Springtime is long at last here and it’s time to take full advantage of the fantastic wild food sources that are beginning to burst from the earth. Spring is my favorite time of year to do food foraging, because there are some particularly special offerings. Spring is all about fresh beginnings: light greens, tender shoots, and cool roots. Here are some suggestions of wild plants that you can find this Spring!
Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica)
Japanese knotweed first came to North America as an import to fill the niches of Central Park. Little did the designers of Central Park know what an incredibly and powerfully invasive plant Japanese Knotweed would be in the North American ecosystem. If you live in the northeastern part of the United States, especially, Japanese Knotweed shoots will be incredibly easy to find once you know what you are looking for! It is known as being a bit of a doomsday plant that will take over your yard and garden if you do not sufficiently eradicate it, and so it very much falls into the “weeds” category of human perception.
- Ecosystem Services: While Japanese Knotweed can completely take over and drown out all competitors in an ecosystem, it would be easy to cast it off as a completely unhelpful plant. All living things, however, play some role in the system, and so though we may need to look a little harder, its service is certainly there. Since knotweed spreads mostly through waterways, it plays a very important role in the maintenance of river and stream banks. It also will fill in at the sides of roads where very few other plants can grow. The side of the road in springtime can be caked with semi-frozen sand and salt and little knotweed shoots will still be popping through. As it covers so much ground, it also stabilizes the ground in which it grows. It also sends out many blooms and so serves as a nectary for insects.
- Where to Find: As described above, knotweed likes to fill in the gaps and edges between waterways and roadsides. If there is a little stream flowing through your neighborhood, I suggest you go out and look for a small, straight shoot popping out of the ground along its edge. A neighborhood that has a stream that crosses a road would be especially good! The shoot will be a pale green with layers of light-colored sheath moving their way up the shoot in waves. The tips of the sheaths will be just a little maroon. Cut the base of the shoot when they are 6 to 12 inches long. Any longer and they will be a little too woody to eat.
- Human Use: Japanese Knotweed is a food! There also exist claims that it can be juiced and used as a medicine for Lyme disease. To use it as a simple food, however, you can treat knotweed the same way you would very young asparagus or rhubarb. The knotweed shoots will need to be peeled (especially if they are a bit older in age) to remove the slightly woody sheath on the outside. Once that has been done, it’s as simple as steaming the shoots and serving them with oil and salt, adding them to eggs benedict, stir fry, or even casseroles! I’ve made a Japanese Knotweed and strawberry vegan pie that was delicious! I peeled the shoots, chopped them up, and added them to my fruit filling just like any other fruit pie.
Other types of shoots very much like Japanese Knotweed that you may find in the wilderness are wild asparagus, which will grow on water’s edge in fields, and actual bamboo shoots. I’ve found wild asparagus in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. Bamboo can also be found in waterways in the Pacific Northwest but be sure to positively identify the shoots you are collecting from a guide to your specific region.
Burdock Root (Arctium)
- Ecosystem Services: The burdock flower looks much like a thistle and the pollinators love it! It serves as an important nectary for native insects. Like other docks, it is also a dynamic accumulator that has a large root system capable of pulling up important minerals from deep in the soil and depositing them in its leaves.
- Where to Find: Burdock, much like other weeds I mention, likes to fill the gaps. I have found it on the far edge of my narrow driveway, between my trashcans, growing out of the yard, and sprouting up between the asphalt and building of an alleyway. It’s a total opportunist that seems to thrive, especially in the central region of North America, although it can be found all over. Learn to identify the shape of the leaves and the looks of the flowers. I learned about burdock because I had one growing in my driveway in the same place, year after year, and I finally learned what it was! The same dock is still growing there, lending me its medicine, without any input from me.
- Human Use: Burdock root must be harvested in the early springtime for its medicinal benefits. Once the root becomes seasoned with the passing of the summer, the medicinal constituents will have moved on. You can dig up a small portion of the root which should be cleaned, chopped, and dried. This can be added to any recipe you use to make a purifying, detoxing tonic. I like to use it in a detox tea with dandelion root, nettle, and lemon. Burdock root excels at treating acne and can be made into a tea, cooled and then used as a face toner or in a facial steam.
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia)
The fern shoots, also known as fiddleheads because of their unique and uncanny resemblance to a literal fiddlehead, went through a bit of a gastronomic fad a couple of years ago, but I have only ever had them slathered in cheese and butter. I hope to be able to prepare them myself in more creative and healthy ways, because these little ferns are an incredible wild food source that can be found in many woods! It is also a resilient crop when harvested mindfully and respectfully.
- Ecosystem Services: Ferns populate forest floors, and wet spots, gently clustering their roots into a tight, inextricable crown that keeps the soil on the floor and available to their neighboring trees. Their leaves serve as shelter for native insects, and, as one of the oldest plants on the planet, they do a fantastic job of growing wherever they can!
- Where to Find: They are especially easy to find in wet, acidic forests. They can tolerate growing under pine trees but do best in slightly shaded forests near marshes, wetlands and rivers. The fiddleheads will be growing close to the ground, much like knotweed shoots. They will be pushing straight out of the soil where the fern’s root system has been hibernating for the winter. Look for a nice and tightly spiraling shoot with soft reddish-brown hairs that slough off easily. Collect only one or two fiddleheads from any plant and make sure there are multiple plants in the area where you are harvesting.
- Human Use: Follow the rules of asparagus! Fern shoots are a food source, much needed in the early spring! They can be steamed or boiled until their green absolutely pops and served with oil and salt, or they make a great addition to casseroles. I am particularly in love with the idea of making a creamy, smooth soup out of the fiddleheads. It is much like a cauliflower soup with onions, garlic, vegetable stock, and oil that it then blended to delicious perfection! Also be sure to check out these awesome recipe ideas!
Have fun getting out in the precious Spring sunlight and foraging for these amazing foods. As always, please remember the Honorable Harvest: Do not take the first plant you see, ask permission, take only what you need, and give thanks. When we practice the Honorable Harvest, we are making sure we are meeting our needs as well as the needs of the plants that have given us these great resources in the first place. Happy Harvesting!