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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!