A few weeks back, my twin boys and I took one of our epic nature hikes. As 6 year olds will do, they led me on a cross country trek that took us down a creek bed, which is absolutely mandatory if you are going to meet the goal of going home with shoes full of water and jeans wet to the butt. Aside from the fun and games though, the track they chose led me to an upcoming bonanza.
We love to forage wild foods through the spring and on into the fall. Wild berries are hands down one of our favorites in this regard. We have never been really successful at gathering significant quantities of gooseberries, but on this particular walk we may have found the mother lode we have long sought. A few yards to the sides of the creek we followed, where I was walking to avoid the wet to the butt part of the experience, I came across several expansive patches of Gooseberry plants. It is way too early for berries yet, but we now have a target area all lined out for when they start to come in.
This experience reminded me of several key elements. First, it reminded me of the importance never stopping your efforts to know your surroundings. What things were like last year is not necessarily an indicator of how they will be this year, so you have got to get out in the woods and keep track of what is available out there. The second thing it reminded me of is the importance of recognizing plants. It is easy to identify Gooseberry plants when they are full of berries, but another thing to remember what they look like in their pre-berry phase. You have to know what to look for and never stop looking.
On that same walk, with berries now on the mind, we did a couple side trips to some of our black berry spots, and to a couple of mulberry trees we know about. We just wanted to do some recon and see if we could get a handle on the potential harvests for this year. I am happy to report that things are looking quite favorable for a good berry foraging year, and the new Gooseberry patches will be a welcome addition. Wild plums are also looking very promising this year, so I see some plum jam and syrup in our future.
But, all these are a bit down the road in terms of harvests, so I decided it was time to take a look around and see what is available right now. I was not disappointed in my looking.
Some of the earliest wild foods available in the spring come in the form of wild greens. Many of the wild greens are a bit on the bitter side, and so they are not really a part of our standard diet. It is however a good idea to know them, and how to prepare them in the event that a time comes when a little bit bitter takes a back seat to a lot bit hungry. So, we keep track of where particular greens show up, put them in salads occasionally, and even cook a few now and again just to stay in practice in the event that we one day need this food source.
My favorite of the wild greens, and both pretty close to ubiquitous in the continental US, are Dandelion and Chicory. These both come up very early in the spring, and are of a distinct enough appearance (although similar to each other at the early stages) that they are easy to find and identify. Both are not bad in a salad, and are pretty darn palatable as cooked greens as well. As the season progresses and leaves get larger and tougher, cooking becomes the best option and you can do them in whatever your preferred manner of cooking greens is. My favorite for any cooked green is a bit of vinegar, a bit of sugar, and BACON added to the mix when boiling. Doesn’t get much better than that, but if you want to improve even further add some of the wild onions that come up at about the same time. Greens are a phenomenal source of vitamins, including C, and antioxidants, both very important if you find yourself in a prolonged period of crisis mode.
Still later in the season, as the roots of both these plants mature, you can use the roots like any other root vegetable. They can be eaten fresh or used in soups and stews. Chicory root is one of my all time favorite wild forage items. The roots can be dug, chopped, dried, roasted, and ground to make a wonderful coffee substitute or stretcher. I prepare many pounds of roasted Chicory root every year and use it as an addition to my coffee, this takes your cheap store brand coffee and magically transforms it into New Orleans Gourmet. In a true extended crisis, coffee will be hard to come by and if you are like me, not having to give up your morning ritual will go a long way in the morale department!
On the subject of wild foraged hot beverages, I’d like to mention one more of my top foraging picks. Hands down one of my favorites (Berries aside, of course!) is wild Chamomile. This inconspicuous little plant likes rocky and well drained soils, and one of the best places to find it is along, and even in, gravel driveways. We cut the plants off with scissors and then dry it whole in a food dehydrator. Once it is dried, we crumble it up, and we brew it like any other tea. Nothing like a steamy cup of Chamomile Tea on a cold winter night when sleep isn’t coming easy!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of wild forage plants. But it does point out the incredible diversity that is available if you have the knowledge, and keep your eyes opened! Never stop looking, never stop going into the woods, and never stop learning. Could save your life and the lives of your family one day.
Dandelion Greens with Dandelion Flower (Flower also Edible)