Thankfully, foraging doesn't have to be about any of that. Foraging can simply be about pattern recognition. You don't have to know what any of the individual parts are called in order to recognize the pattern. Armed with innate pattern-recognition skills, anyone can learn to recognize a fairly large number of edible plants without ever worrying about whether a particular leaf is ovoid or elliptical. (For the record, an ovate leaf tapers a bit at one end like an egg, and an elliptical leaf doesn't.)
After a few years of foraging, a little botany is going to inevitably creep in. Maybe you'll be talking to a fellow forager and discover that he uses the same common name for a completely unrelated plant. Or maybe you'll see a plant that looks almost like one of your foraging favorites and wonder if it's related. Or maybe while explaining the difference between a raspberry and a blackberry, you'll cringe to hear yourself say, "Raspberries are hollow like thimbles because the thingie that connects the berry to the cane stays on the cane, and blackberries are solid because the thingie stays in the berry." (True story. The thingie, by the way, is called a receptacle.)
Pictured: common violet, daylily, curly dock, common chickweed & burdock
These days, I prefer to think of botany as just another tool in my foraging toolbox, but it took me a long time and a great deal of angst to get to that point. I own several botany textbooks that I never look at because I'm just not interested in mitosis or whether flower ovaries are superior, inferior or half-inferior. (Duh... of course all ovaries are superior.)
In an effort to better educate myself, I bought a botany coloring book. It's fun and I've learned quite a bit, but it's not geared toward foraging. Then for Christmas my partner gave me Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel.
Holy cow! Where has this book been all my life? (And I know a few readers of this series have recommended it to me in the past. Thank you!) This is the only botany book I've ever seen that immediately encourages you to go outside and actually look at plants. The whole approach is pattern-driven, so it feels utterly natural to anyone who has ever spent any time looking at plants.
Last year, before I owned this book, I wrote a diary about foraging by genus. This is the same approach that Elpel uses in Botany in a Day, only he uses plant families, one level up from genera, as his starting point, which is helpful because there are far, far fewer plant families than there are plant genera. The book also includes a plant key to help identify which family an unknown plant belongs to, as well as a guide to understanding the medicinal properties common to each family.
If you've ever wanted to learn about plants in a more systematic way but been frustrated by the way botany is normally presented, I highly recommend this book.
But enough about books... let's get to the plants.
(As always, if you're new to foraging and want to give it a try, please read the first diary in the series as well as the linked diary for the full discussion of each plant. For a complete list of all plants covered in the series, click here.)
Violet leaves are a wonderfully mild and nutritious salad green, and they will be at their peak for another 3 weeks or so before they get large and stringy. The Spring flowers make a lovely edible garnish. These flowers are sterile; the "real," fertile flowers are brown, inedible, Fall-blooming and fertilized by ants.
Read more about violets here.
The daylily sprouts in my area are now about six inches tall. They look a little like pale pineapple tops to me, but they taste like ultra-mild onions. Although the edible tubers below the ground are probably spent by now, the sprouts are in prime harvesting condition.
Sadly, last year I joined the approximately 1-in-10 people who get an upset stomach from daylily greens, so I'll have to wait until the flowers bloom this Summer before I can get my daylily fix. If you're not susceptable, enjoy some sprouts for me, okay?
Learn more about identifying and harvesting daylilies here.
Adding chopped pieces to a soup or stew at the last minute is the best way to enjoy this green cooked. The root also has medicinal uses.
Learn more about curly dock here.
Some people think the tiny paired leaflets of chickweed taste like corn, but I think what they actually taste like is not the corn itself but the corn silk. Don't just take my word for it—try some for yourself. Do it soon, though. Chickweed tends to get "leggy" later in the Spring, and it often disappears altogether during the Summer months.
Get the full story on how to find, identify and harvest chickweed here.
Burdock is a biennial, and last year's plants have energy stored in their roots which gives them a headstart over new burdock plants that have to sprout from tiny seeds. Dig second year roots as early as possible in Spring or first year roots as late as possible in Fall or Winter. After digging, the taproot will have to be cleaned, peeled and possibly cored (depending on how woody the core is) before being cooked in a liquid. In Japan, burdock root is called gobo, and it's often cooked together with rice. It has a nutty and slightly sweet flavor.
Learn more about burdock here.
I hope you enjoyed this refresher on some of the edible plants of Spring. See you next week!
Helpful foraging resources
If you'd like to learn more about foraging but missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 48 installments, and here for RonV's 4 part mini-series on medicinal plants and how to use them. As always, please feel free to post photos in the comments and I'll do my best to help identify what you've found. (And if you find any errors, let me know.)
"Wildman" Steve Brill's site covers many edibles and includes nice drawings.
"Green" Deane Jordan's site is quite comprehensive and has color photos and stories about many plants.
Green Deane's foraging how-to clips on youtube each cover a single plant in reassuring detail.
Linda Runyon's site features only a few plants but has great deals on her dvd, wild cards and books (check out the package deals in particular).
Steve Brill's book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places is my primary foraging guide. (Read reviews here, but if you're feeling generous, please buy from Steve's website.)
Linda Runyon's book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide contains especially detailed information about nutritional content and how to store and preserve wild foods.
Samuel Thayer’s book The Forager's Harvest is perhaps the finest resource out there for the 32 plants covered. The color photos and detailed harvest and preparation information are top-notch. His second book, Nature's Garden, is just as good. For an autographed copy of either book, order from Sam's website.
Steve Brill also offers guided foraging tours in NYC-area parks. Details and contact info are on his website.
Don Wiss’s website is a treasure trove featuring hundreds of photos of common northeastern edibles.
For well-sourced info on the medicinal uses of plants, Plants for a Future is a site I turn to time and time again.
Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.