I have always been intensely curious about the codependency that exists in the natural world between plants and animals. As most of us know animals are dependent upon plants. They provide nesting material, escape cover, protective habitat, and most important, forage. Herbivores only eat vegetation; carnivores eat herbivores and other carnivores; and omnivores, for instance human beings, are highly dependent upon both.
While it is true that most of us are one step removed from the gathering instincts and abilities of our ancestors, it is still possible to tap into some of these ancient abilities and harvest some very nutritious and very healthy food directly from our rural surroundings. There is little question that gathering wild edibles is more time consuming than a quick stop at the local grocery store but many people find that the process of learning wild edible harvesting skills is a relaxing activity that is also a great source of satisfaction.
Some of our most interesting wild edibles come from the roots and tubers of plants. In New England we have both native and non-native edible roots that can be found without too much trouble.
When I was about four or five years old I used to tag along with my grandmother who knew a little about wild food plants. She had a keen eye, and though she had little formal education and could never tell you the scientific name of a plant, she knew her wild plants well. Occasionally we would go out in the late spring and early summer to harvest wild onions (Allium spp.) so that she could use them in recipes that were held with great secrecy and were dear to her heart. There were several different onions that were found in our neck of the woods. They were generally found in abandoned fields, meadows, and along the edges of woodlots. Wild chives, wild leeks, and wild garlic were all favorites that were sought. The wild chives and leeks have leaves, that when picked early in the season, can be used to enhance any salad. All three have edible roots that can be simmered slowly and eaten alone, with other simmered vegetables, added to sauces, particularly tomato based sauces, or even eaten raw in the right season. My grandmother used wild onions in one of her pickle recipes that reaped many a blue ribbon at the local fairs.
Another delicious root is found attached to the plant Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This plant is easily identified. It often grows in dense clumps at the base of a tree in a hardwood forest. The plant has a small, delicious root that is prized by wild edible lovers throughout the northeast. The root has a unique chestnut/potato flavor when cooked. Many people prefer to prepare this root by brushing off the dirt, dripping it into salted, boiling water for fifteen minutes, and then peeling off the skin and garnishing the root with hot butter or olive oil.
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) is a plant that also has an edible root. This plant is common to overgrown fields and former pastures. It is easily identified by it’s the white underside of the leaf that is found on long runners. The roots of the larger, older plants are the best to harvest. These tube-like roots were a valuable food source to Native Americans with a taste some find similar to parsnips when it is steamed until it is just tender.
Another common tuber that is found throughout New England is the Groundnut (Apios tuberose). The early settlers in Massachusetts were introduced to this wild edible by Algonquian tribes that inhabited the eastern shore. When harvesting these look for a string of tubers that is just under the ground’s surface. Each small tuber is about an inch long. They can be cooked much like potatoes, or dried, ground, and used as flour, particularly for bread. I can attest to the fact that they are delicious when steamed and served with hot olive oil and cider vinegar.
The native edible root of the Yellow Water Lily (Nuphar spp.) is found throughout New England. This aquatic flower can be found in many ponds, lakes, and emergent wetlands. The root can be dug up although it may take some effort. It is richest in starch and sweetest at the end of the growing season. The root is prepared by skinning it, and then boiling or roasting it until tender. The sweet flesh can be used in soups and stews that will add flavor that will prove to be a pleasant mystery to the unknowing consumers of this wild edible.
Half of the fun of gathering wild edible roots and tubers is the getting dirty part. Sometimes it takes a lot of stamina to keep digging until the prize is extricated from the soil. Kids, in particular, marvel at this activity.
As with all wild edibles, be certain that you have correctly identified the plant before harvesting and eating it. All of the plants discussed here are easy to identify using simple field guides or consulting with your local naturalist. When harvesting wild edibles please be careful to harvest sparingly, leaving enough plants behind to guarantee future generations their share.
Harvesting wild edibles will bring wonderful bounty to your dinner table and bountiful memories to your life. To this day I can picture my grandmother wearing a flowered pattern dress and straw garden hat digging up a wild onion in a meadow ripe with wild flowers. While she worked she would have a little smile on her face knowing that all the other women in the fair competitions would be trying to figure out the secret ingredient in her New England pickle recipe.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in May of 1995.