Foraging for Wild Foods

Use this guide to identify common blue violet, lambsquarters, and burdock, and learn to harvest, prepare, and preserve wild edible plants.

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Getty Images/Daniel Rudolf

I started foraging in the 1960s. When I was about 3 years old, my great-grandmother took me to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where she taught me how to identify a dandelion plant. We brought home a bagful of leaf rosettes (the leaves all connected by a thin sliver of root), and she showed me how to cook them up Greek-style. My great-grandmother had grown up on a small island in Greece where foraging — a word I’m sure she never knew existed — was normal.

Because her otherwise-stern eyes twinkled with delight when we foraged for horta (the Greek word for wild edible greens of any kind), I was naturally curious. I wanted in on the joy that these plants brought to my yia-yia.

Long after my great-grandmother had passed away, I kept learning about and eating wild edibles. I still consider botanical field guides great reading. Later, in my late 30s and early 40s, when my career as a professional dancer came to an end and I needed to choose a new career, the first thing that came to mind was wild plants. I’d been passionate about plants as a hobby since those days in the park with Great-Grandma, so I decided to pursue that interest more intensely.

But I didn’t want to study just any wild plants; I was mostly interested in the ones I could eat or use as medicine. And that interest in wild edible plants led to an interest in wild edible mushrooms, and so on. By the time I was in my early 50s, I’d already written a wild edible plants field guide and a wild foods cookbook.

Whether you’re just beginning your adventures with foraged food or you’re already an experienced gatherer, I’m excited to share some foraging tips with you on the following three plants.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

The showy flowers of shade-loving violets are lovely to look at in early spring. But while the edible purple flowers may catch your eye, the mild, lettuce-flavored leaves are also good to eat and have a longer harvest season than the flowers. Use them in spring and summer salads, and in fall and winter as a soup thickener and a cough remedy.

Find and identify. Violets can tolerate full sun, but they’re usually found growing in partial shade. They prefer moist soil and thrive under deciduous trees, where they make the most of the early spring sunlight coming through the still-bare branches. Later in the year, the plants get relief from hot summer sunshine when the trees they’re growing under leaf out.

Learn to identify violet leaves so you can recognize the plants even when they’re not in flower. The heart-shaped leaves grow in a rosette. They have pointed tips and fine teeth along the margins. When the flowers aren’t present, novice foragers sometimes confuse violets with garlic mustard, which similarly likes shady, disturbed soil situations, and also has a basal rosette of heart-shaped leaves. But a violet leaf’s tip is sharply pointed, as are the teeth on the margins, whereas garlic mustard’s basal leaves have scalloped, rounder edges. The shades of green are different, too, as are the veining patterns. (Turn a violet leaf over and you’ll see the prominent veins, especially in bigger leaves.) But really, all you have to do is use your nose. Garlic mustard leaves smell like garlic and mustard, whereas violet leaves don’t really have a smell.

Young violet leaves are curled in on themselves like scrolls rolled in from both sides. This is the ideal stage to harvest them. The first flowers that wild violets produce in early spring are the showy ones that are so pretty on salads. They’re usually purple with some white near the center, but sometimes they’re mostly white. These sterile flowers are about 3/4 inch in diameter and grow on narrow, leafless stalks that can be several inches long. These flowers have five petals, and the side petals have white hairs at their bases.

In summer, violets produce self-pollinating, petal-less flowers you probably won’t notice. These become three-parted capsules that eject small, round seeds. Violet roots, which aren’t edible, are knobby, branching, somewhat horizontal rhizomes.

Harvest. Collect wild violet’s purple or purple-and-white flowers at any time during the early spring flowering season. Pinch them off with their long, thin flower stalks attached, as these are also tasty. These showy flowers are sterile, so you’re not endangering the plant by harvesting them. In any case, violets are tough and prolific to the point of being invasive, so sustainability isn’t an issue when you harvest any part of them.

The leaves are good from spring through summer. As the plants mature, harvest only the smaller, partially furled leaves, because the bigger leaves can get tough and stringy. Violets are perennial plants that’ll regenerate from the inedible root you leave in the ground.

Prepare. Violet leaves, flowers, and flower stalks are all mild and delicious when served raw in salads. The flower stalks have a subtly different, sweeter flavor than the leaves and flowers, so they should be treated as three different ingredients. The leaves never get bitter, but the veins of older violet leaves can be tough and stringy. Use young leaves raw, but dry or bake the older leaves into chips.

Cooked fresh, violet leaves are a bit slimy. That may sound unpleasant, but they act as a binder when added to veggie burgers, and they’re good for thickening soups and stews.

Preserve. Candy the flowers to preserve them, and then use them as dessert decorations. You can also make a beautifully colored syrup with the flowers, and you can dry the leaves to save for winter use. Crumbled into soups, dried violet leaves are a good thickening agent. They also have a good reputation when used in a soothing tea to treat coughs and chest colds.

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

I’ve heard two explanations for the common name “lambsquarters.” One is that the shape of the leaves looks vaguely like a lamb’s muzzle seen from above, with the point of the triangle being the nose, and the back two points the ears. The other explanation, which I find more debatable, likens the shape of the leaf to the upper haunches of a lamb’s leg.

Find and identify. Also called “wild spinach” and, in some regions, “goosefoot,” lambsquarters is a common weed that loves full sun and the frequently turned-over soil of gardens, farms, parks, and roadsides.

The first two “true” leaves on lambsquarters join the stem in an opposite arrangement, but after that, the leaves grow in an alternate arrangement, each leaf joining the stem farther along than the previous leaf. Most of the leaves are triangular with softly toothed margins, but the upper leaves of older plants that are flowering and going to seed will be smaller and elliptical. The branching stems are often grooved and frequently have some magenta coloration.

Lambsquarters flowers are small and green, and grow in branching clusters. The plant doesn’t have a noticeable scent. The small, black seeds, which you can harvest from the plant, are also edible. The leaves, especially the younger leaves near the tips of the branching stems, are covered with a distinctive whitish coating you can rub off.

Harvest. C. album is a widespread and invasive plant, and there are no sustainability issues around harvesting it. However, be careful that the site you gather from isn’t highly polluted; this is one of several plants that tends to accumulate the chemicals and heavy metals of industrially farmed and urban locations.

The general leaf-harvesting method works great for lambsquarters. The important thing to remember is that although all the aboveground parts of the plant are edible, some are better than others. You can harvest the leaves by pinching them off anytime, but you’ll get the most food for your effort if you harvest the tips, leaves, and tender stems together. In mid-spring and early summer, you may be able to use as much as the top 8 inches of the plant. Once the plants start to flower, the stems become fibrous, and the flowers aren’t particularly palatable. At this stage, I usually move on to other wild edibles and come back to lambsquarters when the seeds are ripe.

Prepare. Although it’s a forager’s cliché to say that a wild edible leaf “tastes like spinach,” lambsquarters’ mild flavor and silky texture (once cooked) really does. You can eat the leaves and tender stalks of lambsquarters raw, but I think they’re much better cooked (steamed, boiled, or stir-fried). Once cooked, lambsquarters is excellent in omelets, ravioli and other pasta dishes, dips, and more. As with spinach and other tender, leafy vegetables, lambsquarters loses a lot of bulk when cooked. Measure about 10 cups of chopped, raw lambsquarters leaves and stems if you want to end up with 1 cup cooked.

The seeds can be cooked in place of quinoa in recipes, and can also be ground into flour or used whole in baked goods.

Preserve. As with other mild, leafy greens, you can blanch and freeze lambsquarters. The seeds will keep in a dark, dry place for several months.

Burdock (Arctium spp.)

The stalks of second-year burdock plants, before they flower, are my favorite part of the plant. The roots are good; the leafstalks passable; and, when cooked, the immature flower stalks have a wonderful texture, like artichoke hearts or cardoons, and a delightful, mild flavor. Often, the best stalks are as thick as an inch across, and are too sturdy to gather with the bend-until-it-snaps method. Also, unlike many other edible stalks, burdock stalks are good to eat almost all the way down to the base once peeled.

Find and identify. Burdock grows in sun or partial sunlight. It’s a biennial that grows a rosette of leaves in its first year of growth, and then flowers and goes to seed the following calendar year. It loves disturbed soils and is a common weed of farms, gardens, and parks.

The leaves can grow up to 2 feet long and 1 foot wide. They remind some people of rhubarb plants, but unlike rhubarb’s leaves, burdock leaves have a felt-like, fuzzy texture with a whitish underside, and, most importantly, they aren’t poisonous. Although untoothed, the margins of the leaves are wavy, almost ruffled. A burdock root is shaped like a slender carrot, but it’s brown on the outside with a lighter color within.

In the spring of its second calendar year, after overwintering, burdock sends up a stalk that’ll eventually bear brush-like, purplish flowers. These are followed by the burrs from which the plant gets its common name. Burdock burrs are what inspired George de Mestral to invent and patent Velcro.

Harvest. Look for the flower stalks shooting up from the center of the leaf rosettes. Choose ones that are nice and fat, but still unbranched, and that haven’t yet begun to produce flower buds. Usually, these will be between 8 and 18 inches tall. Use a knife to slice across burdock’s sturdy flower stalks, close to where they emerge from the basal leaves.

The roots of first-year burdock plants are a vegetable that’s known as gobo in Japan. You’ll know you’ve got a first-year plant if there’s only a leaf rosette but no flower stalks. The roots are also used in herbal medicine to treat chronic skin conditions, as well as digestive and liver ailments.

Prepare. With a sharp paring knife, peel the fibrous outer layer off the stalks. As with artichoke hearts, the delicious cores will start to discolor soon after being exposed to air. If this bothers you, set out a bowl of acidulated water (about a gallon of water with 1 to 2 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice added, or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid) to put the peeled stalks into until you’re ready to cook them. Burdock stalks are wonderful steamed, boiled, or baked into casseroles.

Preserve. Peeled burdock stalks can be blanched and then frozen. To use, simply put the frozen burdock stalks (no need to thaw first) in water, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer until almost tender. Finish cooking them in soups, stir-fries, or casseroles.

Leda Meredith is an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This is printed with permission from her book The Skillful Forager: Essential Techniques for Responsible Foraging and Making the Most of Your Wild Edibles (Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., Boulder, Colorado).

Eating on the Run will equip you with a working knowledge of dozens of readily harvested plants, grasses, nuts, and berries that require the least, if any, preparation. You will learn how to distinguish safe plants from toxic varieties, which parts of the plants are edible and when, and where abundant supplies are likely to be in each season. Plus, the author shares delicious ways to enjoy the plants when on the move.

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