There is still snow covering the land outside my window, but in many places spring has settled in and the plants are beginning to thrive. Bright green chickweed, tender nettles, and little purple violets cover the ground and offer us the first gifts of the season. Taking a walk in the woods to collect your own food is a lot of fun, and also a great way to nourish yourself and help your body ease into the warmer months.
There are so many great things to forage for right now, but here I want to share just a few of my favorite plants to gather in the spring. These are all easy to identify and simple to use - perfect if you're just diving into the world of foraging and want to try your hand at it.
But first, a bit about the practice of wildcrafting itself.
What is Wildcrafting?
Wildcrafting, or foraging, is essentially collecting wild plants for food or medicine. While this concept can seem intimidating and utterly alien to our modern grocery store-shopping, take-out food mindset, the truth is foraging for food is something people have done since the beginning of time (more or less), and continue to do, moreso in some places than others. It doesn’t take any special skills to identify and collect your own food; there isn't some secret knowledge required. All you need is a little patience, a good field guide, and the time to get to know the plants around you. As you study them, the green allies of field and forest will become like familiar friends, and you'll begin to feel totally comfortable eating from the wild.
Harvesting your own food can be fulfilling and empowering, creating a sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Your connection to the land strengthens. Watching the earth's patterns of growth, flowering, and death makes you mindful of your local environment, helps you walk closer with nature, and keeps you in tune with the ebb and flow of the seasons. To me, it's a grounding, spiritual practice.
A few tips before getting started:
- Know beyond the shadow of the doubt that you have a positive ID. If you aren't sure, don't eat it. Better safe than sorry!
- Take only what you need, and harvest responsibly. Make sure you aren't collecting from endangered populations.
- Be sure the soil in the area you are harvesting from is clean and well away from roadsides, pavement, and railroad tracks.
- Respect the plants and offer them your gratitude.
Ok, now for the fun stuff!
Early Spring Edibles
Dandelion (Taraxicum officinalis)
Many aspersions are cast on these sunny, prolilfic weeds. Most lawn treatment packages and commercials depict their untimely death, conveying a feeling of triumph over this pesky yellow enemy. Most people do not realize the gift they are passing up when they eradicate dandelions. Cast them not from your presence! All parts of this little plant are edible, from the sweet flower heads to the earthy roots. They are full of gentle medicine, and can really be thought of as a full-body spring tonic.
The leaves are a powerful bitter, helping to get the stomach going to make digestion easier (which is especially helpful after a long winter of eating heavy foods). After giving them a quick rinse, they can easily be tossed into a salad as an extra green, or sauteed with a little salt and butter or oil. The flowers can be eaten raw, tossed in a salad, or sauteed as well. (They can also be made into dandelion wine, although that recipe is a bit too complicated to get into here!)
The roots have an affinity for the gallbladder and especially the liver, supporting it so that it can more easily do its job of filtering toxins and keeping you healthy. The roots can be tinctured, or dried and later decocted. The roasted roots, ground up, make a really nice coffee substitute and taste great mixed into hot chocolate, too.
Violets (Viola odorata)
Wild violets! Who doesn't feel their heart lift when they see those first little purple flowers bloom? After crocuses, they are the first flower I see in the spring. The leaves and flowers are edible and high in vitamins C and A. Tossing a few of these in your bowl is a great way to really up your salad game and impress your friends (and enemies?). The leaves are also demulcent, meaning they have, well, a bit of a slimy, moistening consistency. Just chew one and you'll see what I mean. A tea of the leaves makes a soothing drink to calm a sore throat or digestive upset.
In the Wise Woman tradition of herbalism, the violet is a special companion for women, supporting our health and overall well being. Violets move the lymph and help to keep our tissues healthy.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Stellaria means little star in Latin - when you look closely, you'll see why this plant was given her name; she has tiny white flowers that seem to shine out from her mass of green leaves and stems. Growing like a lush green carpet in the spring, chickweed likes cooler temperature and shade. In warmer regions, she disappears in the hottest part of the summer and returns again in the fall.
A highly nutritious edible, chickweed is also a strong lymph mover. This is such an important action after a long, stagnant winter. The sapponins in Chickweed will clear you out, get you flowing, and help you to eliminate toxins from your body. I've seen it used to good effect to help clear ovarian cysts and promote overall female reprodutive health. Applied topically, chickweed is very cooling, soothing and gentle, and is often combined with other healing herbs to create a salve to treat diaper rash, eczema, and dry irritated skin.
To harvest chickweed, just trim the top half of the greens; this actually encourages growth, and she'll be thriving again quickly. I don't suggest drying chickweed - if you intend to use her for medicine, I think it's best to make a tincture of the fresh plant.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Garlic mustard is another hated and despised plant. An invasive, it spreads like wildfire and chokes out native plants. But it is also delicious. So let's eat it to beat it.
A member of the brassicaceae, or cabbage, family, this plant is highly nutritious, mildly bitter and, well, garlicky mustardy. When it springs up in my yard, I blend it into pesto, toss it onto pizzas and pastas, and add it to salads. The root can also be dried and used as a substitute for horseradish/wasabi.
Wild Garlic (Allium vineale)
When I tell people they can eat these little wild onions, their reaction is usually one of pure excitement, followed by the admission that since childhood they've wondered if they could eat that delicious garlicky grass that grew on their lawn every spring. I was one of those kids, too, and now I'm here to tell you that you can, and you should!
These guys are usually the first thing I see (and eat!) in the very early spring. They poke up through the late winter snow, dotting the drab surroundings with little sprays of hollow, dark green shoots.
When you pull them up from the ground, they look like mini onions. I trim the green tops, chop them up, and add them to rice, biscuits, salads, dips, pesto, or really anything where chives or scallions would be used. The bulbs can be used in place of garlic or onion in most recipes, and are nice pickled and eaten as an appetizer, too.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
I think I work with nettle more than any other plant. There are always big bunches of it drying in my herb room during the summer. I always include it in tea blends and tinctures, even if just in very small amounts. It has a very high concentration of chlorophyll, iron, calcium, other trace minerals, fats, vitamins and protein. It's gentle, but has a powerful beneficial affect on the entire body. It's builds you up. I could go on and on, but I'll save my further nettle musings for another time...
Urtica dioica a is a perennial that grows everywhere in North America. They like moist areas near water and grow in big, spreading families. The whole plant is covered in tiny hairs that contain formic acid (if you're not sure what you're looking at is stinging nettle, just touch it and wait for the sting...). I harvest and use the top third of the young plants (before they go to seed), but the seeds and root are sometimes used to make medicines for certain indications as well.
When I first started foraging for nettle, I always wore gloves to avoid getting stung, but over time I've found that if you ask them nicely and handle them carefully, they won't sting you. But hey, there's no shame in wearing gloves while harvesting them if you want to avoid a sting here and there. Thankfully, the formic acid dies away shorty after they're cut. Pro tip: if you get stung, look around for yellowdock, plantain, or jewelweed. Crush up a leaf and put it on the sting - the pain should subside pretty quickly.
Nettles are also really easy to prep and eat. I find them the most delicious when sauteed in a little olive oil and sea salt. I've also made them into a pesto, substituted them for spinach in various dishes, tossed them into a soup or broth as a potherb, and dried them to use as a nourishing tea.
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
This little plants loves to hang around in yards and suburban areas, it's green leathery leaves spreading everywhere and covering the ground. A member of the mint family, ground ivy has a slightly bitter, minty taste.
It adds a nice bite to salads, and the leaves and flowers make a tasty tea that can help to soothe the respiratory system. You can also infuse it in honey, or make a delicious vinegar for your salads.
Very similar relatives of ground ivy are Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) and Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) seen below, respectively. Both of these are mints, are high in vitamins and antioxidants, and make nice teas, pot herbs, and additions to salads.
So, thinking about doing a little foraging this spring? Have you tried any of these plants before? Any fun recipes? Drop a comment!