With winter soon behind us, it’s time to gear up for some wild edibles. Foraging is a great way to get out and enjoy the outdoors, while learning local botany and collecting extra food in the process. Through foraging, you will learn about the different seasons of foods, which can easily be taken for granted with year-round access to most foods at the grocery store.
Note that, especially for first-time pickers, it is important to consult a professional before consuming wild edibles. It is equally important to maintain foraging ethicssuch as only taking what you intend to use, avoiding harvesting endangered species, and leaving the area in better condition than you found it.
With so much to learn about foraging, we’ll focus on a few easier-to-identify foods that you can find in the Midwestern United States.
For many in the Midwest, morels are a harbinger of spring. Finding morels is a source of great pride for mushroom hunters and gatherers. Morels begin to appear in March-April, with a short window of opportunity to find them. Morels typically range from 1 to 2 inches in height and only grow on the ground in wooded areas. They grow in moist soil conditions and are often found near sycamore, hickory, ash and elm. Pay attention and learn to identify false morels, which look alike but are toxic. Do not eat raw or undercooked morels. They contain a mild toxin that is destroyed when you cook them. You can sauté them in butter or oil and add them to pasta or eat them with bread for a more earthy addition to your food.
Early spring is also the only time you can look for fiddleheads, which are the early growth of ostrich fern leaves. These also have a short window of opportunity to feed because after the fern leaves have grown too much, they are no longer edible. You can find them in the upper Midwest and Northeast in shady, moist wooded areas such as a hill near a stream. They are easy to cook by boiling or sautéing and are rich in antioxidants and iron.
Wild onion and wild garlic, both found in early to mid spring, are easy to spot in yards, parks, fields and meadows. They are large green “weeds” with multiple small shoots and an onion scent. Both greens and ampule are edible. Mild in flavor, they are useful if you have a soup or entree that needs an extra splash of color on top.
Berries are an easy food to pick up in the summer. Blackberries, raspberries and mulberries are prolific berries that are easy to spot and identify. Safe to eat raw or cooked, they are perfect to eat on their own or use in a dessert, smoothie or for jam. If you prefer to forage berries in your garden, consider planting shrubs with edible berries.
Blackberries and raspberries, both a type of bramble, grow wild in open areas. You can find these thorny shrubs at the edge of wooded areas, near roadsides, or in open fields. It’s easy to tell when they’re ripe by their color – blackberries are black and raspberries are red. Be warned that unripe blackberries are also red, so if you haven’t identified them correctly, the tart taste will quickly let you know they’re unripe.
Mulberries are a native North American tree commonly found in the central and eastern United States. You might see these 20 to 40 foot tall trees along wooded areas, in pastures, and along riverbanks. Although the trees are tall, you will be able to pick the red or dark purple berries from the lower branches. Keep an eye out when you see the fruits ripening in June and July so you have time to harvest the berries before the birds get to them, as these are a bird favourite.
Picking in the fall
Papaya is a medium-sized fruit that grows on medium-sized trees in the central and eastern United States. These understory trees have large oval leaves and grow in groups in the woods. The oval green fruit has a creamy texture, with large seeds scattered throughout. When they are ripe in September and October, you can shake them gently from the tree or find some that have already fallen to the ground.
Persimmons are also native to the central and eastern United States. They produce small orange fruits, which are only edible after the first frost in September-October. You can find these small trees along the edges of woods, along streams, and in fields or meadows.
Oyster mushrooms grow almost year-round, but are easy to find in the fall because they thrive in cool weather. They grow almost everywhere in the United States where there is wood – you can find them on rotten logs. These greyish-white mushrooms are shelf-shaped with gills below and they grow in clumps. Oyster mushrooms have great flavor and are easy to cook by sautéing them in butter or oil and adding them to any savory dish.
Go ahead and forage
These are just a few of the foods you can expect to find in different seasons in the Midwest. You can learn a lot more about wild foraging from university extension informed websites, Instagram accounts such as the blackforagerand books on wild edibles such as the Peterson Field Guide, “Edible wild plants.” Happy picking!