Ethical Foraging at Home and Afield

By Anita Sanchez

Lawn For­ag­ing

My favorite place to for­age for wild foods is a spring­time lawn. 

Plants like clover, dan­de­lion, ground ivy, vio­lets, and plan­tain are great to eat. They’re not native plants, so you can har­vest as much as you like with­out dis­rupt­ing any frag­ile ecosys­tems. (Do bear in mind that yel­low dan­de­lions are a very impor­tant sur­vival food for honeybees.)

The thing about spring greens is that you have to catch them before they flower. Once you see the flow­ers or the seeds, all the ten­der sweet­ness is gone, like bolt­ed let­tuce. As the plant flow­ers, the leaves change from a tasty mouth­ful to some­thing very bit­ter. The plant is putting ener­gy into repro­duc­tion and is anx­ious” to keep from being nib­bled. So it cre­ates ill-tast­ing chem­i­cals that help fend off hun­gry her­bi­vores. Thus, for the true gourmet fla­vor of wild spring greens, get em while they’re young. Wild spring greens have a tangy, bold taste, so I like to blend them with store-bought let­tuce to soft­en their punch. Beware, though, where you’re gath­er­ing: many lawn-own­ers apply poi­son chem­i­cals.

For­est For­ag­ing

When you’re col­lect­ing in the woods, you need to con­sid­er the envi­ron­men­tal impact of remov­ing plants from their native habi­tat. Most for­est species are native and not very com­mon. Some of the loveli­est spring wild­flow­ers taste great, but unless you’re on the verge of star­va­tion, leave them alone. I’m all for enjoy­ing for­ag­ing from the wild, but many native plants can be total­ly erad­i­cat­ed from the habi­tat. Leeks, for exam­ple, are a spring wildflower/​wild food in grave dan­ger of being elim­i­nat­ed by for­agers.

Ferns are anoth­er com­mon for­ag­ing tar­get, specif­i­cal­ly the fid­dle­heads. The fid­dle­head isn’t a type of fern, it’s a young fern, the way a sapling is a young tree. Ferns are peren­ni­als, and each year as they rise from the soil, the fronds of most species are curled in a shape resem­bling the curl at the end of a vio­lin. Can fid­dle­heads be eat­en? The answer is…sometimes. The fid­dle­heads of some ferns are fair­ly tasty, if a bit fuzzy. How­ev­er, the fid­dle­heads of oth­ers (such as sen­si­tive fern) are mild­ly tox­ic. So you want to know which fern you’re har­vest­ing.

You’ll also want to know what kind of fern you’re gath­er­ing as many ferns are increas­ing­ly rare. Some are on state lists of pro­tect­ed plants, some on fed­er­al endan­gered species lists. So enjoy fid­dle­heads spar­ing­ly. When for­ag­ing, please con­fine your­self to non-natives and leave the ferns and the oth­er natives alone. And of course, please don’t for­age at all in the woods of Lan­dis Arbore­tum.

From Pest to Pesto

Garlic Mustard
Gar­lic Mustard

Gar­lic mus­tard is a pret­ty lit­tle wild­flower with white blos­soms. The leaves have a savory gar­lic taste, a fan­tas­tic addi­tion to sal­ads, quiche, and stir-fry. A love­ly and use­ful plant, you’d think. But I spend a lot of time killing it. Rip­ping it out by the roots. Doing every­thing short of spray­ing a dose of pes­ti­cide on it. Why? I have an enor­mous tol­er­ance for non-native weeds,” as my undy­ing love for dan­de­lions shows. Why enjoy the dan­de­lions, the clover, the daisies, and mur­der the poor lit­tle gar­lic mus­tard? It’s because gar­lic mus­tard is able to grow in shade while most non-native plants don’t, so they’re no threat to wilder­ness areas. Gar­lic mus­tard, on the oth­er hand, will crowd out many species of wood­land wild­flow­ers and ferns. Even after the plant is com­plete­ly uproot­ed and thrown on the com­post pile, the flow­ers can con­tin­ue pro­duc­ing seed. Uproot­ed, limp and dead-look­ing, they go on devel­op­ing –liv­ing after death. It took me a few years to fig­ure out why the gar­lic mus­tard grew so pro­lif­i­cal­ly around my com­post pile. So you have to throw the plants into the trash, then off to the landfill.

Or, you could make pesto. The chopped and blend­ed leaves of gar­lic mus­tard are deli­cious when turned into pesto. And you’re help­ing to remove a seri­ous threat to the for­est ecosys­tem. Win-win!

Spring 2020

Volume 38 , Number 1

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