Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Foraging: What is in Season, Early Spring




Hi all! An early spring has come to Texas, and has me out foraging a full 6 weeks earlier than I usually did in New Jersey. The weather has been comparable to early/mid April back North and the edibles I've been finding are usually out at that time too.

Given the mild weather, I imagine this is early even for Texas, so most other years expect these plants in mid-March down here. 

As always, identification remains ultimately your responsibility, and never eat anything without checking multiple reliable sources, as pictures on the internet aren't  always 100% clear or color accurate. Please read my entire disclaimer up top.

But without further ado, here are some plentiful edibles out in early spring:


Chickweed

Chickweed (Stellaria media) is one of the most popular early spring greens. Unlike most wild plants, it has absolutely no trace of bitterness, just a grassy green with a mild sweetness. It's also easy to identify and grows in lushly and abundantly (check out that carpet in the lower left!). It's high water content makes chickweed very much like store-bought greens, in that you can keep it in the fridge, rinsed, drained and covered, for a few days with no wilting.

Though it has a mild flavor, and many people (including me), use it in salads, it is mostly stem--like an herb--and if you don't like the stringiness, you may prefer to make a pesto or similar sauce, or a pureed soup. Chickweed is just starting to come into it's own as a popular edible outside of the foraging community--you can start to find it at many farmers markets and even high-end restaurants that feature local and/or seasonal menus.

Chickweed is only around for a short time, 4 weeks, maybe 6 in the shade. It's a delicate plant, and can't stand the summer heat.

Stay tuned for my post on how to ID chickweed. (Coming in the next 2 weeks).



Violets

Violets (Violaceae varieties) grow throughout the spring and summer, but are easiest to identify when they bloom in the spring. They can be found growing individually or in dense clumps, often planted in landscaping for the beauty of their flowers. The blossoms can be purple, lavender, white, yellow or rarely pink--as well as two-color variations like these here. There are so many many kinds, but they all have heart-shaped leaves and distinctive flower heads--with two petals above and three below, and a deeply-inset stamen. Be careful, many images in a google search of "violets" will bring up plants that aren't violets at all, including pansies (also edible) and periwinkle (sometimes reported to be mildly poisonous).


If you live in the Northeast, where invasive lesser celandine is taking over habitat where violets flourish.

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna formally known as Ranunculus ficaria) is mildly poisonous, but it's leaves very, very closely resemble that of violet, and the two are often growing together. Some people forage for lesser celandine, but eaten in quantity it will definitely make you ill. For the particularly sensitive, even harvesting the leaves can lead to itching. If you do want to try lesser celandine, harvest only very young leaves and cook completely.

Can you guess which is the violet leaf and which is the lesser celandine? The violet is on the left, and the lesser celandine on the right. This violet is different from the white ones (in Texas) and has purple leaves. It was shot in New Jersey. Violets always have very jagged edges, with sharp "points" on the leaf teeth. Lesser celandine has softly scalloped leaf edges.


Wood Sorrel

This variety is different from what I'm familiar with back home, but wood sorrel is a very easy to identify plant. It has three heart-shaped leaflets, and very delicate stems. It's often mis-identified as clover, but clovers have oval leaflets. Clovers are also edible, and very good for you, but aren't as much of a flavor treat as sorrel.

Sorrel has a sour-lemon flavor, and is just plain fun to eat. Unfortunately, I rarely find it growing abundantly enough to make actual dishes out of, but you can toss it into a salad for a sharp tang.



Prickly Sow Thistle

Wow. Now doesn't that look appetizing?  If you answered, "um, no" I don't blame you. Prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper) has jagged leaves, yellow flowers that resemble dandelion blooms,  stems with reddish bases, and each leaf ends in numerous spikes. 

Sow thistles are very nutritious, grow across the country, and can be eaten in many stages several different ways. I usually don't post a plant that I myself haven't eaten several parts too--the only part of the sow thistle I've had are the flowers and the unopened buds. Both were fine, but nothing to get me very excited about. If you want to eat the leaves, you should cook them very thoroughly, and probably puree them into a sauce (like pesto) or a soup. 

Foraging Texas has an excellent post on Sow Thistles, including a poisonous look-a-like which I am not familiar with from the Northeast, but can apparently cause confusion here in Texas. 


Wild Lettuce

Wild lettuces are at the ideal time for harvesting, if such a time exists. Very young like this they are at their least bitter, but they still have a slight bitterness. I don't mind a bitter green, as long as the bitterness goes hand in hand with other flavors. Wild lettuce has a bitter note and a boring green note, and that's about it. To compliment the uninteresting flavor, the texture is hairy and stringy.

For identification purposes, at this age, wild lettuce grows in a basal rosette, which is to say all the leaves come out of a central point growing like a "rose" opening up on the ground. The leaves are deeply indented, like dandelion leaves, and each edge has jagged teeth. The mid-rib of the leaf is coarsely and densely hairy, like in the pick on the right. As the plant matures it will become less and less dandelion-like, as the stalk will grow up, bringing the leaves with it. The leaves themselves will spread out, with the space between the  lobes becoming wider and the end of the leaf getting disproportionately larger and more spade-like.

Wild lettuces are not a beginner ID plant. Though I can't think of anything offhand that looks very very similar to them, there are many things that look sort-of similar, especially to one who isn't used to plant identification. If you think you see a wild lettuce, make note of it's location and come back and visit it later in the year when it's easier to identify. Even though it will be even less appetizing then, you will have strengthened your ability to identify plants, and you can then be more confident to harvest it next spring, should you be so inclined.

Harvested at this age, and cooked like a pot-herb (boiled or added to soup), they are alright, but I generally have other plants to enjoy at this time of year.


Cleavers

Cleavers (Galium aparine) are extremely easy to identify, and when I describe them, I'm sure you'll go "I know THOSE!"

Cleavers have many names, including goosegrass (because geese love them) and stickyweed, because, well, they are sticky and a weed.

Cleavers are easy to identify because they grow in dense mats of tangled plants (pic on the right), with skinny, square stems and leaves that grow in a "whorl". Whorled leaves are when the leaves grow out from the stem in a star-like design, as in the picture on the left. Most importantly, the stems and leaves of cleavers are covered in bristle like hairs, that actually end in tiny hooks, and they catch onto everything. I have heard that cleavers were the inspiration for velcro, but I haven't had any official confirmation on this.

Cleavers should be cooked very thoroughly, and preferably pureed before eating--boil them in a large percentage of water to plant, to ensure that all of the fibers are exposed to the boiling water and not protected by the rest of the plants. Cooking does help break down the bristly, hooked hairs, but many people (including myself) will still experience a scratchy feeling in the back of their throats which makes eating cleavers unpleasant. If you do decide to try them (and I suggest you do!), experiment with a small amount first.

I plan on doing a complete ID post on cleavers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!


Trout Lily

My final plant of the day is the white trout or dog-toothed violet. In the past I've posted about the yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum) which grows in the Northeast where I'm from originally. Today I'm posting about the Texas native white trout lily, (Erythronium albidum).

Both varieties are very similar in that they have very lily-like flowers (they are, in fact in the Lily family--not violets), delicate forms and distinctly mottled, oval shaped leaves.

As with the yellow trout lily, the edible portion is the root. I advise against harvesting this plant except where it is very very abundant, and then only in small numbers, as harvesting the root will kill the plant, and some varieties of Erythronium are becoming threatened. Furthermore, the decline of spring wildflowers is contributing to the decline of bee populations, who depend on early flowers to get pollen after the long winter.

Trout lily was used by Native Americans as a form of birth control, and as such, women shouldn't eat this plant if they are pregnant, may become pregnant or nursing.


I hope this gives you a good overview of many of the kinds of plants you can expect to see in the wild in early spring. Again, this would normally be early/mid April in the Northeast, and I would imagine normally be mid-March in Texas. 

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