Get Wild!

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wild

Great local eats are ripe for the picking

Story by Samantha Marsh | Photos by Elaine Papa | Recipe photos by Dominic Perri

We made it to summer. We really did! I know ... I, too, can hardly believe it. The days are long, the air is warm, and the farmers’ markets are bustling every weekend. Seeds are planted and growing, and we are finally beginning to reap the benefits of our (and our local farmers’) hard work and anticipation of this season. While every year I look forward to the bounty of local produce at farm stands, markets, and stores, I also embrace this season because of the abundance of wild foods available in our own backyards! As a wild foods novice, I was lucky enough to sit down with Brittany Nickerson of Thyme Herbal in Amherst to talk all about harvesting wild foods and to learn which foods are available to us this time of year.

Brittany is a practicing herbalist who works with private clients and teaches courses in herbal medicine. One of the ways Brittany supports her students is by encouraging them to develop relationships with the natural world. She leads herb walks, teaches introductory and advanced classes and workshops, and organizes a local herbal meetup group. Brittany helped to develop the wild foods class at Greenfield Community College and taught a wild foods class at Just Roots Farm this spring.

Harvesting wild foods “promotes a connection with your environment,” Brittany says. “There are so many parallels between the growth patterns and cycles of nature, and our own lives and health. When we tune in to the channel of the natural world, the potential is there to be in better harmony,” she says. By simply being aware of what plants are growing at different times of year, we immediately form a connection to our surroundings. Through this, “we are given the opportunity to be in tune with such cycles both within and around us.” There are many wild foods and plants that pop up around the Valley during the spring and summer months. Often, a single plant may have many edible parts, so it is possible to harvest from the same type of plant throughout the summer months. Below, Brittany and I have outlined four wild edibles that are common to this area. Have fun, explore, and then head to the kitchen!

SAFE IDENTIFICATION

Make sure to pay close attention and be careful when identifying plants. If you are not sure if the plant you located is edible or safe for consumption, err on the side of caution. The plants featured here do not have many poisonous look-alikes, but always be cautious when harvesting a wild plant for the first time.

Always be aware of possible contamination from chemicals or pollution (such as on the side of the road or runoff from a nearby farm) when harvesting wild plants. For detailed information about wild harvesting, check out:

• The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants (Forager’s Harvest, 2006), or Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants (Forager’s Harvest, 2010), both by Samuel Thayer.

• For herb classes, walks, and workshops, visit ThymeHerbal.com.

CATTAIL (Typha spp.)

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Cattail is another great wild food as it is easily recognizable and also delicious! There are two types of cattail, Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf), but they can be used interchangeably.

Identification

Cattail is found in wet areas throughout North America in densely packed stands. Cattail can be five to nine feet tall, and have sword-like leaves with a pointed tip. The leaves don’t have a midline or center vein, like some leaves do, but instead are grass-like in appearance. The leaves are packed together in tight clusters, similar to how a leek would grow, and then form a seed head that resembles a hot dog! Cattail shouldn’t be mistaken for sweet flag (calamus) which is not poisonous, but is not palatable, or a member of the iris family (members of the iris family are poisonous)––neither of which grow as tall as cattail or have the seed head that looks like a hot dog. To be sure, consult a field guide prior to harvesting.

Harvesting

There are several parts of the cattail that are edible, but the most common (and most delicious) part to eat is the heart of the cattail, which is known as the shoot. The shoot is the interior luster of growing leaves that is available midspring through early summer. To harvest, pull back the outer layer of leaves of the cattail spear to reveal the heart. Hold onto the heart as close to the base as possible, and pull up. Sometimes this is all you need to do. If you attempt this and the shoot does not pull cleanly from the root, you may want to try using a knife to cut the shoot at the base.

Benefits and Use

Cattail shoots contain many nutrients such as beta carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. The cattail shoot is tender, mild tasting, and delicious when sautéed or chopped up like a leek. It is wonderful added to soups, or cooked simply and eaten as a vegetable side. It has a great texture that resembles leeks, tender zucchini, or cucumbers. You can also eat the spike (hot dog part) in the early summer or the rhizome later in the summer. 

Recipe: Cattail Sauté

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DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion is such a great wild food because it is so common and easy to find! Dandelion was first brought over by European settlers, and is one of first plants to appear in spring. Dandelion is a very bitter plant. The leaves are the most tender and the least bitter in the early spring, but are still delicious throughout the summer!  

Identification

Dandelion can vary in shape but generally has leaves that have deeply toothed lobes with a pointed or blunt tip. The leaves tend to get wider toward the tip and grow in clusters, forming a rosette. Dandelion leaves are a light to dark green color, and are typically four to 15 inches long. The ubiquitous yellow dandelion flower grows on a single, hollow, leafless stem that comes from the center of the rosette. Sometimes, a white latex will leak from the stem when it breaks. This is completely safe!

Dandelions are perennials, and can be found growing in fields, roadsides, or yards. Make sure not to harvest dandelions for consumption in yards that have been sprayed with pesticides or fertilizers, as they are not food-safe chemicals. Also use caution if harvesting from roadsides.

RESPECTFUL AND SUSTAINABLE HARVESTING

“When harvesting and foraging for wild foods, be respectful of the natural environment,” Brittany suggests. Make sure to be aware and respectful of animal habitats, the damage you may be causing to other plants, and be mindful of which parts of plants you are taking (roots vs. leaf, etc). If possible, harvest the part of the plant that will still allow the plant to continue to grow.

“Make sure to only harvest what you will use, and don’t take more than the plant can handle,” Brittany says. “My rule of thumb is to harvest one plant out of 10.” Lastly, don’t harvest from the same spot over and over again, as this may lead to over-harvesting.

Harvesting

The leaf, flower, and root of a dandelion plant can all be used in some way.

The leaf and flowers can be used as food, while the root can be used as medicine.

It is best to only harvest the leaves and flowers that you intend to use for a single meal to ensure freshness. Dandelion leaves and flowers do not store well.

To harvest the leaves and flowers, simply cut the leaves and flowers off of the plant, and place in a bag or basket. Wash with water. Remove the bitter green outer leaves from the flowers and separate the petals. The leaves can be chopped smaller or left as is.

Benefits and Use

Dandelion is a very bitter plant, and is excellent for digestion as well as the kidneys. When added to the diet, dandelion can stimulate metabolism and support the liver. It is also high in calcium, is a non-potassium-depleting diuretic, and is sometimes used as an herbal medicine for high blood pressure. The petals from dandelion flowers are wonderful in salads to add a bit of color and texture! They are also great when added to baked foods like banana bread, muffins, and pancakes, or used to make dandelion wine or soda.

The leaves are great sautéed or in salad. Because bitter foods stimulate digestion, dandelion leaves are perfect at the start of a meal. The leaves pair well with citrus and other sour items (think lemon), because the sour flavor competes with bitter foods. Dandelion leaves can also be dried to make a bitter tea that is soothing to the digestive system, rich in minerals, and good for the kidneys.

Recipe: Smoky Sautéed Dandelion Greens

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STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioica)

Stinging nettle can be found mid-spring through summer, and is a wonderful source of nutrients. Nettle has irritating hairs that cause a burning/stinging sensation when touched, so make sure to wear gloves when handling it. Once cooked, dried, or thoroughly bruised/blended, the formic acid in the hairs is neutralized and won’t sting, so nettle is a wonderful wild food when prepared properly! 

Identification

Nettle has a square stem and ovate leaves (pointed tip and heart shaped base). It has a single stalk, but will create multiple branches if the plant is damaged. The leaves are opposite in pairs, and grow every few inches up the stem. When nettle is young, the leaves are a red-purple color. The leaves turn to dark green as the plant grows taller. The green leaves are best for harvesting.

Nettle grows in shade and sun and likes moist environments. It will produce small green clusters of flowers in late summer, and it is best to harvest nettle before it flowers.

Harvesting

When harvesting nettle, make sure to bring clippers, a paper bag, and gardening gloves. Nettle is best when it is harvested young: when the stalks are two to three feet tall and the leaves are bright green and vibrant in color. Brittany likes to cut nettle in bunches (don’t forget your gloves!), and put the whole stalks in a paper bag. Once you are home, shake the nettles in the bag to remove any dust or bugs. If the nettle is gritty or dirty, wash it in cool water (again, don’t forget your gloves!), and then dry. Once clean, cut the leaves from the stalk (you may leave leaf clusters together) and compost the stalks.

Benefits and Uses

Nettle is one of the most, if not the most, nutritious plant-based foods there is. Nettle is high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, zinc, iron, and protein and is a nutritional powerhouse. It supports kidney function and is good for blood, skin, the hormonal system, allergies, and immune system. Nettle also supports energy and vitality and is good for the muscular and skeletal systems. It may be used in the diet like any other leafy green.

Nettle is delicious blended in pesto (which also freezes well), cooked in stir fries, sautéed, or added to soups. It may also be blanched and frozen for longer-term storage. Because nettle must be cooked or blended well to make sure it no longer will sting, nettle can only be used raw if blended extremely well (such as in pesto). Nettle can also be dried and used in tea or stocks.

Recipe: Nettle and Mushroom Risotto

Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

Wild black cherries are part of the rose family. It’s tough to harvest enough to use for a recipe, because they are so delicious on their own! Read more in this web extra here!

A Toast to the Dandelion

Story by Carly Leusner | Photo by Elaine Papa

When I notice the first dandelions beaming their yellow pollen-laden flowers boldly and unapologetically across meadows I can’t help but rejoice! Their cheerful presence reminds me that solar-saturated days have officially returned, that the hundred different pollinators who rely on those sunny flowers as an early nectar and pollen source are at last well fed, and the liver-cleansing medicine my winter weary body craves is now easily accessible at nearly every turn.

We share this delight with deer and rabbits, munching on tender dandelion leaves for a welcome dose of vitamin A, B-complex, C, D, potassium, zinc, iron, and calcium. It’s summertime, and for many creatures, the living is indeed easier.

Touted as harbingers of health for much of human history, dandelions have been cast out, alienated, and maligned in modern lawn culture in the U.S. Still eaten and appreciated all around the world, dandelion seeds and roots were carefully carried by European colonizers across the Atlantic, hoping to sow their closest plant allies in their new home. Seed catalogs in the 1800s included several dandelion varieties and county fairs featured homegrown dandelions as one of the many potential prize-earning entries.

Now suburban lawns receive more pesticides per acre than agricultural land even though 63% of commonly used pesticides are known carcinogens. Millions are spent on herbicides every year in an effort to kill dandelions. We’ve become disenchanted and disengaged, turning our backs on the plant that had always kept us feeling human, connected, like our familiar ancient selves.

Falling in love with the common plants that grace our backyards can transform our perspective; help us to see the same beauty our indigenous ancestors saw. A new ritual I’ve committed to every year, for enough years now that it feels routine, has certainly changed mine. My annual spring rite—aside from gobbling wild greens so fast my body reverse ages—is harvesting four gallons of dandelion flowers to brew sparkling dandelion mead, or honey wine, for celebration and ceremony throughout the year.

I fell into mead making inspired by Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation, his enthusiasm for fermentation and grasp of its strong influence on human history and culture, urged me to begin brewing and fermenting. I longed to be a part of the same legacy of folk who healed their friends and family with homemade potent herbal elixirs. Dandelion mead was my first adventure.

“Mead” tends to conjure caricatures of Vikings guzzling foaming steins in the minds of modern people, who dismissively raise their eyebrows at mead enthusiasm as a one-dimensional fascination with obscurity. Our ancestors would raise their eyebrows right back. Far from obscure, mead is our original libation. The simplest mead is honey, water, and wild yeast. As the story goes, humans encountered fermented honey for the first time in a rain-water-logged beehive. Since then, mead, an intoxicating brew and often spiked with medicinal plants, has inspired poetic ecstasy and spiritual euphoria throughout human history, long cherished as a bridge to the divine.

Mead has a reputation as a life-extending elixir in mythology and lore, which speaks to the health-giving properties of honey as well as the potentiating and preserving effect of alcohol on the medicinal herbs often added.

Since my first stab at mead making, my relationship with the awe-inspiring alchemy of bees, flowers, yeast and water each year deepens. Each May, with each turn of the wheel, I find myself feeling more human, more like myself, finding enchantment in all corners. I find real magic in my growing relationship with dandelion, satisfaction exploring the fields where she grows, and well up with feelings of deep reverence for the sky fairies who synthesize flower essence into a substantive food and potent medicine. I enjoy the company of other creatures who accompany me in the early morning gentle sun. Witnessing the joy and surprise my friends experience when they first sip the subtly bitter, floral, effervescent elixir makes my heart sing. All these memories of place wait bottled like a genie, bring me the comfort of easy summer living on the darkest days of the year.

Beginning with her childhood days making dandelion mud pies, wild-crafting remains a vital, integrated part of Carly Leusner’s life. She co-founded and runs Acorn Kitchen, an educational collaborative, specializing in nature connection and wild food cookery. Check out their 2015 schedule at www.wearewildfood.com or find them at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers Market.