Several times a week, I drive past this plant whose dark, round clusters of fruit stand out in the snowy landscape. Up close, this plant is recognized as a branching herbaceous vine, bearing tendrils and a few withered simple leaves. This is Carrion-flower (Smilax herbacea), a prinkle-free, non-woody relative of the heavily armed, woody stemmed Common Greenbrier (S. rotundifolia).
Carrion-flower's fruits are born in umbels, which are composed of short stalks radiating from a central point (the nearly fruitless example below provides a look at the umbel's structure). Note the location of plants you find in the white season, and you can return in the spring to observe the new green growth. In fact, you may want to sample the rapidly growing tips of this plant, which are edible both raw and cooked.
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.
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.