Summer feels like the best time to forage, because there is so much to find and use. The other seasons do have their own offerings and delights, but summer feels like the jackpot. It reminds me of the unstinting abundance that Nature gives without our asking.
I think of July and August as “high summer”, when all the summer heat and plants and insects and animals are out in full force. June is more late spring and early summer, and September is late summer and early fall. So as June drifts into July and full summer comes upon us, I am planning what I will harvest for my cook pot or plate, and for medicine, and for drying for wreaths and other projects.
A reminder: Always be sure of your plant and what its edibility or uses are! Just because it is “natural” doesn’t mean that it can be used in unlimited quantities in your body, or that it can’t make you sick, or worse.
When you are foraging or wild-crafting, always remember that you need to be sure of what plants you are harvesting, and what the proper parts to harvest are. For instance, some roots that are fine for eating (burdock, dandelion) are not yet ready to harvest for medicine; for that you’ll have to wait until fall. Daylily, which has shoots that are edible when they first come up in the spring, instead offers buds and flowers. And no part of pokeberry, with edible shoots in spring, is edible now. A few plants in the carrot family can be confused with Queen Anne’s lace or other members of the family and are deadly poisonous or can cause nasty rashes. My motto is “when in doubt, don’t.” Please be sure to use your plant and field guides!
Please note that plant geek friends of mine have said the smart phone apps for identifying plants are very unreliable, even useless. I would not trust my safety to a phone app. Use tried-and-true guides like Newcomb’s and Peterson’s and check with knowledgeable friends.
4 Or So Plants to Forage
So let’s talk about some of the wonderful plants that are at their peak of pickability, or close to it, at this time.
Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)
There are a number of species of amaranth; 2 species at least are used for food. At least one, Amaranthus hybridus, is also used medicinally.
One species, I’m not sure which one, is also nick-named Red-legs, as the lowest part of the stem and the roots are reddish. Ii is one distinguishing characteristic of the plant, and helps me recognize it plant when I am weeding the seedlings in my garden, and later when the plant is well-grown.
The leaves of amaranth are eaten: the young leaves can be used raw in salads, or put in soups, etc. I also use the older, bigger leaves in cooked dishes. July is the perfect time for foraging amaranth.
I also like to dry the leaves to use for soups and stews in the winter. For this purpose I am not concerned if I use older, tougher leaves, as the drying and cooking will take care of that. I may also save the stems to use in making soup stock, where I can use all sorts of odds and ends that would otherwise just get tossed. I put the leaves in paper bags, sometimes amaranth, sometimes in with other greens that I have dried for the winter.
Berries and Berry Leaves–Raspberries and Blackberries, leaves of raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries (Rubus spp. [raspberries, blackberries] , Fragraria spp. [strawberries])
Now is the time when the wild raspberries are coming into their own, both the black-cap, which some people mistakenly call blackberries, and the red raspberries. There are several species growing wild; all are edible, though some are bigger or smaller or tastier than others. Pick them and eat them out-of-hand, or take them home for desserts, jams, pies, smoothies, infused vinegars, or to freeze for use in the winter. (To freeze berries of any sort, lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and stick them in the freezer until frozen. Then you can slide them into jars or plastic bags that will last for months in the freezer.)
Toward the end of the month blackberries will be starting to color up nicely and soon be ready to eat. As with raspberries, there are a number of species around, and the same variations in taste and size occur with blackberries, except even more so. Some blackberries are big and juicy and sweet, not too seedy; others are small and very seedy, not that pleasant to eat. Blackberries that ripen in the shade also tend not to sweeten up much, so eating them is a bit more of a sweet taste gamble than raspberries.
The leaves of any species of raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries can be collected throughout the season and dried for tea. All of them make a pleasant tea, either on their own or mixed with other herbs.
One of the constituents in raspberry leaves is called fragarin, and I have noticed that when I have a jar of raspberry leaves that I harvested and dried myself, when I open the jar there is a wonderful fragrance that rises from the leaves.
Raspberry leaves are a traditional herb for pregnant women, but can also be a pleasant tea for anyone.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva)
Daylilies come to us from Asia, but have managed to naturalize themselves around human habitation–sometimes you will swathes of day lilies where an old house stood, or that somebody planted in a roadside garden and then left.
The most common daylilies we see, the orange ones that grow everywhere and a couple of the yellow ones, are easy to harvest and so abundant that it is just about impossible to eradicate them. They are very vigorous growers, as many gardeners will attest.
At this time of year, the easiest part to harvest is the flower–in bud, full bloom, and after it has started to wither. Use the buds in stir-fries or chopped into salads. Use the flowers (each one only lasts a day, hence the name “daylily”) to stuff with hummus or a cheese dip, or chopped into salads or to garnish a dish.
My favorite time to gather the flowers, though, is after they have finished blooming and are wilting, drying right on the stem, though I have also dried buds and fresh flowers. The wilted flowers are perfect for harvesting to dry for use in the winter. I take them and place them in an open basket or on a screen in a single layer and let them dry completely, then store them in a jar or paper bag to use in winter soups, stews, and other dishes.
Most daylily flowers can be eaten. However, for drying purposes, the double-flowered varieties (with multiple sets of petals) can be too moist, especially at the stem end, and can mold instead of dry. The single-flowered varieties are much easier to deal with.
To use the dried flowers, snip or break off the tough stem end, then cut up or break up the flower and put it in soups, stews, etc. If using in a stir-fry, soak the pieces in hot water for about 10 minutes to rehydrate.
Lamb’s Quarters or Goosefoot (Chenopodium alba)
Lamb’s quarters or goosefoot is growing vigorously at this time of year. The leaves are the part that are eaten, and if you find a large plant you will have a goodly amount of leaves for salads or cooking.
The white powder that is present on the small new leaves and the part of the leaves closest to the stem is not a disease, but a signature of the plant and can be ignored for purposes of eating. It does help in identifying the plant, however.
The mild-tasting leaves can be used raw in salads or used in cooked dishes in the same way spinach is used, such as quiche and spinach pie. I also like to use lamb’s quarters leaves in my soups and stews and stir-fries. They have a high water content and thus cook down a lot, so if you are making a recipe which calls for a particular amount make sure you have harvested enough to account for the shrinkage.
The young leaves are best, but I also use the large, mature leaves, though they can be somewhat tougher.
Lamb’s quarters are a bioaccumulator, meaning they can accumulate toxins from the soil. You need to be careful of the area where you are harvesting them so that you are not ingesting lead or other heavy metals or other toxins. Since they also take up nitrogen, be aware of places where fertilizers have been used, as excess nitrogen can cause problems in the body.
This is another plant I like to dry for the winter. I either bunch several stems together and hang them to dry, or strip off the leaves and dry them in my dehydrator. I then store the leaves in a paper bag for later use. When I use them, I crumble the leaves into whatever dish (usually some sort of soup) I am making and they quickly rehydrate and cook up.
I hope you get out there and find these or other wonderful plants for your kitchen or medicine cabinet. What plants have you foraged? What have you done with them? Let me know in the comments section below.