flowers to give themselves a jump-start on honey production.

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