Imagine with me a walk in the woods or along a path in a state park, carrying a foraging basket. You bend to pick a purple violet, marvel at its velvety petals, sniff its sweet scent, and then you chew it slowly, sensing the delicate essence of the season. There are so many violets blooming, it is easy to pick a cupful for garnishes on salad or to make a small batch of lavender jelly.
Around a bend in the path, you see a hemlock tree (not the hemlock plant that killed Socrates) with elegant fresh growth, and you pinch off some tips to make a refreshing tea. You keep your eyes peeled for wild mint with its strong scent. If you are not a tea person, you can pull a few fat dandelion roots to roast and grind for ersatz coffee. Many state parks trails have shiny, low-growing wintergreen at the edges, with their bright red berries that taste a little like Grandma’s candy if you chew them slowly. The wintergreen leaves themselves are not very tasty until they have been made into an infusion or soaked in water for a few days, so they do not yield the instant gratification of the berries.
Unlike the pioneers who spoke with affection about finding the first dandelion leaves and chickweed to relieve the boredom of their winter diet, we are privileged to have plenty of fresh greens available year-round. There is, however, a deep satisfaction in picking sprigs packed with vitamin C in the wild. Purslane is another abundant and easily recognized “weed” with a juicy, tart flavor that enlivens sandwiches and salads. If you fancy a tangy bite to your salad, look for the prolific garlic mustard with its feathery white flowers that bloom early.
Maybe you are wondering about the vegetable course in your foraging. Wild asparagus is easily identified once you see it, but it can be hard to find in tall grasses unless you have memorized where it bolted to seed the previous year. Fresh hosta shoots, tightly furled, taste similar to asparagus and are so abundant in landscaping that they are easy to forage, with permission, of course. There is always wild garlic shooting up in the lawn, or you may find pungent ramps in shady, low-lying areas of the woods. You may even enjoy fern fiddleheads, sauteed lightly.
As you finish your stroll in nature, you look into your basket with pleasure. All of this variety was just growing out there, with the amazing flavors that God created in each plant.
As a teacher, your thoughts naturally turn to how you can teach this interesting skill of foraging to your students. Many children only hear one mantra, “Don’t eat the berries!” when they are on a nature walk. People tend to be held back by the fear of eating something that will kill them on the spot. In fact, there are very few things that are that lethal. Many toxic plants either taste nasty or cause a stomachache or warning rash. In the case of children, who like to taste everything, it is good for them to learn exactly what it is that they may eat. That means that the adults in their lives need to educate themselves, and then go on those nature walks and introduce the children to the joys of tasting nature.
Mushrooms are one aspect of foraging that can be potentially lethal if you misidentify them, so I do not recommend trying them unless you have an experienced forager to show you the characteristics of the edible species. Probably the most familiar mushroom in our region is the morel of early spring, and the thrill of the hunt is likely as great as the taste of the fried mushrooms.
Resources for Learning to Identify Edible Wild Plants
Foraging is not only an enjoyable experience, but also a valuable survival skill. As a young adult, my one provision for the looming threat of Y2K was to buy a Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. My logic was that it would be easier to find some cattail roots for dinner than to store buckets of lentils. Thankfully, the need never arose, but the field guide remains a great resource on our bookshelf. It is so comprehensive, however, that it can be a little confusing. You do not want to search for a plant that grows in the Pacific Northwest if you don’t live there. We have been happier with regional field guides such as Northeast Foraging. And there are many regional guides available. Our top favorite guide is one that would likely work for most areas of the United States, because it is simply Backyard Foraging, a guide to sixty-five edible plants that people have in their landscaping.
Even better than field guides are people who can show you where to find plants, and who can explain how to prepare them. These people guides are also valuable when it comes to berries and fruits. There are roadside median strips, (usually public property, but you should make sure) dripping with ripe blackberries in August. There are acres of huckleberries in boggy places, or overgrown apple trees on abandoned homesteads. There are saskatoons and mulberry trees in state parks, with their luscious fruit falling to the ground. You will want to check the laws in your state for foraging, but in Pennsylvania state parks, it is legal to harvest nuts, fruits, and berries in reasonable amounts to feed your family.
If you are interested in learning the art of foraging, start slowly with the most obvious plants. Download an app that helps you identify plants, and then start tasting! You will be pleasantly surprised at how much fun it is to pop a rose hip into your mouth and have a vitamin boost as you stroll along, or daintily nibble on a daylily petal. If you have children with you, they will be following right along on the adventure, broadening their food horizons one dandelion at a time!
CONTRIBUTOR: Dorcas Peight