Spring Forage 2014

The weather has warmed up quickly as of late with temperatures soaring to 75 F (24 C) for the daily high. We’ve also had a good rain to soften the ground, and everywhere in the meadows and woodlands I see more plants popping up to greet the fine weather. Today seemed the perfect day for a bit of foraging…

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The meadows were full of Stinging Nettles, and so my gathering begun.

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And amongst the nettle colonies I found some Field Sow Thistle. The young leaves are quite tasty raw, with the spines removed, of course. Further down the trail I ran into a rosette of Common Thistle…I’m glad I don’t walk around barefoot ;) .

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And as with sow thistles, the tender young leaves of Common Thistle can be eaten. Some folks like to boil them, but I find they taste better raw – just remember to remove the spines.

Towards the bottom of the meadow I noticed many fertile fronds of what I thought were Ostrich Ferns near a running brook- turns out they were Sensitive Fern, Onoclea sensibilis. I headed over to see if there were any fiddleheads worth picking, but sadly all were still very diminutive, not even an inch above the soil.

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I did spot, however, bits of Peppermint poking through the dead grass.

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Like all mints, Peppermint can be eaten raw as is, or as I like, brewed into a tea.

Across the water I saw a bed of Field Garlic on the side of a trail. One point worth mentioning – eat nothing that looks like garlic or a wild onion if it doesn’t smell like one, as it could be Fly Poison. The bulbs of Fly Poison are layered like Alliums, but lack the pungent odor.

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Field Garlic can be consumed raw, but I later decided to try it in a stir-fry with other plants I gathered.

There was also some bittercress in the area, though I’m not quite sure which species it is.

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My best guess is Cardamine pensylvanica, or Pennsylvania Bittercress. In any case, it is an edible green, so I took a few leaves with me.

Going back to the crest of the field, I picked some Dandelion leaves and came across a rather interesting plant, a type of bedstraw (Galium).

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There was a time when bedstraw was used in an old-fashioned method of making cheese by curdling milk. And if I’m not mistaken, it is still used in some parts of Europe. I think I’ll leave it for the rabbits ;) .

I continued along the meadow’s path until I reached the shore of a large pond where reeds and cattails grow. Many folks are fond of cattails because they can provide food for nearly all parts of year, and food is only one of its many uses, which include basket and mat making from the leaves, and tinder as well as insulation from the downy seeds.

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This time of year, you can cut the shoots close to the water’s surface and peel the outer leaves at the base to reveal the edible white core, which can be eaten raw – its flavour is unique and delicate.

Further down the pond’s edge I found another patch of Sensitive Ferns, but in this location, the fiddleheads were large enough for picking :) . A common mistake I see with other foragers is the assumption that all fiddleheads are edible – this isn’t exactly true, and there is some debate in the foraging community as to which fiddleheads are safe for consumption. Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is probably the best known and is common in many places in New England woodlands, especially along stream banks, but I just can’t seem to find any in the area. In fact, I mistook Sensitive Fern fiddleheads for those of Ostrich Fern, but they are edible just the same. They can be eaten raw in small quantities…I’d say no more than 6 at a time. Cooked by boiling or steaming, they are really quite delicious.
For further reading about Ostrich Ferns, I highly recommend Samuel Thayer – http://foragersharvest.com/fern-fiddleheads-the-succulent-stalks-of-spring/

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In the same area I picked some Cleavers, (aka ‘Goosegrass’), a close relative of bedstraw – they share the same genus Galium.

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Cleavers is distinguished from other Galiums by its rather perverse tendency to stick to clothing due to its scratchy, bristly hairs. It isn’t advisable to eat Cleavers raw (unless you want a sore throat from all the hairs), so it’s best to cook it.

I headed into the woodland from the path and was greeted by masses of Hedge Garlic (aka Garlic Mustard) on either side. I gathered a lot of them because it’s an invasive species, and I like the mild flavour. Farther down I stopped to harvest some Wild Strawberry leaves.

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The leaves are rich in vitamin C and make a delightful tea…I think it will go well with the Peppermint I collected earlier. This is definitely a spot to come back to later towards the end of summer and early autumn for the juicy berries…if animals and other people don’t get to them first ;) .

I did see many Patridgeberries creeping along the ground, but the berries themselves are gone. The best time to gather them is in autumn, though you can often find the berries remaining attached through late winter and the earliest days of spring. Not to be discouraged, I dug up a few Ramps instead.

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There are many patches of this particular Allium in the woodland. Ramps can be enjoyed raw, or as many prefer, cooked in a stir-fry.

Onward I walked, and the path dipped down and became a large puddle in front of me from rainwater runoff washing down the hills. Many people were reluctant to step into the puddle judging by the footprints they left, but this is the perfect place to look for violets, as they need a cool, moist and shady environment to flourish. And, boy, were there a ton of violets! :)

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Here’s a close-up…

Violet leaves are packed with vitamins A and C…I find them best raw.

By this point, my hat (which I used as a basket) was getting rather full with all the plants I collected, so I decided to head back. There are lots of flowers to be seen now, speckling the woodland like stars on a dark night.

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Here’s a gorgeous Red Trillium on the bank of a stream. Notice the bedstraw on the left.

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And further downstream, Marsh Marigold like small islands in the rushing waters.

This is also the perfect place to look for Toothwort (aka Pepperwort). I found a group of them nestled in the sphagnum-covered rocks.

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Their tubers are quite zesty and can be used to make a horseradish substitute.

Going back to the pond, I encountered a rather forbidding plant covered in spines, Devil’s Walkingstick.

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It isn’t hard to see how it earned its name ;) .

I reached the end of the woodland and was about to make a turn onto a main trail when I almost stepped on a bit of Shepherd’s Purse. What a nice surprise :) .

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Notice the heart-shaped seedpods – this distinguishes it from the similar looking pepperweeds and pennycress. The young leaves are delicious raw, and the seedpods can be added to dishes as a mild pepper-like seasoning.

Well, here’s all the loot :) .

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We have Stinging Nettle tops, Common Thistle leaves, Field Sow Thistle leaves, Hedge Garlic tops, Peppermint, Field Garlic, Bittercress leaves, Dandelion leaves, Cattail shoots, Ostrich fern fiddleheads, Cleavers, Wild Strawberry leaves, Ramps, Violet leaves, Toothwort rhizomes, and Shepherd’s Purse. Quite a good haul if you ask me *burp* ;) .

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