Eating the Weeds
Summer Foraging From Backyards to Backwoods
Foraging is Mother Nature’s scavenger hunt. Outdoors, we find many hidden gems in the form of what most call weeds. Once you start learning and building your foraging confidence, this activity can quickly snowball and begin to transform the way you look at everything from your lawn to your local hiking trails. Before you set off on your first expedition, here are some guidelines.
General Guidelines for Foraging:
1. Always be 100% certain of what you are eating before you eat it. Assume your discoveries aren’t edible until proved otherwise. Check multiple sources to confirm.
2. Tread lightly and be mindful of sustainability. Lots of things live under our feet. Research what is a considered a sustainable harvest of the plant you seek, never taking more than what you need unless it’s invasive. Often, other animals or insects eat it, too.
3. Keep an eye on where you are foraging. Beware of common dangers such as poison ivy and ticks, and be on the lookout for less common concerns such as giant hogweed. Don’t forage in areas treated with chemicals or possibly contaminated with heavy metals or pollutants.
4. It’s easy for new foragers to get lost. Use good mapping software and make sure your phone or GPS unit is charged. Better yet, learn map and compass skills.
Bonus Tips for Foraging:
1. Find something good? Pin-drop the location on your phone’s mapping app so you can return. I also set reminders to check these spots when the time is right — many common edibles are only available for short periods of time.
2. Bring the right gear. I keep a couple of bags and a knife with me every time I forage. It’s also useful to bring along a small field guide.
So, on to the good stuff. The following are a few species to look for in the summer months.
Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium sp.)
Here’s one we all know and love, but finding blueberries in the wild makes them even more fun and delicious. Who doesn’t love wild blueberry pancakes?
ID: You’ve got highbush and lowbush blueberries; they have small, ovate and alternate leaves on woody branches. Their flowers in spring are small, white to pink, and grow in clusters, each with five petals fused together into a bell shape. The berries have a five-pointed crown on the end and often have a white bloom. Highbush can get taller than the average person, and lowbush are about shin height. They like acidic soil, so look for them around evergreen trees in July and August.
Turn these tasty berries into a blueberry sumac (see below) jam or just enjoy them as is. We aren’t the only animal that likes these, so leave some behind.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Garlic mustard is a blessing and a curse — it’s exceptionally invasive and a bully. It spreads seeds readily and inhibits the growth of other plants. Whenever you see this plant, you’re doing the world a favor by pulling it out and throwing away whatever you don’t use (NOT for compost). However, garlic mustard is one of my favorite plants to forage because it’s everywhere and you can use it almost year-round.
ID: Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning it has a two-year growth cycle, with a shifting appearance as it develops. When you break or crush the leaves, you’ll smell garlic and a hint of mustard. In spring, it sends up a flower stalk with a seed head that looks like a mini broccoli. The flowers are small, white and four-petaled. The flowers turn into long, slender capsules filled with dark-colored seeds. When ridding an area of garlic mustard, it’s best to pull the plant by the roots before the seed pod sets. It grows in partially shaded areas that have been disturbed by humans.
The leaves are the least bitter and most tender in early spring. Cook them quickly with olive oil and salt, make them into a pesto, or add them to homemade sauerkraut for a kick. Before the flower heads open, you can use the top few tender inches like broccoli rabe. You can even use their roots as horseradish. For this, it’s best to find thick roots and peel off the tough outer part, mince the inner roots and mix them in a splash of vinegar. If they’re too tough, make an infused “horseradish” vinegar.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
I know how many people will react to reading about staghorn sumac. Isn’t that poisonous? I would love to get the phone number of poison sumac’s marketing team because it did a bang-up job of promoting it. There is a poison sumac, but its appearance is wildly different from the edible varieties. The beautiful and striking conelike clusters of the immediately recognizable staghorn are pink-red and upright, not the drooping clusters of greenish-white berries of the far less common poison sumac.
ID: Staghorn sumac commonly grows along highways and often goes unnoticed until you know how to ID it, at which point you start to see it everywhere. It reaches a height of 10-12 feet. In the fall, the compound leaves (many leaflets on one leaf stem) turn a lovely pinkish scarlet. The most common form of sumac in our area is called staghorn sumac because it has a fuzzy antler appearance. It grows in open sunny areas, often at the edge of fields. The berry clusters are ready to pick in mid to late summer, when they are rust colored. The coating on the outside of the berries is the tasty part. To tell if they are worth harvesting, touch the middle of a cluster and lick your fingers to see if it has a lemony tang. Taking a few clusters from each tree won’t hurt them.
To make pink lemonade, soak the clusters in cool to room-temperature water and break up the clusters, massaging them a bit to get the berries to give up the goods. Strain, and you have an unsweetened lemonade — a great source of vitamin C. You can also dry the berries to create a lemony spice, or use the lemonade and/or dried sumac to make a nice “lemon” wild blueberry jam!
Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sp.)
Certainly not a weed, but sometimes treated as one by those who don’t appreciate its value, this mushroom is easy to spot and ID.
ID: The first thing to note is that the underside has no gills. It is a polypore mushroom, which means the bottom will appear smooth with many small holes (these are the pores). They grow as a group of thick, stemless, fan-shaped caps, one often overlapping the other. They are shades of orange to yellow-orange, making them really stand out. They are commonly found growing out of dead or dying oaks, but can also grow from other trees. Look for these in late spring through fall. If they seem bug ridden or dried out, leave them.
I think these are best when breaded and fried; they really do taste like chicken. Be sure to try a small amount at first and wait a day to make sure it doesn’t upset your stomach. This is a good policy to employ with any new edible. Because of the dangers associated with mushroom poisoning, it’s also helpful to attend guided walks sponsored by organizations such as the Boston Mycological Club.
I hope searching for some of these wild edibles brings you joy and lets you connect to nature in our fast-paced, electronics-centered world. Nature always has something to teach us! Happy foraging.