The other day, as Ian and I were driving over to the next town, we saw a man wading through the weeds on the side of the road. He stood with his hands on his hips and looked down absently at the greenery around his feet. His clothes were a little dirty, his hair longish and curly. His truck was parked crookedly on the other side of the road. He seemed a bit mental.
“Probably a herbalist. Or a forager,” I said. Because that’s sort of the only two types of people who will abruptly pull over on the side of the road to investigate a plant they thought they saw while speeding past.
Foragers, herbalists and birders are extremely dangerous to drive behind. We’re not really ever looking at the road and we might get excited and make bad decisions. Spring is the most high-risk, because the plants and birds are just starting to return and everything is so shiny and new.
So be careful out there.
In all seriousness though, I think a lot of people are fascinated by foraging and want to try it, but aren’t sure what to start with. So, I’ve put together a short list of my favorite spring plants. All of these are tasty, nourishing, and easy to find and identify. They’re a great way to try your hand at harvesting your food from the wild.
Who knows, maybe someday it will be you staring at weeds on the side of the road like a psycho.
Before we get started, here’s a quick note about ethical harvesting and not getting poisoned and stuff:
So rule one of foraging is to be sure you have a really really really positive ID on a plant before you even think of eating it. Always take a field guide with you, and if you’re not 100% sure what the plant is, get an expert to confirm it for you. Most plants are pretty friendly, and the ones I’ve put in the list below are safe and easy to identify, but there are a few out there, (like this one and this one), that will kill you in 15 minutes flat. This sounds scary, but please don’t let it stop you. Before you start foraging, just make sure you can identify dangerous plants so you can safely avoid them.
Also, be sure you’re only harvesting from areas where a plant is growing plentifully. The plants in my list are very common and not under threat, but there are several plants that are losing ground (no pun intended, damnit), and need to be left alone. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there are at least five successful plants nearby. Personally, I prefer to make sure there are at least ten, and I only take what I need and know I’m going to use.
I feel like I talk about nettle a lot, both in this blog and in real life. But I think it deserves the attention. Urtica dioica a is a perennial that grows everywhere in North America. They like moist areas near water and grow in big, spreading families. They have a beautiful bright green color and opposite, toothed compound leaves. The whole plant is covered in tiny hairs that contain formic acid (if you’re not sure what you’re looking at is stinging nettle, just touch it…).
When I first started foraging nettle, I always wore gloves to avoid getting stung, but over time I’ve found that if you ask them nicely and handle them carefully, they won’t sting you. But hey, there’s no shame in wearing gloves while harvesting them if you want to avoid a sting here and there. Thankfully, the formic acid dies away shorty after they’re cut.
Nettles are really high in vitamins, minerals, and even protein. They are much more nourishing than anything you’ll find in the grocery store and taste just as good (if not better). They’re an excellent source of energy.
Nettles are also pretty easy to prep and eat. I find them the most delicious when blanched and sauteed in a little olive oil and sea salt. I’ve also made them into a pesto and dried them to use as a nourishing tea.
People often cast aspersions on Taraxacum oficinale. Some consider it a blight, a stubborn weed they try to eradicate from their lawns. This is really sad, because they are destroying a delicious treasure. This one plant offers a lot, both as a food source and a medicine.
All parts of this widespread perennial are edible. The main flower grows on a smooth stem that shoots up from a basal rosette of toothed leaves (dan de lion comes from the French for tooth of the lion). The roots can be cooked like a vegetable or dried and roasted to be used as a coffee substitute or medicinal decoction. The leaves are delicious in a salad or lightly sauteed in butter. The flower heads can be plucked and added to salads, made into a vinegar, or even brewed in mead or wine.
Medicinally, dandelions are great for the digestion. They can help cleanse the blood and provide support to the liver. They’re a really nice thing to eat in spring to help cleanse after a long winter of heavy foods!
So I’ve done a post before about garlic mustard. It’s considered an invasive, spreading like wildfire wherever it takes hold. But thankfully, it’s a super nutritious plant. I keep it under control in my yard by eating the heck out of it.
Alliaria petiolata is actually a member of the brassicaceae, or cabbage, family. It’s a perennial that grows up into a tall stalk with toothed, alternating leaves. You could think of it as a wild lettuce, really. The leaves have a peppery, slightly bitter taste, and the roots are similar to horseradish. It can be sauteed, tossed in a salad, turned into pesto, used as a pizza topping, thrown into a soup…anything really!
It grows so abundantly and is so tasty and nutritious that you really can’t go wrong. Just snip the green tops, or if you want something a bit more spicy, dig up the whole plant and use the roots, too!
Allium vineale are the chives of the forest…imo, anyway. These guys are the first thing I see (and eat!) in the spring. They poke up through the leaves as soon as it’s warm, dotting the drab surroundings with little sprays of hollow, dark green shoots.
When you pull them up from the ground, they look like mini onions. I trim the green tops and add them to rice, biscuits, salads, dips, or really anything where chives or scallions would be used.
Also, I haven’t tried it, but the bulbs can be pickled and eaten as a nice appetizer.
Viola papilionacea pop up in little clusters of dark, spade-shaped leaves in spring. By the first week of May (up here in the northeast, anyway) the delicate purple flowers have bloomed.
Both the leaves and flowers are edible and make a great addition to salads. The leaves have a really nice taste, are very cooling and soothing, and are packed with vitamin A. Like dandelion, they make a great blood cleanser.
The leaves can also be dried and then drunk as a tea when you need something demulcent for a sore throat or dry cough.
I’ve used the leaves in my summer salve, too, as they’re great for calming and cooling the skin.
Dead Nettle, Ground Ivy, and Henbit
I’m grouping all of these guys together because I tend to use them in very similar ways. As they are all part of the lamiacea, or mint, family, they’re very aromatic and, well, minty. Not really like a peppermint, exactly, but…well, taste one and you’ll see what I mean!
They can all be added to salads, used as a garnish, or dried and drunk as a refreshing tea. Like pretty much everyone else in the mint family, they’re cooling and clearing – great for congestion and respiratory issues.
Ground ivy, especially, seems to like people, and can usually be found growing in yards and around houses. The others are a bit more wild in my experience, but can also be found even in very suburban places.
I hope you’ll go out, look for these plants, and enjoy them. Gathering your own food and tasty herbs from the wild is really fun, honestly. Anything you find growing wild will undoubtedly have more nutrients, potency, and life force than produce from the grocery store.
Taking the time to learn even a few plants, taste them, and take them home with you is a great way to connect with the earth and remember all the wonderful gifts she offers us.
Happy spring, and happy foraging!