By Jon Brown, RDN, B.S. of Fork in the Road Nutrition
Spring is an exciting time for anyone that appreciates the outdoors. The energy stored dormant underground comes back to life as our days get longer and warmer. For foragers, spring can be the best time of the year. Don’t miss your opportunity to harvest the fruits of the season. Mother Nature’s garden is often ripe in April and May.
Wild leeks, or ramps, are perhaps my favorite spring edible. They can be found in forest undergrowth in areas with good moisture. Ramps look like large blades of grass from above the ground and have an onion-like bulb under the ground. The bulbs can be used as a substitute for onions in the kitchen.
The greens, or the aerial parts of the plant, can be dehydrated and crushed into a powder that makes an excellent seasoning, similar to garlic or onion powder. Be especially mindful when harvesting this plant. It takes a long time for wild leeks to reproduce, so it is easy to overharvest in areas where the population is already low. Bring a digging knife or spade to dig these up.
Fiddlehead ferns, or fiddleheads, are another excellent spring edible. This is a very specific type of fern; not all ferns can be eaten.
Fiddleheads can be eaten only when they are young, up to 6 or 8 inches tall, while they are still curled. When these plants get older, they shift into a different phase of their lifecycle and begin to produce a chemical that is toxic to humans. These plants can be cooked and eaten similar to asparagus. I prefer them grilled with light salt and oil or butter. They make a great side at any cookout. Overharvesting is a concern with these plants as well. They usually burst out of the ground in bunches of five to 10. When I harvest this plant, I only take two ferns from each bunch. This should be safe to feed you while allowing the plant to reproduce as nature intended. Just snap the base of each plant off to harvest. Fiddleheads are best identified by the deep inner groove on their stem and their brown papery coating.
Nothing gets a forager excited in the spring-like morel mushrooms. These prized mushrooms have a very short window of harvest, usually only several weeks. I have never found this mushroom, and their elusive nature makes them a sort of treasure. They grow in association with elm, ash, oak, poplar, cherry, and apple trees—so if you want to find morels, learn these trees. You may harvest every morel you find. Mushrooms are simply the reproductive organ of the fungus, and by the time of harvest, most of the spores have likely spread already. There are some great morel mushroom recipes online if you are fortunate enough to harvest some.
It would take a book to tell the whole story of spring edibles. Some of my other spring favorites include wood sorrel, nettles, dandelion, and spring beauty. Many of the spring plants are early bloomers that go back into the ground early when other plants begin to proliferate and take sun rays. Get out and take advantage of this bountiful window of time.
Jon Brown is a registered dietitian/nutritionist from Watkins Glen, currently working on his Master’s in sports nutrition at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. He runs the Finger Lakes Foragers Club Facebook page, and enjoys foraging as a hobby. He has a private nutrition counseling practice, Fork in the Road Nutrition, and is looking to help individuals with their health and fitness goals.