Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Foraging: It's Time For Wild Chives

Wild chives emerge in the woods
Spring is beginning to burst forth here in the mid-Atlantic, as the daffodils bloom and the signature cherry trees follow in succession. In the woods where I live, the brown carpet of fallen leaves is being interrupted by tufts of green as the dormant perennials reemerge. One of the very first signs of life around here are the wild chives that sprout up like little Mohawk hairdos on the brown forest floor. While it's time to plant the garden and we anxiously await the asparagus and other Spring crops, I take advantage of what nature has to offer on its own. I am by no means an expert forager, but each year I strive to be able to identify a few more plants, edible or not, to increase my understanding of what I can take from the cycle around me.

Most people pick ripe berries during the Summer when they are out hiking or at the local park, and moving beyond the obvious raspberries and blackberries isn't too difficult.   You do need to take care and not just eat random things, of course, but there is much to eat and enjoy without planting and maintaining a garden. This is the first in a series of a few posts I plan to make on foraging this year. The thing about foraging is you can't really wait until it's convenient for you, what is blooming is what is there, so I plan to show a few of the things we gather over the course of the Spring and Summer. I've included some references and comments about them below, for those who wish to dive in further.

Foraging is a blast. It connects you more closely with the Earth and the natural cycle of life in the plant world. It gives you traditional skills that are all but lost in the modern Western society. It's cheap. It's rather unusual. And it's something that you can learn over a course of many years. While you might live in an urban area or a suburban area with nice, neat green lawns, you can forage in State and National parks. In the Baltimore region, there is a wide range of parks that offer the opportunity for foraging, including the Patapsco State park system.

Wild chives close up - cut them, they smell like onions

Right now, plants are just emerging from the ground. As I mentioned, wild chives and onions are some of the first to make their presence known. They are easy to identify - they look like bunches of chives and, when broken at the stem, they smell like onions. There are poisonous plants that look similar to onions, if you dig them up they might have an onion like bulb, but all edible plants in the onion family smell like onion when broken. So, this is a really safe forage. Wild garlic is also coming up, but I find it harder to identify until the June time frame when the tell-tale garlic scapes are so obvious, and again, when you break the scape, it smells like garlic. Wild garlic scapes, like those from the garden, add a nice gentle garlic taste to dishes, I think -- I have read that others find them too strong.  You use wild chives just like chives. I go outside with scissors and clip a bunch, then chop and use them in soups or dips. They are pretty mild smelling and tasting in my opinion, but they work great for that purpose.

Garlic mustard just emerging - this is an invasive culinary herb

Also emerging right now is garlic mustard. We usually don't harvest these until they flower, when again they are super obvious to delineate from other plants. I strongly encourage you to harvest garlic mustard. It is an invasive culinary herb introduced from Italy in the mid-twentieth century. Garlic mustard has a garlic fragrance when you crush the leaves -- which you can do by rubbing them together roughly when you are identifying them -- and they make a good pesto. Just pick a ton of them by yanking the whole plant out of the ground, roots and all, stripping the leaves, and then pureeing it in a food processor with olive oil, pine nuts or walnuts, and garlic. Pesto should also have parmesan, but if you want to make a bunch, you can freeze it in ice cube trays and then add the cheese at cooking time. Garlic mustard produces tons of seedlings each year and should be yanked, whether you eat it or not. Like wild chives, it has a distinct (good) odor, making it easy to identify.  More on that as the season turns.

Wild asparagus is also coming up soon. I have never harvested it before; it doesn't seem to grown on our property or around us, but it is supposed to be delicious. It is used like cultivated asparagus.

Did you know that wild daylilies are edible?

The main rules of foraging are:
  • You need to be able to identify the plants. Get good resources and try to only learn a few things at a time. Plant identification is a non-trivial endeavor! 
  • While most poisonous plants will only make you sick, there are some plants that even a very small amount of can make you extremely ill and a few can result in death. Do not eat things you can not identify.
  • If you taste something and it is bitter and unpalatable, spit it out! and wash out your mouth. I say this because you might misidentify something or you might be stubborn and decide to try something anyhow!
  • As expert Samuel Thayer says, if you need a book to identify it, don't eat it. You obviously can't identify it !
  • I try to learn the really poisonous plants of my region at the same time I learn a few edible plants. 
  • Plants can be edible only in part, for example potato tubers are edible, but potato leaves are poisonous. Plants can be edible only at certain times of the season, like after they have seeded or before they have seeded.  Plants can be edible only if cooked or handled in a certain way. All of this variation means: learn your plants and use authoritative plant guides. 
  • Do not identify plants solely from photos. Photos can be very misleading.
There are a number of foraging or edible wild plant guide out there. What I learned after several years was that most of them have serious errors in them. They may misidentify plants in pictures or even say that poisonous plants are edible.  Use multiple sources to identify plants as you go about learning the ones in your region. Take advantage of the Internet sources, but again, try to use multiple sources. Use a wildflower or plant guide rather than a foraging guide, or in addition to one.

The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer seems to be the most authoritative guide out there. He is highly opinionated about other guides and has a lot of caution in his book. Every plant in his book is one he has eaten many many times, and the detail in his book is amazing. Having said that, for those reasons, the number of plants is limited and it is a regional book. His book is  most applicable in the Great Lakes, Midwest, and Northeast region. I still find it the best resource.

Edible Wild Plants, a North American Field Guide. There are errors in this book. Having said that, I still use it, along with secondary resources. It has a huge array of plants and pictures. The detail is nowhere near what Thayer's book contains.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide is a wildflower identification guide and the authoritative one. Highly recommended by Thayer and by native plant specialists I have spoken to about foraging. It will definitely make it clear to you that plant identification is hard.. but fun.

The Cooperative Extensions are also another resource. In Carroll County, there is a native plant expert associated with the Extension, and I imagine that is the case all over the country. Those folks, whether they forage or not, are great resources and often offer classes in native plant identification.

It's a beautiful sunny day here in Maryland.... go out and forage !  If you forage in your area, I'd love to hear about it!!

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop, and Simple Lives Thursday. Check out those sites for a wide range of blogs with posts associated to Real Food, sustainable life styles, and simpler living.

1 comment:

  1. I am just fascinated by urban foraging. We've been watching Human Planet and people have to work so hard to eat. Except us. We just belly up to the world of excess.