10 Wild Foods to Harvest This Spring
Spring is one of our favourite times of year. Nature transitions from its cold, dreary, grey-brown winter self to suddenly bursting with verdant green life almost overnight. The return of the Earth's greenmantle is a joy to behold. The growing season is so short and quick here in Northern Ontario that you can't possibly harvest everything in its season, so start with a smaller handful of wild edibles you want to include in your diet and see how much you can sustainably forage, cook, and preserve. Here are our top ten recommendations for easy to forage and delicious to eat wild edibles.
Burdock is a monster of a plant in the summer with its massive leaves, tall height, and purple, thistle-like flowers. It's prickly and gigantic and most people wouldn't think of eating it, but the large roots are a traditional food around the world and the new shoots and stems can be cooked and eaten as spring vegetables. The roots can be ready to harvest as early as March. Burdock is not a survival food, it is a tasty food! Despite this, the roots can be quite fibrous and difficult to chew, making them best to add to soups, stews, or slowly braised dishes which will give the roots moisture and time to cook properly so they break down and become more pleasant to eat.
Some folks add slices of burdock root to pickled vegetables or saurkraut recipes for the flavour, others dry it and/or roast it to use as a flavouring for soda, syrups, teas, candies, and more. You could grind up dried burdock root and use it as a meat rub or cooking spice. Dandelion and burdock roots combined together is a traditional confectionry flavour of sodas and candies in the United Kingdom. Together they almost create a chocolate flavour.
To preserve the edible parts of burdock, the roots can be dried, pickled, canned, or partially cooked and frozen. To freeze you can cook the roots first by slicing them up, boiling them, steaming them, or sauteeing them in butter. The large stalks should be peeled before eating and like the shoots can be sliced up and pickled, canned, or cooked in butter and frozen.
Cattails grow wherever there is fresh water; along rivers, lakes, streams, and throughout whole marshes. In the spring you can harvest the roots and shoots. In late spring and early summer, you can harvest the cattail flower pollen which can be used as a wheat flour substitute. The starchy roots can be a staple wild food once you learn how to process them correctly. One traditional method is to crush the roots and soak them in clean cold water until all the starch comes out and sinks to the bottom of a bucket or bowl. The water is then siphoned off and the starch can be used fresh to cook with like a potato substitute, or it can be dried for later use as a flour substitute.
Freshly harvested and peeled cattail stems and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable, for salads, or to make pickles. Pickled cattail shoots are very Canadian! Green, immature flower spikes can also be eaten as a vegetable. Just peel off the paper husk and cook before eating.
If you catch the dandelions in very early spring before they flower, they are best to harvest for the roots and the fresh greens. The roots can be harvested, cleaned, and prepared like carrots. They can be dried to make tea or dried and roasted to make a decent coffee substitute. The roasted roots can be ground into a powder and used as a meat rub and cooking spice.
When the flowers bloom, they can eaten raw, fried in batter as fritters, made into jelly and syrup or brewed into dandelion wine or mead. For more dandelion recipe ideas see our article: Dandelions as Food and Medicine.
No, it's not actually an artichoke, and nor is it from Jerusalem! Also called sunroot, sunchoke, and earth apple, this plant is actually a wild sunflower native to eastern North America. It is the roots you are looking for as they are a delicious potato substitute. Jerusalem artichoke often grows in very large patches and the plants can reach ten feet tall. Look for the patches while they have green growth and mark them so you can come back in the early winter or early spring before they sprout and flower. The roots are large and easy to harvest, growing close to the surface of the earth.
The only caveat with this delicious tuber is given away in it's common nickname: fartichoke. It can give some people serious gas (translation: farts). There is a sugar in the roots that our bodies can't break down. The good news is the "farts" can be cooked out simply be extending how long the roots are cooked for. Use as you would potatoes, but avoid eating raw.
You can't have spring without eating fiddleheads! For us, they tend to pop up the first two weeks of May, but it's always dependent on the weather. Last year our foraging grounds were completely flooded out. Our favourite edible species is the cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) for its incomparable quality, but the larger Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is the one you'll find in supermarkets come May. As cinnamon fern fiddleheads are small compared to ostrich fern, they do not freeze well, and are better eaten fresh or canned to preserve them for later use. Ostrich fern fiddleheads are large and succulent enough to partially cook by steaming or boiling and then freezing.
Fiddleheads can be pickled and canned but are not edible when dried. We put fresh fiddleheads in everything, from a Japanese noodle dishes to a simple sautee with local wild mushrooms and butter. They make a great and delicious staple vegetable if you can find patches large enough to sustainably feed your family!
Morels are a prize edible for many foragers and their growing locations are often a close guarded secret. The hardest part of harvesting morels is to catch the right weather and to actually see them - they are well camoflaged! If you see scarlet elf cup mushrooms in the woods, morels are either already in the woods, are are just about to pop up. Look for them the first three weeks of May if you are up north where we are or late March through April if you are further south. Morels like to grow at the sites of forest fires 2-5 years after the fact. They also love crabapple and wild plum trees. They are unpredictable though and don't always grow where the field guides say they should! So look anywhere you happen to be walking or foraging during morel season. We've found them in our own yard in our village as well as in a massive white and red pine forest.
Morels taste lovely fresh, but the flavour is even more concentrated when dried. I know some folks who smoke their freshly harvested morels with alder wood to dry them and they taste amazing! Smoked morel risotto is one of the best mushroom dishes we have ever made! Be careful not to confuse them with false morels like the beefsteak morel (Gyromitra esculenta) which are poisonous.
These bright white, shelf-like mushrooms with easy to identify gills start to grow on decaying logs and trees as soon as the weather gets above freezing. They like it cold so forage for them as long as the cool and rainy, but not freezing weather persists. They are a delicious wild edible mushroom, better eaten fresh than dried. They can be fried, sauteed, roasted, or pickled. They are a very traditional edible mushroom in Asia where they are prized as both food and medicine. They lend themselves well to noodle dishes because the mushrooms can be peeled apart into long strips with no need for cutting with a knife. They taste light and buttery when cooked and have a great texture. When placed in a paper bag the fresh mushrooms can last up to a week in the fridge. They do not taste so wonderful when dried and rehydrated, but if you harvest too much too eat you can sautee the excess quickly in butter and then freeze them to eat later.
Native spruce trees are not the tastiest evergreen, but no other local evergreen tree has comparably delicious and large spring tips! The tips are the new growth at the very tips of the branches. They start off encased in a brown paper sheath which slowly falls off as they grow bigger. You want to harvest them as soon as the paper is being naturally pushed off, but before the spruce tips fully open. They are full of important vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium. The taste of fresh spring spruce tips is very tart, comparable to an unripe green blueberry. They can be added fresh to salads, smoothies, pesto, soups, stews, and curries or sauteed with other vegetables. Fresh tips make tasty pickles which can later be added to dips, sauces, marinades, charcuterie and cheese plates, and more. They can be made into tasty spruce tip syrup and spruce tip jelly as well.
Dried spruce tips taste very different and are sweet and savoury without the very sour note. Dried tips make a beautiful tea or be infused into vinegar and oil to make your own gourmet condiments. They can also be used as a cooking herb like rosemary by crumbling the dried tips into vegetable dishes, rubbing them on meats, and adding them into sauces, soups, and stews.
Both fresh and dried spruce tips can be used to infuse into sugar and salt. If you use fresh spruce tips, be sure to chop them finely with a very sharp and heavy chef's knife to prevent them from turning brown. If you run them through a food processor with salt or sugar, they will surely turn brown.
One more helpful note: fresh spruce tips do not store well, not even in the fridge. They will turn brown and start to taste rotten within only a few days of being harvested. 4-5 days is too long. Try your best to cook with them within 1-2 days of harvesting!
Nettles are a popular wild food because they seem to grow everywhere! This woodland weed has long been a staple of our wild human diet. Harvest with gloves to avoid being stung as the effects can last a few hours. Nettles can be used fresh and dried, so if you harvested far too much to eat fresh, dry some for later use in tea, stocks, and soups. The new spring growth is the best to eat fresh as they are tender and sweet, rather than old and stringy. The tips of new leaf growth can be harvested to cook as a pot herb, added to soups and stews, sauteed in stir fries, or simply cooked with bacon. It pairs well with potatoes, lemon, and salty meats. To preserve you can hang the leaves to dry for a tasty tea or sautee and freeze the leaves as you would spinach. When wrapped in a slightly damp towel and then put in a plastic bag, freshly picked nettles can last 1-2 weeks in the fridge.
Asparagus is not a native plant, but is a very common escaped garden plant across North America. In our area it is very easy to find "feral" asparagus to harvest for eating or transplanting to your own property. Asparagus is actually a huge plant with very tall, fluffy green fronds and red berries. Most people would not recognize it in the summer! In the spring, look for the new shoots coming up out of the earth and harvest them before they become too woody or start to unfurl. Asparagus shoots appear the same time that fiddleheads are in season, so why not harvest and process them at the same time? Asparagus spears are a delicious spring treat that everyone looks forward to in our region along with early rhubarb. We even have festivals for them! As asparagus is technically invasive, I heartily recommend finding feral patches to harvest as a vegetable for your family. Asparagus can be cooked fresh, cooked and frozen, or be canned and pickled for later use. Store the freshly harvested spears upright in a small amount of water like cut flowers with a damp towel or plastic bag on top until you are ready to cook with them. They will last overnight like this, but can last up to a week if you put them in the fridge.
There you go, you are now armed with the knowledge of ten plants you can harvest this spring! Don't forget to triple check your plant and mushroom identifications in field guides and online before you go ahead and eat any wild food. Have fun doing a little research at your local library or online to find more creative recipes to make with your harvests. If research isn't your strong suit, try some of these resources for recipes and processing methods: