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