Spring is a wonderful time to get out into the woods, meadows, streams and gardens to find wild nutritious edibles. Wild food is available year-round, but we’ll leave the other seasons for future articles. Local wild plants can be used as sustainable, nutrient-dense food sources, kitchen medicine and amendments for our gardens. Some of these plants are considered invasive species, others are prolific weeds. Then there are those, that are on the “to watch list” because of over harvesting.
According to Joan Palmer, Director of The Institute of Sustainable Nutrition (TIOSN) in Connecticut, “When beginning to forage, it’s important that folks begin to learn ethical, sustainable methods to ensure that we maintain strong local plant biodiversity for generations to come.”
Joan and her staff of educators at TIOSN compiled their knowledge of local wild edibles as an overview to prepare interested foragers for spring.
Some local invasive plants hold great potential as wild foraged food or medicine. These include garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate). All parts of garlic mustard, an invasive cruciferous plant, are edible. The leaves and tender flower buds are a delicious spring green that can be added to salads, cooked into soups or made into pesto. The seeds are a substitute for mustard seeds and the spicy root can be grated and made into mock horseradish. Filled with cancer preventive compounds such as sulfurophane, this plant is nutritious and tasty.
“We encourage people to pull garlic mustard, but rather than discarding it, find delicious ways to eat it. It is part of sustainable nutrition and a respectful way to harvest,” said Alison Birks, Science Director at TIOSN.
As an invasive shrub, autumn olive yields beautiful red/orange speckled berries that are
tart-sweet and make wonderful jam, fruit leather and juice. “Rich in lycopene and other carotenoids, this invasive species could easily be called our own ‘super food,’” said Birks, adding that autumn olive is so common in this region that most landowners have some growing on or near their property.
“This past year was especially prolific for autumn olive. These are very astringent berries that make your mouth pucker, but this year was different. These beautiful berries were bigger and definitely sweeter than in the past,” said Joan. “Not only did they make delicious fruit leather, but they were sweet enough to enjoy right from the branch.”
These plants grow readily in our region but do not meet the standards of invasive. One of our favorite prolific weeds is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).
Stinging nettle loves to grow around the rich soil of manure and compost piles. It is another “super food” in our region with a full spectrum of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds.
We begin harvesting, cooking, making tea and dehydrating it for next winter as early as possible in
“Nettle is a tenacious and abundant weed with so many uses,” said Joan. “It is one of our very favorite plants, not only because it makes delicious tea and soup, and has a long list of health benefits, but it’s also useful in the garden.”
Soil and Outside Consultant, Nigel Palmer, ferments nettle, along with other nutrient dense herbs and wild plants, to make soil amendments. “These plants are a local, sustainable source available to remineralize our depleted soils and to help us to grow more nutrient rich foods,”said Nigel.
To Watch List
According to United Plant Savers, (UnitedPlantSavers.org), plants on the “To Watch List” are ones that are currently in decline due to expanding popularity and shrinking habitat and range.
A plant recently added to this list is the ramp (Allium tricoccum).
Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a delicious and very popular plant. The plant has become synonymous with spring foraging in this region. Ramps with their lovely pungent onion-garlic flavor, are a delicacy now found on menus of many top restaurants. They can be roasted, sautéed or even eaten raw. Unfortunately, they are so coveted and heavily harvested that they have now been placed on the “to watch list.” When harvesting, it is recommended that only a portion of the greens from the top of the plant be taken. Leaving some of the greens and the perennial bulb allow the ramp to continue producing and spreading.
“You should never take more than 10% of a stand of plants to ensure their vigor and continuous growth year after year,” says Birks. “And never take anything if there are less than ten healthy
We encourage you to get out and explore those wild places around you. Learn how to safely, sustainably and ethically forage for delicious edibles and wild medicine. We are today’s guardians of the wild for tomorrow’s generations.