I first connected with Melissa on Instagram, as a fellow gardener, homesteader, and lover of the outdoors. I’ve invited her here today to share some stories of her spring foraging aventures! Make sure to stop by her site and say hello! Melissa Keyser is a writer, naturalist, garden designer, blogger and educator. Growing up without electricity in the central coast mountains of California, she is a lifelong lover of nature and is passionate about self-sufficiency, sustainability, local food, and organic gardening. She encourages people to reconnect to the natural world through slow, simple, and seasonal living. On her blog, she shares recipes featuring truly seasonal produce, gardening tips, traditional food skills, and tips for general wellness. She holds a degree in Environmental Studies from University of California, Santa Cruz, and has completed additional studies in Horticulture and Landscape Design. Currently, she lives in Sacramento, California.
In my part of the world, in central California, our spring actually starts in the early winter. After a dry, hot and dormant period of our Mediterranean climate summers, the first rains of the season wake up our parched soils, bringing the earth back to life. And while the branches of the trees are still bare, almost overnight the hills and fields suddenly shift back to green. For me, this is when the spring foraging season for tender wild greens begin.
Elsewhere in the world, the seasons follow a more logical pattern. Spring starts when it’s supposed to, or at least, theoretically. This year, for so many, it seems that winter is stretching on forever. If this sounds like you, just know the Earth has not forgotten you, she is simply sleeping in. But in her slumber, she is gathering strength, and when she emerges, it will be with full force, her lands awashed with bounty.
It will soon be the time for spring foraging.
The first to appear are the stinging nettles.
Urtica dioica might be the best all-purpose wild green out there. They are highly medicinally, good to drink in tea or take a powdered form. The stems contain fibers that can be spun into thread or braided into cordage. They are also highly nutritious (in vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and iron) and, the big draw, they are also delicious!
But, remember, they have their name of stinging nettles for a reason! When harvesting, make sure to wear leather or rubber gloves. Once home, either blanch, steam or dry the greens, which will kill the sting.
Stinging nettles are native to Europe, but have now naturalized throughout most of the North America. Look for them in wet areas, alongside creeks, edges of damp woods, and areas with rich soil. The easiest way to identify them is to brush against them. You’ll know from their sharp sting! Otherwise, you can look for the hairs on the stems and the leaves. They have square stems and opposite leaves, with prominent veins and are shaped like an oblong heart, with the edges sharply toothed.
Nettles will continue to grow throughout the year, and you’ll find them standing tall by autumn, but they are best to eat when they are fresh and young. For the tenderest greens, start harvesting right after the emerge from the ground, snipping off the top few sets leaves. Once they start to flower, it’s best to pass them by.
I love to eat nettles in soup or folded in with cream and butter served over spaetzle. They also make a delicious ravioli filling! I add them to my tea during my monthly cycle to help replenish iron, and my husband drinks them in tea to help with his allergies.
As the days get longer, and the rains have come and the frost has subsided, the wild asparagus starts to appear.
Asparagus is herbaceous, meaning the plant dies back to the ground in the winter, and it’s near impossible to find asparagus spears growing green grass if you don’t know where to look. In my area, I start the process of foraging for asparagus in the fall.
The tender tips have long since grown tall, and are now a bush of fine foliage and the red berries containing the seeds stand out against the dark green of the leaves. Sometimes 6′ tall, these fronds leave no confusion that there is a healthy crown of asparagus growing there. By fall, the fronds start to die back, turning brown and dropping the berries (which are poisonous, so don’t eat!). This is when I make mental note, remembering where to look when spring arrives.
In North America, there is no actual wild asparagus. It’s native to Europe. Any that you find foraging is the same as the stuff you buy in the store or grow in your home garden, it’s simply escaped and is now growing in the wild. Feral, or perhaps rouge, asparagus.
You will find wild asparagus growing in the sun and close to (but not in) water. Look in drainage ditches, edges of marshes, or along river or stream edges. To harvest the asparagus, use a knife or clippers and cut the steam off right at or slightly below ground level. If you don’t have any equipment with you, you can dig into the soil with your fingers and snapped the spears off.
Choose spears that have tight tops and are firm. Asparagus grows fast, about an inch a day, and as the individual stalk starts to age and stretch up, the little triangular leafs tips start to branch out and become ‘looser’. You’ll want to avoid those!
Just like in the garden, asparagus crowns (that’s what the roots are called) will continue to produce spears for several weeks, so return often. Leave several spears to grow up. Otherwise, you may weaken or even kill the plant. If the spear emerges the width of a pencil or smaller, the plant is exhausting itself and you should let it be.
The Spring Foraging season is rounded off with the wild greens like dandelion, dock, chickweed, and my personal favorite, miner’s lettuce.
Miner’s lettuce, known in Latin as Claytonia perfoliata, gets its name from the miners of the California gold rush. They ate the wild green in order to prevent scurvy, which they learned from the native peoples. These are a great source of iron and vitamins A and C.
This was first wild green that I learned about as a child, because they are incredibly easy to identify. Just look for the round leaf. When they first emerge in the spring, they are somewhat spade-shaped, then later form the circle as they mature. Each plant grows in a clump of about 5 thin, smooth stems, each with the single round leaf on the top. The flower stalk emerges from the center of the circular leaf and is a delicate, nodding cluster of small, white blooms.
Once you find one, you’ll find many. They grow by reseeding and you’ll find entire hills and meadows filled with them. I spot it most frequently in woodland, forest or riparian ecosystems.
Miner’s lettuce has a delicate flavor and crisp texture. The leaves hold lots of water, and make it almost succulent, slightly like purslane. It lacks the acid that many other wild greens have, making it buttery, tender, and sweet. The stem, leaf, and flower are all edible, and you can enjoy at any stage in its growth cycle. However, they are best when harvested in the spring during cool and wet weather. I like to eat them while hiking as a trail snack, or bring the home and add to salads or use on a sandwich!