Spring Foraging

by Jan Buhrman


A conversation was sparked at a recent Slow Food meeting about ‘over-foraging’ local watercress. Coupled with information I gathered about someone trying to sell bags full of their collected wild bounty at a local supermarket, I was alerted to the importance for awareness of the availability of wild foods coming into season and the thoughtful collection of our foraged dinners.

It is not unlike a conversation I had this past fall. While with a mushroom forager friend, she mentioned to me that she has never seen such destruction over fungi.

If you’re not sure, grab an expert and head out together.

With all foraging, we want to do it in a way that protects the plant for re-growth. I know several wild mushroom foragers who have been gathering mushrooms and selling them commercially. They are professionals and they know what they are doing, not only protecting the ecology, but also their livelihood.

…which brings me to fiddleheads

About 28 Springs ago, Lindsey Lee introduced me to fiddleheads. Lindsey is the author of Edible Wild Plants of Martha’s Vineyard.

Fiddleheads are the tightly rolled tender leaves of an unfurled ostrich fern. They look just like their name: the top of a violin. They tend to grow in wetter areas and you can often see them along the side of the road in early May. They can be cooked like green beans: they are excellent sautéed and are excellent with wild leeks. These tightly curled shoots of the ostrich fern are a Spring treat eaten alongside stinging nettles. It’s not an accident that Spring offers us these gifts of nutrient-dense wild edibles – something fresh and green after the long winter.

When I was in Italy last month, I was with a bio-dynamic farmer and when he saw me collecting stinging nettles, he corrected me and had me only collect the top two or three leaves. He said that the rest could be collected and stuffed into a big bucket of water to ferment for 10-12 days to make a tea. He then uses the tea to give his garden vegetables a boost. He cautioned that it gives off a rank odor, but the plants love it.

Another chef friend of mine had a bucket of Japanese knotweed. I had forgotten all about Japanese knotweed. Russ Cohen turned me on to this rhubarb looking wild plant, but I needed to be reminded. Even though Japanese knotweed is a member of the buckwheat family. The shoots look like asparagus or rhubarb or bamboo. The stalks are actually hollow like bamboo, but when you cook it, they turn a brown-green color, not nearly as pretty as rhubarb, but certainly just as delicious and can be used in the same way!

A chef friend asked me if I ever collected bamboo shoots and cooked them. “They are everywhere.” he said, with excitement as he was running out the door to collect.

“Bamboo?” I thought. “The invasive tree that seems to be everywhere?”

Funny! Suddenly, not only do I see bamboo everywhere, I see knotweed growing everywhere, including at the gas station this morning!

Perhaps we all need to collect bamboo shoots! I did a quick search for a recipe and there are many that are a quick sauté, just like spinach.

We would love to hear of other foraging experiences!