GARDEN WORKS: Gathering what nature provides in springtime (Conclusion)


by  Emily Cates

Conclusion (read Part 1 here)

In Part 1 of the previous article about foraging for wild foods in the springtime, we explored “The Forager’s 10 Commandments.” With that under our belts, we’re ready to hit the trail and forage. Whether it be on a garden path or in the deep woods, nature generously provides delicious, edible plants for our enjoyment and health. I’ve singled out six of them for today: dandelions, fiddleheads, groundnut, Jerusalem artichokes, nettles, and ramps. Though they are universally known to be safe and are usually easy to identify in our area, please use good sense and sensibilities when dealing with them. Consult your physician if you have health concerns and questions.

I have tried every and regularly consume most of the plants we will talk about, and I hope you enjoy them as much as many other wild-food enthusiasts and myself do.

Center, in bowl, groundnuts. Counter clockwise from top left, fiddleheads, Jerusalem artichokes, ramps, nettles and dandelion greens.

Now we will take a minute and explore the wild foods mentioned above. Let’s start with dandelions. Taraxicum spp. are a commonly known weed with a rosette of jagged, lance-shaped leaves and a yellow flower which turns into a white globe of fluffy seeds that float around when dispersed. The entire plant is edible and most often harvested in the spring and fall when its bitterness is minimized. It is said to be good for detoxification and for building the blood. I like to steam the greens and serve with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and a pinch of salt. Delicious! When young, the sweet flower heads are good too, raw or cooked. Some winemakers tediously pull off the flower pedals, leaving the green sepals at the base of the bloom, and make them into dandelion wine. (I haven’t tried this yet successfully, but if you have accomplishments in this area, I would like to hear from you!) Also, the root makes a lovely herbal “coffee.” I simply dig up, scrub, slice into pieces, and roast. The dried root can be stored in jars whole or ground. Maybe not exactly like conventional coffee, but wonderful in its own right in the evenings or when relaxing.

Most folks in this area are acquainted with fiddleheads, the unfurled fronds of the Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris. Commonly found in groups of about three to 12 along the banks of rivers, streams, and brooks, they are identified by being coiled, close to the ground, and about an inch in diameter. A brown, paper-like covering clings to the coiled part, and along the stem is indented with a U-shaped groove. Fiddleheads must be cleaned before use, a potentially time-consuming activity if large amounts are harvested. I’ve heard of someone using a pressure washer to blast off the brown papery scales, and the job was done in a jiffy. I always just clean them by hand – it’s not as bad a job as it sounds as long as you don’t have more than a few pounds to process. Be sure to cook thoroughly, they are delicious with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. For more information on fiddlehead identifying, cleaning, cooking, and recipes, check out this link from the UMaine Cooperative Extension.

Groundnut, Apios americana, has the history of being essential to the survival of many peoples, including natives of the era of pre-European contact, and also the settlers of early colonial America. This twining, climbing, leguminous vine with marble to golf-ball-sized tubers grows vigorously and is oftentimes found at areas where Native Americans once inhabited. The pink and maroon flowers are especially fragrant when they appear in August, and one can even smell them before they are seen. I recall walking by China Lake many times as a child smelling this fragrance, wondering for a good part of my life what it was. How delighted I was to finally discover what it was and that it was edible when cooked! High in protein, the tubers can be cleaned and then cooked in a variety of ways that highlight their nut-like flavor. They are said to keep indefinitely if dried.

Jerusalem Artichokes, Helianthus tuberosus, is a native, vigorous, tuber-forming species of sunflower. Another plant commonly found around abandoned Native American sites, sunchokes – as they are also known – can be dug up anytime of year and their water-chestnut like flavor and texture enjoyed raw or cooked. I have a hard time recommending it because of the spirited gas it produces in many folks, myself included!

Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, is one plant you really don’t want in your garden – but if it is, then it at least can compensate for its presence by its culinary and nutritional qualities. This plant actually stings when brushed up against, releasing irritating substances such as histamine via tiny hypodermic-needle-like trichomes on the leaves, stems, and rhizomes. The plant does not sting when cooked or dried, however, and makes a very pleasant and rejuvenating spring green with a spinach-like flavor. One look at the cooking water and there is no question this plant is plum loaded with minerals. I love to drink this infusion and the pick-me-up it gives. Just a tablespoonful in a quart jar of water makes a dazzling bright green concoction that can be enjoyed throughout the day as needed.

Ramps, Allium tricoccum, is the last but certainly not least, foraged food we’ll look at today. Before I go on about the glories of the wild leek, I must pause to caution everyone to be mindful that this herb with unparalleled gustatory virtues is considered a species of “special concern” with regard to its conservation status here in Maine. If you ever forage this precious treasure, please do as the Cherokee do in Appalachia and cut it above the roots so that it can grow back. It would be a sad day indeed if the ramps disappeared!

This plant is so beloved that numerous festivals each springtime in the Eastern U.S. are dedicated to ramps. Great numbers are often harvested for these festivals with no regard to conservation. I don’t mean at all to spoil the fun, but I think all who love ramps should be mindful of how they are harvested so this highly esteemed wild food will continue to delight humankind. As with many alliums, ramps is perennial, bulb-forming, and leek or scallion-like in appearance, fragrance, and flavor. (Actually, a better description might involve the declaration that it is the most delicious leek or scallion ever, with a wild side.) I never had a chance to try them until last year, and I was so happy I did. I put them in a stir-fry, and wow!

So, here our journey into the wild ends for now. Enjoy springtime and all nature has to offer in this beautiful time of year.


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