The pickup fish-tailed into my driveway just as I pulled the lawnmower cord. A lanky guy jumped out and frenetically spoke through his waving hands.
“What are you doing, man?” he asked.
“I’m about to mow my lawn,” I said.
“Those dandelions, though…” he said.
He was right; there were more yellow heads than green grass. And he wanted them all. He said I could have picked them before the yellow popped and made a tasty salad out of the stems, but he wasn’t going to make a salad. Instead, he wanted every flower head to make wine. He needed a quart of heads per bottle, but there were so many he could have filled several cases.
“Take what you want, but I want a bottle when it’s ready.”
Our deal was sealed with a handshake the way all good deals are. And truth be told, the wine was pretty good.
While I may pick some basic wild foods like fiddleheads and morels, Russ Cohen takes foraging to an entirely more-sophisticated level. The Massachusetts native began foraging in the early 1970s after his father gifted him a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Gibbons is considered by many to be foundational in making foraging popular, and his efforts were so significant that some several decades later, Gibbons is credited with increasing awareness of the locavore and foraging movements.
“Foraging gets people in touch with nature in a visceral and tangible way, and can enhance hunters’, anglers’, and others’ enjoyment of the outdoors,” says Cohen. “While I share the delicious details of over forty species of wild plants in my own book Wild Plants I’ve Known and Eaten, I added a chart based on 40 years of experience that denotes the time of year when the edible portions of each species are ripe.”
It saves foragers a tremendous amount of guesswork. Yet that’s just a subset of a much larger group of plants that provide foraging opportunities. There are over 200 edible plant species in just New England alone, and foraging can be a great complementary activity to engage in while on a hunting or fishing expedition.
To whet your wild appetite, here are some of Cohen’s favorite wild plant species.
To truly enjoy dandelions you have to pick them before they become bitter, which is before the flowers open. Dandelion buds are one of Cohen’s favorite vegetables. He describes their flavor as a combination of corn, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and artichoke hearts and recommends boiling them for only 60 seconds before eating or incorporating into different dishes. Winemakers wait until the buds are fully opened and are a bright yellow. One quart of flowers is all that is required for a bottle. If you don’t pick them at that point, they’ll move on to seed.
Wild leeks, also known as ramps, are a member of the onion family. The cities of Chicago and Winooski, Vermont, are derived from Native American words for wild onions growing there, which Cohen thinks were actually wild leeks. While ramps can occasionally be found in large patches comprised of thousands of plants, Cohen urges wild harvesters not to dig plants where they are less prolific. He recommends taking only one leaf per plant, leaving the remaining leaf attached to the bulb, and leaving the bulb in the ground. Fortunately, the leaves are delicious in and of themselves and are great for making pesto, ramp butter, and anything you’d use green onions or garlic scapes for.
Knotweed thrives in river bottoms where there is seasonal disturbance from ice out. Spring floods wash ice flows down the rivers and turn over the land as efficiently as a farmer using a discer. Hunters see big knotweed stands in the fall as they transition from strong green reeds into brittle, brown bamboo-like stalks. Late April is the best time to pick green shoots that emerge from the ground amongst last year’s stalks. Cut the shoots when they are about 18 inches tall. Peeled Knotweed stalks are tart and juicy, with a flavor reminiscent of a Granny Smith apple. You can also chop up the peeled stalks and use them as a substitute for rhubarb in a recipe, such as in Strawberry-Knotweed Pie. The two species are related and have a similar flavor.
Many foragers stay away from stinging nettles because of the skin pain that comes from contact with the species’ formic acid-armed hairs. Nettles typically grow in patches of 100 plants or more and favor loamy soil along the edges of plowed fields. They like sun and can be eaten in the early spring right after they come up and are up to a foot tall. If you get stung, look in the nearby area for curled dock. Crush up curled dock and rub it in the affected area. It’s like rubbing sand on a red jellyfish sting, and there is an old New England saying: ‘Nettle in, Dock out.’ Stinging nettles are delicious steamed and can be easily frozen. They make a wonderfully flavorful cream of stinging nettle soup. Save the potlikker or the green water used when steaming for a soup base.
Black locust is commonly used for fence posts because it doesn’t rot. The wood seasons quickly and is also great for the fireplace. There is only one edible part of this species, the flower clusters, and they are typically available for only a couple weeks in mid-spring. Cohen describes the flowers as smelling like jasmine and tasting like sweet pea pods (black locust is a member of the pea family). Before you pick the entire flower cluster, pull down the branch and smell their fragrance. Flower clusters with a strong, sweet aroma should be harvested while those with a dull smell or no smell at all are past their prime. Eat raw with a dash of honey, add them to a salad, or make fritters from them.
Groundnuts are also in the pea family, and are related to peanuts, but their main edible parts aren’t true nuts, they are potato-like tubers. Look for a stringy, vine-like plant that is above the ground and then dig a few inches underground to find the tubers below. These tubers grow in damp, sandy soil and are easily dug up. They are high in starch and protein and can be boiled and mashed like a potato. Another way to prepare them is to wash and slice them, and fry the slices in oil, just as you would a potato chip. Eat them quickly with a dash of salt.
Every waterfowler sees cattails, and though the ‘hot dog’ part (the mature seed head) isn’t edible, the rest of the plant is. The small sprout at the base is next year’s cattail and can be found year-round. They taste similar to cucumbers, so add sprouts to salads or steam and eat them. The roots are also quite good, and can be harvested and processed to make a flour substitute for pancakes, muffins, and cookies. The hearts are in the middle of the stalks, and they are delicious and also taste like cucumbers. Select stalks that are two to three feet tall and remove the outer shell, then chop the heart into a salad.
Many people dislike pokeweed because it grows where they don’t want it to grow. In the fall, the berries and mature foliage are poisonous, making people dislike the plant even more. That being said, when pokeweed shoots are less than a foot tall in mid-spring, they are delicious. Just cut the shoot above the root (which is also poisonous), boil them for seven minutes, and eat them like asparagus.
Because they make for great wind direction indicators, mature milkweed pods have been utilized by hunters for years. What some might not know, however, is that several parts of common milkweed are edible. The shoots that emerge from the ground, until they are about eight inches tall, can be picked in mid-May. The leaf clusters found at the top of older plants are good for salads in mid-June. The young flower buds that look like broccoli clusters are terrific, too. Even the young (up to one inch long) pods are edible, with a texture and flavor similar to green beans. Use the same cooking method as pokeweed (boil for seven minutes), and then add to soup, omelets or casseroles. Cooked milkweed can be frozen for later use. Before harvesting this species though, please bear in mind its crucial role as a host plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, and make sure you are leaving plenty of plants behind for them to munch on as well.
Juneberry, also known as shadbush or serviceberry, makes for great pie fillings. They’re equally delicious in pancakes, muffins, and bread. Juneberries are a little bland, so combine them with a tart berry like black raspberries.
Not to be confused with the poison sumac that resembles poison ivy (with loose, drooping clusters of greenish-white berries), staghorn sumac is a shrub that sports tight, upright clusters of red fruit beginning in mid-summer. To tell if the berries are ripe, lick your finger, insert it in the berry cluster and taste. If the flavor is pleasantly tart, they’re ready. Pick the berry clusters, immerse in a bowl of water for several minutes, and rub the berries to impart their red color, tart flavor, and vitamin C content into the water, then strain and serve sweetened or unsweetened, hot or cold. Cohen prefers to serve his sweetened and cold, like pink lemonade.
The shaggy bark of the Shagbark hickory tree is easy to spot. A tree must be over 30 years of age before the bark gets shaggy, but they have a long lifespan that yields many nuts. The four-parted shagbark husk is soft, and nuts often break out of it upon impact with the ground. Like most nuts, a stout cracker or a hammer breaks the meat free. The nuts usually fall from the trees from mid-September through Halloween, with the best harvest coming in early October. They’re absolutely delicious raw, but even better roasted for a few minutes in a toaster oven. Add the nuts to pies, muffins, granola, or cereal. Plant a few of the freshly-fallen nuts to grow into new trees, especially if you want to decrease your mosquito population. Juvenile bats roost under the bark of a mature tree and can eat 1,200 mosquitoes per hour.
From early October and into November, the prolific fruit of the autumn olive is relished by many birds, mammals and (for those in the know) people. There is a seed in the center of the fruit, so most people cook the berries for 30 minutes before creating a puree that makes for easy seed separation. Autumn olive is rich in lycopene which is thought to reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Cohen says that the best species for foragers is the common or European barberry—the flavor of its fruit is far superior to that of the Japanese barberry, an invasive species despised by ecologists. European barberry grows six to eight feet tall and has toothed leaves with two or three branched spines. The tart flavor is similar to cranberries and is best served with venison or made into jelly. Both species contain the compound berberine, which is believed to support liver health.
Not a fan of those prickly round burrs that stick to your dog, pants, and shirts in the fall? While that part of the plant isn’t edible, most of it is. Burdock is a biennial, which means it has a two-year life cycle. The best time to harvest the roots is in the middle of the plant’s first growing season through the beginning of the second growing season. The roots are best boiled. If you’re not a fan of digging, then cut the developing flower stalks on the second-year plants when they are between one and two feet tall. Peel the outer skin to remove the stringy parts, as you would a stalk of celery, and boil. A third option is to pick the leaf stems, dip them in egg and breadcrumbs, and fry in oil. If the taste reminds you of artichokes, it’s probably because the two plants are related.
Foragers prowling near the coast frequently run into an overlooked fruit, the Beach plum. Like many fruits, they’re ready for harvest in the late summer. They come by their name honestly as the texture is plum-like, although their diminutive size more closely resembles a cultivated cherry rather than a plum. Their taste is tart, making them a favorite for jams and jellies.
While you’re picking catnip for your feline, you might want to pick some for yourself. Catnip doesn’t wind up people the same way it cranks up an old tomcat. In fact, the effect is actually calming. If you’re stressed because a 160-class whitetail or giant longbeard kicked your butt, toss some leaves into boiling water and drink as a tea. Use more leaves for a stronger cup.
If you’re looking for a plant that can be harvested in the spring, fall, and even winter, chickweed is it. The weed is common to farms and gardens and can be eaten cooked or raw. All above-ground parts can be eaten, with the leaves tasting like spinach and the stems tasting like raw corn. Add it to salads or use as a lettuce substitute on a sandwich.
Lamb’s quarters are also known as pigweed, wild spinach, and goose foot. The latter is most appropriate because it has leaves shaped like a goose’s foot. The young plants have a mild flavor, and anything above ground may be eaten. Use it in any recipe that calls for spinach, raw or cooked.
Red oaks have leaves with pointed edges, while those of a white oak are rounded. All acorns can be rendered palatable once the bitter tannins have been leached out, but white oak acorns generally have less tannic acid content, which requires less processing. For a unique taste, shell the acorns, boil in water for a few minutes to leach out the tannins, repeat as necessary, and then dry by placing the nuts on a cookie sheet in a warm oven. Then, place the nuts in a food processor and grind into a coarse flour to use in muffins, pancakes, or other baked goods.
While there are over two hundred species of edible wild plants in New England and dozens of species of edible mushrooms, only a relative few (like ramps, fiddleheads, and morels) get the attention. Study your own region for the available species and the best time of year to gather them. Odds are, you can forage while scouting, hunting, and fishing. The combination is a winning one, particularly when you sit down for a hunted and gathered meal.