When you hear the word “forage” what do you think of?
As a child, I associated it with hunters and gatherers. When I started raising more livestock, it became synonymous with fodder, or feed, for livestock. These days, however, I tend to think of wildcrafting, herbs, and edible plants before anything else.
In a world where we are accustomed to convenience, why is foraging making a resurgence? For me, it’s a way to connect with the bounty around us, but it’s also a way to incorporate a variety of micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals… in a natural way. There are so many “lost” edibles, just waiting to grace your palate and expand your idea of fresh food. (Note: while I forage many plants for their medicinal properties, this post will focus on those we forage to eat.)
For many, the idea of foraging is intriguing, but also intimidating. If you don’t come from a family that foraged, it’s easy to wonder where do I start? Or how do you know if it’s safe? The question that really got me though, is how do you incorporate what you forage?
Most of us are used to hybrid varieties, often bred for sweetness you won’t find in wild counterparts. We generally see produce that has been waxed, creating a longer shelf life than wild varieties. And let’s be honest, we’re used to the ease of finding fruits and vegetables out of season.
It’s never too late to start foraging and learning about the edible plants around you. Start small – learn to identify one plant and seek to find it. Take notes. What was your first impression? How did you feel about the taste? Texture? Did you like it? Remember, these do not need to be eaten on their own – they make great ingredients! Take chickweed or purslane as an example. While I don’t mind a little straight from the plant, chopping a small handful to mix in with other salad greens is my favorite way to enjoy them.
I share a few of my current favorites wild edibles below. These are plants that I routinely forage on our property, based on the time of year. We are in the southeastern US, but many of these plants are naturalized across a wide variety of states and can be easy to find. Remember, foraging can – and should be – fun. Plus, it’s a great excuse to pick up a foraging pouch!
Looking for a great way to store extras or freeze items for later use? Try reusable storage bags. We love these.
What to forage in winter and Early Spring:
Chickweed – this delicate little green happily pops up as a winter annual in our area. I prefer to pick the young stems by pinching off the stem, allowing the plant to regrow so we can continue to harvest. This helps keep them tender. I sometimes munch on stems while I’m working outside and add sprigs to our salads or pesto. You can also use it as a green in soups.
Cleavers – Cleavers is one of those plants that is hard to mistake once you learn it. Often identified by touch as much as sight, it has many names (including sticky-willy) for the way it can ‘cling’ to things. Pick some of the aerial parts (leaves and stems) and cover with water. I let this steep in the fridge for a refreshing spring drink similar to cucumber water. Want to extend your harvest? Freeze some for use later in the year.
Redbud, Dandelion, Violet, or Honeysuckle flowers– all can be used to make delightful jellies. Dandelion may be our favorite, with a hint of lemon (from the lemon juice we add to our recipe) and sweet flavor profile similar to a light honey. We love to collect flowers in market baskets.
What to forage in Spring and Early Summer:
Young Dock Leaves – While dock often get a bad wrap for being a common weed, the young leaves are tasty, with a slightly tart lemony flavor. Once the leaves mature, the midribs of large dock leaves can be tough and fibrous. While you can remove the midrib and still eat the leaf blade, I find it easier to just harvest young leaves. They are a welcome addition to my salads, but you can also boil or sauté the leaves similar to spinach for use in stir-fries, soups, stews, egg dishes, and even cream cheese. Reusable cotton mesh grocery bags work well for large bundles of dock leaves.
Red Clover – Red clover flowers can easily be collected and air-dried for tea. I rinse them and allow them to sit out on a cooling rack to allow for maximum air flow as they dry. They make a lovely tea on their own, but mix well with mint, chamomile, and other flowers. Generally 1 tablespoon dried herbs or 2 tablespoons fresh per cup is a good place to start, adjusting for your taste. With their delicate nature, we store dried blooms in glass jars.
Sorrel – another wild green with a lemony flavor, sorrel can make a great addition to dishes. Young leaves and stems have the strongest flavor, with other stems being more mild. While sorrel can be added to salads, it’s also a popular addition to cooked dishes to add a more complex flavor profile.
What to forage in Summer and Fall:
Wild Berries and Fruit – Growing up in New England, picking wild black raspberries or blueberries in the summer was a treat. These days, our family anxiously awaits wild blackberry season. While considered invasive, we allow them to grow along the outer edges of our fields, enjoying the wild harvest they bring. We have a few microclimates due to the terrain and elevation changes, so I often get a luxuriously long 6-week blackberry window. Later in the summer, our wild grapes, elderberries, and passionflowers will bear fruit. The flavor profiles of these wild plants are sometimes sweet, often tart, but full of incredible antioxidants, make wonderful jams and preserves, and mix well with the cultivated fruits we grow.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed during the height of the summer harvest. There have been times we’ve had gallons of fruit in the fridge, waiting to be processed. While it’s incredibly gratifying to be able to grow and harvest your own food, there is also a huge sense of responsibility. If you have the room, freezing berries for processing later can ease the burden. We prefer to use thick, reusable bags like these.
Purslane – I’m always excited to see purslane pop up in our gardens. It makes a tasty green and fun addition to my summer salads. With a little more work, you can pull the leaves off (to be enjoyed as a snack) and make a sweet refrigerator pickle/relish with the stems and onions.
Bee Balm – like red clover, bee balm makes a lovely tea. I harvest leaves, stems, and flowers for tea, always cutting above the second set of leaves to allow this perennial plant to continue to grow.
Curly Dock Seeds – when our dock starts to mature and the leaves become larger, I start anxiously awaiting the ripening of the seeds. Dock plants send up a prolific amount of seeds. Once a rich, dark brown, they can easily be harvested by grabbing the stem below the seeds and sliding your hand up and knocking the seeds into your palm. Sort any leaves out and the remaining seeds can be stored to add to baked goods throughout the year for a mild buckwheat flavor. I grind as needed (a coffee grinder works well) and add to pancake mixes, waffles, quick breads (like zucchini bread), and sometimes my sourdough bread. While you can find recipes that call for adding a ratio as high as 1 part dock seeds to 3 parts flour, I find that a tablespoon or two of ground dock seeds mixed into each cup of flour is a good place to start as it can impact the rise of breads.
Nuts – While we have a few varieties of nuts on our farmstead, black walnuts are the ones we harvest to eat. Walnuts make a good alternative to pine nuts in pesto and get chopped and added to our zucchini bread, brownies, and as a garnish on one of our favorite Foxfire cake recipes.
There are hundreds of edible plants waiting for you to discover them! Remember: while tempting, it’s best not to forage plants close to a roadway or in areas where you are unsure if pesticides or chemicals have been sprayed.
Have a favorite wild edible? Drop it below along with your favorite way to enjoy it.
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