Summer Forage 2014

Happy (late) Independence Day! I hope you have all enjoyed your 4th of July weekend :) .

The weather has finally cooled-down some after a week of high temperatures with equally high humidity, thanks to the knock-out blow provided by some intense thunderstorms. Taking advantage of this, I ventured out for the seasonal forage. One of the first plants I came across was a shrubby Black Raspberry on the meadow’s edge. Where you find one bush, you’ll likely find several others.

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Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) grows very aggressively on a variety of soil types, though generally it prefers a moist environment. It is widespread in Connecticut and other parts of the northeastern US. Too often, people scorn this particular bramble as a weed without realising its potential as a food source. Towards the end of June and through July, the purple berries can be collected in quantity – they are much better than the store bought red raspberries, which are mushy and taste sour to me. Black Raspberries are sweet when ripe, with a bit of tartness to balance the flavour. Made into jam or jelly, they are delectable. You can also use the fresh or dried leaves to make a delightful tea. Just be mindful that the whole bush will be armed with thorns, so gather carefully.

There were clusters of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) everywhere in the meadow. It is largely unknown as an edible, and where it is mentioned in wild plant field guides, it is often described as “extremely bitter”. These sources often say to boil the edible parts (young shoots, buds, and young seedpods) in multiple changes of water to reduce the “bitterness”. In truth, I have not found Common Milkweed to be bitter in the least – rather, it has a taste much like cooked green beans. Towards the end of June, the green flower buds can be collected, though by now most of them have already opened into blossoms. I only found a few worth picking.

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Common Milkweed has a sticky, milky white sap which is considered to be slightly toxic, though really it seems to be little more than a meat tenderiser. Simply boiling the collected bits until they are tender (usually no more than 10 minutes) and draining off the water renders them safe to consume. You can also eat them without draining the water, but only in small amounts. It is not recommended to eat Common Milkweed raw – you’ll likely end up with one heck of a sore throat and stomach ache.

**Dogbanes are sometimes confused with Common Milkweed, especially in the earlier growth stages during spring. Dogbanes are mildly poisonous and are best left alone. Their shoots are dark reddish and much thinner than those of Common Milkweed. Dogbanes also lack the slight bit of fuzz that is present on Common Milkweed stalks. Both plants produce a white sap, so this cannot be used for correct identification.**

Further down the path, I saw the familiar sight of chickweed, growing in thick patches on either side. This variety appears to be Stellaria graminea, or Grass-leaved Starwort.

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The tender leaves, stems, and flowers of all chickweeds (Cerastium, Stellaria, and Myosoton genus) can eaten raw or cooked (lightly boiled or stir-fried are popular methods). However, certain species such as Mouse-Ear Chickweed (C. fontanum) and Sticky Chickweed (C. glomeratum) should always be cooked.

There was also some Yellow Wood Sorrel along the path.

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Wood Sorrel leaves have a distinctive, light sour taste similar to apple peel. This flavour is caused by the presence of small amounts of oxalic acid. While some say that you should only eat small quantities of raw Wood Sorrel at a time, the levels of oxalic acid are in fact minute – you’d have to consume pounds of the stuff on a daily basis for awhile before it would pose a threat. Let’s not forget that oxalic acid is also present in spinach, lettuces, garlic, radishes, and other healthy vegetables. So feel free to eat more than “just a wee-nibble”. I like to munch on the leaves as I scout around looking for other edibles. Not only is it a common plant, but the sourness is quite refreshing.

At this point in the year, Stinging Nettles have reached their maturity, shown by the flower clusters at each leaf node.

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You can still pluck off leaves for tea, soups, and stews, but this is the time when the plant is at its best for making cordage. Nettle fibres are quite strong and can be used fresh off the plant, dried, or twisted into twine.

Amongst the various foliage in the field, I noticed the five-pointed white and purple flowers of Horse-nettle (Solanum carolinense), a member of the Nightshade family.

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The whole plant is poisonous…a little reminder to watch what you’re picking.

As I approached the marshy part of the meadow, I harvested some Peppermint. Fortunately, the path wasn’t boggy from the recent heavy rains.

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Like all mints, Peppermint can be enjoyed as a tea. I’ve also heard from other foragers that it can be used to flavour ice cream…sounds delicious to me :) .

Walking back up to higher ground, I spotted some Wild Carrot (aka ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’).

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The flowers haven’t yet opened, so correctly identifying for harvest it will be critical…misidentifying a member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae) can prove fatal. Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Fool’s Parsley (Aethusa cynapium) can be confused for Wild Carrot. The key differences with Wild Carrot are that the stems are hairy, and just below the flower-head, you will notice many three-forked bracts encircling that part of the stem. Neither Poison Hemlock nor Fool’s Parsley has these characteristics. It is much easier to identify Wild Carrot when it blooms – you will notice a single, tiny purple blossom in the centre of the white flower head, which none of its look-alikes have.

The edible root is best brought to a boil and then simmered until tender – it can be eaten raw, but is very tough and chewy. As I couldn’t see any other Wild Carrots in the vicinity, I decided to leave this one alone. They do best in waste places and other areas with well-drained soil…I guess the meadow wasn’t dry enough for them to thrive.

A little ways ahead, I stumbled across a thick patch of Virginia Peppergrass (aka ‘Poor Man’s Peppergrass’) along the winding trail of the meadow’s gentle sloping hillside. The seed clusters at the top of each stem make all peppergrasses easy to recognise from a distance.

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Field Peppergrass is a close relative and looks very similar, though the stems and leaves are fuzzy whereas Virginia Peppergrass is bare. Either is perfectly edible, as are all who share the Lepidium genus. The name “Peppergrass” comes from the spicy seeds, which are usually dried and then added to dishes as a zesty seasoning, though they are just as tasty fresh.

There were also masses of Red Clover here, there, and everywhere. It is a favourite flower for bees to pollinate, so take care not to get stung. Red Clover has an unmistakable appearance and is extremely common.

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The whole plant can be eaten, but it should be cooked as it’s difficult to digest raw. I prefer the leaves and flowers, lightly boiled for a few minutes with a dash of salt. Red Clover is rich in protein.

Making my way to the hedges that border the greater woodland, I stopped to collect some Curly Dock leaves. Sadly, most of the other dock plants were mown and clipped by the trail maintenance crew.

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Dock leaves, when gathered young, are a bit sour (due to small levels of oxalic acid) and can be eaten raw, though most folks prefer them cooked. Some say that they have a taste similar to spinach when steamed. You can also pick the larger, mature leaves, though these will be bitter and require longer cooking.

Around the corner at the fringe of the forest, the hedges were teaming with unripe Blackberries. It appears that we will get a bumper-crop this year :) . They’ll be ready for picking in about two weeks.

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The more prominent thorns, reddish-green canes, and 5 pointed leaves (young leaves will only have 3 leaflets) distinguish this bramble, Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), from Black Raspberry. When ripe, the berries will also taste a bit tart and sweet, but are much juicier. As with Black Raspberry, blackberry leaves can brewed into tea.

A short distance into the woodland beside the pond, I found a Spicebush.

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The leaves, twigs, and berries, which turn a waxy red when ripe, are aromatic and make an outstanding tea. During the Revolutionary War, colonists would dry the ripe berries and grind them into powder as a substitute for allspice. Spicebush can be found on lake shores and stream banks where the soil is rich and moist.

Sadly, all the Hedge Garlic which was so abundant in spring is now past its prime, and the mature plants are starting to die. On the bright side, the dead stems make excellent fine kindling for fire-lighting even through winter. I continued along the trail to the patch of Wild Strawberries, and stopped to gather a few leaves for tea.

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Next, I turned off the path and bush-whacked my way to the top of the woodland hill in search of other edibles to forage. There were small Wild Blueberry bushes all around the crest, and this looks like the first year they will produce fruit.

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The soil was certainly acidic enough for them, as could be seen by the presence of sphagnum moss. Still too early for munching the berries, but they might be ready in two weeks or so – I can hardly wait :D .

I looked towards the western slope where the woods opened to a clearing to see if there was anything available. I found many Black Cherry trees, but the fruits won’t be ready for awhile.

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The cherries are seldom eaten by other people, though the birds love them. The juicy pulp and skin are edible, but the pits should be spat out as they contain cyanide. You can also crush the cherries, pits and all, shape them into biscuits, and bake them in the oven or in the ashes of a fire covered with embers. Heat destroys the cyanide.

Closer to the ground, I could see the white flower clusters of many Yarrows, attracting lots of bees.

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Yarrow’s genus, Achillea, originates from the Greek legend of Achilles using the crushed plant as a coagulant to halt the bleeding of his soldiers’ wounds. Indeed, it contains achileine (also named after Achilles), an alkaloid which promotes blood clotting. The leaves and blossoms can be made into tea – it has a delicate minty taste.

And no more than a few inches away from this group of Yarrow was a bit of Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare). This variety has a much milder scent and flavour than cultivated Basil, but it can be used just the same for culinary purposes.

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I decided to follow the gravely path on the hill back down to the meadow – rocky walkways are great places to look for plants which favour a well-drained environment. So it was that I caught the fragrance of Melilot Clover (aka Sweet White Clover), thriving on the edge of the path.

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Melilot has elongated leaves and often grows much taller than other clovers. The white flowers and leaves make an interesting tea with an aroma much like vanilla.

The gravel was also home to several Ox-Eye Daisies, a classic summertime flower. Most people have no idea that daisies are edible…they don’t know what they’re missing.

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The young leaves and flower buds are delicious raw, with a taste similar to carrots. They would be an excellent addition to a salad.

On either side of the path were bushy Autumn Olives, and tangled in the mix on one of the shrubs were Wild Grape vines. There are four native species of Wild Grape (Vitis genus) in New England, all of which produce edible fruit – some will be sour, while others are delightfully sweet and tart. I like to pick them off the vine and eat them straight away, spitting out the seeds. I’ll have to wait until early autumn before I can leisurely munch on them, though.

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This species is Summer Grape (V. aestivalis), a common vine which often climbs high into tree canopies. The grapes will be fairly small and turn purple when ripe. Its brown, flaky bark is easily peeled off and is great tinder for fire-lighting. However, when it comes to harvesting Wild Grapes, be sure that you are not collecting the fruits of Canada Moonseed, which are poisonous.

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Canada Moonseed is not related, but has a similar appearance to Wild Grape, with a few exceptions. The ripe fruits are very dark purple, almost black, and they are grouped in much smaller bunches. Also, the leaves have no serrations along the edges, and the vines lack tendrils.

I kept walking on the gravel path past the first meadow and into an adjacent field, where I found a White Mulberry tree with fruits starting to fully ripen.

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Mulberries are one of my favourite wild fruits. I grew up snacking on them as a kid until my hands were spotted with purple. And nowadays, no matter how hard I try to harvest a lot of them for jelly or fruit leather preservation, I end up stuffing my face all the way home with a full stomach when I reach my door. Commercially, mulberries are often made into choice wines. I plucked off the few fruits that were ripe for a quick nibble.

There was a large Wineberry bush growing in the shade beneath the mulberry’s branches. Wineberry is an invasive from Asia, but the fruits are just as delicious as our native brambles.

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They aren’t quite ripe yet, however.

The predominant plant in this field was Common Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa). Come September, this whole field will be filled with its yellow flowers, heralding the end of the summer season and the arrival of autumn.

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The leaves have a mild sweet fragrance when crushed, similar to that of its close relative Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora). The leaves of all goldenrods can be brewed into tea.

By now, my foraging bags were starting to fill up, and so I headed home. Along the way, I discovered a Japanese Honeysuckle growing next to a Canada Elder bush. Unfortunately, the Elder isn’t yet mature enough to start providing berries, but the honeysuckle was in bloom.

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The leaves of Japanese Honeysuckle can be boiled until tender, though I personally prefer the blossoms, eaten fresh off the plant. They have a mild sweet flavour.

Nearby, I recognised the climbing vine of Common Greenbrier.

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Although it is a bit late in the year, you can still eat the tender young leaves and tendrils raw. They are at their best earlier in spring.

As I reached the end of my street, I stopped to dig up a blossoming Day Lily on the shoulder of the road. The unopened buds and flowers can be consumed after cooking – boiling for 5-10 minutes is the usual method, or you can add them to soups and stews. I also like to eat the bulbs raw after rinsing in water. All edible parts will leave a mild, spicy aftertaste on the palate.

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Day Lilies are questionable in terms of edibility because of hybridisation with cultivated varieties. To that end, it is recommended to only eat the unspotted orange variety (as shown above), Hemerocallis fulva.

Here is the day’s collection:

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A little more than 3 pounds of Black Raspberries, some Yellow Wood Sorrel leaves, chickweed flowers, Common Milkweed buds, Peppermint, Virginia Peppergrass seeds, Curly Dock leaves, Spicebush leaves, Wild Strawberry leaves, Yarrow, Wild basil, Melilot Clover, Red Clover, Ox-Eye Daisy leaves, Common Goldenrod leaves, Japanese Honeysuckle flowers, Greenbrier leaves and tendrils, and Day Lily.
Happy Foraging :) .

 

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