PHOTO: Frances/Flickr
Jesse Frost
March 1, 2016

Every spring, after months of relaxation, the soil jumps back to life and food suddenly begins to shoot up through the barrenness—and not just in the garden, either. Food can be found in the woods, by the creeks, in the ponds—everywhere. This is what makes the spring such a fun time to forage: the endless quantity of wild edibles. There is a whole world of wild food out there if you know what to look for.

A Quick Note on Foraging

I think everyone should try foraging. It is a fun, seasonal activity the whole family can take part in. However, it’s important to be safe. Find several trusted regional sources to help you confirm your finds. Never eat anything from areas regularly sprayed with herbicides, such as roadsides and fencerows, and avoid consuming what you haven’t positively identified. Always start by tasting small amounts after you believe you have confirmed the identity—your palate will let you know if you’re right.

1. Fiddleheads

fiddlehead
bderstine/Flickr

Fiddleheads are the new leaves of wild ferns that come up in the early spring. In fact, they are some of the first greens up every spring and some of the most fun to harvest, as they are extremely easy to identify.

What’s Edible

The young, spindly shoots while still curled.

How To Identify

Fiddleheads come up around April in most areas and look a bit like the heads of fiddles—thus the name. Harvest them while young and tender, before the unfurl.

Where To Find

Look for fiddleheads in the woods and shady areas, typically on north-facing slopes but not exclusively.

How To Eat

Steam or sautée fiddleheads in butter. They make a delightful and hardy accompaniment to almost any dish. They work really well with lamb, mushrooms (like the spring morel), and in or with ravioli.

2. Pokeweed

pokeweed
Leonora Enking/Flickr

Poke is one of those impressive weeds that can grow to 10 to 12 feet tall in a single season without much trouble. However, once it gets past a certain stage, it is mildly toxic, so it is only really edible for a short time in the spring.

What’s Edible

It’s important to eat poke when it is just a few young shoots. Once it gets tall, it is no longer edible. It does produce berries, which are also not for eating, though they make a very nice, earthy purple natural dye.

How To Identify

Young shoots pop up in mid to late spring, They have three or four ribbed leaves, often with a slight magenta tinge to them. Again, only the young shoots up to 8 inches tall should be eaten.

Where To Find

Poke is a garden weed, but it also loves the forest edge. It grows primarily in the South.

How To Eat

Poke salad and poke soup are the two most famous uses for pokeweed, though the word “salad” is a little generous. Poke salad consists of battering and frying the tender greens—a southern treat at its finest.

3. Dandelion

dandelion
Heather Hammond/Flickr

When we think of dandelions, we tend to recall their brilliant seedheads that most of us remember blowing in the wind during our childhood. But the fun doesn’t have to end there: Awhole edible plant is attached to that fun, fluffy ball.

What’s Edible

The whole dandelion plant is edible, but the leaves are most commonly used in spring salads.

How To Identify

Bunches of tall, incised green leaves come up very early, typically in grass You’ll likely recognize them immediately. They are tall, arrowhead-like and smooth. Pick before flowering for best flavor.

Where To Find

Dandelions can be found growing in grassy areas, pastures and yards—anywhere with moderate to full sun.

How To Eat

Dandelions are notoriously bitter, but to use Samuel Thayer’s observation from his book Nature’s Garden (Forager’s Harvest, 2010), “Dandelion greens are no more bitter than many of the salad greens commonly sold in supermarkets.” But if you don’t eat bitter greens, you might not like them. With that said, use the greens mixed in with other greens, like spring pea shoots, or boil them as a side dish. Don’t just toss them in a stir fry until you know you like the flavor. They are also nice steamed with some butter, salt and garlic.

4. Chickweed

chickweed
Simon/Flickr

One of the more tasty wild edibles, chickweed is a prolific and reliable plant. It’s great for salads, salves and garnishes, and is often one of the first greens up in the spring (if it wasn’t just hanging around all winter).

What’s Edible

Eat chickweed leaves on or off the stem.

How To Identify

Chickweed is low-growing and green with tender oval, almost tear-drop-shaped leaves. There are several different types of chickweed, but the best tasting has leaves that grow out of the stem—not the hairy chickweed or the chickweed without a stem, which are both edible but not as succulent.

Where To Find

Look for chickweed around fertile areas and gardens. It tends to grow in mounds when uncultivated.

How To Eat

A chickweed salad is a refreshing and healthful side dish, especially served with a creamy vinaigrette, some pears and toasted nuts. Chickweed is also known for its skin irritation relief properties so, with the itchy summer approaching, turn your extras into a skin salve.

5. Wild Onion

wild onions
Elizabeth/Flickr

Onions started as wild plants that someone (or lots of people, really), just cultivated until they got the large, bulbous vegetables we think of as onions today. But any cultivated item like that is always only a tamer version of the original. Wild onions, in that sense, are small but pack a delightful punch. And, beautifully, they are free!

What’s Edible

The wild onion’s bulb and greens are edible, just as with its cultivated cousin.

How To Identify

Wild onions are dark green, thin and often grow in patches. Confirm identification by breaking off a small bit of the tall, thin plant and smelling it. If it smells like onion, you’re in luck. Finally, pull up the plant (may need a trowel) and examine the small bulb.

Where To Find

Look for wild onions in the woods, in gardens and in pastures.

How To Eat

Wild onions are great for salads or soups, but the greens can also be used as chives, in pesto, or as garnish. They are also nice to pickle.

6. Stinging Nettles

stinging nettle
Paul Huxley/Flickr

If you’ve ever walked through the woods with shorts on, you are probably familiar with stinging nettle—a plant that got it’s name with good reason—but you might not have realized is how tasty, healthy and versatile it can be.

What’s Edible

There are actually two main types of nettles: wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The latter is the more flavorful of the two, though both can be eaten. Eat the young leaves and stems of while still tender.

How To Identify

Wood nettle leaves are jagged and covered with prickly, stinging hairs, but they are rounder in shape. The leaves of stinging nettle are more diamond shaped and pointy. Harvest with long rubber gloves!

Where To Find

Stinging nettles are a bit invasive, so hopefully you won’t find them in your garden. Generally, they grow in sunny and semi-shady places, often in the woods, as they prefer rich soil.

How To Eat

Add nettle to teas, soups or stir-fries—their light, citrusy flavor is a great addition to almost any meal. Always at least steam them to get rid of their famous sting before eating.

7. Ramps

paul houle/Flickr
paul houle/Flickr

Also referred to as wild leeks or spring onions, ramps are a chef favorite and an exciting food of the forest. They grow in shady areas well before most everything else, which helps to identify them.

What’s Edible

Eat the entire plant.

How To Identify

Not only do ramps tend to come up earlier than most plants, they are also easily identifiable by their wide, waxy green leaves coming from a white stem. If you are in doubt, smell them. As Chris Bennet reminds us in South East Foraging (Timber Press, 2015), “nothing that smells like onions is poisonous.” Try to leave at least one-third of the harvest to allow them to propagate for next year.

Where To Find

Ramps are generally found in the forest or along fence rows.

How To Eat

Although sautéeing whole young ramps in butter is a trusty side dish, allow yourself to get creative with them. Ramps go really well with Asian cuisine, especially paired with miso or tamari. They can also be pickled with a little spice to make a treat you can enjoy all summer. Hopefully, you find enough to do all of the above.


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