By Garland Mason
For me, signs of early spring such as songbirds, budding trees, and muddy roads, remind me that the return of some of my favorite wild foods is imminent. Spring means the return of ramps, then fiddlehead ferns, and later morel mushrooms, and Japanese knotweed. These tender spring plants, and a number of others too long to list, are not only edible, but really quite delicious. All of them are free and abundant, you only have to find them.
Ramps begin to come up right around this time of year. Ramps are in the allium family which also includes onions, chives, and leeks. They have a small white elongated bulb and a set of distinct green leaves. They usually have a ring of purple where the leaves meet the bulb. Ramps are more delicate in flavor than onions or leeks. I like to cook them alongside meats like pork chops or a roast chicken where the flavor of the ramp shines through. Ramps are ephemeral; it always seems that after I harvest my first batch from the woods, the season is just about over. To address this situation I like to can a few jars of pickled ramps to eat as a special treat during the winter.
Another forest favorite, Fiddleheads, is readily recognizable, although it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between the edible Ostrich Fern and its other fern relatives. There are three ways to be sure that what you are harvesting is an Ostrich fern. There should be a deep “U”-shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem, a thin, brown papery material on the furled fern, and in some cases, you can readily see last-year’s brown fronds around the new crown of fiddleheads.
Fiddleheads make a lovely green addition to any meal; they are great cooked with a bit of garlic and olive oil. It’s important to remember that eating fiddleheads raw can make you sick, the Centers for Disease Control recommends boiling fiddleheads for at least 15 minutes before eating them. It’s also not a bad idea to change the water about halfway through, just for safe measures. Canned fiddlehead pickles, together with ramps, make a really excellent and unique present for the winter holidays. Both fiddleheads and ramps can be found in the produce section of your local co-op grocery store.
Around the same time as ramps and fiddleheads, certain wild mushrooms begin to emerge. It’s really important to be absolutely sure that the mushroom you are harvesting is an edible mushroom. Eating certain mushrooms can make you very sick. One mushroom that is easy to distinguish is the morel, which will start to appear around Mothers’ Day. Dried morels are sold for well over $100 per pound. I consider morels to be a very lucky find. The morel has a distinctive honeycomb look to its cap and is completely hollow inside. It is important to be sure you have identified a true morel; false morels have a honeycombed stem whereas a true morel’s stem will always be hollow. Morels are most often found in old retired apple orchards or along the edges of forest paths.
Japanese knotweed is an invasive plant that spreads quickly and is difficult to remove once established. We have a patch of knotweed in our backyard and this year I’m looking forward to harvesting the tender young shoots because they can be used just like rhubarb. Japanese knotweed is relatively easy to identify, closely resembling bamboo, and can be found in sunny spots around houses or barns. A quick internet search yielded a number of intriguing recipes including applesauce-knotweed cake, knotweed preserves, strawberry- knotweed pie, even knotweed wine. It’s a great wild edible to experiment with, and because it’s invasive it’s usually easy enough to find.
The onset of summer promises a whole slew of new wild edibles to choose from—dandelion greens, wild garlic and ginger, milkweed, wild mustard, wild apples, and berries galore including blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, blueberries, and wild strawberries.
Now that winter is decidedly past us, we may venture out and discover the bounty that is spring in Vermont.
Strawberry Knotweed Pie
This recipe is adapted from Wild Plants I Have Known and Eaten by Russ Cohen. Young, spring Japanese knotweed tastes similar to rhubarb, and makes a perfect partner with seasonal fresh strawberries in this beautiful pie. Knotweed first appears in April, and by May the young stalks of 1 to 2 feet high are ready to harvest by cutting just about the woody base and removing the leaves.
Makes one 9-inch pie
- 3-plus cups sliced strawberries
- 3-plus cups peeled, sliced Japanese knotweed stalks (cut stalks in half lengthwise to reduce any trapped air space inside, and then in 3/4- to 1-inch pieces, as you would cut rhubarb)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- Flour, as needed for filling and rolling
- Your favorite pie crust dough
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix the filling ingredients together in a bowl; if runny juice accumulates, stir a tablespoon or so of flour into the filling.
2. Spread out one ball of dough with the base of your hand, then use a rolling pin to roll it out to approximately 1/8-inch thick, adding flour to the pin, counter, and/or dough if they get sticky. Place in the pie plate. Pour filling into the pie plate.
3. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees, then 25 minutes at 400 degrees. The pie is done when the filling bubbles over and the crust is golden.
Garland Mason works for the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, heading up the New Farmer Initiative and Farm-to-School and Institution activities. She lives and farms in West Tinmouth, Vermont.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.