Take a Walk on the Wild Side

A walk in nature is always a treat, but spring seems to be the best time to go. The bugs aren’t out yet, the temperatures are mild, and the plants are just starting to wake up. Walking always makes me hungry, so whether you go deep into the woods or stay on the edge of the field, there are always some wild edible snacks to be found.

Edible Wild Plants 1

Note: Matt purchased and recommends these two books on discovering, harvesting, and preparing wild edibles – both by Samuel Thayer:

Getting Started

I start on the wood’s edge. There, you’ll find dandelions and violets. All parts of these are edible, but the greens are the best. I save the dandelion flowers to make wine. Violet flowers are better than dandelion. Top salads with them (they’re high in antioxidants!) or brush them with egg whites and coat with sugar. I use an all natural turbinado ground a bit finer. Eat them like candy or decorate a dessert with them.

Cresses and Other Greens

Depending on where you live, cresses may be coming up now too. In my area we have the small flowered mountain cress. It’s a short plant with tiny white flowers. In other areas you might find watercress, creasy greens or other edible greens. Be sure to look for mustard that got away too. I found it all over my back yard last fall. It’s just starting again for the spring. Lamb’s Quarters are a member of the chenopodium family. They start out small and can get to over 4ft tall. They have a multitude of vitamins and minerals. The leaves can be eaten raw or steamed like spinach. I like to fix mine wilted like the wilted lettuce recipe I wrote about a few weeks ago. Nettles may be emerging now too. As a spring green, there is no comparison. Use gloves when you pick them, but don’t worry, the formic acid (the stuff in the prickly part that makes you itch) will go away as soon as you cook it. You can also dry them, and the formic acid will disappear then too. Use it as you would parsley in soups and stews. Or try making a pesto with it. You’ll never go back to basil!

Chickweed

I can’t do an article about spring greens and not mention chickweed. It’s my absolute favorite! It also contains vitamins and minerals, but has the same taste as pea pods! Chickweed contains saponins, which are known to break down fat. Will it help you to lose weight? While there’s no guarantee, it sure can’t hurt to try. You’ll find it anywhere when the weather is cool. It forms a dense mat usually close to the ground, but it can get quite tall. Down by the French Broad River here in Asheville, there is some that is over 3ft tall. Really!

Asparagus and Fiddle Heads

I also love fresh asparagus. The hunt is well worth it when you come across the fat spears. Look for them along lake and stream sides. You might also find them at abandoned farm sites. While they’re not wild, they will be naturalized. Can’t find asparagus? You can substitute fiddle heads, the slowly uncurling fronds of some ferns. Or try cat briar. These are a member of the smilax family. The tender ends of the vines can be steamed just like asparagus. Just watch out for the sharp thorns that this vine has!

Sorrel and More

Sorrel, sour dock and oxalis all come up now too. They all taste sour, like rhubarb almost. They contain oxalic acid, which in large amounts can be bad for you. But toss a handful in a salad and you’ll add not only taste, but vitamin C as well. Purselane is another spring vegetable you’ll see now. It is a member of the moss rose family and has fat, succulent leaves. Be warned though, it can take on the taste of things surrounding it. I once tasted some we found near the beach in Florida, making it very salty and bitter! While it won’t hurt you, it can be unpleasant.

Birch Beer!

I have to mention sweet birch as well. It’s not a green, but has a very nutritious sap. If you peel back some of the outer bark (do it in small patches so the tree can heal itself) you’ll expose the inner bark. This contains a sap that can be consumed as is, or boiled down to make the beginnings of “Birch Beer.” It’s like root beer, but has a very distinctive taste. Break off a twig and sniff it. If it smells like wintergreen, it’s the right one. That’s because they both contain methyl salicilates, the forerunner of aspirin. And yes, you can also use if for easing minor aches and pains.

Onions, Garlic, and Ramps

Onions, garlic and ramps are easy to find now too. Well, not ramps so much. This broad-leaved cousin of the onion is harder to find. Look along fast running streams or low boggy places. They are very strong, but will give you a great onion taste. Wild onions and garlic can be found in most lawns and fields in the winter and into spring. Use the tops like chives or dig up the small bulbs and use them as you would any onion. They are strong flavored as well.

Mushrooms

Edible Wild Plants

And a final word about mushrooms — be sure you are well trained or have a mycologist along. Some poisonous mushrooms look very similar to the non-poisonous ones. Don’t take chances as some can be fatal! One mushroom you can’t confuse is the morel. It is cone shaped with squiggly chambers on it that look almost like brains. It is always hollow. You’ll see it in the woods after the ground has warmed, under hardwoods like oak or maple. It can also be found in old apple or pear orchards. And cooking therm couldn’t be easier. Clean them well and slice them into a frying pan with your favorite oil. Add a bit of salt and pepper. Fry them until brown. At the very end, add at least a tablespoon of butter, let it melt and toss the mushrooms in that. You can eat them as they are, add them to just about any dish, or freeze them for later use.

So let’s go take a walk on the wild side. You might be surprised at what you’ll find!

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Comments

  1. Someone has actually heard of ramps that doesn’t live in
    West Virginia!! LOL I had never heard of them until I met my husband back in 1996. They definitely are an acquired taste and we eat them mostly with sliced potatoes, onions and smoked sausage.

    • I didn’t know what they were until I came to North Carolina. They have a very strong flavor! My favorite way to use them came from a friend. She dried the leaves and mixed them into cream cheese. It would probably work well in goat cheese too. It goes great on crackers or even celery.

  2. Thanks Deb. I am mentally making a vow to myself to find photos of all of these plants and to learn when/how to make them a part of my diet!

    Last year I added my first ‘wild’ plant…dandelions…not so ‘wild’ around here…more like ‘domestic.’ My daughter thought I was nuts because we were going for a walk and I kept stopping and picking dandelion leaves and eating them…

    I want to branch out (haha! pun!) and begin ingesting more and more wild herbs and flowers! Thanks for the reminder!

    • Don’t be afraid to try new things. While I didn’t like some of them, at least now I know what they are. And I sure won’t starve if I’m lost in the woods!

  3. It would have been nice to have pictures of each of these items, but I am sure I can find pictures around somewhere. We collect ramps from our own woods and often collect dandelion greens, but I’m excited about expanding our foraging this year–especially the wild asparagus, onions, and garlic you mentioned! We still have snow on the ground right now so I have a few weeks to do some more research to get ready.

    • I’m sorry, I haven’t figured out how to include photos with the article, but I’m working on it! The two books that Matt got are great ones, and your local library should have more for your region. Don’t be afraid to start looking as soon as the snow melts, even if it’s just in a few spots. Those sunny spots are where I found the first violets every sprig.

  4. What an interesting article! I always wanted to learn to forage mushrooms. Especially because of the bounty of them I’d see in the Nat’l and State Forest and Park lands near our home. They came in wide variety of colors and shapes too, from many whites and beiges to browns and even mottled bright oranges. The orange mushrooms stood in grove of pine trees, in the forest. I bought a book about mushrooms, only in hopes to identify as many as possible. NOT to find edible ones, too much risk on my own!

    • I’m still chicken when it comes to most mushrooms, but some, like the morel, can’t be confused with anything else. I just found my first one here in North Carolina, after having been told that they don’t grow here. Guess they were wrong! Another mushroom that I grew up with was the puffball. While it’s young and the flesh is white, it can be eaten. We use to slice them and fry them like the morels. You can’t eat them after the flesh turns yellow. It can be bad for you after that. We use to find some really large ones in the fields near where I lived in Minnesota, sometimes as big as a soccer ball! The ones I’ve found here are smaller than marbles. Not quite as much fun.

      • They sound interesting, to see and eat if you know what you’re doing. As you said in your general statement about mushrooms, they will grow on certain trees, under certain conditions etc. Forget about what state you’re in, I’ve known people who really know about mushrooms and they follow the rule about growing conditions. It seems to hold truer, from what they have told me. We live in the Northeast. The forest I’m talking about has just about every common tree in the U.S., from soft woods to hard woods. So the variety of mushrooms is vast. Where I used to hike is mostly undisturbed. As are most of the areas of this particular forest, as people respect and stay on the paths. Mushrooms actually grow around the bases of many of the trees. They look like beautiful necklaces. They even grow op some of the trees where it is very dense and shady and damp.

  5. In WI we have a mushroom called the “false morel” that is poisonous to many who consume it. Don’t walk into the woods and eat any mushroom that “looks like a brain” because you assume its morel!

  6. I agree with you completely Jo. Unless you really know what you’re doing and truly know and understand and are experienced in foraging for mushrooms especially,no one should eat any mushrooms from the wild. It’s just not worth the risk.