Violets (Viola spp.) are familiar garden and lawn plants with edible leaves and flowers. Russ Cohen, a wild edible plant and mushroom forager who leads walks all over Massachusetts, writes in his book that all violets are edible, but my experience is limited to the common blue violet of lawns known as Viola sororia. Young leaves can be added to salads; older, tougher leaves can be lightly cooked and incorporated into meals.
I like to pinch the dark greens from their long petioles one by one and periodically pop a flower into my mouth. The flowers can be gathered in quantity for a decorative garnish or salad component, or can be used to flavor honey. For the latter, simply pack a jar with fresh blossoms, cover with raw honey, and let the combination meld for a few weeks.
Earlier this week, I profiled the edible shoots of Garlic-mustard, and today I'll share a similar vegetable of a plant called Garden Yellow-rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). The tender tops of this biennial look similar to cultivated broccoli rabé, which is a member of the same plant family, and are best gathered before the plants flower.
Originally from Europe, Garden Yellow-rocket can now be found throughout New England (in fact, throughout most of the country), and tends to grow in disturbed soils, fields, and flood-prone lands. First-year plants overwinter as leafy basal rosettes, which then flower in late April or May of their second year. Here's a typical lower leaf, showing several small leaflets and a larger terminal leaflet.
Depending on where you live, this vegetable may already be out-of-season. Luckily, Garden Yellow-rocket's bright-yellow, four-petaled flowers make this plant easy to see for weeks longer and can aid in positive field identification.
Whether this year or next, I hope you get to meet and eat this abundant wild edible.
Among my favorite wild vegetables of spring are the tender, fast-growing shoots of Garlic-mustard (Alliaria petiolata).
Garlic-mustard commonly grows in large groups, in partial to heavy shade, and often in an area with recent soil disturbance. Once established, this non-native biennial vigorously reseeds and can quickly displace native plants. Seedlings can carpet the ground near second-year plants, as the following photo shows.
When crushed, Garlic-mustard leaves give off a strong garlicky aroma. Samuel Thayer, in his excellent book Nature's Garden, introduced me to my favorite part of this plant: the mild-tasting shoots. In mid-to-late April, plants who have overwintered send up shoots in preparation for flowering. The tender top portions of these shoots can be harvested at the lowest place that they snap cleanly and can be enjoyed raw, or, as I prefer them, cooked. The shoot in the following photo has had a few lower leaves removed and is of typical size.
If you don't already know this plant, I recommend seeking out colonies when they are blooming this spring, which is now in southern New England and soon farther north. Clusters of four-petaled white flowers help this 1-3' plant stand out.
Up close, notice the fine hairs on the leaf stalks and the coarsely toothed, triangular upper leaves. Look for Garlic-mustard along roadsides, in other disturbed areas, and, increasingly, in forests with rich soils. While this plant often grows in polluted areas that are inappropriate for foraging, you can nonetheless get familiar with this wild mustard (Garlic-mustard is a member of the Brassicaceae family) in preparation for when you do find some plants growing somewhere safe. With this fieldwork and additional research, next spring you'll know where to look to find plants to sample before they flower.
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".
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.
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.