With the arrival of spring, plants start emerging as the snow melts back and the weather warms. Would-be foragers begin searching for some of their favorite spring goodies such as ramps, dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns and lambs quarters. Many of these early greens are surprisingly nutritious and tasty so it’s easy to see why they are so eagerly sought out. They are sufficiently popular to begin showing up on groceries shelves. But for many going out and gathering them directly from the wild is a traditional rite for welcoming in spring. This having been said, there are some important things to remember about foraging safely.
While a number of wild plants are edible, some are more edible than others. From time to time I hear or read about skunk cabbage being listed as an edible plant. Skunk cabbage is a member of the Araceae or Arum family with the scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidus. It is a distant relative of the corpse flower which occasionally appears in the news when a greenhouse hosting the flowering plant is deluged with curious visitors determined to see if it actually smells as bad as its name (according to reports, it does). Likewise skunk cabbage, while not quite as odorous, will release the characteristic aroma the plant derives its name from when the leaves are crushed. While the dried leaves can be used in soups and stews, it is not recommended that you eat it raw as it contains oxalate, a chemical the body uses to make kidney stones and can cause burning of the mouth and throat. It is reputed to have some medicinal properties but is not something you would want to consume on a regular basis. Among Native Americans, it is used as a famine food (one of those things you eat when all the good stuff is gone and you don’t want to start in on the family pets and kids just yet…)
Skunk cabbage is also a good example of a plant many people are vaguely aware of and think they know what it looks like but really don’t. Many think the first large green woodland plant they see growing in the spring is skunk cabbage but it almost certainly is not. The weird arum flowers appear first with the greens only poking out afterwards.
Being able to positively identify any plant you find growing in the wild is absolutely essential before you should even think about harvesting anything. One mistake can very quickly put you in intensive care or worse. My late mother who worked as a nurse in the local hospital years ago, used to tell the cautionary tale of an out-of-state couple who had gone camping in Franconia Notch State Park. It was early spring and the husband spotted some large showy green plants which he was convinced was skunk cabbage. As he had heard it was edible, he was determined to give it a try. I’m not certain what sort of cooking he did (if any) to prepare this plant however when he offered some to his wife, she was quickly put off by its extremely bitter taste and refused to eat it. Her husband, on the other hand, ignored the bad taste and proceeded to eat some of it (no doubt to show his spouse what a wuss she was).
My mother said when they brought him unconscious into the hospital, he had no blood pressure. They were able to save his life, but the doctor on the floor remarked that if the husband had eaten closer to the stem, he would not have survived. The plant he had carelessly consumed was in fact false hellebore, a highly toxic plant not related to the skunk cabbage. The alkaloids in the plant were what nearly killed him. They have a bitter flavor but the husband was apparently oblivious to the warnings his taste buds tried to send him. Fortunately he lived and hopefully learned an important lesson.
This, more than anything else, should make clear why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with your local environment. Attending classes given by plant experts, or just simply buying a copy of a guide book of edible wild plants can get you started on learning to clearly distinguish between what is edible and what should be left alone.
Also it isn’t enough to just learn what the plant looks like, it’s necessary to learn what habitat it prefers as that can sometimes help you separate a wild edible from its toxic look-alike. Since guide books often only show the plant when it is fully grown, make a point to observe its life cycle through the season so you can see its growth pattern. What does it look like when it first emerges, when it matures, what do the flowers (if any) look like and what kind of seeds does it produce? If this sounds like a lot of work, perhaps it is but it’s what needs to be done before you can safely make use of any plant for food or medicine. This is something you don’t want to cut corners on.
Once you do learn what grows in your area, there is another thing to consider. Thanks to pollution and loss of habitat, many wild plants are having a difficult time of it. But overharvesting is one of the biggest problems struggling native flora has to deal with. While the encroachment of civilization has been going on for several centuries here in New Hampshire, the issue has been getting worse in recent years. Too many people are pursuing their favorite plants in wild areas that are dwindling in size and diversity.
Whether it’s for food or medicines, many plants once abundant are vanishing from our fields, wetlands and forests. More people want to engage in wild foraging as a way of reconnecting with nature which is understandable. But rather than harvesting these plants, it would be far better not only to leave them alone but help create more habitats for them so they can spread and restore themselves. Good stewardship is one of our responsibilities, especially if we want to leave anything for our descendants.
“If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either.” – Joseph Wood Krutch