Category Archives: Wild Edibles

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.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

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.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

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

Medicinal Weeds: Gill-over-the-ground

Photo of Gill-over-the-ground flowers

Familiar to many people as a spreading plant of lawns and fields, Glechoma hederacea is another so-called weed worth having a relationship with. Commonly known as Ground-ivy or Gill-over-the-ground, this adaptive perennial has all the features we've come to expect from a member of the Mint (Lamiaceae) family:

  • irregular flowers (that are bilaterally symmetrical)
  • opposite, simple leaves
  • and square (4-sided) stems

Like many Mints, Gill-over-the-ground is strongly aromatic due to the presence of a volatile oil. According to David Hoffman, an infusion or tincture of the dried flowering stems of Glechoma hederacea "may be used to treat catarrhal conditions whether in the sinus region or in the chest."¹ Jenny brewed me several cups of Gill-over-the-ground tea this spring, as she thought it would help with some ear congestion I was having. It did seem to help unclog my ears, but even when my symptoms faded, I still requested the drink because I enjoyed the flavor. Though Hoffman specifies using dried plant material, we used freshly picked tops.

Though not native to North America, Gill-over-the-ground is now widely established, absent only from a few states in the southwest.² To view the following images in full-size, click here.

¹Holistic Herbal (1990), p. 205 [plant listed as Ground-ivy (Nepeta hederacea)]

²USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=GLHE2, 23 June 2016). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA

Foraging Wild Greens: Wild Leek

Photo of Wild Leek patch

I recently located my first local population of Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum). I'd probably driven past the patch hundreds of times without seeing it, but for some reason (perhaps the Wild Leeks poked my subconscious) one day earlier this month, I pulled over to investigate a lush green carpet. Up close, I quickly recognized this broad-leaved, native perennial of the Onion (Alliaceae) family. After confirming that the plant smelled and tasted strongly like garlic, I harvested about a dozen leaves for Jenny and me to enjoy over the next few days.

Photo of Wild Leeks

It's been several years since my introduction to Wild Leeks, also known as Ramps, which came during a foraging outing in western Maine with Arthur Haines. We moved mindfully through a river floodplain forest (there was plenty of Poison-ivy around) to find an expanse of Wild Leeks. We gathered just a few to season our evening soup. That soup, coupled with clay-baked, pit-cooked chicken made for a memorable meal!

Photo of Wild Edibles Soup

Foraging Wild Leeks requires more than just finding and properly identifying the species. Care must also be taken to ensure that foraging will not adversely affect the long-term viability of the population (in fact, it should enhance it). Thankfully, Arthur has shared vital life-cycle information and harvesting best practices for Wild Leeks in one of his books, as well as in an article called Conscientious Collection of Wild Leeks. Here are some takeaways from the article, though I recommend you read the whole thing yourself:

  • In spring, gather at most one leaf per plant -- do not gather bulbs, which are small at this time.
  • Avoid purchasing Wild Leeks from supermarkets in spring, as commercial harvesters typically dig entire plants.
  • Bulbs may be gathered in fall, if found in safe soils, if the population of plants allows for this lethal collection, and if coupled with spreading the species' newly ripened seeds in the disturbed soil.

Photo of Ancestral Plants by Arthur HainesAn additional piece of advice mentioned in volume 1 of Ancestral Plants (available as an eBook for only $11) is to cut off the root crown (the bottom part of the bulb) and replant it. In some cases, a Wild Leek can re-grow from such a cutting.

When done with care and respect, foraging is not just nourishing to the forager, but also beneficial to the plant communities being foraged. Thanks, Arthur, for your teachings on how to honor the lovely Wild Leek.