There are few experiences as empowering and deeply connecting as harvesting wild plants for food and medicine with loved ones. It is amazing to watch the lightbulb of realization go off when those pesky "weeds" outside our door are seen as delicious and nutritious foods that we didn't have to work to grow or purchase! Time and time again, we watch children who struggle to eat their vegetables come alive, harvesting and gobbling wild greens with amazement and excitement. Many of the plants growing in our yards and forests are edible, and some of the most common weeds were brought over by settlers for exactly this reason. And many of them are much more nutritious than farmed and store-bought vegetables because they are growing on their own, have to be hardy to survive, and are growing in conditions well suited for them, rather than being forced to grow in a garden bed, requiring fertilizers and insecticides to thrive in a human-controlled environment. Some of the wild edibles grow in a healthy forest ecosystem, but many also thrive at the edge of human disturbance. In the Greenwood, we have a little "Feral Garden". This spot used to be covered in trash from the previous land owner and Chines Privet that had marched in. As soon as those were removed, a lush blanket of edible and medicinal wild greens moved in and has been thriving ever since. We do nothing to maintain this feral garden, except pull privet every now and then to make more room for the edible greens, harvest with care, and give thanks every day for the wild abundance.
We have offered here a brief intro to some of the wild foods of early spring that are commonly available in our area, and are easy to identify and safely harvest.
These are some of our favorite plants and ways of preparing them, with links to some great articles to learn to identify them and learn more. We teach children never to harvest a wild plant unless they have the permission of an adult who knows the plant and can confirm identification. Children catch on very quickly and often learn to identify wild edibles more easily than adults! But there are also plants that look similar and an overconfident harvester might not notice the subtle differences when they are first learning. So we encourage you to do your own research as you explore and come up with your own list of plants for your family that after repeated practice in different environments you feel comfortable identifying, harvesting and incorporating into your meals and medicine.
Please also take care to notice both the conditions of the location where the plants growing and their numbers. If the plants are growing in an area that is sprayed with herbicide or there are other environmental pollutants (such as a conventionally landscaped lawn or near a road), avoid harvesting there. Also, only harvest if the plants are growing in abundance. Some plants require years and very specific conditions to flower and spread. Most of the plants listed here tend to grow prolifically and harvesting them can be beneficial for the ecosystem - especially those that are not native.
Eating wild edible foods is a journey of awareness and relationship, connecting us to the life ways of our ancestors, who ate only wild plants for millions of years, and without which we certainly wouldn't even be here! Each meeting with the plants presenting a new opportunity for learning and deeper understanding of our world. We hope that this exploration will enrich your lives as much as it has ours! Enjoy!
The young spring leaves on Beech trees are edible, abundant and delicious! We like to make a Beech leaf sauerkraut or add them to soups and salads! The trees work very hard to grow their leaves, and need them for photosynthesis, so take care not to harvest too much!
This is an incredibly delicious and nutritious wild green! We eat the stems, leaves and flowers raw hand-over-fist! If you take scissors out to a chickweed patch and harvest the top half, it grows right back! Chickweed is also an excellent all around healing herb and anti-inflammatory - great in salves, tea, tincture and herbal vinegar.
They get their name from the velcro-like texture of their hairy stalks and leaves…and for this reason eating them raw is an acquired taste. They are great in just about any cooked dish and useful medicinally in tea, tincture and salve form along with violet and chickweed. My favorite, though, is to go out in the evening, hand tear and crush the leaves before placing them in a jar, loosely filled to the top. Then I pour in spring water and let it infuse overnight. The cold-infused cleaver tea waiting for you in the morning will have an incredible green, almost fruity taste that will give you a most magical and nutritious start to your day!
This plant looks a lot like a wild strawberry, with five leaves! The leaves are edible raw or cooked and can be found along trail edges in the forest! Notice Cinquefoil’s pretty yellow spring flowers close at night and open each the morning!
The young green leaves and tendrils are tender and absolutely delicious! They're a tasty vegetable addition to cooked dishes, but usually end up a trailside snack because they are too yummy to save. Deer and rabbits like to nibble them along the trail too. If you look closely at the nipped off stems you'll be able to guess who was munching there before you!
We love to eat young Japanese Maple leaves, which have a slightly tart tasty flavor for adding to salads! We've also found the young greenish colored Samaras from our native Red Maple trees to be delicious if you harvest them before they get bitter! Follow the link below for more information on different edible Maples and ways to prepare them.
This green is an incredibly nutritious salad herb (tasty cooked as well). The young spring leaves are best as they get bitter as they get older. The seeds are edible as well. Plantain is also powerful healer for wounds and especially insect stings.
The new spring growth on the tips of branches and young male cones (before the pollen dries out and gets puffy) can be nibbled raw or cooked. We love to add them to chickweed pesto, honey soda, and stir fries (especially good with sweet potatoes and other wild greens!
The flowers and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. We love to add them to salads, soups and stir fries, as well as in making medicine - tea, tincture, herbal vinegar and salves! Violet is an incredible all around healer, with a soothing and cooling effect upon inflammation. Don’t worry too much about picking the flowers, as they have a second, hidden self-pollinating flower which ensures that they will still be able to reproduce!
The flowers are edible raw or cooked, but the leaves and stems are toxic. We love to add a bunch of the flowers to our water bottles or in a clear jar in the sun for sun tea! It has a lovely sweet taste!
Another trailside favorite for kids to harvest is the wild onion, also called wild garlic. The green tops and the bulbs are a delicious raw snack and flavoring for salads, pickles, herbal vinegars, herbal oils soups and other cooked dishes. It is possible to confuse a poisonous lily for an onion if one isn’t paying close attention. But you’ll know for sure if you just sniff it. Onions always smell like onions!
This is another tasty sour green that is a delight for children to discover in the forest. The flowers and leaves are edible! Like sheep sorrel, we find it best to nibble or sprinkle in with other greens to mellow out the strong sour flavor.
There are a few plants to watch our for and avoid while going about early spring foraging. Among these are Poison Hemlock, which looks similar to Queen Anne's Lace (an edible wild carrot), except Queen Anne's lace leaves and stems are hairy among other differences, and Poison Hemlock leaves and stems are not. Read more about Poison Hemlock here: http://www.ravensroots.com/blog/2015/6/26/poison-hemlock-id. Water Hemlock is also poisonous, and resembles other edible plants such as Sweet Cecily and Water Parsnip. Read more about Water Hemlock here: https://www.wildernesscollege.com/water-hemlock.html. Carolina Jasmine, or Yellow Jessamine flowers in early spring with a sweet, magnificent fragrance and is poisonous if ingested. The flowers bear some resemblance to Honeysuckle blossoms. You can learn more about this plant here: https://www.hunker.com/12000098/side-effects-of-eating-jasmine-flowers.
**** Best wishes from the Greenwood for your wild food journey! ****