Category Archives: Greens

Foraging Wild Flowers: Common Dandelion

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) offers many gifts to the modern forager. In April and May, the flower buds and brightly blooming flowers are a delicious snack, salad ingredient, or soup component. The flowers can also be infused to make a delicious tea.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

I've written previously about foraging the leaves of Common Dandelion, but for those new to eating wild plants, it's the mild tasting yellow petals that I find make the best introduction. To avoid the bitterness that the green parts contain, simply loosen and remove the yellow petals by rolling each flower head between your thumb and pointer finger.

Photo of Common Dandelion flower

Note: You may notice an increased need to urinate soon after consuming Common Dandelion parts. Consult an herbalist or herbal reference for more on the medicinal actions of this abundant perennial.

Tiny Flowers: Shepherd’s-purse

Photo of Shepherd's-purse flowers

Now that the green season has taken hold and a handful of wildflowers are blooming, it's time again to break out Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. I noticed a plant with tiny (<1/4") white flowers last week in Wells and was pretty sure I knew who I'd found. Keying out the plant confirmed my hunch.

I began by determining the plant's 3-digit code:

Flower type: 4 Regular Parts (4--)
Plant type: Wildflowers with Alternate leaves (43-)
Leaf type: Leaves Toothed or Lobed (433)*

Then, on page 4, under group 433, the key asked if the flowers were yellow (no) or white, pink, or purple (yes), and if the leaves had an arrow-shaped base, which clasped the stem (yes, though this is not well depicted in my photos) or were not arrow-shaped (no). The key then pointed to page 136.

Of the six plants described on that page, only one description fit my mystery plant. Basal leaves deeply lobed; pods triangular (to me the pods are triangular/heart-shaped). A drawing of the plant on page 150 provided visual confirmation. The plant I'd located was Capsella bursa-pastoris, known as Shepherd's-purse, a member of the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family.

Shepherd's-purse is a widespread, weedy species who typically grows in disturbed soil in full sun. The flowers, immature seed pods, and tender leaves and shoots are edible, especially for those who enjoy a spicy mustard flavor (boiling can reduce the flavor, if desired). The mature pods can also be used as a spice. Arthur Haines documents many medicinal uses for this herbaceous annual in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 2, 2015, p. 126-27). You can find more photos of Shepherd's-purse at GoBotany.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

*Note: Looking at the basal leaves (instead of the stem leaves), you might wonder whether they're considered divided or toothed/lobed. Newcomb's guide accounts for this confusion by directing you to Shepherd's-purse whether you choose the former or the latter.

Foraging Wild Greens: Wild Leek

Photo of Wild Leek patch

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.

Photo of Wild Leeks

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!

Photo of Wild Edibles Soup

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.

Photo of Ancestral Plants by Arthur HainesAn 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.

Tiny Flowers: Hairy Bitter-cress

Photo of Hairy Bitter-cress

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.

Photo of Hairy Bitter-cress leaf

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.

Photo of Hairy Bitter-cress flowers

Edible Weeds: Wood Sorrel

Photo of Wood Sorrel leaves

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.)