Spring is here, and with the covid-19 pandemic happening, many of us have been social distancing and self-quarantining. Outside is still a safe place to be, if you have access. For most of us in Western Washington, the landscape is available, even cities have parks (if they are open). If you can drive out of the city to take a hike or walk in wilderness, I would highly recommend doing so. While you’re out- look for wild edibles all around. They are popping up now!
Is a wild edible safe to harvest? Well, where are you? If you are curb side of a busy road, don’t harvest. If you are in a sensitive bio-region with little diversity or plant numbers, don’t harvest. If you are in your own backyard harvesting is ideal. If you are in a park or wilderness area, check to make sure chemical management is not used, and always stay away from roadsides. So- what to look for. Right now (March 21, 2020), stinging nettle is out, and that’s a sure bet for good nutrition and abundance in most places. It’s a great green that has been leafing out here since January, but really only just took off this week with the great sun.
Spring is the time to harvest young leaves from this common plant. I take the top two leaf terminals when the plant is about 4-6″ high. You can harvest earlier, but I recommend letting the greens pork out a bit first to give the plant a head start. I want my nettle to keep growing, for a second harvest of leaves, and then in late summer, I’ll harvest seed for eating and dispersing too. Note I am picking barehanded, but it’s better to wear gloves to avoid stinging. I plucked this plant as demonstration for the photo. I would definitely wear protection when mass harvesting. You can dehydrate, freeze, or eat fresh after steaming. I usually dehydrate to use during next winter after eating fresh till I’m sick of the flavor.
Another great edible treat popping up at the moment is knot-weed. This rhubarb substitute is also an invasive, so eat up! Knot-weed spreads through a tenacious rhizome, so no matter how much you consume, the roots will keep putting out more. Young stalks are ideal, steamed up or baked. I chop it up right into stir fries or bake in pies with other fruit to add unique sweet and sour flavor. This plant is often treated with chemicals in parks and alogn streams so be very careful about where you harvest. Note the glossy red/brown pigment of the young leaves. The stalk will be green with red lines. If you are not sure, don’t harvest.
Some plants may not be ready to harvest yet, but are still good to pick out on the landscape for later use. This very young red elderberry is just leafing out, and may even be a few years away from producing any berries. But I’ve noted it’s location on the land and will drop by to check on it’s progress another time. Elder flowers are edible, and the berries can be cooked into cough medicine. However- blue elder, which grows mostly on the east side of The Cascades, is anti-viral. I make the trip over the mountains each fall to harvest these precious berries for medicine. We’re taking a daily dose at the farm these days to help support out immune system against the virus.
Sometimes looking for wild edibles can seem a challenge, but when you start breaking apart the wall of green, seeing plants as individuals, you begin to see food and medicine, materials for shelter, comfort, and self–care. When the forest becomes a place of familiar friends, you’re empowered to wild from within. There’s a great wild edible in the picture above, can you guess who?
Taste can make or break your wild edible plant experience. If you’re used to a diet with sugar and salt (most of us) then wild plants are going to taste bitter, bland, and generally lacking. If you take salt and sugar out of your diet, taste will return, allowing a better appreciation for the subtle flavor found in wild foods. Still, salt was once valued like gold with good reason. The osoberry is similar to cucumber in taste, through bitter. You can eat the leaves and flowers, which are abundant right now throughout the forests.
Most young growth of plants is edible, and now is the time to taste. In the picture above you can also see salmon berry leaves- edible, blackberry buds- edible, even red alder buds. One could easily gather enough blackberry buds right now to make a great salad. Add in a few other faces like osoberry and some nettle and you have a real medley of flavor. Still, you’ll want salt, and butter. Wild edibles really make you appreciate the common household ingredients we all take for granted now.
Flowers are another great wild food source in Spring. These red current blossoms look yummy- just remember, if you eat all the flowers, there will be no fruit. I like to let these plants keep their flowers to feed our humming birds, and later, feed everyone, domestic and wild alike, with juicy berries. Always ask yourself what stage a plant is in before you start harvesting. Timing is everything, harvest at the right moment to capture a plant’s energy. Spring is a time for greens, and flowers, during the summer, most plants are putting on food for the fall, like fruit and nut trees. Summer is a time to catch fish, look for berries, and eat a generally lighter fair through warm weather months. This allows time for plants to put on good growth for the lean times. Fall is harvest- grains are what most of us think of, but in the wild world, grasses offer little nutrition. You’ll be digging roots, as plants are going dormant and putting all their energy into the ground. Fruit is abundant too, and if you have good heritage verities, you’ll be able to store them away in a cool place to use throughout the winter. Learn to harvest within these natural cycles and you’ll harmonize well with the abundance of nature.
For more information- especially here on the west coast of Washington State- check out these other great reads.
–Plants of The Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & Mackinnon
This is the intro guide to plants of Western Washington, easy and user friendly
–The People of Cascadia by Bohan
A more in-depth book by Heidi, an amazing ethnobotanist who specializes in Pacific Northwest first nations practices- from fishing to foraging, wood crafts to clothing, she maps out annual cycles of daily life to demonstrate how people once thrived on the landscape here.
–Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants by Kloos
For more advanced learning- Scott takes you through each plant step by step, preparing correct dosages and explaining the potential health hazards of these medicines if you have preexisting conditions- so helpful!