Where the Wild Things Are

Foraging for the Season's Best-Kept Secrets

In our 21st century supermarket culture, we've come to trust only packaged products. But just a century ago, plants we consider weeds—like purslane, sorrel and dandelions—were a regular part of the diet. Wild things grow all around us: in woods and fields, along roadsides, even in our backyards. Crabapples, nuts and berries; wild mushrooms; fiddlehead ferns, dandelions and chickweed are all delicious, nutritious and free for the taking.

© Gerald Neufeld Photography

According to Peter Gail, Ph.D., author of The Dandelion Celebration (Goosefoot Acres Press), "The bias against wild edibles came after World War II, in part because the pesticide industry got consumers to value uniform green lawns, and the way to get that green lawn was by killing weeds." Many plants we now try to eradicate by pouring poisons on our lawns—like dandelions—were brought to this continent by European settlers as food crops.

Today, wild plants are regaining popularity. Many upscale supermarkets and restaurants now offer wild greens like fiddleheads, watercress and lambs quarters.

Wild foods come and go with the seasons. Tender greens pop up as soon as the snow melts and are best when harvested young; some become tough and bitter as they mature. Fiddleheads should be gathered before the ferns unfurl and the stalks become tough and woody. Ramps, or wild onions, grow through fading snow along the base of oak trees from Georgia to Canada. Young, succulent shoots of milkweed, cut off just above the ground, are delicious when cooked like asparagus tips.

A little later in the season, one can find persistent greens like tangy sorrel; spicy cress; Asiatic dayflower; and succulent, paddle-shaped purslane growing in lawns not laced with pesticides through the summer. They're delicious in salads, sauces, soups, fish and egg dishes.

By midsummer, the woods are full of ripening berries: wild straw-berries appear in June, followed by passion fruit (in the Southeast), blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, mulberries, serviceberries and mayapples in July. The roots of burdock and Queen Anne's Lace (wild carrot) are best harvested before flower stalks appear. The seeds and leaves of the wild carrot can also be used for herbal tea and have medicinal properties.

In late summer, elderberries and fruits of mountain ash can be used in pies and jams. Many wild mushrooms come up after rains in late summer and fall. Autumn gives rise to angelica, grapes, wild raisins, viburnum berries and persimmons as well as root crops like ginger. And fall crabapples can be turned to applesauce. Even in winter, frozen cranberries cling tenaciously to bushes on lakeshores and marshes. Cattail shoots can be pulled up from partially frozen wetlands. In the southern states, wild greens can be gathered all through the winter.

Why eat wild foods? Gail says simply, "Foraging connects you with all of creation." John Kallas, Ph.D., of Oregon-based Wild Food Adventures, takes it a step further. "Foraging is a fun way to get outdoors and teach your kids about nature," he says. "Focusing on something in nature being your food makes you more aware of pollution and its impact on life, and makes you a better caretaker of the environment."

What's more, wild foods are nutritious. According to naturalist, educator and author "Wildman" Steve Brill, "They increase your chances of living a long, healthy life, because they're packed with known and undiscovered nutrients and natural medicine." Jane Desotelle, a herbalist in Chateaugay, New York, says wild berries are more nutritious and contain higher concentrations of trace minerals than their cultivated cousins.

But you have to know which to pick, where to find them and how to prepare them. "You don't want to graze randomly on anything you find out there," Kallas says. Desotelle warns: "Many wild mushrooms and berries are poisonous. Only the tender pulp of the mayapple is edible; the rest—including the seeds—is poisonous."

Other plants have to be prepared a specific way. For example, nettles lose their stinging properties when cooked. Boiling acorns causes their bitter tannin to leach out. Peterson's Edible Wild Plants (Houghton Mifflin) warns about milkweed: "The milky juice of the broken stems and leaves is bitter and mildly toxic. Fortunately, both of these properties are dispelled upon boiling, and milkweed becomes one of the better wild vegetables."

For safe, ecologically responsible foraging, "you must identify every plant with 100 percent accuracy," says Brill. He adds, "Choose carefully where you forage; avoid areas that may have been sprayed, like roadsides. Take only what you need, and don't disturb the habitat."

One of the best ways to learn about wild plants is with the help of an experienced forager or herbalist. Desotelle gives tours in northern New York. "Wildman" Brill takes visitors foraging in urban neighborhoods like New York City's Central Park. Kallas does consulting and training all across North America. It is remarkable what you can find when you know how to look.

CONTACTS: Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables, (503)775-3828, www.wildfoodadventures.com; Underwood Herbs, www.adirondackcraft.com; "Wildman" Steve Brill, (914)835-2153, www.wildmanstevebrill.com.

YVONA FAST is the author of the New York food column "North Country Kitchen," and maintains the site Words Are My World