Category Archives: Wild Edibles

Foraging Wild Teas: Balsam Fir

Photo of Balsam Fir from above

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) is a common member of northern New England forests and is widely known as a popular Christmas tree. The blunt-tipped, flat needles of this species are green above, have two white stripes below, and are typically arranged in flatish sprays. Touch the bark to notice the raised pockets of resin hidden just below the surface, and, in winter, observe the resinous buds at the tips of twigs. I encourage you, in addition to learning the look and feel of Balsam Fir, to engage your sense of smell when in the midst of this species.

Both fresh and dried needles of Balsam Fir can be used to brew a flavorful and (depending on the dosage) medicinal tea (see 17.03 | Nature Notes for brewing suggestions). In Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010), Arthur Haines writes that Balsam Fir needle tea can help treat coughs and colds, but he suggests "...using the fresh winter buds to produce a more potent infusion" (p. 195).

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Low Tide Life: Northern Moon Snail

Photo of Northern Moon Snail

Back in August, while wading in knee-deep water at a local beach, I noticed dozens if not hundreds of Northern Moon Snails (Euspira heros) slowly plowing through the sand. Having been familiar with their shells (empty, washed-ashore ones, that is) for years, I was thrilled to find some occupied dwellings.

The almost transparent bodies of Northern Moon Snails appear much too big for their shells, but as I experienced first hand, when picked up, individuals push water out of their shells and bodies and manage to squeeze into their nearly round homes without much trouble. A perfectly sized, flat operculum serves as the snug door a snail shuts to complete this marine magic trick.

These mollusks live in intertidal and, more commonly, subtidal waters along the New England coastline (and elsewhere) where they seek out meals in the form of Atlantic Surf Clams and other shellfish.

Bonus quiz: Find and identify the other mollusk in one of the following photos.

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Low Tide Life: Smooth Periwinkle

Photo of Smooth Periwinkle

Smooth Periwinkle (Littorina obtusata) is a small mollusk of the New England coastline who lives in association with Knotted Wrack, Bladder Wrack, and other types of marine algae. Smooth Periwinkle's nearly flat spire is distinctive among local periwinkles. Most of the individuals I've noticed have been yellow (another common name for this species is Northern Yellow Periwinkle), but shell color is variable, and may instead be red, brown, green, or multi-colored. To learn more about this mollusk, check out this species ID card offered by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

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Foraging Wild Seeds: Spotted Touch-me-not

Photo of Spotted Touch-me-not

Once you've met Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) you'll likely never forget her. While the orange flowers of this plant are showy and distinct, the narrow fruit capsules are what grab my attention. Foraging teacher Russ Cohen first revealed to me the inner beauty of this species -- also known by the common name Jewelweed -- during one of his public walks. (If you've studied with Russ and met this plant, you likely know where this post is headed).

To experience the plant's seedy secret, start by locating a thriving population. Spotted Touch-me-not favors moist soils, so scan the edges of streams, ponds, and other wetlands for orange flowers. Next, look for the 1" long green capsules. Once ripe these capsules will explode at the slightest touch, so grab one carefully so as to capture the entire contents in your hand. Now take one of the newly unveiled seeds, rub off the seed coat (which is brown when mature), and witness the tiny light blue seed. I bet you didn't expect that!

If that's not impressive enough, the seeds themselves, with or without the seed coat, taste like walnuts. I've never consumed them in quantity, but enjoy snacking on a dozen or so when I happen upon a fruit-filled patch in late summer. And so long as the plant is flowering, be alert for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who enjoy nectaring on the flowers of this widespread native annual.

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Foraging Wild Fruit: Huckleberry

In July and August, wild Blueberries (genus Vaccinium) receive a lot of attention from New Englanders. Long before I'd foraged any other wild food, I used to join my family on a walk to some swampy woods to gather Highbush Blueberries at least once each summer. It's no wonder why: blueberries are delicious, often prolific, and in many instances can be picked for free! And no matter where you live in New England, there's more than one type that can be found.

Closely related to Blueberries (also in the Ericaceae family) are the three species of Huckleberries (genus Gaylussacia), who tend to get less attention from the average wild fruit forager, but I'd argue are no less deserving of appreciation. I've written about Black, Blue, and Dwarf Huckleberry before, and I thought today would be a perfect time to post a reminder about these lesser-known, crunchy-seeded, summertime fruits.

Photo of Black Huckleberry handfulBlack Huckleberry
G. baccata

grows in forests and fields in every state in New England

 
 

Photo of Blue Huckleberry handfulBlue Huckleberry
G. frondosa

grows in similar (though sometimes wetter) habitats in CT, RI, MA, and NH

 

Photo of Dwarf Huckleberry handfulDwarf Huckleberry
G. bigeloviana

grows in bogs and fens in all but VT, though is listed as rare in NH, CT, and RI