April Edibles (and into May)

April was a great month for foraging.  I’ve been waiting all winter for the first wild veggies of spring, and have been reading through all my field guides, working on the self-given assignment to learn more greens this year.

It seems the more I do this, the more the ancient pattern-recognition capabilities of my brain wake up, and the faster I learn.  Plants I’ve never noticed before pop out at me, and further investigation tells me that they’re excellent edibles.  I feel like I’m learning a new species every few days, and gathering enough to eat a lot of wild food every day, and to keep some in the freezer for later seasons.

Here’s some of what I’ve been gathering in the last few weeks–both new plants (to me) and old friends:

We started off the year with wintercress, a wild mustard abundant in prairies and forest edges around here.  Wintercress (not, mind you, the same as watercress) grows under the snowpack on warmer winter days, and is at its mildest just as the thaw’s progressing.  Even then, its initial yummy, dark green flavor is followed by a bitter aftertaste that hangs on for a while; I can only tolerate a couple of raw leaves at a time.  Boiled for 5-10 minutes and cooked with bacon, though, it’s pretty excellent–and a few leaves raw in a mixed salad are no problem (here, as in much of the foraging literature, you’ll often find the recommendation to boil something and cook it with bacon; it’s a great way to eat a ton of greens).  Now that the weather’s warmed up, the wintercress is quickly bolting. There are still plenty of edible flower heads that haven’t opened up.

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Toothwort is a lovely spring ephemeral, spreading in vast seas over the ground in healthy woodlands.  The leaf and flower are slightly bitter, with a hint of pepperiness that’s a bit more pronounced in the root, which strongly resembles a fox’s or raccoon’s tooth.  We’ve been nibbling on it in the woods, and including it in wild salads and fried greens dishes.

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Good ol’ garlic mustard.  It really is an ecological problem, in my opinion.  Though incredibly nutritious (seriously, leagues beyond most green plants), it’s allopathic, sending chemicals out into the soil that inhibit the growth of other plants, so it can crowd out natives and take over the understory.  One way I try to give back to the places I forage is to spend at least ten or fifteen minutes pulling garlic mustard, leaving the plants with roots exposed on rocks, logs, or in the middle of trails.

Depending, I’d guess, on degree of sun exposure, garlic mustard can be spicier (like horseradish) or more bitter; I like it spicy, which means I usually eat it raw, since any cooking makes the spice vanish and the bitterness come out.  Starting about now, it’s a plant to harvest carefully; even in remote natural areas I’ve found the telltale blue stain of herbicide on garlic mustard leaves, and I try to keep track of the places I’m confident haven’t been sprayed.  I envision an army of foragers who move in early in the season, before the plants have flowered, and wipe it out before less food-oriented folks move in to eradicate them.

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Speaking of invasives, here’s some japanese knotweed, with its rhubarby flavor and its ability to tear apart pavement with its nearly invulnerable root system.  Like so many plants we want to get rid of, knotweed thrives due to human disturbance.  It loves erosion, and–while eradicating a patch might take a bulldozer–discouraging its spread overall would mean changing our habits around development and water management.  The root, rich in resveratol, is a renowned part of natural treatments for Lyme disease.  I don’t yet know how to dig any of it up without encouraging the spread of the plant, so I haven’t done so.  I harvest as many of the easy-to-snap stalks as I want, being careful not to leave any leaves or stem fragments on the ground, where they’ll apparently be likely to start new growth.  I’ve enjoyed knotweed as a compote, in crisps, and (especially) fermented and included as a souring agent in hot sauce.

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A couple of weeks ago my friend Alex, with whom I’ve been sharing plant knowledge and good foraging spots, introduced me to the young shoots of Solomon’s Seal (or is it False Solomon’s Seal? I’m not sure, but they’re both edible).  The raw flavor is very good–a bit of asparagus, a strong hint of sweet peas, delectably crisp, with a bit of an acrid aftertaste that’s reduced by cooking.  We’ve been giving them a brief boil, often with some ostrich fern fiddleheads in the same pan, then finishing them with a little wild leek compound butter, salt, and a squeeze of lemon.  It’s delicious.  Solomon’s Seal takes a while to establish, so it’s best only to harvest from dense colonies, and to be restrained in how much you take.  Fortunately, it’s been popping up all over in nearly every area I regularly walk, so we’ve been able to eat a little every day.

Last year I found one little patch of sochan (i.e., cutleaf coneflower), and it helped save our What Got Gathered launch dinner.  The night before, I realized that we probably didn’t have enough plant matter for our acorn polenta-with-wild-greens dish.  Around two in the morning, I biked to the sochan patch and harvested plenty with ease; by June the leaves were big enough to provide abundant food very swiftly, with an excellent flavor, friendly to the palate.

This year I’m seeing sochan everywhere, in patches covering sizeable chunks of prairie and shoreline.  It was an important plant to indigenous populations, largely because it provides so much food throughout pretty much the entire growing season, with a second rosette of basal leaves bursting out in the fall.  It’s going to become a central wild food for me.

It just goes on and on: we’ve been gathering lots of wild leek (ramps), Virginia waterleaf, dandelion, cat’s ear, fern fiddleheads, young wild lettuce, nettles and cleavers, as well as the first pheasant back mushrooms, with morel season coming on right about now.  Today I saw the first tiny milkweed shoots, the sign of the next phase of the season.  With each year’s foraging, I increasingly live time like this.

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