Spring is here, at least on the calendar. As I write this snow falls and cold winds blow hard outside. Winter is making one last gasp as it releases its frigid grip on the New England. I choose to think of greener times during these Spring snow storms. If I close my eyes I can see green fields, budding leaves on trees, and days filled with bright sun shine and warm weather. Many people throughout New England are now planning their gardens. Some have even started vegetables indoors in hopes of transplanting them when the soils warm and the days become a little longer. Some New England gardeners stretch the seasons by placing out small row covers that warm the soil and allow some early crops such as spinach, early kale, and lettuce. Most of us will wait to plant our vegetables until garden season is really upon us sometime in the vicinity of Memorial Day.
For those that simply cannot wait until the end of May for fresh vegetables I have a wonderful alternative: wild vegetables growing in mid-April! Wild treats can be found throughout New England at many locations: along the bank of a brook, in wet meadows, near the edge of a pond or open swamp, and even along the edges of our agricultural pastures. These wild plants, many are described by the unknowing as weeds, can be harvested and turned into some very delicious culinary experiences. I have been eating these wild edibles since I was a child, and seldom does a Spring go by when I do not indulge in several wonderful meals of these spring time treats.
Three of my favorite wild vegetables are Cossack Asparagus, Steamed Nettles, and Fiddleheads. All three of these are comprised of wild plants that are plentiful throughout much of New England. They all can be prepared in early spring, and will rival just about anything that you are able to grow in your garden.
The first of these three treats is Cossack Asparagus. This is really a regional name for fresh shoots of the cattail plant. This best time to harvest this luscious food is when the cattail shoots have just emerged. They should not be taller than 6 inches in height. The shoot should be cut about 2 inches below the surface of the ground. About 18 to 24 of these shoots will feet three to four people, unless the people have my name, in which case this amount would be a single serving. To prepare the cattail shoot, simply husk the outside of the green leaf sheath away from the white inner shoot. Soak the shoots in spring water for about an hour, and the steam the shoots, much as you would traditional asparagus, for about 6 to 8 minutes (longer with larger diameter shoots). Most people like to relish the Cossack Asparagus with a coating of butter, although my family prefers a splash of cider vinegar, omitting the butter altogether. One word of caution; be sure that you harvest the cattail shoots from areas with clean water.
Another one of my favorite spring wild edibles are fiddleheads. These are quite popular these days, and can sometimes be found in the supermarket. Fiddleheads are usually the shoots of the Ostrich Fern. These ferns are frequently found in sandy soils along the edges of streams and wetlands as well as in floodplain forests. When mature the Ostrich Fern is very large; sometimes 4-5 feet in height. The fiddleheads have an onion like skin when covering the new plant when it first emerges from the earth. They typically grow in clumps of four to twelve individuals. Ostrich Ferns are becoming increasingly rare as the result of over harvesting by unscrupulous collectors. It is my opinion that when picking fiddleheads one should never pick more than one third of the shoots in a group. The remaining two thirds will provide enough plants to ensure the survival of the Ostrich Ferns in the area you are harvesting, providing a sustainable healthy crop for years to come. To harvest the fiddlehead, you should look for those that are tightly coiled, not taller than 4 to 5 inches, and still enclosed in the onion skin sheath. Cut he shoots off just below the ground. Typically a serving is about 12 fiddleheads per person as a side dish. In southern Vermont and the Berkshires fiddleheads are usually ready to be picked in late April. This varies from year to year.
Fiddleheads can be prepared to eat in many different ways. My favorite is to peel the onion skin off of the coiled shoot, soak it in spring water for an hour, and then steam these beauties until they start turning a darker green color, usually about six minutes. Try not to overcook this delicious treat. It is done when it is tender, and perhaps just slightly crunchy. Again, melted butter or vinegar can be used to garnish this wonderful spring delight.
Another preferred wild edible is, believe it or not, stinging nettles. The stinging nettle is usually associated with a bad sting rash that can be gotten when one comes in contact with the mature plant. This plant usually grows in rich soils, often in a shaded environment. Often they are found in wetter soils near the edge of a brook or woodland spring. This plant can only be picked and eaten when the leaves are young, tender, and devoid of the plant hairs that produce the skin rash. In any case, I highly recommend using gloves to harvest this plant just in case there are a few mature plants in the area. This fresh wild vegetable is prepared much as you would spinach. Steaming or boiling the leaves should wilt any immature hairs that are on the plant. Remember, never eat nettles that are mature, have unwilted hairs, or are uncooked. It will be a most unpleasant experience that might discourage you from eating any wild edible for a very long time. I like to serve nettles exactly like spinach, and have even used them in some spinach recipes.
To identify any of these plants a good field guide is helpful, and for the inexperienced essential. Bradford Angier’s Field Guide To Wild Edible Plants is an excellent reference. All three of the above plants are easily identified. Still I recommend that the novice harvester go out with a seasoned veteran. Working in teams is always a lot of fun!
So, while you are rambling around the countryside this Spring consider extending your journey to a place where one of these wild edibles might be found. You won’t regret it, and chances are you’ll find a delicious treat that is ready for harvest long before any bounty that you collect from your garden.
Originally written for Heath Herald in March 1994.