I recently located my first local population of Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum). I'd probably driven past the patch hundreds of times without seeing it, but for some reason (perhaps the Wild Leeks poked my subconscious) one day earlier this month, I pulled over to investigate a lush green carpet. Up close, I quickly recognized this broad-leaved, native perennial of the Onion (Alliaceae) family. After confirming that the plant smelled and tasted strongly like garlic, I harvested about a dozen leaves for Jenny and me to enjoy over the next few days.
It's been several years since my introduction to Wild Leeks, also known as Ramps, which came during a foraging outing in western Maine with Arthur Haines. We moved mindfully through a river floodplain forest (there was plenty of Poison-ivy around) to find an expanse of Wild Leeks. We gathered just a few to season our evening soup. That soup, coupled with clay-baked, pit-cooked chicken made for a memorable meal!
Foraging Wild Leeks requires more than just finding and properly identifying the species. Care must also be taken to ensure that foraging will not adversely affect the long-term viability of the population (in fact, it should enhance it). Thankfully, Arthur has shared vital life-cycle information and harvesting best practices for Wild Leeks in one of his books, as well as in an article called Conscientious Collection of Wild Leeks. Here are some takeaways from the article, though I recommend you read the whole thing yourself:
- In spring, gather at most one leaf per plant -- do not gather bulbs, which are small at this time.
- Avoid purchasing Wild Leeks from supermarkets in spring, as commercial harvesters typically dig entire plants.
- Bulbs may be gathered in fall, if found in safe soils, if the population of plants allows for this lethal collection, and if coupled with spreading the species' newly ripened seeds in the disturbed soil.
An additional piece of advice mentioned in volume 1 of Ancestral Plants (available as an eBook for only $11) is to cut off the root crown (the bottom part of the bulb) and replant it. In some cases, a Wild Leek can re-grow from such a cutting.
When done with care and respect, foraging is not just nourishing to the forager, but also beneficial to the plant communities being foraged. Thanks, Arthur, for your teachings on how to honor the lovely Wild Leek.
Hairy Bitter-cress (Cardamine hirsuta) is another early blooming, tiny member of the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family. Native to parts of Europe and Asia, this weedy annual now grows in much of the United States. At just a few inches tall, you'll benefit from the use of a magnifying glass when trying to observe the features of this plant.
Early in the year, from a cluster of pinnately divided, basal leaves, this hairy plant pushes up a stalk with alternating leaves and terminal white flowers which bloom and then develop into slender seed pods. The leaves, tender young shoots, flowers, and seeds are all edible and packed with a spicy-bitter, peppery punch. Eating just a single inch-long leaf left an impression on my palette for over an hour. This strong flavor makes Hairy Bitter-cress a good candidate to be mixed with other flavors as a salad component or treated as a wild condiment.
Easily recognized by their trios of heart-shaped leaflets, the Wood Sorrels (Oxalis spp.) pack a sour punch enjoyed by just about everyone to whom I introduce these plants. According to Go Botany, of the seven species of Oxalis who grow in New England, four have yellow flowers (O. corniculata, O. dillenii, O. florida, and O. stricta) and three have white, pink, or purple flowers (O. intermedia, O. montana, and O. violacea). The species I usually see growing as weeds in flower beds and gardens have yellow flowers.
Unlike Clovers (Trifolium spp.) who often have round or oval leaflets-of-three, the leaves of the Wood Sorrels are uniquely divided into three heart-shaped leaflets. Notice how each leaflet is creased like a paper heart and may fold in half during the heat of the day. The leaves, flowers, and young fruits are all edible, with the latter having a pleasant sour crunch. The leaves are thin, so be sure to sample a few at once to be sure you get enough to detect their flavor.
In many foraging books, Wood Sorrel accounts are brief, but experienced forager John Kallas allocated 14 pages of his book Edible Wild Plants (2010) to this wild food and included numerous full-color photographs, handy preparation tips, and recipes for Wood Sorrel soup, sauce, and dessert topping. Angelyn Whitmeyer (Identify that Plant) recently published a post and video showcasing Oxalis stricta, the Common Yellow Wood Sorrel. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)
American Linden (Tilia americana), also known as Basswood, grows in river floodplains throughout most of New England, and is a common street tree in some towns. This species has many notable features including edible young leaves, fragrant flowers that can be used for tea and medicine, strong inner bark that can be made into cordage or rope, and light-weight wood that is easy to carve and suitable as the hearth board and drill of a bow-drill fire set.
In late fall, clusters of tan nutlets reveal the presence of mature trees. Some clusters can be found littering the ground, perhaps landing atop freshly fallen snow, while others remain clinging to branches, where they dangle beneath a leaf-like bract that serves as a wind-glider. Despite the built-in glider, in my experience, clusters don't sail far from the parent tree. Where crops are heavy, look for the feeding sign of small mammals and birds.
Twigs feature rounded, red buds, from which tender, tasty greens will emerge next spring. If you've never met American Linden, now might be a good time to visit a river floodplain and get acquainted.
Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) is a weedy plant of European origin who thrives in disturbed soil. Here in southern Maine, I most often find Wild Radish at the beach, growing above the high-tide line alongside American Sea-rocket, Saltwort, Beach Rose, and Beach Vetchling. Flowering plants stand about 2 feet tall and are topped with yellow, 4-parted flowers. On sunny days, Cabbage White butterflies frequently visit the blossoms. Continue reading Foraging Wild Greens: Wild Radish