5 Spring Plants for the Beginning Forager
It’s been a fairly rainy spring so far on the East Coast, with wet and often humid days contrasting with both unseasonable warmth and cold. Mosquitoes are already beginning to emerge from hibernation!
Despite being a sort of magnet for winged insects, I would have kicked myself later if I let those god-forsaken mini-beasts be the reason why I skipped a hike. Douse self in bug repellent...check. Don mosquito socks...check. Being the mosquito lightning rod that I am, these socks have been quite the lifesaver (or at least blood-saver) in recent excursions.
(Dreaming of the July day when these bare bushes will be covered in wild blueberries…)
Even relatively early in the season, spring plants are already thriving, many of them edible, and also delicious. Obviously, it is only recommended that you eat a plant if you are absolutely sure that you have identified it correctly!! I advise consulting a field guide just to make sure, but even just searching for and encountering these wild plants can make for a more interesting hike. Think of it as Pokémon Go, but 100% more real. Here are just a few that I’ve found really easy to identify:
A prized forage for only these few weeks of the season, which quickly become inedible as they unfurl into a summer fern. Cut short towards the top, remove the brown and papery husk in at least one bath of cold water, then boil for about 10 minutes to curb a bit of their bitterness and ensure there is no remaining husk or dirt. From there, you can then sauté in butter, garlic, and whichever spices you like. Fiddleheads command a high price at grocery stores and amongst chefs. Sustainably forage these by only removing half (or less) of the heads from any given plant cluster to assure that they will come back next year.
(The shortest ones in the back cluster are perfect for harvest, but the ones in the bottom right corner of the photo have already unraveled!)
2. Skunk Cabbage
Rip one of its huge leaves in half and you’ll understand why it has that name. I wouldn’t recommend eating this one now, instead waiting until the fall to use its roots for a tea. At this stage, I do find it helpful to help gauge if other plants are nearby: the more of these you see, the more likely that other wild edibles are in the vicinity.
(Smaller edibles hide in between this gigantic forest of wild cabbage heads in a marshy area of the woods.)
3. Wild Chives
Distinctively more peppery than their cultivated relatives, these are plentiful in backyards and on roadsides. Easy to tell apart from grass, but a surefire way to know is by cutting one in half. If it smells strongly of garlic, you’ve got chives. Cut them with scissors several inches above the ground, and come back later in the year for a second harvest.
(You can see a few patches of chives, about as tall as my shoe. Can you tell them apart from the grass?)
Most often found with two leaves, but it is possible to find some with three. Don’t be rude to the earth: try to leave one leaf per plant to ensure that ramps return next year. Bulbs can be harvested and eaten from particularly large patches, but this is unnecessary as it kills the plant, and the leaves are just as delicious. A handful of greens is enough to make yourself the best potato leek soup you've ever had.
(Telling these apart from other wild plants is similar to that of the chives: rip a little piece off of a leaf, and if you smell onions you've got ramps!)
5. Wild Violets
These are very easy to recognize (bright purple color, five petals), and make a sophisticated garnish on salads, risottos and the like. They grow right along the perimeter of my backyard The actual flower head is the best part, adding a hint of natural sweetness and vibrant color to whatever you pair it with.
(I don't even need to go into the woods for these! Just ten steps away from my house is a meadow where new violets bloom every day in late April to early May.)
~Ben LoPiccolo - Content Creator for Ozone Design