When I catch up with friends and family to talk strategy during these difficult pandemic days, I tell them I’m foraging with more intention (as well as caution) than I ever had before.
As an asthmatic trying to minimize my coronavirus risk, I find foraging an easy way to reduce trips to the grocery store.
It’s a form of sanity-saving exercise I can enjoy – with social distancing care – when I’m out walking our dogs with my partner.
Right now is a boom time for foragers in Baltimore and throughout the Mid-Atlantic. There are so many edible things growing and blooming that I won’t need to purchase much fresh produce for a while.
In Your Kitchen and Yard
First, make use of some close-to-home sources by just looking in your refrigerator.
You can put your entire bunch of store-bought scallions, including their bulbs, in water and harvest their tasty green stalks for months. Let a garlic head rest in water until it produces its edible leaves.
As for the yard, I am very discerning about what weeds I discard.
I recently harvested whole dandelions: flower heads for baking in cookies, leaves for salad greens and roots to roast for dandelion tea. (Use a long weeder tool to get down to the bottom of their roots, which are often as long as their leaves.)
The roots must be chopped finely before putting them into the oven for slow roasting. Otherwise, they’ll be too hard for a regular coffee grinder to process into powder.
As common as dandelions, purple dead-nettle are blanketing grassy spaces not yet mowed throughout the city and counties. It is called “dead” because, despite its similarity to nettles, its leaves do not have the stinging hairs on them.
You’ll find them growing next to wild garlic, dock and violets, even among the periwinkle ground covers.
Like dandelions, this plant has a reputation as a tenacious weed. And as with dandelions, the entire plant is edible and often used medicinally. It can be used in salads, soups, smoothies, and made into tea.
Flowers as Food
Baltimore’s spring is always gorgeous with all its flowering trees. Some of them even have edible flowers .
The new buds from Eastern redbud trees are perfect now, tasting like fresh bean sprouts.
Add them to a salad for a splash of color. (As with all foraging, harvest them judiciously. I skip branches, as if lightly pruning the tree.)
The blossoms of the Magnolia tree, also found in many Baltimore-area yards, are edible raw or even pickled. Their leaves are used as a base in Japanese grilling for fish and miso veggie mixes. In Chinese medicine, the early buds and bark are considered medicinals.
Walking our dogs the other day, we met a young woman sitting on a sidewalk harvesting violets. She said she was collecting them to make a violet syrup that can be added to drinks or used to flavor baked goods. Violet jelly is also a delicious possibility.
The other purple flower currently blooming is the vinca or periwinkle, a favorite ground cover because of its five-petaled flower and shiny green leaves.
One of the oldest anti-anxiety remedies, it can be easily made into a periwinkle tincture. Not only are the flowers edible, but the entire plant is used for this recipe. (I’m inspired to make a batch to see if it helps reduce my present worries!)
Gorgeous yellow forsythia are blooming now throughout the urban landscape. Few know that their flowers and little fruits are edible. Forsythia-flower honey syrup is handy to have around to make into a hot tea or add to cool water.
More than just ornamental flowering bushes, forsythia are cultivated for their tiny fruits in China. The fruits are one of the main ingredients in Chinese medicinal formulas used against a range of inflammations.
The still-green fruit should be picked before it turns yellow, then steamed and sun dried. Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, processed forsythia fruits are among the ingredients in Chinese herbal formulas used to treat upper respiratory ailments.
Wild Herbs and Greens
I am also finding loads of fresh herbs and greens on my daily dogwalks. (As you would with food from the grocery store or anywhere, always wash what you pick.)
For herbs, I’m finding wild garlic, also called field garlic or onion grass. Make sure you bring a weeder, so you can dig up the tasty bulb. (If it doesn’t smell onion-y, it’s not what you want.)
The stalks should look like chives and can be used like chives when they are still young. Or as an alternative for scallions.
As for greens, dock or Rumex leaves are so abundant that you’ll have no trouble finding them. Curly or wild dock are related to the rhubarb, sorrel, and oxalis, which makes them very tangy.
With dock leaves, I recommend boiling the oxalic acid out before stir-frying or adding to soups. There are many other ways to consume them: stuffed, crisped or as a tea. Even the seeds are edible and can be toasted for dock crackers or a gluten-free dock flour.
If you want to help reduce the environmental damage of invasive species, harvest to your heart’s delight garlic mustard.
Some people use raw garlic mustard to spice up their salads, but it also works well as a basil and oregano substitute. Their garlicky leaves can also be processed into delicious pesto.
Finally, this is just the moment to harvest fiddlehead ferns. (Do it sustainably, of course – only harvest from older ferns and then, no more than half.)
The edible fiddleheads only come from ostrich ferns, distinguished by their “ostrich feather” fronds. They have a deep groove in their petiole (leaf stalk) out of which the fiddlehead unfurls.
Cut them when they are fairly close to the ground, before they are unfurled. Sautéed fiddleheads are a treat.
Resources for Foragers
More than ever, we need to support local farms through community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and farmers markets. Foraging can’t replace the vegetables, fruits and other products that they provide us.
But I think there’s value to foraging – both in cutting down on trips to the grocery store and in saving precious fresh produce for people who may well need more than my family will in the near future.
For more information on what people are foraging locally, you can sign up for the Facebook group, Forage Maryland. A book I really like is “Northeast Foraging” by Leda Meredith. “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” and all of Euell Gibbons’s great foraging books, are a treasure trove.
Be careful about where to harvest, especially in this time of a pandemic. Always ask permission if you would like to harvest something growing in someone else’s property.
And remember: If you’re not sure what you’ve picked, don’t eat it!
Marta Hanson is The Brew’s Urban Forager. She is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches the history of Asian medicine.