Food that’s free: Plants to forage in this strangest spring

As trips to the grocery store become daunting, the edible offerings in nature take on greater appeal. File photos As trips to the grocery store become daunting, the edible offerings in nature take on greater appeal. File photos

Years ago, in the spring, I was out for a run in a rural spot and encountered an elderly man who told me he was hunting “dryland cress”—an edible plant. I was enchanted; it was like he’d stepped from the pages of that 1973 Foxfire volume on my shelf, in which Appalachian old-timers shared secrets of wild foods—plants with fabulous names like kedlick and warlock. Foods that never darken the door of a supermarket.

Though I was intrigued, I had nary a clue about how to acquire such knowledge. I did have an amateur interest in plants, though, which surged every spring. I like tracking when trees and wildflowers bloom, and each year I’ve tried to learn a few more plants’ names, whether native ephemeral flowers or hardy weeds in the lawn. Inevitably, the question of which ones are edible has become part of that learning curve.

In this strangest of springs, with the acquisition of groceries having suddenly become a worrisome, uncertain undertaking, foraging wild food takes on new immediacy. The situation neatly illustrates how dependent we’ve been on human systems for our food. In winter, if I wanted fresh salad greens, I bought them from the store. But now we’re trying not to shop more than once every two weeks. And even if a tub of greens lasted two weeks in the fridge, which it won’t, I can’t count on getting that tub in the first place. The last time we ordered groceries for curbside pickup, a third of the items we chose weren’t available. Along with our brown bags, we received a list of all the stuff we couldn’t have and would just have to do without.

It’s wonderful that the local food economy is still finding ways to connect eaters with farmers, but that system too has its limitations, and its risks—largely because of a lack of coherent guidance about how to safely conduct business. And for those who have lost their livelihoods, of course, there’s another, much deeper layer of worry around the task of putting food on the table.

Amidst all this, plants we can eat are busy growing in the yard, in the woods, and on the edges of fields. Even as nature presents one of its most frightening aspects in the form of the virus itself, it is also quietly offering sustenance and nourishment that is independent of those fragile, flawed human food systems. At my house, we’ve been eating more wild foods this year than ever before. I still don’t possess esoteric folk wisdom about plants, and most of our calories still come from the store. But I’ve read about foraging and talked with knowledgeable people and have learned, to my delight, that foraging food can be very simple, even convenient.

The best lesson was that many ubiquitous weeds, things that just about everyone can identify, are edible. Violets and dandelions both have edible greens and flowers. Those redbud trees blooming everywhere you look? You can eat their flowers, too. Voila: a lovely salad, fresh and free. A little later in spring, lambs’ quarters appear—also known, for good reason, as wild spinach.

Next we learned to identify chickweed and garlic mustard, both very common and useful. Someone mentioned chickweed pesto; my mind opened further. I heard we could drink tea from white pine needles. A friend taught me to recognize spicebush, to nibble its flowers and make tea from its twigs. It seemed like one of those closely guarded secrets at the time, but I soon realized spicebush is an extremely widespread plant in our local forests.

I got a book—John Kallas’ Edible Wild Plants—and it revealed instructions for both the labor-intensive (making your own marshmallows from, well, mallow plants) and the beautifully easy (using oxeye daisy flowers as a garnish). With my kids, I read the classic My Side of the Mountain, in which a boy learns to live in the Catskills with almost total self-sufficiency: a little fanciful, but somehow reassuring, too.

My latest inspiration is an Instagram account, @mallorylodonnell, which daily supplies me with amazing new ideas (like sautéed hosta shoots). As with any wild-food information, I’ll verify these tips with other sources before I try them myself, but the empowering takeaway is that food is everywhere—taking so many more forms than we’ve been trained to believe by the standard grocery-store selection.

Also, deep forests aren’t required for successful foraging—even of gourmet delicacies. I’ve had more time than ever before for hunting morel mushrooms this spring, and I have put in my hours walking in the woods. But the only morels we’ve actually found were growing right behind our mailbox. Cooked gently in butter, with a splash of cream, they were divine: a real gift from the ground.


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