As a survival tactic, a way to stretch food money, or just a good excuse to get some fresh air and exercise, foraging is fun and easy if you pay attention and keep in mind a few caveats.
I am not a foraging expert and I don't have a botany degree. I say this as fair warning and because this means that you, too, can forage; you need only some simple equipment and a desire to learn. I hope to go foraging on most weekends from now until the end of November and share my discoveries. (Right: hollow tree by Peter Coughlin)
First, a warning: you should NEVER eat anything that you have not identified with 100% certainty, and it's unlikely that my descriptions are enough. Get a good field guide, befriend a local forager or botanist and/or contact your local library or Cooperative Extension Office. Feel free to post photos in the comments, and I'll help where I can.
Covered: poison ivy, jewelweed, garlic mustard & field garlic
Before I introduce a few very common spring plants, I am duty-bound to mention some additional caveats. (If you want, you can skip ahead to the first dividing line, but do come back and read this part before heading out to forage. It's important.)
Always dress appropriately for foraging.
This generally means long pants, long sleeved shirts, work gloves, comfortable, protective and possibly waterproof shoes, good sun protection and perhaps deep-woods insect repellant. Don't forget to protect yourself from ticks. Add rain gear and (additional) warm outerwear as appropriate.
Always carry appropriate equipment.
What to carry depends on where and what you will be foraging, but a small digging implement, plastic and brown paper bags in various sizes, a pocket knife and/or small saw, a guide to identifying edible plants and adequate water should be included at a minimum. You might also consider carrying a digital camera, small tape measure, detailed topo map, compass, whistle, small first aid kit, snacks and a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe. (Left: select equipment by wide eyed lib)
Always know your local area, part I.
I forage in the Northeastern U.S. Depending on where I go, I can find micro-climates that are sandy, marshy, rocky, woody, sunny, shady, thicketed, mountainous, or snowy. It's good to have some understanding of your own terrain, when the growing season starts and stops and how much rainfall your area gets. This information will help you plan what to bring and, combined with a good guidebook, will help you identify in which areas you should look for certain plants.
Always know your local area, part II.
Although I'm trying to be scrupulous about mentioning the general range where these plants grow, it's possible that there are toxic plants that occur in your area that closely resemble the ones I'm describing. (Did I mention that you should NEVER eat a plant unless you've identified it with 100% certainty?)
Always know your local area, part III.
Wherever you're foraging, you should to find out whether the area has been sprayed with pesticides or other poisons. (Be aware that the pesticides that are approved for use with food are NOT the same as those that might be sprayed on lawns, golf courses, vacant lots or other non-farming areas.) Railroad rights of way, even abandoned ones, are particularly bad places to forage because of heavy herbicide usage, as is any land within 50 feet of a busy road because the soil may contain unsafe levels of lead.
The Basement Cat is in the details.
Take a few minutes to learn about plant and flower anatomy. The idea isn't to learn everything (at least not at first), but it helps to know what kinds of things distinguish one plant from another. Are the leaves opposite, alternate or some other configuration? Are they simple or compound? How can you tell a petal from a sepal? What's the difference between a rhizome and a tuber? While it doesn't take an expert to forage, it helps a great deal if you develop an eye for the right kinds of details. I've tried to go lightly on the botany-speak, but sometimes the most accurate description is a technical term. (Right: purple crocus by wide eyed lib; not edible, although a related flower, Crocus sativum, is the source of saffron)
Familiarize yourself with local laws.
Foraging is of questionable legality in many places, including most of the city and state parks where I forage. Even in places where it's completely legal, there may be restrictions such as it's okay to harvest fruits and seeds but not leaves or roots. I've never been harassed, but people I know have been (up to and including being arrested, though the charges were eventually dropped). In addition, some states and localities have specific rules about certain plants, and not respecting those could get you jail time. (For instance, in Colorado, you are limited to collecting 25 Blue Columbine flowers and buds a day, and it is illegal to uproot the plant. As far as I'm aware, they are poisonous anyway.)
Last but not least, practice environmentally sound foraging.
Most of the plants I'll cover are abundant, and many of them are invasive, so you probably don't need to worry about harvesting them. Even so, you should never harvest a plant in a manner that will kill it if there are only a few others in the area. Always be aware of how what you are harvesting will affect the plant-- removing the roots or too many leaves is the equivalent of starving the plant, stripping bark will cause it to essentially bleed, and picking all the flowers is like forced birth control if they're not yet fertilized. (Fruits and seeds are a happy exception, as they are meant to be scattered or eaten. Still, as long as it's not an invasive species, it's nice to take a few extra for scattering in a place where they might grow.) Always harvest where a plant is in plentiful supply and even then, practice some restraint. Be considerate of those who will use the land after you-- no matter what their species; unlike you, deer can't just pop off to the supermarket if they're hungry. Take care not to dig or uproot plants in an area prone to erosion. It's also a really good idea to be familiar with plants that are threatened in your area so that you don't harm them.
Now that the formalities have been dispensed with, we can start identifying plants.
The first plant, poison ivy, is one you should learn to avoid. It occurs in all of the lower 48 states except, apparently, California. (Don't worry, Californians have to deal with the very similar poison oak instead.)
Poison ivy has glossy, compound, alternate leaves split into three teardrop-shaped leaflets. Leaves of three, let them be. The leaves start off light green in the spring, growing darker in the summer before finally turning a beautiful scarlet in fall. The flowers and berries are small, white and plentiful (but dangerous, like the rest of the plant). Berries white, take flight. Finally, after the leaves fall off, the vines and their distinctive red rootlets become visible. This is the way poison ivy appears in my area right now. Hairy vine, no friend of mine. Even if you've never had a reaction to poison ivy, you should avoid touching it or collecting plants that are entangled with it because a reaction can develop without warning. (Right: poison ivy by bridges46, courtesy of Photobucket)
Finally, according to wikipedia:
These three characteristics are sufficient to positively identify the plant: (a) clusters of three leaflets, (b) alternate, and (c) lack of thorns.
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Luckily for us, nature's poison ivy antidote, jewelweed (a.k.a. impatiens or touch-me-not), sometimes grows nearby. It's widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, although at the moment it doesn't have any leaves in my area.
Jewelweed is a shrub that has simple, alternate, oval, glossy, slightly toothed leaves with veins that run diagonally from the mid-leaf to the edge, forming v-shapes that point toward the stem. The leaves have a waxy, almost oily feel, and after a rainstorm, water forms round droplets atop the leaves that glitter like gems (thus the name). Although wikipedia disagrees, I have it on good authority that if you crush the leaves and rub them on your skin after being exposed to poison ivy, it will prevent or at least greatly mitigate the rash. It's also good for the itch of bug bites and many other kinds of skin irritation. (Above: jewelweed by wide eyed lib)
The flowers appear in early summer, are spotted, look something like cornucopias and come in several colors, depending on the specific species (saffron-yellow is pictured). Perhaps the most unusual part of this plant (and the one that makes it easy to recognize) is that inside the seed pods (pictured in the close-up) is a stem that coils around the seeds. When you touch a ripe seed pod, the coiled stem explodes, flinging seeds in all directions. As the pictures demonstrate, in summer and late fall jewelweed produces both flowers and seed pods at the same time.
As if its skin-soothing properties weren't enough, the seeds (but not the seed pod or coiled stem) are edible and taste vaguely nutty. The easiest way to collect them is to enclose the seedpod in your hand while it's still attached to the plant and move your fist back and forth until it bursts. While the seeds are small and collecting them is a bit time-consuming, they would be nice sprinkled on a salad and make a fun snack as you pass.
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The easiest plant, by far, to identify at this time of year is garlic mustard.
Garlic mustard is a biannual herb that grows heart shaped leaves with branching veins that radiate outward from the stem. The toothed leaves survive their first winter, though they sometimes turn a plum purple that bleeds to dark green toward the center. In early spring this plant is easy to identify because it is are everywhere and one of the few ground covers that is still somewhat green. When crushed, the leaves smell strongly of garlic. This makes for nearly foolproof identification, as other heart shaped leaves that grow at this time of year are odorless or nearly so. The long, white taproot, in contrast, tastes like horseradish. (Right and below: garlic mustard by wide eyed lib)
During mid spring of its second year, garlic mustard sends up a 3 foot flower stalk, with leaves that become increasingly smaller and more triangular as they approach the top. The terminal buds look like miniature broccoli, and four-petaled, white flowers shaped like an X appear soon after. Finally, in late summer, seed pods appear which encase tiny, black seeds.
Garlic mustard grows in many places around the world, including throughout most of the U.S. and Canada. It is not native to North America and is considered an invasive species because it crowds out native ground covers, particularly in the Eastern U.S. On the plus side, every part of the plant is edible and very nutritious. The best leaves are the young, triangular ones on the flower stalk or the heart-shaped, plum-colored smaller leaves that have over-wintered. (The first-year leaves are quite bitter, though still edible.) They can be cut into thin strips and served with milder greens in salads, or steamed or sauteed until just cooked. The buds, including the flowers, can be also be steamed, sauteed or eaten raw, and the taproots (which should be harvested before the buds appear), can be grated and mixed with vinegar to create a condiment very similar to commercial horseradish. Finally, the seeds can be collected by shaking the seed pods into a container, then crushing them finely and mixing them with vinegar and a bit of sweetener to make a condiment similar to mustard.
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Because this diary has gotten so long, the last plant I'll cover today is field garlic. Field garlic grows in sunny and partially sunny fields and hillsides all over the Eastern U.S. I suspect the range is actually broader, but I couldn't find much information online. (Above and below right: field garlic by wide eyed lib)
Field garlic is an extremely common and somewhat invasive member of the onion and garlic family. It consists of dark green (with almost a bluish cast), hollow shoots that are between 4 and 8 inches tall this time of year and are sometimes a bit wavy or curly near the tops. They have a very strong onion scent and flavor. The shoots can be either snipped near the ground or the entire plant can be pulled up to expose the underground bulbs. In summer, field garlic will send up a flower stalk with red-tinged terminal buds which resemble small cloves of garlic. Soon after, the buds release a cluster of small white flowers before finally going to seed.
Every part of field garlic is edible-- the shoots, bulbs, buds, flowers and seeds. Use the shoots as you would scallions or chives, and the bulbs (peeled) as onions. The flowers and buds can be steamed or stir fried with other vegetables or even added to soups, and the seeds can be used as a seasoning.
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As a final note, I have read in a few places (including here) that anything that smells like garlic or onions and looks like garlic or onions is edible. Having eaten a few wild alliums, I'm highly inclined to believe it's true.
I hoped you enjoyed this initial foray into foraging. Please let me know if you have any questions, find any mistakes or have any suggestions on how to improve this series.
For more information about foraging, the websites of "Wildman" Steve Brill and "Green" Deane Jordan are fantastic resources. Steve lives in NY and Green Deane is in Florida. I'm a huge fan of Green Deane's foraging how-to clips on youtube, and Steve Brill's book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, has been my foraging bible (read reviews here, but if you're feeling generous, please buy from Steve's website. It's more expensive, but he's a good guy and he earns considerably more money that way. He also sells other books and jeweler's loupes, the latter being a good value.) If anyone reading this lives in the NYC area and is interested in guided foraging tours, Steve offers such tours in NYC-area parks almost every weekend from the end of February to the beginning of December. Details and contact info are on his website.
Next week I'm hoping to cover wild lettuce, winter cress, daylily, chicory, and perhaps wallpepper. I hope you'll continue reading and be inspired to do some foraging of your own.
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