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.
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!
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.
An 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.
Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) is a native perennial plant with an excellent reputation. Flowering plants are recognized by their two tiered growth: a lower whorl of less than a dozen leaves and an upper whorl typically of three. Notice how the leaves within each whorl are similar in size and how all the leaves have parallel veins.
The flowers of Indian Cucumber Root are borne from the upper whorl, which is entirely absent in non-flowering individuals. These easily overlooked flowers have six recurved, yellowish-green tepals (petal-like parts), six stamens, and three dark red styles. If you notice flowering plants in the spring, return in late summer or early autumn to check for ripe dark fruits atop the upper whorl of leaves.
One can find the white, edible root of this plant growing close to the surface at a right angle to the stem. Foragers should me mindful that digging and consuming this tasty, easily gathered trail-side nibble is lethal to the individual plant and should, therefore, resist the urge to dig, dig, dig.
Indian Cucumber Root often grows near Starflower (Lysimachia borealis, pictured below). While the two plants have superficial similarities, one can easy tell them apart. The leaves of Starflower vary in size, have net-veins, and only occur in a single whorl. Starflower blossoms have roughly 7 (give or take a few) white petals.
Plants have many ways of catching our attention. Some have strong scents, others have bright and showy flowers, and then there are those who quite literally grab us. For instance, take Common Burdock (Arctium minus). The seed heads of this biennial are composed of hundreds of bracts tipped with sharp hooks, which cling tenaciously to animal fur and many types of human clothing and thereby help the plant's seeds disperse across the landscape. This strategy, along with the fact that many people enjoy eating Burdock's taproots and peeled stalks, has helped this European/Asian plant to become widely established throughout the United States. In addition to being a food source, Common Burdock is a widely used medicinal.