For this installment of our occasional column “Tastes of the Region,” I’d like to focus upon the potential for wild foraging in our Upstate forests. I’ve been foraging for edibles in the forest for a number of years now—when I was a small boy my father would take me on walks through the woods and help me memorize all of the plants and their uses. In fact, he still tests me whenever we walk in the woods today. In this article, I’d like to summarize some of the plants that I most often find in the woods, what I use them for and how you can enjoy them as well.
Blueberries (low bush and high bush), raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and elderberries can be found throughout Upstate New York. In fact, I’ve been picking raspberries and lowbush blueberries on and off for about two weeks now and getting pretty good results, despite competition with the bears. The best places to look for these berries are in blowdowns, burns, clearcuts and old meadows. They are colonizing plants that help “restart” the ecology of a damaged area. Elderberries are one of the forgotten plants of our area, perhaps because of their tart flavor, but are excellent in jams and pies. My grandmother used to make a fine wild elderberry pie before her oven died in the mid-90’s. Don’t eat berries you don’t recognize and don’t eat unripe berries.
Leaves and Stems
Throughout the North Country, locals enjoy “fiddleheads,” which are immature ferns that have just poked through the ground. I’ve never collected them myself, but have eaten them before—a piece of advice, always always always eat them cooked. A friend of mine and I ignorantly ate them raw and experienced lightheadedness, nausea, fever, the shakes and mild hallucinations. Mint grows wild in many parts of New York and is delicious. There are two wild plants that I enjoy adding to a mixed-green salad: touch-me-not and shamrock. Touch-me-not, also called jewelweed, is a small bushy plant that grows in mucky, shady areas. It has beautiful little orange flowers and seed pods that explode when you brush up against them (thus the name “touch-me-not,” great fun for kids). The leaves are edible and good when mixed with others. Shamrocks look like the famous Irish clover for which they are falsely named but grow in little bunches on the damp forest floor. They have smooth-edged non-glossy leaves and a sweet-sour taste.
A similar-looking to the Shamrock plant is the Golden Thread, which has jagged-edged leaves and glossy leaves, but somewhat toxic leaves. The roots of Golden Thread (which are orange in color and threadlike, hence the name) when bunched up, chewed and placed against a tooth-ache ease the pain. Another edible root is the Wild Carrot, also called Queens Anne Lace , which is a close cousin to the domesticated carrot; however, it is only for the over-curious or starving as it is like chewing leather. I suggest pulling them before the flowers bloom, cutting them up and boiling them. More productive might be the Wild Leek, or “Ramp,” which grows throughout the Appalachian forest. Quite rare in my area, they were overharvested by generations of my ancestors who enjoyed them raw with pickled onions and warm beer. Their taste has been described as a cross between an onion and garlic and eating them raw (they can be cooked as well) makes one smell like leek for days. The root of the Sassafras tree, which is the only tree in NY with three different shaped leaves, was once used to make root beer (hence the name) and still has a distinctive root-beer flavor. Likewise, Birch roots and bark have a minty flavor that is used in birch-beer.
I tend not too eat too much bark to be honest with you. With that said, I do enjoy the benefits of willow bark tea. Having the same active ingredient as aspirin, the tea is milder than the commercial drug and helps to sooth aches and pains. That is, provided you can get over the foul taste. I find a tea of wild mint and willow bark with honey to be very soothing at the end of a day of hard work. Some people chew the sap that gums out of wounds on spruce trees, but it takes a bit of work to get going and isn’t good for people with fillings. It does have a wonderful piney flavor and is nice for long walks through the forest. In Quebec, spruce buds early in the season are used in all sorts of cooking, including making spruce-beer. Never tried it myself.
I have never collected mushrooms or eaten wild mushrooms that were not sold commercially. Mushroom collecting, I understand, can be a fun and rewarding hobby. However, I have always taken my father’s advice around wild mushrooms: “there are old mushroom eaters and there are bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old, bold mushroom eaters.” I prefer safety over excitement in this regards, especially after my run-in with fiddleheads.
In general, I greatly enjoy foraging as an occasional pastime. There are many benefits both to the individual that forages and to a society with many foragers. The individual, if he or she is a skilled forager, can save time and money over store-bought crops. Wild foods are often richer in flavor, healthier (no pesticides out in the woods) and offer tastes that are not commercially available. The individual gets exercise and heightens their powers of observation. On a deeper level, the forager, as he or she becomes more skilled, learns the forest in a way that the passive hiker never does. The skill of reading the land—the soil, the shade cover, the amount of water, etc, becomes highly developed as we learn the types of edible plants, where they grow and what types of other plants we find around them. Instead of becoming an unbroken mass of undifferentiated trees, the forest instead becomes a mosaic of incredible complexity.
For society, the presence of foragers helps to bring everyone closer to the land around them. So often today our society is divorced from the land, one suburb is the same as any other. Wild local foods bring people out into the forest and make all those who eat them, forager or not, aware of its presence and the bounty that it offers. The forest offers us food, warmth (firewood), healing herbs, emotional solace and shelter (timber), among other things, but we rarely appreciate it today. The foragers also serve as unofficial scouts for humanity in the forest. Acutely aware of the goings on of the woods, the forager is often the first to realize when disease or pestilence sweeps the woods or when human activities damage its tranquility. It is important to have people like that out tromping among the trunks. Foraging also helps to bring local, regional, flavors to the table, stimulating unique regional cuisines and helping to bring us to the land. Wild foods, as long as they are sustainably harvested are far less taxing to our ecosystems than factory-raised food transported long distances.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about foraging, I suggest Neighborhood Forager- A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet, which gives wonderful instructions on foraging in suburbia, and the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which more or less started the modern foraging movement. But more importantly, get out and talk to older folks who live in rural areas. They will often know more about what you can eat and what tastes good that I can ever put in an article or someone could write in a book.
 This name is a take-off from Euell Gibbon’s classic book on foraging: Stalking the Wild Asparagus
 I hear that the official name of this plant is “Queen Anne’s Lace,” but for some reason, people around where I live have turned it into “Queens Anne Lace”… any linguists out there who can tell us why?