Purslane

Portulaca oleracea

If you have a garden, it is very likely that you’ve seen (and possibly cursed) this weedy cousin of Moss Rose. In fact, its Latin species name “oleracea” means “of the garden”. I hope you’ll be happy to know that not only is this low-growing succulent plant edible…..it is delicious, to boot! and because the roots aren’t terribly deep, I like to let it spread, to keep the quack grass from taking over the garden.

Purslane is as versatile as it is prolific – you can eat the leaves and stems raw or cooked – in sandwiches, salads, soups and hot dishes. I even pickled some last year and they were absolutely fantastic. I was a little nervous after I poured the hot pickling brine in the jar packed with purslane leaves and stems, as they shrunk up quite a lot and I was afraid they would be a slimy mess. But….they were not slimy at all, and amazingly kept their texture and were very delicious. You can use any pickling recipe you like. I like a simple brine: 2 cups mild vinegar (rice vinegar or white wine vinegar), 4 cups water, 3 T salt and some garlic cloves. Boil, pour into jars packed with Purslane leaves and stems. Cover tightly, refrigerate after cooling. So yummy!

Like all other wild foods, Purslane packs a lot of vitamins and minerals, plus it is a rich source of heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids. As a succulent plant, the leaves and stems are nice and juicy, and the flavor is a tiny bit tangy. I love eating it straight out of the garden. It keeps well in the refrigerator, too, so you can have it handy to put into your salads and whatnot. Here are some great recipes that feature this abundant (not so) wild food.

Enjoy!!

Jewelweed

Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis

Jewelweed is in full bloom right now, and it is thick as ever out by our swamp. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love these lovely little flowers, and so do I. It is amazing to me to watch this plant grow each year – it starts out every spring with tiny little 2 leafed babies popping up from the dirt, and by August it is a 4 to 5 foot tall, very dense shrub. In the late fall and early winter, the entire mass dies completely back so that you can’t even tell it was ever there!

I don’t eat this plant, though it IS edible when very young. It contains a lot of calcium oxalates, increasing at the plant gets older. Even when young, it’s advised to cook it well, boiling in 2 changes of water. That just doesn’t sound very yummy to me, lol!

What I DO use this plant for, though, is the juicy stuff in the leaves and stems. It is a very nice remedy for skin irritations, even ‘big’ ones like Poison Ivy. I make a strong ‘tea’ with the leaves, stems and flowers and then strain and freeze the tea in ice cube trays. Just this weekend I was out harvesting some other plants on the side of a dirt road and wasn’t watching where I was stepping. My husband called out from the car “Hey, isn’t that Poison Ivy right there?”. Well, “right there” was right where I was standing, with my bare feet in open toed sandals!!! We high-tailed it to a nearby establishment where I washed my feet the best I could in the public restroom, then as soon as we got home I got one of my Jewelweed ice cubes and rubbed it all over my feet. Boy did that feel good after a day of being all hot and sweaty! That was 2 days ago now, and no blisters yet. (Keeping my fingers crossed)

The little seed pods are great fun, too. Later in the season, fat little seed pods will appear, and when you pinch them, the fleshy pod splits and curls up, spitting the seeds out rapidly. It feels alive in your fingers and first-timers often jump back, shaking their hand as if there were a bug on it, lol! If you can catch the seeds, they are a nice little trail nibble, tasting nut-like. The grandkids love popping those little seed-pods, and I love watching them interacting with nature. 🙂

Here is a little bit more information about Jewelweed, and where to find it.

The seeds, and the curled-up seed pod.
The grandkids!

Creeping Charlie

Oh, Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), how this poor thing gets a bad rap. As a member of the Mint family, it spreads easily and prolifically, populating lawns, gardens and driveways with it’s bitterly-minty-smelling leaves and petite purple flowers. Try as you might, you aren’t going to get rid of Creeping Charlie, so you might as well eat it, right?

It’s easy to throw some of the leaves into a salad, whether it’s made from fresh greens, or a tabouleh-style salad. You’ll likely want to chop it into small bits since it is fairly bitter tasting, but pleasant when mixed with tastier stuff.

That teeny-tiny purple flower is surprisingly delicious, and not bitter at all. It’s a bit tedious to pick any significant amount, but fun to nibble on them while harvesting the leaves. I like to toss a few of the flowers on top of a cream cheese veggie dip, to make it pretty.

My very favorite way to use Creeping Charlie, though, is to make tea. It is very mild, with the bitter note in background and more of a sort-of-sweet flavor than you’d expect. I’ll use fresh or dried leaves and stems to make tea in the summer, and of course just dried ones in the winter.

There are a couple other plants that look very similar to Creeping Charlie – Purple Dead Nettle and Henbit. They are both in the mint family, and both are also edible. Here’s a great article with details about how to tell them apart.

Don’t you love it when a ‘problem’ plant turns out to be something really good instead?? 🙂

Garlic Mustard

They are pretty, but………..

Garlic Mustard is considered invasive in Wisconsin, as are many other plants. It also happens to be delicious to eat.

Right now as I write this, it is flowering, and it really is pretty. But…….you can easily see how it crowds out all the other plants that like to grow near hardwoods: trout lily, spring beauty, ramps, etc.

Conventional methods of controlling invasive plants include poisoning them with weed killer. The trouble with that, of course, is that other plants and critters we WANT will also be poisoned, and that poison will stay in the soil for longer than we want to admit.

Pulling and eating Garlic Mustard is a great way to give it some boundaries and force it to share the space with other spring pretties in the forest.

Usually when we forage, we want to harvest carefully so the plant can continue to grow, but that’s not a concern with Garlic Mustard so we’ll pull the whole plant up, roots and all. The roots are shallow, so it isn’t hard to pull at all, even when it is tall and flowering. I don’t want to eradicate ALL the Garlic Mustard….the whole plant is edible and delicious, after all. It is so tenacious, though, we don’t have to worry about it not coming back.

If you are pulling flowering plants, be sure to either use the flowers in your food prep, or put them in the garbage. Those flower heads will continue to mature and set seed after harvesting, so if you compost them, you’ll be spreading the plant around, opposite of what we want to do!

Once you get your bag full of Garlic Mustard plants, here are some delicious ways to prepare them.

Roots: They taste like horseradish! Put them in a blender, mix with a little vinegar and salt and use like horeradish sauce.

Leaves: Use in your salads, chop up and add to pasta, make delicious pesto.

Flowers: A pretty garnish for salads, soups or dips.

Baby Garlic Mustard. Yum.

Mushroom Weirdos

I never really stop thinking about hunting for mushrooms, but when winter starts to melt into Spring, I get obsessed. I pull out my notes about where I’ve found which kinds, and I look at my calendar to plan Mushroom Dates with my husband Dan (thank goodness he is such a good sport and loves a fun mushroom hunt!).

“Mushroom Weirdo” could very well be a term for those of us who obsess about hiking all over creation to pick strange-looking stuff off the forest floor and eat it. (You know who you are…..). But I think of “Mushroom Weirdos” as being the fungi that don’t look like the classic cap-and-stem mushrooms. They are my favorite kind to hunt and eat, because they tend to be so distinctive looking, and have few, if any, poisonous look-alikes.

Here are some of my Very Favorites, in no particular order.

Pheasantback is a nice consolation prize when I’m out hunting for Morels. I find them exclusively on dead hardwood trees, particularly Elm. Isn’t it pretty? It really looks like it has feathers, doesn’t it? Slice this one thin, fry it crisp and enjoy. The texture holds up nicely in soups, too.

Underside of Pheasantback. See the large pores? That means this one’s going to be tough – you can still use it for mushroom stock, but it’ll be too tough to eat. Small pores = tender and pleasant.

Oyster Mushrooms are so yummy! No, they don’t taste like oysters, but I guess they are named that because they look like oysters. I find them on dead hardwoods. They smell faintly of anise, and the flavor is nice and meaty. I like pretty much all of my mushrooms fried in butter and seasoned with salt, this one’s no exception.

Underside of Oyster. See how the gills go all the way across?

Bear’s Head Tooth is a really interesting looking mushroom, with it’s longish soft ‘spikes’ hanging down off of a solid core. The one on the left is at a perfect stage for harvesting, the one on the right is a newly budding one. I find them on Dead wood, both hardwood and conifers. Lion’s Mane, Comb Tooth and Pom Pom Mushrooms are other common names.

The first time I saw this mushroom, I thought it was moldy dog poop. Seriously, who was the first person to see this on the forest floor and think “Hey, I think I’ll try eating that!”?? Fortunately for us, someone DID, and now I love me some Shrimp Mushrooms. They don’t taste like shrimp, but they kinda/sorta look shrimpy, and the texture is VERY shrimp-like. If you cook these up and throw them in a seafood chowder, you could totally make yourself (and your friends) believe you are eating shrimp. They usually grow in clusters, right on the forest floor near a dead tree.

Hen of the Woods looks like a large fleshy flower to me. Those ‘petals’ have pores underneath rather than gills, and are attached to a solid core. I usually find these on the ground at the base of a live oak tree, and sometimes on dead oak stumps. This mushroom is nice and firm, and holds it’s texture really well even after being dehydrated/rehydrated or thawed out after freezing.

There are so many more Weirdo Mushrooms that I love……and I will save them for another post. In the meantime, Happy Hunting!!

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Quite often, people will ask me what my favorite thing to forage is. Every time, I think hard……….and come up with the same answer. Fiddleheads. There are so many things to love about foraging for this yummy food:

  • They come up early in the spring, when I’m chomping at the bit to get outside. In my journals from the last few years, I’ve noted the dates that I’ve seen and picked all kinds of wild foods, and I’m already scanning my fern spots for signs of life.
  • It’s easy to pick enough for a few meals – Ostrich Ferns are prolific spreaders, often forming large colonies with the plants fairly close together. Snapping a fiddlehead or two from each plant fills up my bag fairly quickly.
  • They are SOOOooo yummy! I like them cooked simply, just steamed and served with butter. The taste for me is like a cross between asparagus and green beans.

All ferns have fiddleheads – that’s the term for the curled up frond as it emerges in the spring. Not all fiddleheads are edible, though, so it’s important to know what to look for. Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) has the most commonly eaten fiddleheads, and here are some key points for identification:

  • The “Nest”: See that large brown thing at the top of the above photo that looks sort of like a spider? The ‘legs’ of the ‘spider’ are last years’ fronds, and the lumps in the middle are baby fiddleheads about to emerge from a cup-like structure that I call the Nest. Other ferns grow in clumps, but lack that cup-like Nest Thing.
  • The Paper-like coating: Those brown baby fiddleheads at the top of the photo are covered with a brown paper-y stuff that breaks open when they emerge. You can see a tiny bit of green poking out of the one on the top right. At the bottom of the photo, the fully emerged fiddleheads are nice and green, and you can see the remnants of that papery coating around the bottom.
  • The Celery Groove: No, not a cool dance – not that I know of anyway. 🙂 You can see how those green Fiddleheads at the bottom of the picture have a groove toward the inside, like celery does. Other ferns have a slight groove, and Ostrich Fern’s groove is very pronounced.
  • Smooth Stems: Lady Fern looks pretty similar to Ostrich Fern in my opinion, even having a slight groove, but she has little brown hairs on her stems, while Ostrich Fern stems are smooth. Sometimes that paper-like coating will break up into pieces, stick to the fiddlehead stems and look like hairs, but up close you can see that it’s not.
  • Habitat: Ostrich Fern prefers a bit of shade, and moist, rich soil. I usually find them in the woods, sometimes with a river or a lake fairly close by.

Happy Hunting!! If you’d like some help identifying wild edibles, check out my class schedule or consider a Bountiful Backyard Gathering.

Edible Invasives

What, exactly, is an ‘invasive’ plant?

According the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources,  “When non-native plants, animals, or pathogens rapidly takes over a new location and alter the ecosystem, we consider them invasive species.”

There is a lot of Concern and Kerfuffle around Invasive plants, maybe it’s warranted and maybe it’s not – That’ll be the topic of another blog post in the future.  In the meantime, here is a list of common plants that are considered Invasive in Wisconsin, and happen to be edible.

Click on the links for more information about each plant. Enjoy!

If you are curious to learn more, here is a link to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Invasive Plant information.

Rare and Endangered Plants Need Our Help

Ramps/Wild Leek

One thing I talk about constantly on the subject of foraging is the need to pay attention to how plants grow so that we can harvest them in a way that keeps them healthy, vital and thriving. To me, it just makes sense – once I find a nice patch of Wild Leeks, I’d like to be able to go back year after year to pick some leaves and bulbs, right? It’s simple enough to honor and respect that Beautiful Being by taking a leaf from each plant so that it can flourish and fulfill it’s role in the ecosystem.

Weirdly enough, not everyone thinks that way.

Believe it or not, there are people who will strip an entire area of wild leeks, digging up all of the bulbs and not leaving any behind to thrive and grow. Some do this for their own personal stock, and some do it for the money they make by selling them. Either way, I just don’t understand it – why oh, why wouldn’t you want a steady supply that you could keep coming back to?! And the total disregard for the role these plants have in the ecosystem is staggering. It makes me sad, and it makes me all the more determined to keep talking, keep teaching, keep doing everything I can to spark the Wonder and Curiosity in others that will lead to a deep connection to Nature.

Echinacea Flower

I’ve recently become a member of United Plant Savers, an organization whose mission is to “protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.” Isn’t that a lovely mission?? I encourage you to explore their website and see if it’s a good fit for you, too.

Wisconsin Rare Plant Monitoring program is another great organization, dedicated to preserve rare flora in our own beautiful state. I recently signed up to be a volunteer, and I look forward to being an advocate for plants in need of some loving attention. Again, I encourage you to explore this organization and see if it’s a good fit for you.

Other things you can do to help plants in need:

  • Look at the list of rare and endagered plants, and cultivate a few of them in your garden.
  • Even if you don’t become an official volunteer for the WI Rare Plant Monitoring Program, you can still conduct a survey for a particular rare plant (if you happen to know how to identify it) and submit data online.
  • When you are harvesting wild edible and medicinal plants, pay deep attention to how you are harvesting, and keep the health of the plant a priority.
  • Share the information you know with your like-minded friends. For instance, you might know what the endangered Bloodroot looks like, so when you are hiking with your friends and family, you can point out this lovely plant and share it’s plight with others.
  • Keep learning, keep growing, keep sharing. 🙂
Beautiful Bloodroot

10 Reasons Foraging is Good For Us AND Good for the planet

Foraging is Good For People

  1. Excellent Nutrition

   a. Wild plants grow where the conditions are Just Right, so they are packed with excellent nutrition

   b. Wild plants don’t contain artificial dyes, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.

2. We can make our own ‘medicine’.

     a. Food is medicine, right?  What we eat informs our bodies how to grow.

     b. We can make salves, tinctures and healing syrups out of plants from our own backyard, suited to our own unique needs. 

3. Foraging gets us outside

     a. Hiking, kayaking, fresh air! 

4. Learning botany skills for plant identification. 

     a. Continual learning is good for our brain health, helps us live longer and be more content with our life.

5. Foraging inevitably leads to other enjoyable activities….

     a. Making cordage with plant fiber

     b. Kayaking and canoeing

     c. Weaving baskets with willow and other plant materials

     d. Birdwatching

     e. Geocaching

Foraging is Good for the Planet

  1. We can help control Invasive Species by foraging them for food and medicine:

         a. Watercress, garlic mustard, barberry, autumn olive, parsnip, and so many more! 

      2. We can help wild plants to propagate while we forage them:

         a. Spitting out wild plum pits, spreading mushroom spores, dropping seed heads, etc

      3. Regular harvesting keeps some plants more vigorous and hearty

       a. Think about when you pick basil from the garden, how the plant responds by branching out even more

       b. Wild plants like stinging nettle, wild mint, pineapple weed, etc also benefit from regular picking

      4. When we find wild food that will continually return year after year, we will naturally want to take care of that plant and its habitat.

a. Of COURSE we will take care of the plants and their habitat, otherwise what happens isn’t ‘Foraging’, it’s ‘Pillaging’. Right?

5. Foraging reduces our carbon footprint – our food isn’t traveling 1000 miles in plastic packaging.

Foraging on Public Lands

A friend recently asked me to write a blog about the rules around foraging in public places.  What a great idea! Since most of my foraging happens in Polk County, WI, that’s where my focus will be for this post. 

When I think about “Public Land”, I think of 4 categories: Federal, State, County, and Municipal.  Each category has slightly different rules about foraging, so let’s break it down.

Federal Land:

In Polk County, we have the National Park Service area along the St Croix River, and various tracts of US Fish and Wildlife areas south of Highway 8.  Perhaps there are other Federal Lands too, these are the ones I’m aware of.

Here is a link that outlines specific rules about activities on National Park Service land along the River, including foraging: “Visitors are allowed to harvest and eat berries and mushrooms in the Park, but collecting freshwater mussels, mussel shells or wildflowers is prohibited.”

US Fish and Wildlife Service areas allow berry and mushroom collection for personal use.   This link has a list of these areas in Polk County.

State Land:

In a State park, Forest, Natural Area or Trail in Wisconsin we can pick edible fruits, edible nuts, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus and watercress for personal consumption.  I will add that we can pick edible invasive plants as well – things like garlic mustard, feral parsnip, and hybrid cattail.
This link has a list of state lands in Polk County.

County Land:

Polk County Parks, Trails and Forests have pretty much the same foraging rules as State Lands, above. There are presently no policies written down, but the kind county forester that I spoke with said that respectful harvesting of wild edibles for personal consumption would be considered legal.

This link has a list of Polk County parks and trails.  You’ll notice some of these are also in the State Land list – that’s because some parks and trails are jointly owned/managed by DNR and the county. 

Municipal

I debated about calling up all of the Polk County villages and cities to see what they had to say………but I got lazy and didn’t, lol!  My advice here is to call your local village/city office and ask if it’s alright to pick mushrooms and wild edible plants from the parks in town, and then also ask if herbicides/pesticides are used in any of the parks as well.  I imagine each village or city will have different rules. 

So there you have it. Go forth and forage, my friends.