Most people find it at least somewhat interesting that I forage for wild food and herbal medicine. Sometimes I think it might be interesting- crazy, but they perk up. Maybe there is an innate instinct to be attracted by the hunt. However, in this world of shortcuts and quick information, they all want to know the same thing; exactly when? And then the next question….exactly where?
When is the best time for morel mushrooms? When is it time for fiddle heads to unfurl? When does the best foraging happen? These are questions that come from a rushed, and clock driven society. Spring does not arrive on a prompt date and time. It just is not nature’s way. This is a good lesson on how to sit back and observe the process, and then memorize the order for next time. After years of foraging, I only can tell what is next or concurrently, not what time anything is arriving. I also know that it is best to have many foraging locations, and it is O.K. to keep your locations mysterious.
In the Minnesota spring, the bark of trees that have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years are the first to be harvested during sapping season while the snow still covers the ground, and most folks are still wrapped up in blankets in front of T.V.s, not imagining there is a crazy woman stomping around in the crusty snow looking for burr oaks, prickly ash, birch and others. Of course, this is when the first food product is also available—maple syrup! In fact, the fluctuating temperatures are my big signal, not the date.
Not long after the cooking is done and the jars are tucked away, spring is arriving with a succession of gourmet forest treasures that come in the same order every year. Dandelion and bitter mustard greens are first–just the thing winter stagnated livers need to jump start healthy metabolisms. Garlic mustard is very easy to find, since it is an invasive problem in many areas. I always freeze and dry some of any greens I find for the season, for addition to stews and soups during the off season. The best part of this early season foraging is that the weather is often spectacular (or very rainy), with no bugs, and tourists are definitely nowhere to be seen.
Ramp (wild leek) season comes next, while the forest is still relatively bare and the undergrowth waits for warmer weather, the leeks rule the cool interior, where shade and moisture provide the perfect conditions. Some unscrupulous foragers go crazy when they find a good ramp patch and decimate the population in hopes of making a pocket-full of money selling to gourmet retailers. I will never understand this, since it takes 20 years to establish such numbers. Taking a leaf from each plant provides super-nutrition, exceptional peppery/garlicy taste to multiple dishes, and does not kill the plant. This plant is the harbinger of a bounty of foraging, for which I have learned takes a little planning.
During the 3 weeks the ramps are growing, there are a number of other plants maturing at the same time. Many people do not know about one of my favorites—Chickweed. I make a fantastic pesto from this lowly garden invader, with rave reviews from friends and family. Its mild and moist qualities make it an excellent salad addition and ingredient for a moistening/healing balm. Traditional herbal medicine credits this plant as being useful for moistening the body internally as well, with many references to improving fat digestion and storage. I always gather so much of this that I am busy processing in the kitchen for a couple days after a harvest. But there no relaxing.
I obsessively must check fiddle head progress often, finding my patch by carefully spying last year’s dried ostrich ferns. Each bundle has a couple of babies poking their round coiled heads up, still covered in the brown paper bag-like husks that protect them.
Fiddle heads are a fleeting delicacy from baby ostrich ferns, before they uncoil. The U shaped groove and their particular husks help identify this great edible, but be careful…it is among several plants that are great to eat at one stage of growth, but poisonous in another. The mature fronds are toxic. The prized tendrils are a bit like asparagus, but come in great numbers all at once. The time to capture them only lasts about a week. Your patch of ostrich ferns can be kept like pets. Groom them of only 1-2 fronds per bundle every year and they will keep producing for you in your favorite shady and moist spot. They don’t freeze as well as I would like—sometimes the stems become too tough to eat, but canning and pickling work just fine.
This year I was thrilled to find a large patch of watercress on a friend’s land at this same time. Watercress isn’t a native plant; in fact it can be quite invasive, so all the more reason to thin it out. Europeans brought this plant with them when they settled here because they loved it so much. It has a wonderful and slightly peppery taste with plenty of much needed green power and nutrition. Be careful that they are growing in a clean water source and cut the leaves from the roots (where parasites etc. can live).This plant even has a reputation of having aphrodisiac powers! I have eaten quite a bit of this in the last few weeks, and my husband is still waiting for this particular effect.
Stinging Nettles also are ready to harvest at this same time! I usually wait until they are about a foot tall and harvest the whole plant, stems and all. Later, I trim off the new growth until it is seeding. My favorite ways to process them is like most greens. Steamed or boiled with lemon and butter, or if that gets old, this is another great pesto maker. I am still surprised how few people know about the value of this plant both for medicine and food. It is especially esteemed by Native and European herbalism for its effects on a stagnant system (yow!). The stingers go away when you steam or boil it for 10-15 min. and I have also noticed that a food processor takes care of them as well. They can be used in place of spinach in any recipe. They are deeply satisfying and delicious, mainly because they have an amazing nutritional profile. Look it up!
At this moment, I am awaiting morel season. It is next on the unfolding list. And it just rained.
If you would like to learn more about wild edible mushrooms (and edible plants) and even begin foraging for them yourself, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Wild Foraging eCourse in We Are Wildness U by the author of this post, Dr. Kelley Hagenbuch. Learn identification, preparation, sustainable practices, recipes, and specific techniques to safely begin enjoying Nature’s bounty.