6 Plants to Start the Spring Foraging Season

Spring and sunlight and warmth, oh my! Here in the Northeast after an extremely long, cold, and snowy winter, the plants, animals and birds, and humans are stretching toward the warmth of the sun and sighing with relief. My favorite spring plants are popping up, though later than usual, and I am thinking about what I will put on my plate, in my soup pot, and into my handcrafted herbal medicines.

Here are 6 plants that are coming up and that are ready to be used now. Some have parts that must be harvested now before they get too woody/stringy/invested in plant growth, others will be able to be used for a while. All are used for both food and medicine, except for garlic mustard, which as far as I know has no medicinal uses.

Note: Please be very sure you know what plant you are picking before you use it so that you don’t run the risk of poisoning or illness. A couple of good plant i.d. books and sites are listed at the end of this article. If you’re uncertain and want to learn more, up close and personal with the plants, I lead foraging walks throughout the growing season. Click here for my calendar.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion leaves

Dandelion leaves in spring. Note the irregularly-toothed leaves with wide teeth/lobes.

Dandelion leaves in spring. Note the more finely cut, narrower teeth/lobes.

Dandelion leaves in spring. Note the more finely cut, narrower teeth/lobes. Dandelion leaves are very variable.

More young dandelion leaves. Note that there are fewer teeth/lobes.

More young dandelion leaves. Note that there are fewer teeth/lobes.

As some of you may know, dandelions are one of my most favorite herbs. They are edible and medicinal and their yellow blossoms are immensely cheering. When I was a kid I used to take the blossoms and try to make perfume with them! (It didn’t work, darn it all.)

This is the perfect time to be digging up the roots for making bitter tonics and tinctures. Susun Weed says that spring-dug roots are more bitter than autumn-dug and excellent for bitter tonics. She says the best time to harvest the roots is between the warming of the earth and the first buds appearing.

If you want to eat the leaves before they get too bitter, you have to hurry, as the dandelions are already setting their buds, and once they start putting up their buds and blooming the leaves will be much more bitter.

If you want to know where the dandy buds are, get down on your knees and look into the center of a rosette of dandy leaves. Nestled into the very heart of the leaf rosette you will find a tightly-shut bud, ready to come up at the top of its individual stalk. It is amazing to watch the flowers grow, it is quite unique in my opinion.

Dandelion roots, leaves, buds, and flowers all are edible and can be used for medicine as well. Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, gives a nice description of dandies and what can be done with them for food and medicine, here is a link: http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/d/dandel08.html

One of the best resources for using dandies for food and medicine is Susun Weed’s Wise Woman Herbal: Healing Wise  which has a whole chapter, with wonderful recipes, on all parts of our friend Dandelion. And Dr. Peter A. Gail has a couple of books on dandies, as well, with easy recipes.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Young mugwort leaves in spring. The leaves will look very different once the plant starts growing, and on the stalks that will bear blooms.

Young mugwort leaves in spring. The leaves will look very different once the plant starts growing, and on the flowering stalks.

Mugwort is just peeping above the ground and it is the perfect time to use her for spring greens. Trim close to the ground and add the greens to your soup or stir-fries. Some Asian cultures are very fond of the young mugwort greens in the spring.

Later in the summer mugwort can be used for flavoring foods and for medicine, as well as dried for smudge sticks and moxabustion, if you’re so inclined.

Evening Primrose (Oenethera biennis)

evening primrose leaf rosetter

The leafy rosette of young second-year evening primrose.

Surely one of my favorite plants. Now is the last time you’ll be able to eat the roots until the fall. These biennials are gearing up for their second year of growth—leafing, blooming, going to seed, and then dying.

The roots are still edible, in that they have not yet gotten too stringy. The rosette of leaves as well is edible, with a peppery taste similar to the roots.

I use evening primrose roots in soups, stews, and stir-fries, and also throw them in the stock pot when making soup stock. The roots can be eaten raw in salads as well.

The rosettes of leaves get used similarly, before the plant starts its growth and flower-making process.

At this time of year you will only find second-year plants, as last year’s seeds have not yet started to sprout.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

young second year garlic mustard leaves

Young second-year garlic mustard leaves.

Another biennial, but considered very invasive, so feel free to eat as much as you want! It has rather heart-shaped leaves when the plant comes up, the stem leaves are pointed instead.

As the name implies, it has a garlicky scent when the leaves are crushed. It also has a garlicky taste when eaten raw, but that taste disappears when it is cooked, leaving the bitter taste paramount.

As with many mustard greens (and it is in the mustard family), it has a bitter taste, especially when cooked. Depending on your tastes, you may or may or not enjoy eating this plant, but it certainly is nutritious.

Garlic mustard can be eaten raw or cooked, and all above-ground parts can be eaten, including the flowers when it blooms. If you harvest a lot of it you can freeze it for use later.

Plantain  (Plantago major, P. lanceolata)

yougn broad-leaved plantain leaves

Very young broad-leaved plantain leaves.

Young narrow-leaved plantain leaves

Young narrow-leaved plantain leaves.

A trusty perennial, there are actually two species that abound in our area of the Northeast, and indeed, in many places in North America. The 2 species are broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) and narrow-leaved, lance-leaved, or English plantain (P. lanceolata). Both are used the same way for food and medicine.

If you are going to eat plantain, now is the time to do so, when it is very young. It quickly gets too tough and stringy and then is good for teas and infused oils, but is not pleasant to eat.

Boil the young leaves for 3 to 4 minutes and eat as a veg or in soups, or make teas with the slightly older leaves. I dry the leaves to use in teas and to add to the stock pot during the cold months.

I also infuse the leaves of both species in oil, usually extra-virgin olive oil, for a really effective oil for skincare that gets added to lip balms, salves, and lotions.


burdock leaves

Young second-year burdock leaves.

All hail to this marvelous plant, another of our biennials! Again, the leaves you see coming up are from second-year plants, as the seeds from last year haven’t yet sprouted.

This is the perfect time to harvest leaves and roots. If you are going to eat the leaves you want to do so while they are very young and relatively tender. Later they get tough and unpalatable and are good for teas and infused vinegars, but not really for eating.

This is also your last chance to get the roots before the plant starts into its growth and bloom cycle. After this the plant will be putting its energy into growing, thus taking nutrients and energy out of the roots, and they will also become too stringy. Now is the time to eat the roots in salads or soups, or make them into medicines.

Violet (Viola spp.)

Young violet leaves.

Young violet leaves.

Violets are coming up now, and their slightly mucilaginous, mild-flavored leaves are a great addition to salads and soups. I especially like adding violet leaves to pea soup, they add nutrition and oomph to it.

Make sure you are harvesting violet leaves, as there can be some look-a-likes. Our common wild violet, which is the one you are most likely to encounter, has heart-shaped leaves that unfurl from the center; some other species have differently shaped leaves. Here is a link to help you properly identify wild violets.The wild violet can take over your garden plot if you don’t watch out (I am currently taking out numerous patches from my garden!).

The wild violet flowers are edible and medicinal. Generally they are eaten raw in salads, made into syrups, or candied for a condiment. The cool thing about these flowers is that you can use as many as you want without affecting the reproduction of the plant! The flowers are actually sterile, and therefore don’t set seed. The fertile, seed-setting flowers bloom later in the season, and are non-descript, growing close to the ground. These flowers and root-extension are how the violet spreads.

The wild violet leaves are very nutritious and mild-flavored, as well as being good medicine, and can be eaten throughout the season.

Both Susun Weed, in her Wise Woman Herbal: Healing Wise, and Peter Gail write about violet and how to use it for food and medicine.

Throughout the growing season I take people on walks to meet the many useful plants growing around us. It is wonderful to see the abundance of what is growing even in the middle of the city or in a lawn. If you’d like to take a walk with me, check out my schedule and come meet the plants!

What wild plants are you seeing come up and harvesting? Let me know in the comments below.


  • http://apps.winterroot.net/   Wildman Steve Brill’s app for foraging and plant i.d.
  • https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/   identification tools for New England plants


Early Winter Foraging for Edibles and Decoratives (Rosehips, Evening Primrose, Burdock, and More)

multiflora rosehips

Multiflora rose rosehips.

Even though it’s late fall or the beginning of winter, there are still wonderful plant gifts to find outdoors. It just takes a little looking, and is also somewhat dependent on the weather.

Rosehips are at their best right now. Some will have been nipped by the frost and be mushy, but oh so sweet, while others will still be firm, all on the same bush or the in the same cluster. You can eat them straight off the bush, as I was doing the other day, or cut off the cluster and dry them for use for teas or holiday decorations. The hips of commonly found rugosa or beach roses and multiflora roses are beautiful included in wreaths or arrangements, or even just in a bouquet on their own. They are as pretty dried as they are fresh.

Another prickly plant with red berries is barberry. Japanese barberry is used extensively in landscaping, and at this time of year its red berries are hanging in rows beneath the thin twigs. If you protect your hands while picking the berry-bedecked twigs, they make a nice addition to holiday decorations. The berries, while not terribly exciting, can be used to make a jam or snacked on. I recently heard that the berries were included in Seventeenth century stuffings, but I don’t think it was the berries of the Japanese species, which are not at all juicy, but common barberry with tastier fruit.

Evening primrose leaf rosette and root

Evening primrose leaf rosette and root–both first-year plants.

Evening primroses are also at just the right stage to eat, the roots being full of nutrients and the rosette of leaves having a delicious peppery taste. Now is the time to dig the roots before the ground gets frozen. You can use the roots in soups, stews, stir-fries, or root-veggie mashes, or slice and dry them for use later in the winter season. They are mucilaginous and healing for the gut and mucous membranes.

multiflora rose rosehips and evening primrose seed stalks

Multiflora rose rosehips and evening primrose seed stalks.

The seeds of evening primrose are numerous in their shapely seed pods, and the birds, especially gold finches, love to eat them, usually in the fall and spring. The seeds are really tiny, maybe the size of this period . and they are the source of evening primrose oil. Even though the seeds are very numerous, with their tiny size you can see why the oil is so expensive. Just think how many seeds it takes to make one ounce of oil! You can get the goodness of that oil into your diet without cost, however, by harvesting the seeds and adding them to whatever dishes you like. One friend suggests using them on baked goods like poppy seeds! It is really simple to harvest the seeds—just cut the seed stalks and stick them upside down in a paper bag and shake. (You can use the seed stalks for decorations after that.) If you want more of the seeds you can split the seed heads open and finger out the seeds, which is time consuming, but something to do while watching a movie. The seeds will keep for months in a jar.

Burdock burrs are distinctive and easy to find in the stripped landscape. If you are lucky, there will still be a few leaves you can harvest for teas or soups, and if the ground isn’t frozen you can grab a few roots. Great for food or medicine at this time of year!

Burdock’s burry seed stalks make a nice addition to arrangements, and the seeds can be harvested for medicinal uses. They can also be eaten, though they are rather bitter (which is good for you). Be careful when taking the seeds out of the burrs, however, as the hairs from the burrs can get onto your tongue and cause discomfort. You will want to wear some sort of gloves, if possible, as this will protect your fingers from the prickly burrs.

seedheads-goldenrod, mugwort, barberry berries

Feathery seed heads of goldenrod, sedate seed heads of mugwort, and 2 red barberry berries.

If you like a natural, Nature-inspired decorating theme, for the holidays or the winter, then now is the time to go out and collect dry seed heads from the garden or the fields. Goldenrod has lovely rather feathery seed heads, mugwort has more refined seed stalks, evening primrose has stalks with upright, bell-shaped seed pods, and Queen Anne’s lace has seed heads resembling birds’ nests. Any or all of these can be sprayed with silver of gold paint or rolled in glitter if you want to add a bit of sparkle to you natural look. Mixing them with red rosehips or barberries will give added punch to your arrangement, or you can mix them with seasonal greens in arrangements or wreaths.

So just when you thought the foraging season was over, you now have a reason to go out and harvest a few last plants! Let me know what you do with your late fall/early winter gleanings in the comments section.

A Few Plants of Autumn, Some to be Foraged

pokeweed with berries

Pokeweed with green , unripe berries in the fall.

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the flowers and plants of autumn, the last hurrah before everything settles in for the winter. I like to look around and see what is still blooming and what is going to seed, and find what I will collect for winter food and medicine and even decoration.

This is the time when there are asters galore, from tiny white stars barely the size of your pinky nail to large purple flowers fairly shouting for attention.

Blooming smartweed

Smartweed in bloom.

The smartweeds have their long, curving strands of tiny florets that look like the tiniest of pink and white beads clustered together.

Pokeweed is still much in evidence, with some plants still flowering and producing green berries, and other plants heavy with clusters of the beautiful purple berries, which look luscious but are, unfortunately, not edible.

In the gardens behind my building marigolds are making abundant mounds of yellows and oranges, and the zinnias in a couple of the beds are still riotous in their blossom-covered stands. Farther away, a wild-flower area has yellow calendula and deep blue bachelor’s buttons, purple morning glory and punchy yellow rudbeckias and gloriosa daisies.

In my own garden I have the last of the nasturtiums going for broke till the frost comes, and the Jerusalem artichokes are taller than I am, with vibrant, small-sunflower-like flowers. The bees are loving the flowers.

Queen Anne’s lace has a few small blooms left, but mostly has many seed-heads that look rather like birds’ nests.

jewelweed seedpods

Jewelweed seedpods ready to burst.

The jewelweed has finished blooming, but is making seeds that are fun to catch in my hand, and taste deliciously nutty, though they are quite tiny!

The apple tree that produced so copiously last year is dropping sad apples, mostly flawed and quickly infested with ants, such a far cry from the abundance of a year ago. However, I am managing to scavenge a few apples to dehydrate for winter cooking and my oatmeal.

Burdock burrs are ripening, and the seeds are ready to harvest, especially the one burdock in my garden that I don’t want to have spread.

In another month I will start digging up Jerusalem artichoke tubers and burdock roots, and unearth dandelion roots. All of these roots can be eaten, but I will only eat the J artie tubers, and will dry the burdock and dandy roots for teas to nourish my liver and help my digestion.

I have been drying a few zinnias for use in herbal wreaths, and will dry a few marigolds as well. The marigolds are also lovely in wreaths and make a good tea. Zinnia and marigold flowers, separately or together, make a lovely yellow dye for fabric and yarn.

So, I am off to wander among the plants of autumn, and harvest a few flowers and ponder the roots I will soon be digging. What joys of autumn will you be taking home with you? Comment and let me know.

The Plants Call to Me, Even in Winter

spruce tree

My friend Spruce Tree

The plants have been talking to me when I go out for my daily walks.

It’s the middle of winter and you’d think nothing would be awake or paying much attention, but that simply isn’t so.

Driven by a recurrence of depression and needing to add a new approach to my coping skills, I have made a commitment to get outside everyday, even though we are in the midst of an extremely snowy winter.

You might think that I, an herbalist, would welcome any and every chance to get outdoors, but that hasn’t been the case. In the past years I have taken more and more to snuggling (um, well, hiding) in bed and reading a book or watching television as my primary modus operandi for dealing with down and uncomfortable times.

This stopped being an acceptable way of coping when I got hit with deep depression a few weeks ago. It was clear I had to do something different. Walking turns out to have been one of the answers.

First I had to walk to physical therapy half a mile away after hurting my hip. Then I set up a plan with a coach for whipping the depression’s ass harder than it was whipping mine.

And then—the plants spoke to me.

No, not actual words from some anthropomorphized rose bush. But their energy and the quiet messages that can be felt in paying attention to that came through clearly.

snow-covered mulitflora rose vines

Snow-covered mulitflora rose vines

First a multiflora rose snagged my sleeve as I was walking back from the compost heap (I put my compost there all winter long). I unsnagged myself and walked on past the black locust trees and past where the ground ivy and cleavers grow in great profusion in summer. I suddenly felt so much love and affection surrounding me, coming from the plants. The message I received was how much they love me, and need me to be here in this world for them, all of the plants.

Another walk a few days later and the same message. And then a walk down a long patch of turf where the grass never gets that tall and there is much moss and lichen mixed in (this was before the snow began). It is a long, tongue-shaped area, bounded on either side by trees. Near the tip of the “tongue” is a big old spruce tree who contributed needle-filled twigs a couple years ago to make spruce syrup with my apprentice.

Spruce suggested I drink a tea made of its needles, and perhaps partake of that spruce syrup as well. I took some fallen twiglets home for tea.

The trees also suggested that I come visit every day for a week, and I have, those that I can reach wither through the snow, or near the plowed road.

The glory of a walk, even in winter, is the beauty of the plants, whether evergreen trees, bare trees, seed stalks, or finding the mosses and “weeds” and plant friends that stay green throughout the coldest months.

Seeing the stands of seedstalks I remember what grows there in summer. Looking over toward the pond, I think of the skunk cabbage under the layer of icy snow. Approaching the filmy-barked white birch I admire the ethereal creams and peachy-pinks of its trunk.

The plants call to me, even in winter, and I am learning to listen and answer.

A Little Winter Foraging

When we think of foraging these days it’s usually for plants that haven’t been grown with human intervention. But in a broader sense it means to rummage around and find what food there is, e.g,. “I’m going to forage in the kitchen cupboard for a little snack”

brussels sprouts in bowl-1

Brussels sprouts taken off the stalk, waiting to get ready to be cooked.

Recently I was taking a winter’s walk, noting how much snow had disappeared between yesterday’s walk and today’s. I got drawn to an area near the field behind my house where the woods dwindle and there are various dumping spots for vegetation by the maintenance man and the residents who garden. The main pile of garden detritus caught my attention with a couple of stalks of Brussels sprouts.

Brussels sprouts! Big, long stalks with many little green globes attached. Were they really Brussels sprouts, and were they still in good enough shape to eat?

The answer to both questions was yes. Despite heavy snowfalls and the coldest winter we’ve had in a few years, they were in excellent shape. All I had to was pull them off the stalks. I stuffed my jacket pocket with probably a quart of sprouts. I felt so lucky and so blessed!

 I have been trying hard to avoid, as much as possible, eating food grown with chemicals. These sprouts had their start in a commercial nursery, as a tag attested, and my neighbors use Miracle Grow (shudder) but the soil in our little community garden is living and full of earthworms, weeds (can’t be too many chemicals used!), and nutrients.

Nearby, since most of the snow cover is gone, I found the dark, vibrant green leaves of garlic mustard, and plucked a few to add to my soup.

As I was walking away I saw a rosette of sagey-green leaves, looking a little like evening primrose, but both too long-leaved and too long-stalked to be that. Additionally some of the younger leaves were distinctly toothed, which is definitely not a characteristic of evening primrose.

I had to see what it was. I didn’t think it could be anything poisonous (I’ve had enough experience and have enough knowledge of my local plants to make intelligent guesses), so I tasted a leaf. I thought maybe it was in the mustard family, a slight resemblance to chard leaves in the mid-rib, I think. And indeed, it was slightly sweet and yielded that typical mustard family pepperiness. It’s probably a garden escape, perhaps chard, since my neighbors grow that. I’m leaving it and visiting it again, to see how it grows.

In the meantime, I am going to sip my spruce tea, from spruce needles I foraged yesterday, and think about what delights I will encounter on tomorrow’s walk.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland…

It’s been snowing here in the Northeast. That’s a bit of an understatement right now, as we have huge piles of snow by the roads, are busily shoveling snow off the paths, and are buckling down for more to come. Yikes!

But I have been enjoying the snow in ways I haven’t in years, if ever. Perhaps because, without a car, I don’t have to drive in it. And I live where they shovel and plow the sidewalks for me. I am very lucky!

frozen river with hare tracks-2-10-14

The small river is frozen with a half moon of hare tracks in the snow.

I have just recently started going out for a walk every day. A dive into severe depression has meant that I have to add new coping skills to the ones I already have in place, and walking is one of the easiest things I can do that helps.

So on many days you will find me crunching through shin-high snow, leaving a small trench of trodden snow in my wake. It is exhilarating and fine aerobic exercise.

snowy tracks-1 2-07-2014

My snowy trail

I have been discovering wonderful things, and paying attention to the plants and the outdoors in whole new ways.

We have both hares and bunnies in our neck of the woods, and the tracks they leave differ from each other. Who knew?! They trail along through the top layer of snow, swerving here and there or making a sharp zig-zag turn, and mostly go from one area of covering trees and vines to another.

What I have really been seeing for the first time is the absolute beauty of the trees, vines, dried seedheads, and other plants in the snow and winter landscape. With all the snow, of course it looks like the quintessential winter postcard or Christmas card. But beyond that is the sublime glory of each plant, twig, or bare stalk outlined against the snow, or simply being itself within the fullness of the land.

I have been paying attention to the bare trees, which allow me to see details and learn about the trees which are hidden or invisible in a way when the leaves are out and all the other plants are flaunting their own foliage and colors.

bare black walnut tree in snow 2-2014

My friend, the black walnut tree.

For instance, on one walk I saw the pods, with tiny seeds still inside, of the black locust tree. I had just been reading about these in a wild foods forum I’m in, and lo-and-behold, suddenly there they were on the snow, and later in another walk, clinging to the bare branches of a tree! Then I looked at the tree itself and noticed the very deeply textured bark, so different from the other trees nearby. Except that several trees had that same texture of bark, and when I checked their branches, they had the little pods still attached. So I noticed a community of trees I have completely missed up until now.

black locust branch

Broken branch of black locust tree.

My walks are not silent. The birds are very vocal, and it is amusing to occasionally hear what sounds like a spring song in the midst of this wintery snow. No longer a harbinger of spring in our neck of the woods, there are flocks of robins in the trees and hopping on the snow, their bright breasts flashing in the sun. I can hear the cardinals before I see them. The sparrows and chickadees are everywhere and other birds come winging by or hop around on bare branches or in the yew bushes.

This winter with its seemingly endless snowfalls has been an unexpected gift. I am so grateful for its beauty and the presence of creatures and trees and the Spirit of our Mother Earth.