Conservation Currents

Wild Woodland Edibles

June 2011

By Shelly Stiles

Some folks relate to plants from what Russ Cohen calls the "bugs and bunnies" point of view. They find plants valuable because they provide food and shelter for wild things.

Russ, a forager extraordinaire, relates to plants because they're "yummy" (his word), or nutritious, or healing. He shared his deep knowledge of the edible properties of native, naturalized, and invasive plants on a recent wild woodland edibles plant walk on lands managed by the Equinox Preservation Trust (EPT). The walk was sponsored by the Bennington County Sustainable Forest Consortium and the EPT.

Wet places in the woods or open meadows are good places to look for fiddlehead fern. Ferns can be hard to identify, but fiddlehead (also known as ostrich fern) has a few key characteristics. It likes neutral, usually silty soils. It grows in a vase shape. Its stems, including the fertile frond, are curled in on either side. And the fiddleheads are covered with papery brown scales. A fern with that combination of features in our part of the world can only be an ostrich fern. Pick fiddleheads while they're still tightly wound. And parboil before sautéing, or simply parboil.

Our two wild grapes, riverside grape and fox grape, fruit best in the sun. But shade-grown vines can supply the basics for stuffed grape leaves. Russ said to collect the leaves when they are young. Some people collect until Father's Day; others until July 4th.

Basswood is a common tree here. Its leaves are asymmetrical; one "shoulder" is longer and hangs lower than the other. Its fragrant yellow-white flowers dangle from a thumb-shaped papery bract. Russ suggested eating the young leaves on bread, as one might a cucumber sandwich. Or make a tea from the flowers (which also yield a tasty honey).

I'd guess most of us have seen four-parted, spiny, lemon lozenge-size beech burs in the woods, but more often than not the squirrels have already emptied them. Russ's suggestion? On a frosty night in early autumn, spread a tarp under the tree and "send a friend or family member" up it to shake the branches free of burs. That's the kind of activity that could easily become a family tradition.

We came upon a clearing on our walk filled with common milkweed and got a lesson in when to harvest from it. When very young, harvest the tightly closed terminal shoots, with the stem. A little later, just the youngest terminal leaves. Then, the young flower buds (still closed). Finally, pick the young pods, when no more than an inch long (they taste a little like green beans). To cook, parboil for seven minutes, for all four stages. For those concerned about monarch butterflies – monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed – Russ recommends harvesting just the pods and sparingly. Common milkweed is the only edible milkweed species.

We found a black birch and got a lesson in oil of wintergreen tea. Peel the twigs and put the peelings and twigs in a glass jar, then set in the sun. (Steeping in boiling water vaporizes the volatile oil and should be avoided.) Yellow birch twigs also contain oil of wintergreen.

Russ pointed out many, many more edibles in the woods (none of which, by the way, can be collected per EPT rules). Raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Sweet cicely. Common barberry. Hog peanut. Cherries. Bee balm. Plantain. Burdock. And more.

We ended the evening sampling shagbark hickory nuts Russ had collected and lightly roasted, and got a lesson in how to crack them open. Then we sent him off to his home outside Boston, where he works for the Mass. Department of Fish & Wildlife. Russ's book, Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten, can be purchased from his website (http://users.rcn.com/eatwild/bio.htm). Russ donates the proceeds to the Essex County (MA) Greenbelt Association.

Shelly Stiles is the district manager of the Bennington County Conservation District, which promotes rural livelihoods and protects natural resources in southwestern Vermont. BCCD is a founding member of the Sustainable Forest Consortium.