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First Wild Edibles of the Spring

I can’t think of much else that connects me to the land more than foraging. Every year, every spring season when the snow and cold have receded back to their place of solitude, I break out my digging stick, pack a few storage bags and head out to Poestenkill creek, my favorite wild edible foraging site in my area. That beautiful chunk of land that sits near the Hudson River probably hosts around 100 wild edible plants that I’m aware of.  And the relatively small patch there between the city and suburban sprawl is very diverse: creeks, fields, forest, wetland, brush, hills.

 Even with the uncannily warm weather that we’ve been having it’s still a bit too early for the bulk of what I gather in the spring but a few delicacies are popping up right about now. 

 Very early spring is probably the best time for roots, since the sugary energy of the plant is generally stored in the roots at that time.  One golden rule I’ve learned as a forager is to “follow the energy.” Spring is a time when the energy of the plant (usually what tastes the best to us and provides the best sustenance) is low to the ground in the subterranean parts of the plants and in the very young shoots that break through ground.

 Every year I look forward meeting my old friends again. It feels a little like that “first day of school” feeling I had when I was a kid. 

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) in the above shot, is entirely edible but thanks to Samuel Thayer’s book “Nature’s Garden”, i’ve been harvesting the small but delicious tubers you see here. they are best in the early spring well before the leaves mature. it takes a bit of eye-training to see the tiny unfurled leaves poking up through the ground.  They are very sweet. 

Anise Root ( Osmorhiza longistylus)  is the green that you see here. It took me some time to build my ID confidence with this one since it somewhat resembles deadly Poison Hemlock. While in the same family, there are definite ways to tell this one a part from the rest of the pack including Poison Hemlock. 
Once i got past my trepidation and really started “internalizing” Anise Root, it became a real friend to me. It loves wet soil, does real well in shade and the root does not travel to far down making it quite easy to dig.
 
If you like licorice, you will love Anise Root. The entire plant is edible but certain parts are better than others depending on the season of harvest. Right now in early spring i go for the roots. They are incredibly sweet this time of year and taste like black jelly beans if you’re into that.  the leaves are pleasant as well but do get more fibrous as the plant matures. 
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is probably one of the most well known edibles and rightfully so, it’s extremely nutritious, usually very abundant in the Northeast, and it tastes really good!.
Some people react more strongly to the stings but it’s reputation as a painful plant is a bit overblown. if you’re careful, you really don’t need gloves to harvest the young shoots like this and once you cook them for a few seconds in hot steam or water, the sting is completely dissipated.
 
And sometimes, yes…when i really wanna live on the edge of life, i’ll fold up a raw leaf and chew it to oblivion without any ill effects. 
Although, i don’t think it’s as tasty as our native nettle “Wood Nettle”, Stinging Nettle is a very safe, easily recognizable and tasty herb for a forager to put on his list. 
for a survival enthusiast like me, i’ll also harvest dead stalks of nettle in the fall to extract the inner cordage material  from the plant. it makes some of the strongest natural rope out there. So much fun to experiment with this stuff too. 
For those of you who wanna get into foraging and looking for a good place to start…i strongly recommend these 3 books. They are the best out there. 
Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer
Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euel Gibbons
Happy Foraging!!!
Nature.

(photos by: Christina Venditti)


 

We stare at Nature objectively and on many occasions, we actually believe it somehow lives outside of us.

 

 I look out on a field of grass, shrubs, insects, birds and trees and too many times I see them for what others have named them. I view these fragments of nature through the glasses of my own limited language. I see them through the eyes of other humans who have based their observations on their own experiences or worse, from the observations of those they’ve read about. But I don’t really see these beings at all.  And my heart cannot lie. They are not really the labels that I have put on them. Nor do I believe the insects, birds, trees and stones to be allowed some kind of metaphoric or clichéd democracy as if their “uniqueness” was somehow given to them from human hands. No.

 

 I think that Nature is un-knowable at its core. Just as un-knowable as you are un-knowable to me and just as the slipperiest of me will seep right though your fingers, you will never touch the center of me. 

 

I go to that place without names as often as I can remember to go. I don’t need philosophy to decide for me if that place is real. I don’t need Science to describe for me how that place is formed and name for me all of the fragments that are necessary to the process of getting there. I certainly don’t need religion to nail me to one of many paths that lead there. 

 

When will nature be seen by mainstream society as something more than just it parts? Why do we have this word, Nature? The word itself slams the door to the world. It implies by its own creation that we do not belong.

 

Could it be that even our most cherished wilderness writers have left out something vital, even in the most well intended telling of their beloved natural world? Reading the inspiring pages scribed by the great naturalist, John Muir, I get the feeling that the “wild” was something outside. Something stunningly beautiful yes, but something to be hidden from those who would do anything other than appreciate it’s aesthetic beauty. You see… I’m an animal too, John. I see the mountain but now I want to touch it. Teach me how to build with it, how to eat with it, how to heal with it, how to give back to it so I can touch it again. That is how I will come to love and value this place. A world of the deepest poetry cannot replace a moment of raw experience.

 

Nature is separation. The very creation of the word makes it static. It is one of the great lies. And my heart cannot lie.

If you can get past the stock footage, the cheezy background music and the somewhat creepy narration, the message is profound. There are a lot of us out there who feel this way. I believe at the core of this documentary lies some profound truths. One of them being, humans are not now and have never been the most important beings on this planet even though collectively we act is if this were the case. 

This is a good find for a forager. American Hackberry (Celtis, occidentalis)

Is a tree native to N. America and I usually find it high up on a riverbank or in rocky outcroppings probably since it doesn’t have to compete with as much in these environments.

 The “berry” ripens in the fall. I’ve found it difficult to gather these in quantity but it’s the closest thing in nature to M&M’s. You will have to try for yourself. Individual trees vary in their flavor so you really have to experiment with different trees to get a real sense for it. The shell is crispy the pulp inside is dry and sugary and the nut in the middle is crunchy. It’s one of my favorite wild edibles!


Foraging for Cow Parsnip in England 

The Forgotten Serviceberry

Serviceberry just turning ripe

Serviceberry just turning ripe

I think the first time I saw them I was at local park in cohoes NY. There were some shrubby-looking trees sitting on the rocky over-look just off of the main trail. At first glance the berries resembled blueberries but they were growing on a medium size tree which is something that blueberries do not do. I knew of no other poisonous berries with the same characteristics of this plant so I sampled one. It was surprisingly sweet with a flavor somewhere between a blueberry, apple and sweet cherry. At the time I couldn’t really find a tree that offered much of a harvest that is… until i found a beauty in the back of a credit union parking lot. Hell no, i’m not telling you which one! now, go get your own. 

backyard-survival-2-065

 Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) also called: Juneberry or shadbush is a medium size shrub or small tree. It has a very grey “silver shine” to the bark. You can spot this from far away. When examined at closer range, serviceberry bark has distinctive shallow grooves that are so slight, they almost look like they’ve been painted on. Serviceberry is Native to N. America.

 The leaves are finely toothed and arranged alternately from each other on the tree. In the spring the blossoms are conspicuous and are usually the first of the tree flowers to open up. According to legend, the early pioneers aptly named serviceberry due to the fact that the opening of the blossoms coincided with the ground being thawed enough to finally burry the winter’s dead.backyard-survival-2-090

 In the Northeast the berries ripen around very late June to early July. They start out green then turning pink to bright red and eventually to purple. When they are fully ripe they will be a very deep red to purple color.

 I have no idea as to why serviceberries are not harvested commercially. They’re very easy to collect and you can actually eat the seed inside as well. It imparts a bit of an almond flavor to the sweet pulp which I think is an nice compliment.

 Serviceberries can be made into jam, fruit leather, pies, muffins and god knows what else.

straining and removing seeds for jam-making

straining and removing seeds for jam-making

 The berries were very important to the Native Americans. I had read that some tribes would place buffalo skins on the ground beneath the tree and beat the loaded branches with sticks to release the berries. Well, I cheated by using my plastic tarp but this is quite an efficient method for harvest.  The only drawback to this method is that you tend to get some unwanted shriveled berries and stems in the mix. However, rolling the harvested berries around in cold water for a few spins tends to send most of the unwanted parts floating to the top. At that point you can just skim the junk off of the top.

 Incidentally, Using the slightly under ripe red berries for jam works really well as it’s a bit more tart which is what you want for any good jam.

 I’m finding these trees scattered all around suburbia. Check your local park. Just make sure they don’t use any toxic sprays on their trees as you may grow an extra unwanted limb.

serviceberry jam

serviceberry jam

The Holy Grail of Wild Berries


Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) in flower

Wild Strawberry leaves (Fragaria virginiana)

Never Take the Same Path Twice.

It was June 10th of 2008 when I saw them last. So many times I will be wandering, walking through old fields or abandon wooded areas to just explore. I try to keep my mind clear of appointments, deadlines and all the other “gotta do this” crap that stabs into my brain constantly. I look for spots that are off the beaten path. I try to make a point to take a route that I’ve never taken before. Or maybe I look in a direction that I don’t usually look. That’s when things get interesting. That’s when I bump into some of nature’s magic. It just happens.

 Wild Strawberries ( Fragaria virginiana) are native to N. eastern America. The Native Americans loved them no doubt and we obsessed on them enough to want to cultivate the plant. Wild strawberry or Common Strawberry is actually the wild counter part of the berry you buy at the market except that the former is generally sweeter and more potent then the cultivated variety. They are for the most part, more strawberry-er if you will.

 strawberry-026You can find Wild Strawberry growing in open meadows, fields and forest edges that are open to the sun. They tend to find an open niche in poor sandy soils and disturbed dry land. There are really no poisonous look-a-likes which makes it a great plant to know for the beginning forager.

  The berry itself is really the center of the flower that has withered its pedals away to leave this beautiful plump fruit in its place. According to Steve Brill in his book Edible and Medicinal plants,Strawberries contain  “… magnesium, calcium, potassium, beta carotene, iron, malic acid and citric acid.”

 In the early spring I was wandering through this patch of brushy trails behind a local cemetery. I instantly recognized the 3 sharp-toothed compound leaves growing close to the ground as wild strawberry. Of course in the past I’ve seen a few scattered plants growing and feasted on whatever I could get my hands on  which wasn’t much. This place was different. This was “Strawberry Heaven.” The berries in this spot were abnormally large for the standard and the sheer abundance was nothing less then astounding. No, this was God’s strawberry patch and God must have been taking a leak or something not to have this place heavily guarded. Ok scratch that…actually it was guarded by dozens of young stabbing dew berry thorns. As if the strawberry was saying, ok, now how bad do you want me?

 The First Candy of the Season

So I showed up in late spring at just the right time…early June. Gorgeous sweet fruit like little red Christmas lights scattered all over the bright green foliage. I stood in awe. I dropped to the ground to praise the strawberry goddess. I put my nose to the ground. The smell was almost more than I could bear. 

 Last year I collected enough to make a superb jam. In fact, I made all kinds of wild jam last year, Mulberry, Wild Black Cherry, Sumac and Elderberry, Wild Blueberry, Autumn Olive but Wild strawberry jam holds a sacred place in my heart.

 With wild food in general, you never know how abundant the years’ harvest will be. This is especially true with wild fruit. However, much to my delight, this year was even better than the last. The gates to Strawberry heaven were open and the hunt was on.

Well, every once in a while you find the ultimate strawberry….so deeply red, smelling so sweet that you almost absorb the sugary calories just from looking at the thing,  and nearly as big as a small cultivated strawberry. Then to taste it’s buttery soft body melting in your mouth is nothing less then culinary nirvana.

The "Holy Grail" next to an average size strawberry

The “Holy Grail” next to an average size strawberry

 Even in a good earthy patch like the one i found, harvesting wild strawberries just takes a long time. There’s just no way around it. But of course, we’re not talking “data entry” here. Picking is part of the fun. 

The Amazing Milkweed!



Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

For several years I avoided harvesting Milkweed for food due to the pervading literature surrounding its questionable edibility. According to many authors, the milkweed needs to be boiled in several changes of water in order to remove its somewhat toxic “bitter” latex sap. Like many foragers, I took this warning to be gospel truth. Then I read a book written by Samuel Thayer called Forager’s Harvest.

 As Sam discovered Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is in fact not only not bitter but actually somewhat sweet and mild like green beans. According to Sam, the reason for the misleading information surrounding the plant is due to the fact that the authors who wrote about the Milkweed being horribly bitter and needing to be put through several rounds of boiling water essentially copied their method from one source; the late wild food guru Euell Gibbons.

 Sam goes on to suggest that Euell most likely made an error and collected a similarly related plant which he thought was common milkweed and thus the bitterness quality belonged to a different species altogether. It is important to note that there are several kinds of Milkweed that grow wild. Some are very bitter and considered to be poisonous. Common Milkweed is distinctive in appearance from the other species and does not contain bitter sap. Also, within the Milkweed family there is something calledDogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) or “Indian Hemp” which is known to be poisonous. Again, the milky sap from this plant is very bitter. You can read the in-depth article on the Milkweed controversy right here

young  Milkweed shoot

young Milkweed shoot

 I have been collecting Milkweed for a few years now and have noticed that occasionally, the Common Milkweed species can be slightly bitter but certainly nothing like a deal breaker and definitely no where near as bitter as dandelion or wild mustard. For the most part it is a very mild pleasant vegetable with a flavor in between green beans and asparagus.

 One begins to wonder why this wonderful plant is actually considered a weed. The culinary uses of the Milkweed alone are cause for a re-evaluation as one of the most important plants of North America.

 In the early part of the summer the Milkweed produces a lovely green shoot which, at 6-8″ tall can be harvested as an asparagus-like vegetable. As the season progresses the plant will develop large broccoli-like flower buds and both the flower buds and the blossoms can be boiled and eaten. Finally, the plant will produce the very conspicuous pods which most of us are familiar with. As a child I remember how fun it was to wave the dead stalks in the air and watch the weightless downy seed heads catch the wind (ok…i can’t lie, it’s still fun!) The very young pods usually up to 1″ long, are excellent boiled and then sautéed. When the pods are too tough to eat whole but before the down develops into fiber, the white silk can be eaten and has a pleasantly sweet, crisp flavor. I will eat small amounts raw but the silk is great boiled and sort of melts like cheese.

pokeweed-009 According to popular literature, the down was used to stuff jackets and pillows during WWII and is apparently superior to goose down in its insulating properties.

 A reasonably strong cordage can be produced from the inner fibers of the plant stalk which makes the milkweed a must-know plant for survival enthusiasts.

 Medicinally, the latex sap has been used by the Native Americans as a remedy for warts and skin blemishes

 For all of the above qualities mentioned, the Milkweed was an important plant for the Native Americans and as the monarch butterfly will agree…it’s so tasty!

Fragmentation and the Civilized Mind

I was walking on a park trail in Austin, TX a couple months back trying to collect myself after the madness that was the SXSW.  The trail edged along  a narrow river and sometimes meandered a bit through the manicured park trees and lawn grasses. A lot of commotion was due to all the local dogs running in circles, sloppily chasing one another and fetching sticks thrown into the river by their owners. The weather was right for being out there. The sun was warm on my face and the air dry and light against my skin. 

As i came around this bend of trail, hugging the river edge i saw this man sitting on a stubby black plastic lawn chair. To his left were 3 fishing poles cocked and loaded in some kind of holding devise apparently functioning to stabilize and keep the rods taught without help from human hands. I stared at the man for what seemed like  minutes and i never once saw him look up at the water or take his eyes or his thumbs off of his cell phone. Enter the modern day fisherman. 

One of the most profound books i read recently is called In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander. The book went to press 20 years ago but is just as or if not, more poignant then it was then. On the Pervasiveness of modern technology Jerry writes: 

….We are surrounded by pavement, machinery, gigantic concrete structures. Automobiles, airplanes, computers, appliances, television, electric lights, artificial air have become the physical universe with which our senses interact. They are what we touch, observe, react to . They are themselves “information,” in that they shape how we think and, in the absence of an alternate reality ( i.e., nature), what we think about and know. 

 As we relate to these objects of our own creation, we begin to merge with them and assume some of their characteristics.

Workers on an assembly line, for example, must function at the speed of the line, submitting to its repetitive physical and mental demands.  When we drive a car, we are forced to focus our minds and bodily retains on being at one with the road and the machine: following the curves, moving through the landscape at the appropriate speeds. The more we spend our lives in this manner, the more these interactions define the perimeters of our experience and vision. They become the framework of our awareness. 

There is a paradox however. Because technology is now everywhere apparent, pervasive, and obvious, we lose awareness of its presence. While we walk on pavement, or drive on a freeway, or sit in a shopping mall, we are unaware that we are enveloped by a technological and commercial reality, or that we are moving at technological speed. We live out lives in  reconstructed, human-created environments; we are inside manufactured goods. 

I’ve experience this so called “reality” for myself many times. Even for someone like me who claims to be a child of the earth, a seeker and student of the temples of nature it all seems so easy to get sucked into the rush of society’s mad agenda. But then there are “the glitches.” We’ve all had them at one time or another haven’t we? It feels a little like a scene from the movie, the Matrix. It’s like when your flying down the highway at 80mph your mind racing with deadlines, ideas, static and all manner of other thought monkeys and…all of the sudden you feel yourself in the moment, a real jarring sense that you, all at once know the absurdness of the metal box you’re driving in, the manufactured clothes that itch your skin, your hands on the weird rubbery wheel that you turn occasionally from side to side. And through the window of that metal box you see the look of lostness and listlessness on the faces of all the passers by. But alas, soon the glitch is over and it’s back to so called reality; the real world. 

As a child i knew that there was something a miss about American culture and for that matter all other world cultures that become modernized and westernized and homogenized . I could not articulate it then but what it comes down to is Fragmentation. The idea that science, technology, religion, nature, spirituality, love, sex, death, education,  economics, food and politics can be studied as somehow separate subjects and can be lived and fully developed on their own without overlapping or even bordering one another. 

 One thing we have to realize is that this is relatively a very new concept in our historical clock as humans. Just about every culture around  the globe that existed before centralized societies and governments developed including many tribal, indigenous people that still exist today have virtually no fragmentation.  That is to say for example that the Haudenosaunee peoples or the “Iroquois nation” located within the borders of the US  like the San bushman of the Kalahari have no clear word for religion or science or any idea of how an individual could posses the right to own and hoard land. The idea that land could be owned, chopped up and bought by an individual or corporation that didn’t even work on the land themselves is a concept that is virtually un heard of in the above mentioned societies.  The idea that the life-sustaining food source of the buffalo could be separate from spirituality in the collective mind of the Plains Indians of North America was non-existent. 

Fragmentation is killing the earth.  It’s the reason why there are so few places left on the planet where the water is not contaminated or processed with chemicals. It’s the reason why the biodiversity on this planet is shrinking at blinding speed. It’s the reason why indigenous cultures around the world have been raped of their lands, culture and language and identities and continue be raped of these things to the present day. It’s the reason why we go to war and kill thousands to secure oil in order to run our corporations and feed our insatiable capitalist appetite. What kind of money economy is more important then clean air, clean water, pure unadulterated food and the support of a family?

How much of our life support system to we need to annihilate so we can create more jobs? Fragmentation is killing the earth. But as George Carlin once said, ” Save the earth? The earth will be fine. It’s the people that are fucked!”

As long as we act as if we are the most important beings on this planet and continue to act as if we are somehow above and separate from the source of our sustenance, we might as well be sawing off our own hands and feet. Does this make any sense to you? Why does this culture have a death wish?  In the words of survivalist, tracker and teacher, Tom Brown Jr. ” We are starving our grandchildren to feed our children.” 

It’s time to reclaim what is our birthright. There is another way to see. It’s through the eyes of a whole person. 

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