A notable herbalist and culinary instructor take us on a walkabout to find good, wild things to eat.
photography by Julie Kramer
Foraging for spring edibles harkens back to a simpler time when folks, after a long winter indoors with no fresh greens available, eagerly took to the outdoors in the spring to harvest plants that would nourish their bodies with wholesome fiber, fresh vitamins, and minerals.
I grew up in a big Lebanese family, and the seeds of foraging for common wild edibles were planted early by my mother. The fact that we grew up in a suburban area, with a tiny postage stamp of a yard, did not deter her from harvesting wild greens in the spring. Like her ancestors before her, Mom would scan the yard for tender dandelion leaves, wild garlic/onion shoots, purple violets, and the tiny leaves of chickweed. These went into a spring salad along with fresh mint and salad greens. Dressed with a simple vinaigrette, that salad was not only beautiful, but also tasty and healthy. A true rite of spring.
Years later, my husband and I bought land to build our first home in “the sticks” of Clermont County. I distinctly remember the first spring nature walk my mom and I took. “Oh, you have a wild bounty here,” she said. Mom pointed out wild elderberries and Queen Anne’s lace along the dilapidated wire fence. “Wine and jelly,” she proclaimed. Behind an ancient chicken coop, a tangle of blackberries and raspberries were just budding out, promising a full harvest for jams, jellies, and pies. Wild watercress formed a blanket of green in the ditch alongside a neglected pond.
Now’s the Time
Although foraging can be done year round, my favorite time for it is spring. New life, new growth—it all comes together to feed body and soul for me.
Spring is also the best time to pick the tender leaves of garlic mustard and dandelions, both of which taste best before they flower. When the trilliums and mayapples bloom in the woods, I know that it’s time to gather morel mushrooms and ramps (a.k.a. wild leeks).
I don’t have to go far, either, to pull up fistfuls of wild garlic. It seems to be everywhere in the yard. (Wild garlic is also known as wild green onions, since the taste is onion-like and the stalks resemble onion chives.) It’s delicious in stir fries, butters, soups, and salads.
Are you familiar with purslane, with its succulent green leaves? It’s a common edible yard weed, yet one of Mother Nature’s highest sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s yummy added to salads or sautéed like fresh spinach.
When my children were old enough to forage, I taught them how to see “food at your feet.” I now take my grandchildren along to forage for wild edibles in the spring; a tradition continues.
Now there’s a renaissance of sorts, as home cooks and chefs alike explore ways to incorporate these “found” ingredients into their menus. Highly local and full of flavor, they offer a gourmet feast at a beggar’s price.
Tips & Tricks
Here are some tips for finding and selecting wild edibles in our Ohio Valley area.
When to pick
Spring wildflowers are at their peak when fully opened but not beginning to wither or dry out.
Spring greens are at their best before flowering.
Mushrooms should look sturdy and plump. Avoid mushrooms that are withering, eaten up with bugs, or look a little dried out.
Pick only “clean,” healthy plants from surroundings you know or trust. Don’t pick from roadsides or areas that have been sprayed with pesticides.
Careful! Get a positive identification
I can’t emphasize this enough. There are many wild plants that look and even taste like safe edibles. They may be harmful, so if you’re not absolutely sure the plant is safe to eat, pass it up. If you’re a first-timer, tag along with an experienced forager who can show you what to look for, and where.
A good example is the morel mushroom. An edible morel is cone shaped with a pitted looking top, and completely hollow inside. The cap is contiguous with the stem.
A false morel is usually filled with cotton-like fibers, unless a slug has eaten the inside, then it may appear hollow. The top is connected at the tip of the stem and with a slight pull the cap will fall off. The cap looks like a wrinkled brain to me.
Guidebooks can help you identify plants that are tasty and safe to eat. Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus is a classic, and The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer is one of the best modern guides, featuring 32 common edible wild plants.
Wash right before eating and eat small amounts at first
- Wild edibles are fragile. Store them on damp paper towels in a container, loosely covered, for a few days. Clean gently in cool water, drain, and dry.
- Eat small amounts, until your system can gradually get accustomed to new foods you’ve never tried.
Born out of necessity, foraging has become a trend in the quest for eating local, wild, and well. You’ll find yourself in balance with your environment after a few hours of harvesting Mother Nature’s bounty. The best things in life really are free. And springtime offers a huge variety!
Rita is an award-winning syndicated journalist, inductee into Escoffier Hall of Fame, President’s Medal ACF, Appalachian herbal scholar, accredited family herbalist, author, cooking teacher, media personality, motivational speaker, and the founding editor of AboutEating.com. She pens a weekly column for Community Press Newspapers and writes about food, health, and gardening for national publications.