Foraging is a great excuse to get outside and reconnect with nature in the first days of spring. Winter foods are weighing heavy on our stomachs, and it’s time for something fresh…and green. Well before the snowbanks have finished melting into the earth, new life is popping up on every bare patch of soil.
Some of the first plants of spring also happen to be tasty edibles.
One of the very first spring greens, chickweed often begins growing before the snow has fully melted back in the very early spring. Chickweed is only available in the early spring, as it doesn’t do well in the heat of summer. It’s high in minerals, and while it tastes a bit bland, it can boost the nutritional content of spring salads. It also makes a tasty, albeit mild, early spring chickweed pesto.
Medicinally, chickweed is cooling to the skin, and it can be used topically on rashes and bug bites. It can also be made into a cooling bath vinegar for dry skin, or added to a herbal diaper rash salve.
Chickweed is also an amazing medicinal plant. It contains saponins, which makes it cooling and soothing for the skin. It’s perfect for making into an herbal salve to use on rashes, bug bites, or otherwise dry or itchy skin. I make it into a chickweed tincture for disinfecting wounds.
Ramps or Wild Leeks
Wild leeks or ramps (Allium tricoccum) is known as a spring ephemeral because it grows in shady locations for just a short time in the early spring. The plants pop up and do all their growing before the trees leaf in and provide full shade to the forest soil. This short growing season means they can take around 7 years to reproduce. The book Farming the Woods (which I strongly recommend reading) discusses the sustainability of harvesting ramps, and covers a number of studies showing that it’s not sustainable to harvest more than 5% of any given ramp patch in a year. Beyond that, you are causing the population to decline for years to come.
Ramps are relatively easy to establish from transplants or seed, and Farming the Woods gives detailed instructions on how to cultivate your own backyard ramp patch. That ensures that you’re the only one harvesting, and you can manage them to only harvest small amounts. That’s the only way to really know if you’re harvesting sustainably.
Curly Dock or Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) is a perennial that returns year after year from a deep taproot. When foraging in the winter or very early spring, you can harvest dried dock seeds and make a nutritious dock seed flour. Once the snow melts back in the early spring, the roots send up their first leaves. The very young leaves can be eaten in salads or eaten as a cooked green. They rich in vitamin C, which is welcome after a long winter eating storage crops. Dock leaves they contain high levels of oxalic acid, which prevents the body from absorbing calcium, so they should be eaten in moderation.
Day Lilly Shoots
You may know that Day Lilly flowers and buds are a tasty mid summer edible, but the early spring shoots are also edible. Daylilies have been naturalized all over the states, and they can often be found along roadsides and in highway medians up here in Vermont. If you find a patch, makes sure you remember to come back midsummer for the real treat, fresh daylily flowers.
So hostas aren’t exactly a wild plant, but if you’re doing a bit of guerilla foraging at a local park or in your own backyard, give hosta shoots a try. They should be tightly curled, and are harvested before they unfurl their leaves. Hosta shoots can be cooked like Asparagus, and taste great wrapped in bacon.
Violets pop up early in the spring and I always love to harvest the blossoms to top my spring salads. The leaves are also edible. Try using the colorful blossoms to make a bright violet herbal vinegar by infusing the blossoms in vinegar. Check out these ways to use violet vinegar for ideas on how to use it.
Most backyard foragers and amateur naturalists know about plantain. It grows everywhere, especially on abused or compacted soils. You’ll likely find it along the most common path you take across your lawn, because it can take the abuse of your feet better than standard grass.
It can be made into a quick plantain leaf salve for burns or cooked into plantain leaf chips. Better yet, it can be eaten fresh, just as it is.
Also known as Gill-Over-the-Ground and Alehoof, Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is a creeping perennial that starts growing once the snow melts. You can eat it fresh as a salad green or cook it as a potherb. It gets the name Alehoof from its use in brewing, where it was used to make beer before hops became more commonly used. There’s a great write up on using it for brewing in Sacred Healing Herbal Brews.
Another early spring invasive, garlic mustard is a delicious invasive to combat. It makes a quick garlic mustard pesto long before you can harvest basil from your garden. It can also be eaten as a cooked green, or used to season pasta or sauces.
Wild Garlic or Bear Garlic
This one’s a tricky one since it’s only native to Europe and Asia. It looks quite similar to lily of the valley, which is toxic. I’m mentioning it here for two reasons. One, if you’re in Europe go for it, but be careful! If you’re in the states, you’ll often see it listed on generic foraging guides. We don’t have it, but we have plenty of lily of the valley. If you go looking for this on you could be courting trouble.
These days you can find dandelion greens in the local supermarket, so most people know they’re edible. Try getting creative and making a small batch mead using dandelion blossoms, make a dandelion honey butter or use them medicinally in a dandelion salve.
Ferns are opportunistic plants, and growing in wet, shady areas. By popping up early in the spring they get the benefit of spring sunlight before the trees have leafed-in to fuel their initial burst of growth. Before the ferns begin to grow, you can find black mounds popping up out of the soil that mark where they grew last year. I’ve had success transplanting those and established my own fiddlehead patch. Once the fiddleheads begin growing, harvest them early before they’ve unfurled. Be sure not to cut more than 1/3 of the shoot
I’ll admit I’m not a fan of nettles. I have a vicious reaction anytime they touch my skin, and I’ll feel it for 2-3 days afterward. You can harvest them with gloves and blanch them to remove their sting. They make a highly nutritious tea, but it tastes a bit like drinking grass. You can tell I’m really in love with them cant you?
Burdock is best harvested in the late fall of the first year or early spring of the second year. The roots are commonly incorporated into Asian cooking, and there’s a local farm just down the road that sells burdock roots commercially. No need to buy them, they grow everywhere. Look for the distinctive leaves as they pop up in the early spring and make sure you have a shovel to get digging.
Pussy Willows (leaves & Bark)
Easy to identify in the early spring because of their distinctive flowers, pussy willows are in fact edible. The fluffy flowers are just how you identify them, but they aren’t the edible part. It’s said that all willow leaves are edible, but most just aren’t that palatable. Some aren’t bad, so give the species living near your house a quick try. If they’re tasty, that’s good news because willow leaves are rich in vitamin C.
The inner bark is much more well known, and it’s has been used medicinally for centuries as a pain reliever. Willow bark is traditionally harvested in the early spring.
Beyond just being edible, the book Saanich Ethnobotany describes how the people on Southern Vancouver island harvested willow in early May to make rope, fishing lines and baskets. Here’s a guide on making your own rustic willow basket.
A noxious invasive, there’s plenty of good reasons to eat knotweed. The spring shoots look a bit like asparagus. The most creative way I’ve seen to eat it is in as a substitute for rhubarb in a Strawberry Knotweed Pie.
I love foraging thimbleberries, and they are a summertime staple around here. They pop up in any shady place with moist soil, like along our house or the stream at the edge of the woods. I recently learned that the early spring shoots are edible, and I’m eager to try them out this spring.
Claytonia (Miners Lettuce)
In years past we’ve grown claytonia in our attached greenhouse and it’s kept on growing right through the coldest part of the year. Outdoors, it starts growing even through the snow and can be found very early in the spring. Some call it the iceberg lettuce of foraging, which is reasonably accurate. The leaves are thick and crunchy, and it doesn’t turn bitter even when it’s in bloom.
An early medicinal, yarrow is great for fighting off spring colds. It’s effective at stopping bleeding and can be used to make herbal styptic pencils. The early spring leaves are quite bitter, but they can be eaten raw in salads if used sparingly. It’s also commonly used as a bittering agent in herbal beers, and there’s a guide to using it for brewing in Sacred Healing Herbal Brews.
Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrots are a biennial, and the roots can be harvested in the early spring. As soon as you see the leaves pop up, dig down and harvest the sweet spring roots. Be careful because they can look a bit like water hemlock, and that’s a mistake you only make once.
Every part of linden is edible, and the leaves grow in abundance in the spring. They’re best when they’re very small and light green before they’ve reached full size. I’m hoping to make some linden leaf dolmas soon, but for now, I can vouch for them as a tasty salad green. Later on in the season, you can harvest the blossoms for a delicious medicinal linden tea.
Most people know that you can tap maple trees for syrup, but they’re only one of many trees you can tap for syrup. Nut trees like black walnut produce nuts later in the fall, but they can be tapped for syrup early in the spring. Other trees, like linden, shagbark hickory, ash, elm and dozens of others make tasty syrup.
You don’t need an expensive sap boiler, there are plenty of ways to make syrup without an evaporator. Just follow the same basic instructions for making maple syrup when working with other tappable trees. Even if you don’t bother boiling it down to syrup, the sap is tasty and certain types, like birch sap, are highly medicinal.
Other Foods to Forage
Beyond plants, there are a number of early spring mushrooms like morels that can be harvested if you know how to identify them. While you’re out foraging, keep an eye out for blossoms on wild apple trees, wild plums and juneberries. They aren’t ready yet, but if you mark the location, you’ll know where to find them in a few months.
What’s your favorite thing to forage in the spring? What did I miss? Leave me a note in the comments.