A week or so ago, H took us on a beautiful hike in the nearby woods to hunt for wild ramps. We didn’t find any (I think we’ll have another chance later this summer), but we did get to see some lovely wildflowers and H educated us about several wild edibles I thought I’d share here.
It was an overcast and slightly drizzly day, and T and I were both struck by how much the forest resembled the jungles of Costa Rica we visited several years ago, or the forests of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, many of the forests in this region have been classified as deciduous rain forests. Water droplets clung to everything, ready to shower you if you moved by too quickly.
The canopy is so thick in some places that, combined with the cloudy skies, the dim light could almost be called twilight. This time of year, there is a rich, moist smell of decaying leaves and hummus, combined with a crisp vegetable smell of new green shoots and leaves. And oh, the greens! There are so many shades and varieties. Jade, emerald, kelly, lime, chartreuse, forest, olive. It really requires taking time to hike quietly through the woods to notice and distinguish them all. It reminded me of how many people dismiss the browns and grays of the NM desert as boring, but with patience you begin to see all the subtle palates, and the way things magically change as the light moves through the day.
Fortunately, it was easy to be patient, meditative, and observant hiking through the woods with T and H. H is a soft-spoken gent, who is comfortable with silence and doesn’t feel the need to fill every moment with chatter. As with the farm animals, in the woods he is thoughtful and gentle with everything around him. But he lights up like a little kid and exclaims with joy when he spots a rare flower or a plant he doesn’t recognize – whipping out his plant identification book or taking a photo of something to look up later.
Speaking of meditating on things, I could have watched this little newt for hours. He seemed to move so purposefully, carefully lifting each delicate leg and placing each little padded toe with intention. The video linked to above is a little out of focus, so here is a nice close-up shot. Click on it to see more detail.
H acknowledged the ironies and challenges of wild food foraging. “Seems a shame to be putting all that work into cultivating the vegetable garden, when there is all this edible stuff to be had in the forests,” he said. But then again, if everyone were coming into the woods to harvest, it would destroy and deplete. He said he’s thought of trying to take cuttings or seeds to cultivate some of these plants in the garden, but then, they wouldn’t be wild anymore. Also, how do you duplicate the optimal growing conditions that these plants find for themselves in the forest?
I’ve got to take a moment for a little disclaimer: this is in no way meant to be a guide for edible plants, and you forage at your own risk. Furthermore, not everything pictured here is edible!
Our hike with H was actually the second such hike he had taken in two days. The afternoon before, some old friends visited H & M, and they went foraging too. That evening, we had pan-fried mountain trout on a bed of sautéed nettles with wild ginger tea. I wish I had taken a photo of that delectable meal to share with you.
A completely new plant to me is the Indian Cucumber, which can be recognized by this unique radial pattern of leaves coming out of three leaves.
The root actually does taste a little like cucumber, slightly sweet and citrus – maybe a little like jicama.
This odd little plant is called bear corn, which I’m not certain is edible.
Branch lettuce is so named because it often is found in a fork of a stream, and apparently makes a good salad green.
H also showed us blood root, stinging nettle, hog peanut, greenbriar, solomon’s seal, false solomon’s seal, a few mushrooms, and several other things I couldn’t get the camera out for fast enough.
Hunting for edibles and wildflowers also requires a lot of patience and observation. They are so tiny, and so easily lost in the sea of green. But we spotted wild iris and violet, trillium, and of course the abundant but no less beautiful mosses, ferns and sedums.
At the end of the hike, I found this amazing red-tailed hawk feather, which I’m now sporting in my hat.
Most of the wild edibles we’ve been using regularly aren’t actually in the forest, but volunteer themselves in the garden or pasture. The most abundant is lambsquarter, which actually grows as a weed in the gardens and not so much in the forest. It can be used as a substitute for spinach, or pretty much any type of green. We’ve used it raw in salads, sautéed with garlic and onions, cooked in a quiche or omelet. In the photo below, the spiky stuff is shallots, I think, but the plant just to the right of center is lambsquarters. My mom serendipitously found a recipe in the Atlanta paper for lambsquarters spanikopita, which we can’t wait to try. I spotted some lambsquarter in my friend Jen’s little backyard garden in suburban Washington DC, so you might be on the lookout for it in your own yard.
We’ve also got lots of sorrel in the pasture, which is pictured below, and looks a lot like clover except it has heart shaped leaves. Also shown below is lady’s thumb, sometimes called smart weed, which is named for the little dark smudge about half-way down the leaf that looks like a thumb-print. Unfortunately, the thumb-print didn’t show up in my photo, so I’ll try to find a better specimen for a future post.
We had a great salad the other night with these greens, as well as wild violet leaves, galinsuga (also called angel weed), topped off with garden lettuce and wild rose petals.
And of course, we’ve got wild strawberries, which are actually sweet (unlike those sour miniature things that used to grow in my backyard when I was a kid), and wild blackberries which should burst forth within weeks. I imagine there are several other wild berries around here that I just don’t know about yet.
Next week, barring some other experience that just can’t wait to be shared, I’ll showcase a few of the tasty and creative meals we’ve been having; from the forest, farm, co-op, and grocery.