Flower Salad

I love using flowers and herbs in salads and cooking.

They give me an involvement with the dish I’m making that is different – more intimate, more interesting, more exciting.

Making salads in the summer involves a little routine.Nasturtium
I take the flat basket I use for gathering herbs and go into the backyard.
In late spring there are chive blossoms, violet flowers, dandelion flowers. In summer there are nasturtium blossoms and leaves, lemon gem and tangerine gem marigold flowers, chives, wood sorrel, violet leaves, and purslane. Chickweed grows where it’s shady and cool and is unobtrusive in salads.

And there are more weeds to eat, flourishing where I let them grow in my garden.
A few years ago I discovered the tasty pleasure of adding a few leaves of herbs like lemon balm, bee balm, thyme, and basil. And oh yes! the johnny jumpups! They don’t have a lot of taste, but the flowers sure are pretty in with the other colors in the salad.

I’m not always a big fan of salads, but adding in these flowers and herbs makes the salad more appealing and flavorful, so I eat it much more readily.


Foraging for Local Food Plants

It’s April, and in my little corner of New England, that means it’s time to go out and see what’s coming up that’s good eatin’.

ground ivy swathYou can call it wild-crafting or foraging, or just plain nibbling on weeds, but whatever it’s called, it comes down to finding the plants around you that are edible and palatable and then eating them.

So as the season begins, I thought I would share some thoughts on foraging and suggest a few guidelines.

Whether you forage only once or twice a year, or you forage every day, there are a few things that are really important:

  1. Know your plants! Or at least the ones you want to use. And the ones that are poisonous.
  2. Know the area where you are foraging. Is it pristine wilderness? Is it your lawn, or a city park? Is it where dogs congregate? Were chemicals used on the land or dumped there at some point? Do you know what plants grow there at different times of the year?
  3. What do you want to do with the plants you collect, and what parts of them do you want to use?
  4. Take care of the land and the plants where you forage, whether in the middle of the city or the middle of the wilderness.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Know Your Plants

It’s pretty useless to go out foraging if you don’t know what you’re looking for! So you need to know at least one plant you want to find, and where to look for it. No use looking for a desert plant in a swamp and vice versa. No use looking for a plant that only grows in the western part of the country in the east (believe me, I know this—I’ve tried!).

You need to know which plants are edible, or medicinal (or both), or can be used for what you have in mind. You also need to know which ones are inedible or even poisonous. There is a difference between inedible and poisonous. Inedible simply means that it can’t be eaten or that it does not have nutrition for humans (e.g., cows get nutrition from grass, humans do not). A poisonous plant will have physical or psychological effects on you, making you sick in some way or even causing death. The amount needed varies with the plant, some will make you sick but not kill you even in fairly large amounts, others will kill you with tiny amounts (e.g., certain mushrooms).

How do you know which plants are edible/useful and which ones to avoid? If you’re lucky you’ve picked up at least a few in passing. Otherwise, and to get a broader scope, you have to learn. How do you learn? Books, classes, friends, the internet.

Books are some of the best sources I can think of for learning about plants. The best have been around for awhile, and the information has been checked and double-checked. Despite the prevalence of handheld electronic devices I think the pictures in books are easier to see and compare. At the end of this article, I have a list of a few of my favorite books for foraging and identifying plants in general.

Taking a class or going out with an experienced teacher or friend is invaluable. Having someone who knows what they’re looking at and explaining it to you is the best way to take in this knowledge. I have been on plant walks, and what a teacher said, say, eighteen years ago, still echoes in my mind, I carry that with me. It helps me know the plants better and gives a richness to the experience. Also, having a person there that can answer your questions is really helpful.

These days the internet is a valuable tool for getting to know your plants. I love being able to plug a plant name or description into a search engine and have the answer or the beginning of the trail to an answer pop right up. The reason I don’t put the internet at the top of the list of ways to learn is because there is so much information and if you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. At best, it’s right and you get good information; at worst it’s inaccurate or plain wrong and could lead to being sickened or worse. The internet has plenty of information and lots of wonderful pictures, a real plus. But I use it more to confirm and add to knowledge than as a starting point. I also have an idea of what sites and bloggers, etc. are reliable.

Know About the Area Where You Are Foraging

Now that you know what plants you want to find, where do you go to forage? I’m lucky, I can go out in my backyard or my garden and start plucking the weeds (aka wild foods) that grow there. Foragable plants grow everywhere! It’s just a matter of whether you want to eat the plants that grow where you have found them.

What you want to be aware of is the environment in which your plants are growing. If you are foraging in your backyard, or a neighbor’s, make sure that chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides haven’t been used there. Also be sure that the land doesn’t have lead or other contaminants in it from previous uses. This same advice goes for foraging in fields, empty lots, woods, and so on. You can’t always know what was used on the land or how it was used previously, but use your best judgement.

Don’t forage where dogs congregate. Their feces carry parasites and other unpleasant critters that you don’t want getting into your body. Do check the ground around where you are foraging before you begin.

What about foraging in the city or near roads? This is a perennial question for which I have never developed a definitive answer. Cars spew chemicals that contaminate roadsides. Weed-killers are sometimes used as well. But sometimes that’s where you find your plants. Use your own judgement and intuition. My best advice is not to use plants really close to the road if you can help it.

I have such mixed feelings about using plants growing in the city. So many pollutants, so many germs. But what’s a city-dweller to do? See advice above. There are people who forage in Central Park in New York City, and who grow plants in pots on fire escapes or in little pocket lawns in the city. Again, it’s up to you. And a question to ask yourself: is what you are foraging for in a less than  pristine environment anymore contaminated or polluted than conventionally grown produce?

And it really, really helps if you know something about the environment in which your desired plants grow. That way you are looking for plants in the right places to find them. I was so happy to get a field guide that shows in what parts of the country various plants are found, so that I finally understood why certain plants in my edibles books just never, ever showed up in my eastern New England plant hunts.

If you go to the same places to forage month after month, year after year, you learn to know the plants that grow in the area. You know what plants to look for, when they appear, and what time of year they are ready for use. You develop a real connection with the plants and the land that cannot be taught in any book or gained on-line. It is subtle and sublime. There is an ineffable joy in meeting your plant friends in the same places each year, greeting them and watching them grow and change.

You also notice when new plants appear and ones you’ve been seeing for years disappear. Sometimes this is part of the natural cycle of change, sometimes this is an indication that something may be wrong that you may possibly be able to address.

Knowing the land where you forage also helps you to know what may be poisonous in the area. You know where to skirt around the poison ivy or poison oak, where the poison hemlock grows that you must avoid. When a new plant appears you don’t have to appraise every plant in the area to determine if it’s poisonous.

What About the Plants You Are Foraging?

Now, you know what plants you want to find, you know pretty much where to look for them. However, you also need to know what parts of the plant you will use. Some plants only have edible roots, some only have edible leaves or flowers; some, like chickweed, can be eaten in their entirety, excepting the roots. And some plants have edible parts only at certain times of the year, seeds being a prime example.

Some plants may be poisonous but have an edible part at one time of the year. Amazing, isn’t it? Pokeweed is an example of this, having edible shoots in early spring, but being poisonous in all other parts and other times of the year. Other plants may need certain types of processing to take out or neutralize their toxins. These are not the sort of plants that I would recommend for beginners. Far easier are plants like dandelions that are not poisonous and don’t require special preparation.

This is where books and classes come in really handy, as well as some internet info. Field guides specifically for edibles or medicinals tell you what part of the plant to use and when to eat or use them. Some even include directions and recipes for using the plants you find.

Take Care of the Plants and the Land

It is very important to be respectful of the land where you forage and the plants you harvest. It is not acceptable to go ripping up plants or ground to get what you want or over-harvesting for your own use. You share this land and the plants with other creatures and plants, and the very land itself.

When you forage and harvest, do your best to leave the area undisturbed. Pat down the dirt where you dug your roots, tidy up the stems and twigs from what you cut or plucked.

Never take all of a population of a plant in the area where you are harvesting, even if it is abundant. Leave some for others, and for the plant itself.

Make sure that you help the plants keep regenerating. If the plant has seeds, scatter some around to start new plants. If you are digging roots or tubers, leave some that are capable of regenerating, or replant some that you have dug up.

If you are foraging for endangered or at-risk plants, think long and hard about what you are doing. Do you really need to get it from the wild? Can you find a source that is grown organically? With some endangered plants, such as goldenseal, they are so rare that it is never alright to harvest them from the wild. With at-risk plants particularly, it is imperative to pay attention to how much you are taking and to make sure that the plants can continue to grow and reproduce. And if it is the only plant of its kind in the area or one you’ve never seen there before, please just leave it where it is.

An excellent resource for finding out what plants are endangered or at-risk is United Plant Savers.

Tools for Foraging

What do you need to have with you when you go out to forage? Foraging is not generally a tool-intensive activity and often the most important thing you’ll need, or wish you had, is bags or containers to carry things home!

When I go out to forage I try and remember a couple of things. The most important, to me, and most versatile, is a good pair of scissors. Scissors with points and that are well sharpened can do a variety of things, They cut stems, leaves, and flowers, of course, but they can also dig into the dirt in a pinch or used to pry things out. Some people may prefer a good knife, which I think could work just as well; I just never think to use a knife.

If you are going after thicker stems or small branches, pruners are very useful. At a certain point scissors just won’t cut it (pun intended) and you will be frustrated. But pruners don’t really substitute for scissors, because they are not good at cutting very thin stems, etc.

A trowel or small shovel is a handy thing to have along if you are going after tubers and roots.

And of course, you need something to put all those wonderful plants in to carry home! Stuffing a couple of plastic bags in your pockets is simple and easy. Having a cloth bag of some sort is handy, and can carry those plastic bags as you separate the different plants you’ve collected. Baskets are also lovely, and you can find baskets woven in a deep bag shape or made of wonderful materials like birch bark to make your collecting even lovelier. And if worst comes to worst, you can slip off your shirt or your jacket and use it to carry your plants. I’ve done that more than once.


Here is a list of some of the books I’ve found helpful. Some field guides focus on the eastern or the western part of the United States, so depending on where you live, you may want to get the appropriate guide.

I always recommend using more than book. No one book has all the information you will need or all the plant you will encounter. And each book has its own slant and way of organizing the plants and information. I also find general plant guides to be very useful, as they have many more plants in them than the specifically edible or medicinal plant guides. They also let you identify the interesting plants that grow around you, many of which don’t necessarily have an assigned use, or one that is currently popular.

If you look, there are often field guides to specific places, such as Baja California or the islands of BostonHarbor in Massachusetts.

My favorite field guide for general use, and an absolute must-have, is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.

Enjoy foraging and learning, and while using good sense and caution, don’t be afraid of getting to know the wonderful plants around you!

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb, 1977, Little, Brown     and Company

A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, Houghton  Mifflin Company

The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region, 1979, Alfred A.  Knopf, Inc.

 A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory    Peterson, 1999, Houghton Mifflin Company

 A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Steven Foster, James A. Duke and Roger Tory Peterson, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company

A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Christopher Hobbs, Steven Foster and Roger Tory Peterson, 2002, Houghton Mifflin Company

A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides) by Roger Caras, Steven Foster and Roger Tory Peterson, 1998, Houghton Mifflin Company

Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants by Christopher Nyerges, 1999, Chicago Review Press

Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman, 1990, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

Color Field Guide To Common Wild Edibles by Bradford Angier

Field Guide To Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier

 A Field Guide To Berries And Berrylike Fruits by Madeline Angell

Eating Your Way Into Spring

Garden border with herbsSpring is coming, and I am, as they say in New England, wicked excited! But not for the reasons people usually have, or even that gardeners have. What I am most excited about is not the warmer weather, or starting seeds, or wearing a t-shirt instead of 3 sweaters.

No, what I am most excited about is the chance to eat the wild greens that start popping up in March and April.

In the “olden days”, before there were Californian and Chilean farms and the planes and trucks to carry their produce worldwide and year-round, before we had hydroponic greenhouses that grow tender lettuces and pungent basil even in deepest winter, those of us who lived in cold northern climes had to make do with dried fruits and vegetables, and stored root vegetables. Not a fresh green in sight for several months.

By the time spring arrived, people were desperate to have fresh green, leafy plants and veggies of any kind. These plant foods provided much-needed Vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals, and people hungered for them with an ancient body awareness of their goodness.

Whatever started peeping above the ground that was at all edible was plucked and eaten, either raw or cooked as a “pot herb”.

Many of the plants we see in spring originated in Europe and Asia, and found their way toNorth Americawith the European settlers. Others were already here, valued by Native Americans.

Here are just a few to whet your appetite.

Some of the earliest plants to appear are in the mustard family, some very tiny—only a couple inches wide and tall. Others are bigger and more evident, such as Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris), and later wild mustards. Winter cress has beautiful, mustardy, dark green leaves that cook up well. The flowers are edible as well, but a cluster of flowerpods when gently steamed remind one of broccoli. Just remember if you are enjoying the buds and flowers to leave a few to reseed for next year.

Dandylion, of course, is easily found, sometimes even putting up leaves and the occasional flower in late winter (or all winter as has been the case in 2011-12). The first young leaves are the most tender and tasty, and the roots are also full of nutrition to add to soups or stir-fries.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

A dainty little lady, Chickweed, actually glories in cool weather, and will sometimes be seen lounging about in mid-winter in a sunny spot, surrounded by snow, but in her own little bare arena.

Spring is the perfect time to enjoy the intense nutrition and green taste of chickweed, as she grows quickly and abundantly. Chickweed is best eaten fresh and raw, in salads and sandwiches, though adding it into cooked dishes toward the end will still save much of her nutrition.

Violet (Viola sp)

Violet (Viola sp)

Violets start showing their heart-shaped leaves a little later in the spring, and then their dainty flowers. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible and filled with wonderful nutrients.

Any of these wild greens can be collected, singly or collectively, and added to a lettuce or spinach salad, or combined into their own little wild salad. Use a sprinkle of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic or herbed vinegar for a finishing touch, and to help you better digest all those lovely nutrients.

Happy spring grazing!

Some useful books: A Field Guide To Edible Wild Plants Of Eastern And Central North America  by Lee Peterson

Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman, 1990, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by “Wildman” Steve Brill with Evelyn Dean, 1994, Hearst Books (includes recipes)