By the end of June here in New England, Mulberry (Morus sp.) trees are busy ripening fruit to feed birds and mammals alike. Last week, Kate St. John of Pennsylvania wrote of Mulberry's prolific nature and the tendency of planted trees to drop squishable fruit along walking paths (see Mulberries Underfoot). Several years ago, I found my first Mulberry crop with my shoes. If you happen to notice mushy berries underfoot, look up. Ripe fruit varies in color depending on the particular kind of Mulberry you find, ranging from light pink to dark purplish-black. Regardless of type, Mulberries are ripe when they are plump, juicy, and fall easily from the tree.
One reason Sam Thayer receives so much praise from the foraging community is that he has taken the time to thoroughly and thoughtfully dispel numerous myths with his work. One such myth is that Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) cannot be reliably told apart from the closely related, poisonous plants and, therefore, should be avoided as a human food, lest one risk sudden death. This simply isn't true. Wild Carrot can be recognized with certainty and told apart from its seriously poisonous relatives, though beginners will need help in learning how to do so. In Nature's Garden, Sam profiles the unique features of Wild Carrot and provides a detailed chart contrasting it with Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).
If you are new to plant identification, neither Sam nor I recommend munching on random members of the Carrot family (Apiaceae). However, once you've done your home/field work and can recognize Wild Carrot with 100% certainty, you might enjoy adding this plant to your wild food repertoire.
Wild Carrots are identical (aside from a typically smaller, white taproot) to cultivated Carrots – indeed they are the same species. And though the taproots get most of the attention, the vegetable I enjoy most is the succulent peeled shoot of a second year plant. Shoots are obtained without digging and can be quickly peeled by hand (see below), leaving clean green vegetables ready for raw or cooked consumption.
If I told you the above plant featured tasty green vegetables, you'd probably think I was crazy. But as it turns out, the young shoots of Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) are edible, new thorns and all. The key is to gather only the tender growing tips (see example below), snapping them off where they break cleanly. I usually eat them fresh off the vine, chomping on the thick end while the tendril tips dangle from of my mouth. Maybe I am a bit wacky after all.
Over the weekend, on the way to check on some Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) pollen cones, I noticed a few Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) trees covered with bunches of fragrant blossoms, many of which were within reach. Here in eastern Massachusetts, the last week of May is prime time for the white flowers of Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Blackberry (Rubus spp.) and Black Locust – but only the latter has sweet, tasty flowers. Samuel Thayer describes their taste as “something like sweet peas with a hint of vanilla”, but don't take his word for it – find and try some for yourself.
The young, heart-shaped leaves of American Linden (Tilia americana) -- also known as Basswood -- can be eaten like lettuce, straight from the tree. Indeed I sometimes call this species the Salad Tree. Lindens often send up shoots near the base of old trunks, making tender leaves easy to gather. Older leaves are not harmful, they simply develop a less desirable texture. By late June or early July (in New England), the tree's fragrant flowers can be gathered and used fresh or dried for a medicinal tea.