The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Wild Food and Wild Medicine Profile: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Vesca) June 7, 2017

The delicious and delightful wild strawberry just came into season here in Western PA, and I thought I’d share a bit about how to find this plant and why it is worth seeking out both as a wild food and a wild medicine. Wild strawberry is incredibly flavorful and delicious, and in my opinion, is a really high quality wild edible that is worth seeking out (which, thankfully, isn’t that difficult). Strawberry leaves also serve a medicinal purpose as a gentle astringent. This post will detail where wild strawberry typically grows, its overall growth habit, two look-alikes that should be avoided, and some information on how to harvest and enjoy wild strawberry.

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

The wild strawberry is also known as the woodland strawberry, alpine strawberry (although there are other cultivars also known as alpines that are clumping, fragaria vesca is a running variety), or european strawberry. It is abundant and diverse and grows in many temperate places in the US and beyond. It is a great beginner wild food and wild medicine!

 

Wild Strawberry Growth Patterns

At the right time of year, you can spot the little white wild strawberry flowers underneath or alongside the wild strawberry leaves. They are in the rosacacea family, and so, have five white petals with five bracts (little leaves in between the petals) and a number of small pollen pods that are yellow surrounding a yellow stamen. About a month later (in my region, at least) you can find the delicious red fruits.

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road...

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road…

Wild strawberry prefers to grow in full sun and is found in open fields or along edges of fields and brush/forests.  This is where you will find it fruiting. I have found it a lot in fields that were once farms and with low soil fertility, also on the edges of roadways, etc.  It seems to have no problem with poor or rocky soil or soils that are partially bare and hot. But I’ve also found it along lush edge spaces–interestingly enough, the poor soils seem to produce smaller, but more flavor rich fruit. Like other wild berries, if there is little rain, fruits will be more potent and delicious than if there was a lot of rain before ripening (like this year). Wild strawberry grows other places as well, like inside forests with a bit of light, but often these plants do not have enough light to fruit.

 

Strawberry is a plant that travels as it grows–strawberries slowly creep from one area to another.  A single strawberry patch will expand eventually into a ring, and then break off in different directions; the older plants send out new runners and slowly expand as they go (which is an awesome thing to see)!  I saw this firsthand at my homestead in Michigan-what started as a sizable single patch, later turned into a ring and into diverse new patches; the original patch was taken over by ground ivy and cinquefoil, primarily.

 

 

Wild Strawberry Look Alikes

Wild strawberries are very easy to find, but so are their look alikes (and sometimes, they are all growing in the same area). There are two plants that look like wild strawberry, false strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Cinquefoil / Polentilla spp. I’m going to cover each so you know what the differences are. 

Creeping Cinquefoil  (typically, Potentilla Reptans) is found in the same places as wild strawberry, often growing alongside it. Cinquefoil has five leaves and yellow flowers that look similar to strawberry flowers. Cinquefoil never gets a berry, however, so its pretty easy to avoid. In the photo below, There are some cinquefoils right in the middle of this strawberry patch (there’s also some small goldenrod shoots on the right next to the Cinquefoil).

Here’s a closeup of the Cinquefoil leaf (bottom) and a strawberry leaf (top).  The strawberry leaf has three leaves (trifoliate) while the Cinquefoil has five radiating leaves (palmately compound).

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil itself is medicinal, its roots are moderately antimicrobial when put in contact with infected tissue (so you can make a salve or wash with them).  But they aren’t tasty like strawberries!

 

The second look alike is known as “false strawberry”, “mock strawberry” or “indian strawberry.” It produces berry that looks a lot like strawberry, and it has leaves similar to a strawberry, but the berry is flavorless. You can eat it, but who would want to? It tastes like nothing. The berry also has seeds on the outside (not indented like the wild strawberry) and many seeds in a very orderly fashion (see below). It has a yellow flower (so if you can ID the flowers earlier in the year, you will know it is a false strawberry vs. the white flower of the wild strawberry). A simple rule of thumb is to not eat anything with yellow flowers, and stick only to the white flowers. Its been a while since I’ve seen one of these; they aren’t nearly as abundant around where I live as the Cinquefoil (which is as abundant as strawberry herself).

Here’s a photo of one (courtesy of Wikipedia, I forgot to take a photo!)

Mock Strawberry

Mock Strawberry

The false strawberries grow up, pointing towards the sky while the wild strawberries are usually hanging or growing on the ground.

 

Harvesting Strawberry Leaf and Strawberry

When doing any wild food foraging, you should make sure that you are harvesting in a safe environment, free of toxins and not too close to houses with lead paint, roads, and so forth (see my earlier post on foraging part 1 and part 2).

 

There are a few tricks to harvesting wild strawberries. Like garden strawberry varities, dense foilage can often cover the tasty berries. You can use your hand to gently move away the leaves to get at the berries. You’ll also want to work your way carefully through the patch, trying not to step on any as you work through.  Although they are small, they are often abundant, and if you gather for even 10 -15 minutes, you’ll have several handfuls for fresh eating.  Remember that there might be a ring, or a line, or several patches in the area–so look carefully!  Strawberries ripen over a period of a week or so, so you can come back every day or so for more fresh strawberries.

Wild strawberries on the ground

Wild strawberries on the ground, brush leaves aside to see even more.

Since wild strawberry is so small, I typically just eat them fresh.  If you had them in extreme abundance, they’d certainly make a nice jam.  I once combined about 2 cups of fresh wild strawberries with some I had grown that were much larger for a jam–that was great.  If you had them in a lot of abundance, you can also dry them and enjoy anytime or make a fruit leather (see my instructions here).

 

Finally, a note about balance. I think that it is important to give something in return to the plant itself if you are harvesting fruit or leaves.  This can take a number of forms: a bit of organically grown tobacco is a welcome gift to many plant spirits.   If you are willing to scatter some of the strawberries themselves (with their seeds) the strawberries will be very happy.  You might find other things to do as well, but these are two I have found are very effective.

 

Strawberry Leaf as Medicine

Strawberry leaf is packed full of vitamin C and can be enjoyed as a tea either fresh or dried.  The tea has a mild and slightly fruity flavor (and some substitue it for green tea when a person can’t have caffiene).  I like to harvest leaves (maybe one per plant) when they are first blossoming.  They get a bit stronger after the fruit come in (still fine to harvest for medicine). A lot of folks will use these gentle leaves as a nourinshing tea that is tonic on the body and soothes the digestive system, particularly for those who suffer from diarrhea or loose stools and/or could use immune system support (provided by Vitamin C).

 

Strawberry leaf is also a gentle astringent (with a high tannin content).  I like to use it as part of an eye wash for conjunctivitis/pink eye when the eyes are goopy and watery (in conjunction with plantain for healing).  It is also great for a daily rinse for the gums and teeth.   Herbalists have used this successfully in tooth powder recipes to help treat plagque and bleeding gums (typically with clay, baking soda, and so on).

 

You can also brew up a strong cup of strawberry leaf tea and use it as a treatment for sunburn, simply lathe the affected areas with a soft cloth or cotton ball.  If you combine this with calendula or plantain, it is even more effective.

 

Please know that wild strawberry leaf is much more medicinal than its domestic counterpart.  You can use domesticated strawberry, but I have found the medicinal qualities much higher in wild strawberry (this is similar to Yarrow–the more difficult growing conditions, the more medicinal and aromatic the plant!)

 

Concluding Thoughts

I love the gentle spirit of the wild strawberry.  She is giving, soothing, abundant, and magical!  I hope that you will enjoy some of the benefits of this amazing and easy to find plant!

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Wild Food Profile – Burdock Root (spring and fall) October 20, 2014

Great Burdock (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Foraging is an important part of my spiritual path, as it is one of the ways that I build a closer relationship with nature.  I also think its an important part of the “oak knowledge” that druids should consider cultivating.  As we regain our understanding of the plants, trees, and herbs around us, we grow closer to that landscape.  By harvesting food from my backyard growing wild, I’m taking that landscape within and allowing it to nourish me.  This nourishment comes in many forms, and not all of them are physical. As our amazing spring returns after a long, hard, winter, I am so excited to get out there and enjoy  wild foods!

The early spring or late fall is a wonderful time for wild foods. From violets to ramps to dandelion greens and dryad’s saddle and morel mushrooms, the leafy veggies, edible flowers, and mushrooms are just amazing.  What I like about fall is that many of the things you enjoyed in spring are back again, for round two, before the winter sets in.

Today I’ll be covering Burdock.  My experience is with arctium minus (common burdock) but what I’m saying can also apply to other burdock species, such as great burdock (arctium lappa).  Samuel Thayer, in his awesome book Forager’s Harvest suggests that the great burdock is more tasty than the common burdock.  But I only have common burdock, and it tastes just fine to me!

 

Burdock and its Nutritive and Healing Qualities

Burdock is a wonderful plant, despite the fact that most people who encounter it only remember it for its spiny seed pods that stick to you–and everything else.  Burdock is often one of those plants that end up on various township and city’s “noxious weed” lists because of its seed pods.  And yes, they can be absolutely wretched and itchy if they end up stuck to your clothing, socks, hair, and so forth.  And yet, here is a plant that provides us with nutritive, healing food and medicine anytime the ground is not frozen solid.

Burdock primarily is a nutritive and metabolic tonic; that is, it is rich in minerals and vitamins, and eating it is beneficial for digestion.  It is best eaten fresh or tinctured.  For a complete list of burdock’s medicinal qualities, I highly suggest Jim McDonald’s discussion of burdock.  Grieve’s Modern Herbal also has a nice entry. Burdock is one of those great plants that you can eat like food, cause it is food, but it has such good medicinal qualities that its like medicinal food.  Its really great and, I think, is really unappreciated!

 

Identifying and Harvesting Burdock Root

You can find Burdock three seasons of the year–in spring, summer, and fall.  Burdock root is best dug in early spring or late fall in late fall. I have a healthy burdock patch on my property, and more comes up each year.  I let the seeds fall in the fall and try to push them into the ground with the bottom of my shoe (being careful not to have them stuck to me), because I want the roots and stalks for good eating :).

Based on some tincturing experiments by my dear friend Sara and consultations of some herbals and my herbal instructor, we’ve concluded that the inulin in burdock, which is a source of much of its medicine, is much higher in the fall than in the spring (the plant likely lives off of inulin  in the winter to survive).  Inulin is a natural carbohydrate found in many plants. So you will want to keep that in mind when gathering your burdock roots.

Late Fall Harvests: The leaves die back in the fall, sending their energy back into the roots.  After a good hard frost or two, the burdock leaves will mostly die back on the first year plants.  This is the time to harvest the roots, especially for medicinal purposes.  You can wait a while to gather after this point, however, eventually the ground will freeze and then you won’t be able to dig the roots deeply. Its easier to identify the burdock in the fall, with its huge green leaves and long skinny stalk, and fuzzy green (and later brown) burs.  Usually first and 2nd year plants will be near each other–2nd year plants die off and go to seed at least a month before the 1st year plants lose their leaves.

Early Spring Harvests.  Likewise, in the spring, the energy is still in the roots, where nutrients  were kept all all winter long, and the nutrients push those nutrients upward and outward and leafy greens and flowers emerge once more. Before that energy returns completely, however,  early spring can be a prime time to gather root crops like cattails and burdock.  Once the plants just peek above the soil (or the water, in the case of the cattail) then you are ready to harvest. The key with harvesting root crops in early spring is to harvest them early, just when you see them peeking up and can identify them.  The longer you wait, the more energy from the roots goes into the leaves, and the roots become less tasty and nutritive. .In early spring you want the early 2nd year plants (the ones that didn’t go to seed the year before).

While its easy to identify burdock in the fall, its still pretty easy in the spring once you know what you are looking for and where to find it–soft, light green heart shaped petals, usually growing in small clusters.  The spring clusters will first have two leaves, and then a small rosette.  They will have the distinctive burdock smell–slightly bitter.  They come up at the same time that the violets bloom, and generally (at least here) before the dandelions bloom. I knew exactly where to look this spring, just in front of my garden along the pathway.  Here are the rosettes of the freshly sprouted burdock plants.  These burdock plants have to be dug up, because eventually if I let them remain, they will grow burs and the burs will stick to me each time I try to enter my garden.

The following photos are from my spring burdock harvest.  The fall burdock plants have much bigger leaves!

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Once you find yourself some burdock rosettes, the real fun begins.  Ideally, you’ll have a long, narrow shovel (called a drain spade, like this).  I don’t have such a shovel, so instead, I put the shovel on one side of the burdock and jump on it, going as deep as I can.  Then, I do the same thing on the other side of the burdock.  One one side, I dig a small hole as far down as I can next to the burdock root, and finally, pry as much of it as I can up with the shovel.  Rarely does the whole root come up, but there is plenty for me to work with using this method.  The drain spade is MUCH better.  The key to buying a good burdock digging shovel is that it is sturdy–place your foot on the middle of it and try to bend the shovel.  If the shovel bends badly, its no good for burdock digging and you’ll break it on your first time out.

Digging Burdock

Digging Burdock

While you can get massive roots out of the ground like the one featured in the image below, these are usually more woody and a bit hollow on the inside.  Sometimes they can get long black cracks as well.  They are still ok to eat, but the younger roots, less than a year old, are much more easy to work with.

Huge burdock root!

Huge burdock root!

The day a friend and I were digging burdock, we filled up a 5 gallon bucket in less than 30 min.  We harvested in about a 15′ square area, and there is still a ton of burdock out there for the harvesting.

Bucket full of burdock!

Bucket full of burdock!

After we harvested the burdock, we didn’t wash it (you want to wash it right before you eat it to avoid any water loss–water loss is one of the biggest challenges for storing vegetables, even short term).  Instead, we put it in bags and stuck it in the fridge.  You also want to chop off all the green heads–the greens will cause water loss.  Storing in a root cellar would be better for this, but alas, I don’t yet have a good root cellar.

Burdock harvest

Burdock root harvest

Eating Burdock

To prepare burdock root, you’ll want to start by washing it well.  I use a carrot scrubber, which gets off most of the dirt.  I don’t wash my burdock until right before eating it.  Once you scrub the dirt off of it, you can peel it (I find peeling pretty much necessary b/c its impossible to get fully clean).  You’ll see that it looks and acts like a carrot–this is true for the whole preparing process.

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

You can cook it in the same manner you would a carrot, and it has a similar cooking time.  I sliced up this burdock root and threw it in a pan to saute.  I then added some leftover rice noodles, leftover pesto pasta, and topped it off with feta cheese.  Nums!

Burdock dish

Burdock root with rice pasta, pesto, and feta cheese

 

Flavor and Taste

Burdock root doesn’t show up a lot in western cooking, but in Japan, it is a highly valued ingredient (you can search for “gobo root” and find all kinds of awesome recipes). I think its really delicious in the right kind of meal.  I treat it pretty much like I would a carrot in terms of where I would use it.

In terms of taste, I find burdock to be very mild and slightly sweet.  It tastes kinda nutty and earthy, and I find that it compliments many dishes.  Since it also has tonic, regenerative, and nutritive qualities, its just great to eat when you can get it. Its also a fantastic food because traditionally one would have long ran out of carrots by this point in the year, and burdock root would get you through the “hunger times” of early spring.

 

Wild Food Profile: Autumn Olive / Autumn Berry (Elaeagnus umbellata) + Autumn Olive Honey Jelly Recipe September 14, 2014

 About the Autumn Olive

Autumn Olive in spring (Courtesy of Wikipedia; I forgot to photograph this in the spring)

Autumn Olive (also called Autumn Berry, Japanese Silverberry, or Spreading Oleaster) is a bush that is native to China and is considered an “invasive” in the USA. In a good part part of the 20th century, it was used extensively by the US Army Corp of Engineers to hold hillsides in place from the growing highway system spanning the US and to fix nitrogen. The Autumn Olive grows exceedingly quickly; it can rise up several feet in a few months and bush out. It also spreads rapidly due to its berries being a favorite of birds. It is a nitrogen fixer, so it is often found in abused land areas or landscape areas that are regenerating (like old farmer’s fields or industrial sites); I should add that its one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers we have and it does fill an important role in the ecosystem.  It is extremely prevalent here in Michigan; I’ve also seen it in Indiana and Ohio and in the warmer parts of PA (like Bedford county). If you search invasive plant sites or talk to people, they will often call this plant a menace plant. And while this bush does spread quickly, it does have its benefits, especially in the form of beautiful, tasty, autumn olive berries with their incredible cranberry-like tart and sweet flavors.

The fruit is extremely high in lycopene (up to 17 times more than tomatoes, according to a USDA report described in the linked article).  The fruit also contain high levels of Vitamins E, A, flavionids, and fatty acids.  Underripe fruit are high in tannins and are very astringent, but as they ripen, they get much sweeter (especially after a bout of cold weather!)  I know that there are people exploring commercial cultivation of this plant due to the berries’ nutritional value and the plant’s ease of growing. And they are super tasty!

10 gallons of autumn olive in one hour with three people harvesting--when its good, its really good!

10 gallons of autumn olive in one hour with three people harvesting–when its good, its really good!  And this many takes a very long time to process…lol.

Harvesting Autumn Olive

After 3 years of growth, the Autumn Olive bears fruit. You should look to start harvesting it somewhere in September, usually around the Fall equinox (if you live in Zone 6a like I do).  A good year of fruit can have up to 8 lbs of fruit per bush (I have found that in Michigan, we only get this kind of abundance every few years). The fruit is really delicious and tart and not really like anything else out there. The closest thing I can think of is a cranberry, but autumn olives have no bitterness and are more tart.

A very abundant fruiting bush!

A very abundant fruiting bush!

Autumn Olives flower in the spring, and have quite a pleasant smell and nectar that my bees certainly appreciate.  Seeing how many flowers there are in the spring should give you an idea about how much fruit you will find in the fall. Sometime in early September to mid October, the berries ripen going from green to orange to a dark red. It is when the whole bush is red, a deep red, and the berries are ready to fall off (and you see the birds eating them), that they are ready to pick.  If you see orangish berries still on the bush, its not ready, and you should wait a few days.  Tasting the bush will confirm this–even the red berries on a bush with orange berries aren’t going to be a sweet.

Not quite ripe fruit

Not quite ripe fruit (notice the orange)

Be sure to pick ripe bushes before a big rain….if the fruit are quite ripe, they fall off the bush easily and a hard rain will knock them all to the ground. I had a bush I was enjoying this year, the first to ripen on my property a few weeks ago.  A big storm came and dropped them all to the ground before I was able to harvest them!

Each bush also tastes slightly different–some are more tart, some are more sweet, some are more flavorful.  When I am picking, I will go from bush to bush and taste a berry or two on each one.  When I find a bush that tastes good, that’s the bush I pick (they are so abundant that I can skip bushes if I want).  If the fruit on a particular bush tastes too astringent, wait a few days and come back–it should ripe up soon enough.  I love the diversity of flavors that the different bushes produce, and so, I have certain “favorite” bushes I visit each year.

In a good year, two people can pick several or more of autumn olive in an hour or so (our record is in the photo above–10 gallons in one hour with three people  But that is a bit of a rarity.  More likely, its about a gallon per person per hour. In any year, the autumn olive is absolutely worth your time to pick.  Autumn olive makes fantastic jelly and fruit leather due to its tart quality.

Its not always like this, but when it is, don't miss out!

Its not always like this, but when it is, don’t miss out!

Autumn Olive Jelly

I’m going to walk you through the process of making an Autumn Olive Jelly, with photos, because this is one of the best ways to preserve these delightful fruits.  One thing about the jelly–the fruit juice tends to separate from the fruit pulp as it sets, so you get these interesting mottled looking jars of jelly.  I think they look kinda cool, but they might be a turn off (and frankly, that’s fine, because that’s more jelly for me).

Ingredients:

  • A bunch of autumn olives, washed
  • Pomona’s pectin (described in this post)
  • 1/2 cup  – 1 cup honey per 4 cups of processed berries

Equipment:

  • Hot water bath canner
  • 1/2 pint or 1/4 pint jars with new lids
  • Food mill
  • Masher (wooden or potato)

1.  Wash and prepare your berries. You want to wash your berries and also sort through them to make sure you don’t have any foreign objects, bugs, etc.  This process is called “garbling” (and I have no idea where that term came from).

Lovely fruit!

Lovely fruit!

2. Add them to a big pot and begin cooking. Add them to a big pot and put your burner on medium high.

Autumn Olives in Pot!

Autumn Olives in Pot!  That’s quite a lot!

3.  Cook and mash your fruit. You want to cook down the berries so that they are hot, and mash them down as you are cooking.  Make sure to stir often so you don’t burn your berries.  Once they get good and watery and they are broken up, continue onto step 4.

Mashing autumn olive

Mashing autumn olive

If you don’t want to mash your berries by hand, the alternative is to use a stick blender.  This makes VERY short work of the berries, but you will still need to cook them down a bit to have them go through the food mill or through a mesh strainer.   Before they are cooked, they don’t get as smooth as after, and that makes it hard to get the seeds out.  Be careful you don’t splatter them everywhere….I left a real mess in the kitchen this day.

Stick blender for autumn olive

Stick blender for autumn olive

4. Use a food mill or metal strainer/wooden spoon to remove seeds. You will need to get the seeds out of the mash, and I find using a food mill works really well for this purpose.  You’ll notice that the juice of the autumn olive tends to separate from the pulpy fruit and skin–that’s just how it is.  Here’s a photo of the food mill in action:

Food mill

Food mill

The alternative is to use a metal strainer and a wooden spoon.  Get a strainer with pretty large holes–it makes it MUCH easier.  One like the one in the picture works well–I processed 6 gallons of berries using this method in less than an hour.

Mesh strainer with wooden spoon

Mesh strainer with wooden spoon

5.  Prepare canner and lids.  Measure out autumn olive juice and get it back on the stove.  You need to measure out your juice so that you know how much you have for the purposes of adding pectin. The juice will be this awesome beautiful pinkish red…it might have foam.  That’s ok.  I will explain what to do with that in a bit.

Foam

Foam

6.  Prepare pectin: add calcium water to mixture. You might notice that many recipes call for nearly 50% sugar.  I don’t find these recipes healthy; they are too sweet and full of calories.  The sugar masks the real quality taste of the berries.  I found pectin called Pomona’s pectin – it allows you to can with much less sugar or to can with honey or maple syrup.  So for this recipe, we are using  Pomona’s pectin.  You can follow the directions on the label that are specific for jelly (like using grape juice).  To use this pectin, you will mix up calcium water and add it to the fruit. Next you mix the pectin itself into the honey.  Finally,  you mix the honey into the berry juice and bring it to a boil for a short amount of time.  You can use the ratios on the instructions; I found that only a little honey is needed so I have been using 1/2 cup honey to four cups autumn olive mix.  You can also add a little lemon juice–that makes a really nice addition to the jam.

Pomona Pectin

Pomona Pectin

7.  Add mixture into jars and hot water bath process for 20 min (1/2 pints). If you have foam at this point, you can skim it off and put it in a jar.  It will solidify, and then you’ll have a delightful treat to eat with a spoon. You can store the foam in the fridge and enjoy a scoop whenever you like.

Canning in progress

Canning in progress

8.  While jars are processing, lick the spoon and enjoy the leftovers in the pot. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step.

Num nums.

Num nums.

9.  Pull out of canner, wait till jars seal, and enjoy! You will notice that autumn olive separates a bit as its sets.  This is perfectly normal, but does look a bit weird.  The good news about it looking weird is that if someone is going through your cabinets looking for something to eat, they might be less inclined to eat your autumn olive jam, so I consider this a natural defense mechanism.  The jam is delicious!

Strange looking jam!

Strange looking jam!  Keeps people away so you have more for yourself.

Get as much as you can!

Get as much as you can!

Now if you strained this, you could probably get rid of the spoltchyness and only have one color of jelly.  But I like the way it looks, with its interesting patchwork colors and shapes.  Enjoy this often!

Finally, I want to direct you to also read Sam Thayer’s Autumn Olive page, because he has a lot of great info on this wonderful plant in terms of pounds per acre and so on.  He suggests that some are considering commercial cultivation of these wonderful fruits because of their vitamin and mineral content, nitrogen fixing ability to regenerate the soil, and potentially high yields.

 

Wild Food Profile: Ramps May 17, 2013

I’m going to be doing a series of posts on wild foods, especially those that I’ve been gathering for a long time.  Why wild foods?  Wild foods are just that–they grow without cultivation, are delicious, and allow you to experience different kinds of flavors.  When gathering wild foods, you want to make sure you are gathering in a sustainable way (in other words, don’t over-harvest and make sure you have permission–of all kinds–to harvest).  My good friend Mark put together this awesome guide on ethical foraging–please read it before harvesting any wild foods!

The first wild food I’ll be discussing is: RAMPS!

Ramps (with wild nettle and other plants). The ramps are the green ones bending over slightly.

Ramps (with wild nettle and other plants). The ramps are the green ones bending over slightly.

What: Ramps are a plant native to North America (specifically, the eastern seaboard and Midwest regions).  They taste like a cross between garlic and onion, and as the season goes on, Ramps take on stronger and stronger flavor.   Ramps have a single bulb (which smells of onion/garlic and is quite unmistakable), two broad green leaves coming up from the bulb (the greens are also edible).  Later in the season, the ramps will turn yellow and eventually produce a seed head (which produces black seeds and looks a lot like a chive head).  Apparently, they have become commercially available in recent years, which I guess is a testament to their awesome flavor.

Where: Ramps can be found in wet forest areas.  They especially like to grow in valleys where spring rains cause small springs to pop up–this is where I always find them.  Look also along riverbeds and on the edge of marshes.  They are a full shade, deep forest plant.

Typical place to find ramps.  Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

When: Ramps come into season usually in late April or early May.  Depending on the warmth of the soil, they might come in a bit early (as was the case last year) or a bit later (as was the case this year–they were at their peak in the 2nd week of May this year) depending on spring weather.

What to harvest: The entire plant can be harvested anytime before it goes to seed.  Once the plant is in seed (known as “bolting”) the energy of the plant shifts from the leaves and bulb to the seed production, so the flavor suffers.

Ramps chopped up and ready for eating!

Ramps chopped up and ready for eating!

How to Preserve: I’ve only attempted one preservation method, which is drying ramps in a dehydrator.  They dry very quickly (4 or so hours) and break up into neat little rings.  I highly suspect that they would store decently well in a root cellar.  I’m also told they freeze well!

Jar of dried ramps

Jar of dried ramps

How to Eat:  You can use the green leaves in any way you would a green onion.  You can use the bulb like an onion or garlic. The photo below shows a wonderful fried rice dish that we made from wild woodland nettles (post on that soon), ramps, rice, and egg.  It was divine!

 

Ramp stir fry with fresh asparagus and fish.

Ramp stir fry with fresh asparagus and fish.