- Cindy Trotter
Wildcrafting - March April May
Updated: May 4, 2019
Three Spring Wild Edibles You Can Harvest and Enjoy Right Now
Right at this very moment, (Mid April, in Mid-west Missouri) if you stand looking out a window you can probably see at least one, or possibly all three of these plants. It’s the time of year. As I look out my ‘tree house’ window, I can see trees budding, grass greening, and weeds popping up everywhere. I call my bedroom my ‘tree house’ because it is upstairs, and every window looks out onto tree branches. It’s a lovely view, and because it’s so high in the trees, we get to see the squirrels playing, and the birds nesting. There are even humming birds that come and go high up in the oak and wild cherry.
As I look over the trees onto the property, spring is vibrant and dynamic; changing even hourly, as the sun rises, courses, and sets. But the three most apparent plants at the moment – the three who are making their presence most obvious – are the Wild Onion/Garlic green patches rising above the grass plantlings; the sunny, persistent Dandelions, and the delicate amethyst Redbuds.
Many people consider the wild onion and garlic, and the dandelion blossoms to be noxious or nuisance weeds. But these pops of color are not only edible, but tasty and nutritious, offering stiff competition to our domestic garden vegetables. They are also capable of treating or curing many of the common ills that plague humanity! It brings new perspective to the quote from the Book of Revelation in the Christian Holy Book, the Bible; “He gave the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations.”
On the personal side, while I am certainly an advocate for the health benefits of eating or using wild plants, I am convinced that there are even more benefits from simply gathering the plants, and being out among the greenness. There is something therapeutic about harvesting wild plants and incorporating them into meals, medicines, and crafts. Yes, it is free, but above all, it is freeing.
When I buy produce from a store, there is little or no connection to the earth, nor is there ‘memory’ from the gathering, unless it’s the memory of supper going to be late. But, when I gather wild plants, I am connected to nature. I feel alive, relaxed, and thankful for what I’m harvesting. When I prepare food, or make a salve from these plants, I continue to feel a connection to nature. And every time I eat this food, or use the salve, I relive the gathering experience. I remember, clearly, the pungent smell of the dandelion that thickened the spring air, the sweetness of the sparrow singing its heart out in the tree next to me, the rippling water of the creek, the shock of a frog plopping into the water, and the anticipation of wild onion gravy for tomorrow morning’s biscuits.
Yes, it is a time investment to gather food, medicine and therapeutic materials; whether time working to earn the money for purchase, or time hunting, harvesting and crafting. My prayer for this course is that you will be inspired to spend more times in your own back yard; in the fields, meadows and forests around you. Even if you come home empty handed, you will not return with an empty heart, but a heart full of gratitude and wonder.
Now, let the fun begin!
Recognize Safe Location Determination for Gathering Plant Material
Any time you are harvesting in the wild, your most important responsibility is to determine toxicity of the plant. The first question to ask yourself is, “Is the plant actually what you think it is, or is it possibly a toxic look alike?”
Secondly, determine the surrounding environment. Does this plant grow close to the side of the road? If so, think about how much traffic may be going by. If there is a lot of traffic, the amount of exhaust the plant is exposed to may be too much for it’s natural filters to handle. You would be better getting off the beaten path! Is the road paved? If so, chemicals from the pavement have possibly – even probably – leeched into the soil, and the plant has taken it up. Steer clear! (pun intended!)
If the plant is not close to a roadway, next, determine if the soil is close to any landfill, sewer line, or other avenue of toxic waste. Lastly, if you are harvesting in your yard, or someone else’s, be sure no toxic insecticides or herbicides have been used.
Practice Respectful, Sustainable Harvest
The general rule of thumb is to only gather what you can use, and leave two thirds of any individual ‘patch’ of the plant for future propagation. However, the plants we are featuring in this section are all plants considered to be a ‘weed’. If you have neighbors who do not poison their lawns, they will be more than happy to allow you to come dig as much as you are willing from their yards!
Basic Plant Taxonomy and Key Characteristics
1. Wild Onion, Wild Garlic
Wild onion - Allium ascalonicum
Wild garlic - Allium vineale
Wild garlic and wild onion are easy to identify. Just when you think “spring has sprung” the wild garlic and onion will sprout. Then when winter comes back, laughing in your face, the garlic and onion have the last laugh. Because they are cool season perennials, they are actively growing in the cooler parts of the year. They grow equally well in shade as full sun. One sure sign that spring and summer’s warmth is here to stay is the onion and garlic going dormant.
Other than the cool weather hardiness, their rapid growth also makes them easy to spot. It is not uncommon to see the onion and garlic standing 6 to 12 inches taller than the rest of the grass. At the first yard mowing, there is no mistaking the strong onion/garlic smell released when cut with the mower blades. The larger the patch, the more noticeable the odor.
A third, similar, wild plant also emerges in the spring. Ornithogalum umbellatum, also known as Star of Bethlehem, because of it’s beautiful six petaled white flowers; has a similar growth pattern as the Alliums. It is not difficult to differentiate between the plants; however, it is quite important since the Star of Bethlehem is toxic. At first glance, it may look like a patch of wild onion, but upon closer inspection, you will find that the leaves are darker and glossier. They are also flat, thin ‘blades’ rather than tubes or reeds. Most noticeable is the lack of onion/garlic fragrance. While the aroma is pungent, it does not resemble onion or garlic in the least. If the plant is blooming, the flower heads are clustered much more loosely, the blooms are larger. The flower also has a green stripe down the middle of the underside of each petal.
Both wild garlic and wild onion grow in patches, producing flowers and seed, which fall to the ground and germinate. However, wild garlic can also spread by producing bulblets. These bulblets become new plants. The leaves of wild garlic and wild onion are the parts of the plant that most people see. They look similar to green onions you buy in the store, except the blades have a much smaller diameter. They are generally only a quarter to an eighth the diameter of garden green onions.
Distinguishing between wild onion and wild garlic is difficult due to their similar appearance. Wild onions have a flatter blade, while wild garlic has a rounded blade. When you break the blade in half, wild garlic will be hollow, while wild onion will appear ‘filled’ rather than empty hollow. Some have noticed in their area that wild garlic seems to have an onion smell, while wild onion has more of a garlic smell. To be absolutely sure of which is which, you must dig up the bulbs. You will notice that wild onion blades are divided at the base near the bulb, but wild garlic divides further up the stem.
How to Harvest and Use Wild Onion/Garlic
Leaves - Gather after dew is dry. Cut at the base of the plant close to the ground. Gather in your hand, and cut, then band loosely with a small rubber band, taking care not to bruise leaves. The younger leaves can be chopped and used as a flavorful garnish similar to chives. The older leaves can too, but they are tough to chew.
Roots - dig any time, and use, but the bulbs are small, anyway, and the leaves are as flavorful as the bulbs. Therefore, waiting until the plant flowers allows more growth in the bulbs.
Flowers - Late in the season, a few small lavender colored flowers may appear. These flowers can be cut right at the head, and used as an onion/garlic flavored garnish for salads or cold cut plates. (Never for sweets!)
Leaves – Chop and use fresh.
Muddle, and mix with olive or grape seed oil, and freeze in ice cube trays. Use as a seasoning oil for stews and soups, or in roasted meat.
Dry and crumble and use as spice.
Bulbs –Mash fresh bulbs, and throw into broth, soup, stew, or sauces.
If you want to dry bulbs, chop or mash before dehydrating.
Flowers – Use fresh as a garnish.
Place fresh, clean, dry flower heads inside bottles of flavored oils and vinegars.
Dandelion is one of the most common plants to emerge during the spring, thus it is quite identifiable. If you don’t know for sure, just ask your neighbor with the immaculate lawn! They will identify it for you, often accompanied with a curse!
Dandelions grow in a clump with basal rosette leaf arrangement. The leaves are rounded when young, then sharply toothed as they mature. The shaggy yellow flowers are born on a stem, one bloom for each stem and stand up above the leaves. The stems are hollow with thin, milky, sticky sap.
While Dandelion may be shunned by the human world, they must be quite popular in the plant kingdom as the flowers of many other plant species strive to look just like dandelions, some even spreading seeds with a white puff seedhead. A few plants that resemble dandelion in some ways include, coltsfoot, hawksbeard, and sow thistle.
Dandelions and their look-alikes are members or the Asteraceae family. Some resemble dandelion by their leaf formation, and some by their flower shape and color, while others may have the signature white sap. At this writing I do not know of a ‘look alike’ that is toxic, though they would NOT necessarily be as beneficial as dandelion. Nicola Bludau of Mountainherbs.com.au provides the following guidelines: The checklist below will help you definitively identify dandelions.
* Dandelion blossoms are always one flower to one stalk. If there is more than one flower to a stalk it’s not a dandelion.
*Dandelions have multiple blossom stalks that don’t branch. If there any branches on flower stalks, it’s not a dandelion.
*Flower stalks are always hollow and yield a white sap when broken. If the flower stalk isn’t hollow it’s not a dandelion.
*Dandelions grow in rosettes from the ground. They never send up stalks with leaves on them. If there are stalks with leaves on them, it’s not a dandelion.
* The leaves have no hairs on the rib on the back of the leaf. This is a key to identifying dandelion when it’s not in flower. If there are hairs, it’s not a dandelion.
How to Harvest and Use Dandelion
Gathering dandelion can be as simple as going out to pull a few leaves, or as inclusive as digging the entire plant. In any case, gather young plants early in the year, as soon as they emerge, and in the morning after the dew has evaporated. Just go ahead and get down on your hands and knees. It is slow, but very gratifying. Just resolve yourself to take your time and enjoy the process.
The best way to gather is to line a flat box, tray or basket with a damp towel to place the plants into as you harvest. Using a weeding fork, dig entire plant as deeply as possible; shaking off excess soil and place in the tray. Harvest one or two dozen plants at a time, then take them up on the porch. Put on some music and separate plant into petals, buds, leaves and root. Don’t throw away the green part of the blossom or the stems. These can be infused with some of the leaves and flower petals into a beautiful healing oil to make a salve.
Leaves – Cut younger leaves for use fresh in salads, or to sauté. Reach into the center of the rosette for the tenderest and mildest tasting leaves.
Flowers – Cut flower heads off the stem. You may want to keep a little piece of the stem to hold onto in case your preparation requires you to pull the petals out of the head and discard the green.
Buds – Unopened buds can be gathered for some of the best pickles you’ve ever eaten! Most buds are deep within the base of the leaves, and you may have to hunt for them, but it’s worth the trouble.
Roots – Believe it or not, roasted dandelion root is a satisfying (though non- caffeinated) coffee substitute. Using a weeding fork, dig down as deeply as you can, attempting to dig the entire taproot.
The old-timers cherished the first batch of dandelion leaves, sautéed in bacon grease and served with eggs and new potatoes. Preparation takes many forms, because dandelion is useful in so many ways, both as a health aid and as a nutritional green.
Leaves – As stated above, young, mild, tender leaves can be used fresh in salads, or sautéed as a leafy green vegetable. They can also be gently heated in a carrier oil, and used as a skin moisturizing serum, or infused in witch hazel and used as a clarifying toner. The leaves can even be tinctured in a high-quality drinking alcohol and used as a tonic.
Flowers – Like the leaves, they flowers can be infused or tinctured and used in skin care products. The petals can also be removed from the flower head and dried and used in teas, or to add color to salads.
Buds – The tight, unopened buds of the dandelion plant make some of the tastiest pickles of spring! Use your favorite pickling recipe, preferably one with turmeric to enhance the pretty golden color of the buds. These pickles can be used in place of capers or chopped in meat or egg salads. Mixed with nuts and cream cheese they make a delightful spread for bagels or toast.
Roots – Thoroughly wash and scrub the soil from the root before processing. If you are going to dehydrate the roots to use in tea or as a coffee substitute, it is best to chop the root first, as dehydration can cause the roots to toughen and be difficult to chop or grind later. The dehydrated, chopped root is delicious as a tea, or in a tea mixture with other herbs. To really bring out the flavor of the dandelion root, roast carefully until brown but not burned, then grind.
It was a great and unexpected delight to find out that this lovely herald of spring is not only beautiful but a highly nutritional edible! Did you know the redbud tree is in the Legume family? The same family as peas, and beans? And it has the typical legume protein profile, making it not only nutritious, but also satisfying. At this point, I’m tempted to get ahead of myself an tell you about all the delicious ways we enjoyed redbud the first year our family discovered that it was an edible. But I will resist, and defer to the writing structure!
Redbud trees are quite distinguishable, and there are no look-alikes. Although there may be a few purple flowering trees blooming at the same time, once you are up close, you can tell that the blossom is not a red bud. With their heart shaped leaves, their tiny blossoms shaded across the ‘purple-violet’ spectrum, and their pea-pod seeds, you will know if you have one or not. They have a gray smooth bark and can take on a vaguely Asian artistic shape if left to their natural growth. They are usually small, 3-7 feet, and one of the first blooming trees of the spring.
Most of the time you can find a redbud in yours, or a neighbor’s yard. If you do, ask if you can harvest some of the blossoms and some of the pods. They also grow along the side of roadways and ditches, and deeper in the woods as understory trees. Do not harvest too close to a road that has automobile traffic as the plant could possibly have absorbed toxins from auto emissions. If you harvest redbuds from a yard, make sure no toxins have been used as insecticide or herbicide.
How to Harvest and Use Redbud
There are two distinctive gathering times, a couple of weeks apart. First is the blossom gathering time; then the pod gathering time. The leaves are also edible – at least they are not toxic – but they have no flavor and are quite tough, even when sautéed or boiled, so really there’s no point. Unless you are in a starvation situation, let the leaves stay on the tree! Flowers and buds are both best gathered as young as possible.
Flowers – Your first harvest will be of the tiny buds and flowers. Then a few days later harvest a few of the open blossoms to use in salads.
Seed Pods – about a week or 10 days later, watch for tiny pea pod shaped seedpods. These can be used in the same way as snow peas in Asian dishes, or steamed or dried. If the pods are longer than an inch, they are probably too big, so watch carefully, and gather early.
It is virtually impossible to over harvest a redbud tree if you stick to the lower, reachable branches, and leave the taller branches alone. It is possible to harvest so many flowers that you do not leave enough to develop into seedpods. Once the seedpods appear, however; you can harvest as many as you can reach, since the tree propagates through runners from its root system.
Flowers – Use fresh or as a garnish
Place fresh, clean, dry flower heads inside bottles of flavored oils and vinegars.
Pick the buds while still closed and sprinkle with a bit of sugar and vinegar. They will absorb the vinegar and sugar, and it will enhance the sour, lemony flavor of the buds. Mix this with a little homemade mayonnaise for a delightful light pink salad dressing.
Use open flowers as a bright garnish in salads or to top icing on cakes and cookies.
Remove calyxes and stems which may be tough and tasteless.
Pods – The very young seedpods of the redbud are delightful steamed or sautéed in stir-fries or other Asian dishes. They can also be tossed in a little oil and seasoned salt and dehydrated to make a wonderful crunchy snack. These crunchy pods can also be used to add texture to salads.
It is my hope and prayer that this lesson in the first wildcrafting whet your appetite for getting outside and appreciating the bounty of God’s boundless richness. He loves us, and all of creation expresses His great provision. In our increasingly technological society, it’s good to focus on nature and the expression of God’s nature of love and abundance.