Category Archives: Wild Edibles

Subshrub ID: Eastern Spicy-wintergreen

Photo of Eastern Spicy Wintergreen

Eastern Spicy-wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is an evergreen subshrub of the forest floor. The plant's leathery leaves grow clustered on short upright stems. The red, pea-sized fruit dangles from the center in bunches or singly, as is the case above. The fruit is edible, if a bit mealy, with a minty flavor. The leaves, when chopped up and steeped as a tea, or simply nibbled, release a similarly pleasant flavor. Other common names for Gaultheria procumbens include Checkerberry, Teaberry, and Spiceberry. This subshrub can be distinguished from Partridge-berry in that the latter features smaller, oppositely-arranged leaves and fruit with a distinct pair of "eyes".

Subshrub ID: Partridge-berry

Photo of Partridge-berry Flowers

A common evergreen groundcover in the pine and oak forests near my home is a plant called Partridge-berry (Mitchella repens). This subshrub is recognized by mats of paired, white-veined leaves and sparse red fruits that ripen in summer but can persist into the following year. Each fruit has two small eye-like depressions -- lasting evidence of the paired flowers that preceded fruiting. Though essentially tasteless, these small fleshy drupes are edible. I often sample one or two when I encounter a healthy population.

Photo of Partridge-berry Fruit

Note: Top photo taken in July, bottom photo in December. Find more Partridge-berry photos and info at the New England Wildflower Society's Go Botany site.

Vegetables from the Sea

My first taste of seaweed -- which are large, edible marine algae -- came many years ago when I tried vegetable sushi wrapped in Nori. The salty flavor was initially strange but gradually grew on me. It wasn't until years later that I began to explore other sea vegetable options, like toasted Dulse on salads and hearty Kombu and Kelp in broths and soups. Now, seaweed is a valued part of my diet, as it was and still is for indigenous peoples all over the world.

Photo of Kelp
Washed up Atlantic Kelp (Saccharina longicruris) posing on the sand

Throughout their lifetime of immersion in mineral-rich ocean water, seaweeds also accumulate rich stores of micro-nutrients. While these algae are highly valued for the feeding of garden soil (as compost and garden fertilizer), the direct food value of seaweeds appears to have largely faded from the consciousness of modern Americans. Aside from processed Nori wraps, how many people are aware of seaweed's vast culinary uses?

Seaweeds are adapted to living in conditions of constant movement. Influenced by the endless ebb and flow of ocean waters, they must remain flexible yet firmly attached to their anchor points. Humans, too, can thrive in these shifting times by remaining rooted in the present moment, and I suggest that seaweeds are therefore not just sources of nutrition but living beings with life lessons to share. Buy taking in seaweeds, we incorporate their wise spirits into our lives.

Photo of Atlantic Kombu
Atlantic Kombu (Laminaria digitata) has many "fingers"

If you are interested in adding some wild algae to your diet, I recommend finding a local source of hand-harvested, air-dried sea vegetables. Ironbound Island Seaweed (a small company based in Winter Harbor, Maine) sells several kinds of seaweed, which they describe in detail on their site.  They offer seaweed by the pound, as well as 2.5 pound Ocean Harvest Bushel for those who want to experiment with all their east-coast offerings.

Of course, you can also harvest seaweed yourself.  But be aware, that while gathering piles of rotting seaweed from a coastal beach may work for garden mulch, edible seaweeds need to be gathered while they are still alive. If you are up for the challenge and don't mind getting wet, I recommend contacting an experienced seaweed harvester to inquire about apprenticing.

Foraging Wild Roots: Wild Carrot

Over the years I've introduced several wild edibles into my yard. For example, last year, I scattered some Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) seeds in a few garden beds, covered them lightly with leaf mulch and walked away. A couple weeks ago, I noticed that the beds were looking lush with green growth and figured it was time to get my hands in the soil to check on the roots.

Photo of Wild Carrot Taproots

Compared with shovel-dug Wild Carrots that I've unearthed from more compacted ground, these decently-sized, pale yellow taproots came up with a steady tool-free tug.  Freshly dug Wild Carrots may lack the crunch and orange-color of typical cultivated carrots, but their flavor and aroma is similarly pleasant. I chopped up the roots and added them to soups and stews with much satisfaction.

Note: In Foraging Wild Shoots: Wild Carrot, I point out that Wild Carrot is closely related to some seriously poisonous plants. Please read that post, and be sure you are 100% confident in your identification skills before gathering and eating any part of this plant.

Foraging Wild Nuts: Black Walnut

Photo of Black Walnut

Have you ever noticed one of these rolling into a street in autumn? Your mind might've labeled it an apple, matching it to a more common search image. But this is no heirloom apple – it is the fruit of a Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) tree. Within this green husk lies a thick, tough shell containing a nutrient dense nut. The flavor of Black Walnuts is stronger – and I dare say, more interesting – than that of the commercially grown walnut. Keep your eyes open and scan the streets for large Black Walnuts dropping fruit near you.

Warning: If you end up gathering some nuts, I should warn you that the husks will stain unprotected hands for a week or more.  Consider wearing gloves unless you want to call attention to your foraging activities.  Read up on Black Walnuts in a credible foraging guide for more details regarding processing and use.  Samuel Thayer's book Nature's Garden has an excellent chapter on this wild food.