Category Archives: Wild Edibles

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.

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*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 Flowers: Coltsfoot

Photo of Coltsfoot

Native to Eurasia, Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) now grows in a variety of disturbed habitats (e.g., roadsides, stream banks, railroad beds) across New England. Coltsfoot's bright yellow flower heads, which consist of narrow ray flowers and tiny 5-parted disk flowers (Common Dandelion has only ray flowers), are among the earliest wildflowers to bloom in spring. Flower stalks are hairy, with small, scale-like leaves; green leaves emerge later, and have densely hairy undersides.

Coltsfoot has both edible (the flowers, fleshy stems, and young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked) and medicinal (preparations of the leaves can help with treatment of coughs) uses, but since all of the local patches I know of are growing in spots that are unsafe to forage in, I've yet to experiment with the plant. For more details, read the account of Tussilago farfara in Ancestral Plants (Vol. 1, 2010, p. 190-91) by Arthur Haines and this Edible Flowers article by Green Deane.

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Josh’s Foraging Tip #7

Make It a Habit

A practice I've taken on in 2017 is to focus on one wild edible each week. During the week, I typically consult various written and online resources and visit a local patch that can tolerate (or, better yet, benefit from) light collection. I then properly prepare (if needed) and consume the food at least three times (when possible), and complete my week by writing about my experience in my weekly Nature Notes.

Photo of Collecting Red Maple sap
Red Maple sap collection

If one of your goals is to improve your wild food foraging skill set, consider taking on a similar practice. If you're not 100% confident in your plant identification skills, you may wish to skip the actual sampling for now and simply locate and properly identify one species each week and consult some reliable references, as training for future harvests. If you're ready for sampling, you could commit to adding a wild component to your diet every week, every day, or every meal. (With the green season just around the corner, now is also a great time to plan a Wild Food Moon Challenge.)

By adopting a wild food habit, you can kick-start or reinvigorate your adventures as a modern forager.

Foraging Wild Teas: Eastern Hemlock

Photo of Eastern Hemlock needles

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) grows throughout New England and provides food, medicine, shelter, and much more for a host of insects, birds, and mammals. Identification features include: ~1/2" long, flat needles with white stripes below and short, bent stalks; ~3/4" long, dangling seed cones; and bumpy twigs (easily observed on dead branches). My favorite field mark requires a close look: miniature (often upside-down) needles line the tops of branches (see top photo).

The needles of Eastern Hemlock can be used to make a fragrant tea in much the same way as Balsam Fir needles. To avoid too strong a tea, I recommend starting with a couple of finger-length branchlets. Remember to bruise the needles (by rubbing or chopping) prior to covering with hot water to help release their inner constituents.

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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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