Editors Note: Foraging has become a favorite pastime for a growing number of Brooklynites. You probably can’t find anything fresher or more local than tasty greens you can pick for yourself in Prospect Park, so we wanted to learn more. We thought we’d go straight to the expert on this one ( because if there were an award for “most likely to pick poisonous flower/mushroom,” we’d be a shoe-in). Leda Meredith, expert forager and walking field guide, will be contributing a column every other week looking at what’s in season right now, where to look for it in parks and gardens near you, and how to use your foraging finds to make some tasty dishes at home.
by Leda Meredith
When daffodils and cherry trees burst with color but the farmers’ markets are still offering mainly last year’s root vegetables and apples, I turn to foraging for fresh, inspiring ingredients.
The most challenging part of the year for a locavore who lives in a place with four distinct seasons (including months of below freezing temps) is from the end of winter through early spring. Although the days are warmer and our eyes are feasting on the welcome colors of early spring blossoms, there are still weeks, even months, until most of the seasonal cultivated crops of the year are available.
But well over a month before the first asparagus and other spring crops appear at the farmers’ markets, I can collect savory field garlic (Allium vineale) and chickweed (Stellaria media). Field garlic bulbs taste like a cross between cultivated garlic and leeks, and the hollow-stemmed leaves can be used just like chives. Chickweed is a mild, tasty salad green. I collect chickweed by giving the plants a “haircut,” using scissors to snip off the top few inches of the plants. Both field garlic and chickweed are often available even when there are still patches of snow on the ground.
Both violet (Viola spp.*) leaves and flowers are early spring wild edibles that make an excellent addition to salads. You’ve eaten Viola flowers if you’ve ever bought or been served a salad garnished with edible blossoms. Why not pick your own?
By mid-April, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) greens and daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) shoots are ready for stir-fries. If you enjoy broccoli rabe or mustard greens, then you will love these slightly pungent, leafy vegetables. Sautee them in olive oil with a little garlic (field garlic if you’ve got it), add a sprinkle of salt and a dash of vinegar and enjoy them as a side dish warm or at room temperature.
Other early spring wild treats include the rhubarb-like Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), vitamin and mineral-packed nettles (Urtica spp.) and green bean flavored redbud blossoms (Cercis canadensis). Two of my other favorites, ramps (Allium tricoccum) and fiddlehead ferns (Matteucia), are available for a few weeks at farmers’ markets at steep prices. I collect them wild for free.
You can find these plants in Prospect Park as well as community gardens (where these plants will likely be considered “weeds” and the community gardeners will be happy to let you do their “weeding” for them). All of these wild edibles thrive in the cusp areas between the shade of trees and open lawns or meadows.
The first rule of foraging is to be 100% certain of your identification (if in doubt, throw it out). While it is possible to teach yourself using good print and online field guides (for wild edible plants, I recommend those by Sam Thayer, John Kallas and Steve Brill – for mushrooms, I suggest Gary Lincoff’s books), it is helpful to get some direct guidance from a knowledgeable forager. If you live in the NYC area, check out my website www.ledameredith.com for upcoming foraging tours, or do a search for tours in your area.
The second rule of foraging is to harvest sustainably. While many wild edibles such as dandelions and Japanese knotweed are invasive plants that can be harvested freely without endangering the species, some populations are more delicate and could be decimated by over-harvesting. If you are harvesting roots or shoots and only see a few specimens of a plant, leave them alone.
Foraging for wild edible plants and mushrooms is a joyful pursuit that eases your food budget, provides delectable ingredients you can’t buy, brings with it a bit of treasure hunt adventure, and as I’ve mentioned here, fills in the gaps in the agricultural calendar with fresh, local ingredients at times when these are otherwise scarce.
Luckily for us, Liza from Food Curated took a field trip with Leda last week. Here’s a look at their trip to Prospect Park, and a recipe for a pesto sauce Leda made with her finds.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her upcoming classes and events is on her blog at www.ledameredith.com
*Abbreviation “spp.” indicates multiple species of the flower.