Leaves are unfurling in the masses, enjoying the warm sun and gentle drops of rain as morels are generously filling handwoven baskets. This can only mean one thing: it is time to forage for early spring wild edibles.
After a long winter of consuming heavier, meatier meals, our bodies begin to crave refreshing spring greens. From the store, these may come in the form of kale, bok choy, arugula, Swiss chard, parsley, and spinach. All are tasty, though they aren’t necessarily “in season” and they aren’t as nutrient-dense as their foraged counterparts. Wild herbs such as clover, chickweed, dandelion, and plantain are mineral-rich plants that are at their peak in spring and should be consumed every chance you get. They can all be dried and saved for later in the season too, blended in caffeine-free herbal teas or chopped and added to soups and stews.
Fresh green herbs are full of beneficial nutrients, and while many people consider them weeds, others consider them medicine. You likely belong to the latter group if you are still here, curious about what early spring wild edibles are in your own backyard, how to recognize them, and how to use them in cooking.
Forage for Early Spring Wild Edibles
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is among the most commonly recognized early spring wild edibles, followed, naturally, by dandelion. Chances are good that you have stumbled into it just once, felt its characteristic sting, and thought what an inedible plant it must be! Although it is prickly and shouldn’t be eaten raw, it is a wonderful plant with many healing properties. Nettle can also be processed into natural fiber, making it a sustainable plant from root to tip.
The most popular use for nettle is in alleviating allergy symptoms, hayfever and sinus congestion included. Make an anti-inflammatory tea or infusion from the fresh or dried leaves, by covering one ounce of leaves with a quart of boiling water and letting it steep for at least four hours until the liquid turns a dark color. Nettle leaves can also be cooked and eaten as part of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Stuff them in an omelet with bacon, add them to a nettle sauce, or simply steam the nettle and serve next to your favorite dish.
Nettle roots also lend themselves to a nourishing tincture that can be applied directly to sore joints for pain relief. Extensive research shows that nettle can treat anemia, prevent or treat diarrhea and hemorrhoids, stimulate hair growth, and treat kidney and urinary tract disorders. It is one early spring wild edible that you should not miss!
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the iconic yellow herb of spring. This “bitter tonic” is more than fodder for bees, it is a touch of spring that should be dried and stored in your cupboard all throughout the year. Dandelion tea can be consumed to the tune of three cups a day, though the leaves are best served raw, chopped into salads or gently sauteed. Edible flowers can be added to teas as well, for a milder flavor. Tea made from dandelion root and leaves is known to soothe digestive problems, detoxify the liver, relieve inflammation, and reduce water retention. Bear this last part in mind, it is a diuretic so drink wisely; it is best taken when you have chores on the homestead, rather than in the city!
Dandelion greens are one of the first early spring wild edibles that pop up and overtake the grass for a short time, perhaps this is part of the reason they are unwelcome in some lawns. Take care when harvesting all plants, particularly those that are commonly sprayed. Only harvest wild herbs where you know they are safe and free of toxins.
Gather courage and eat those dandelion greens, for they are full of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as beneficial minerals: iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Nature’s perfect multi-vitamin. The dandelion root is rich in inulin, a soluble fiber that encourages and supports healthy gut flora, just as fermented foods do.
Wild garlic or ramsons (Allium ursinum) can be gathered by the bushel, or the handful, in early spring, depending on where you live. It is also known as wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic; no matter what you call it, you have to know where to find it. Wild garlic is an extremely tasty early spring wild edible that is native to Europe and Asia, and it can be found growing in many moist woodlands, spreading by rhizomes and self-seeding, forming a fragrant green carpet.
Wild garlic leaves can be chopped into fresh salads or pureed with cashews, olive oil, and lemon juice to make a pesto of magnificent proportions. Setting their amazing taste aside, wild garlic is also known for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, making it a very soothing wild herb indeed.
If you’ve never seen it before, ask other foragers, perhaps they will be happy to share their secret harvesting spot. A word of caution: please know the difference between wild garlic, lords and ladies, and lily of the valley before you go out collecting. One tastes great, the others not so much. Know the rules of collecting and foraging, and if you happen upon a three-cornered leek (Allium triquetrum), go ahead and take that home for dinner.
Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is an early spring wild edible that cannot be mistaken for anything else, and while it can be harvested throughout the summer, it is most tender when picked in April and May. Like the dandelion, plantain is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as being loaded with calcium and iron. Plantain is best known for its wound-healing properties and can be mashed (or chewed in an emergency) to make a poultice to relieve insect bites, cuts, and scrapes. It can also be used to treat stinging-nettle rash (they will often be close by). Plantain also happens to be great for digestion, so if you are feeling a little sluggish, drink a tea to reap the gut-healing benefits.
Broadleaf plantain is extremely useful and can be recognized by its larger, low-growing leaves, it is very often found right under your feet. Keep some dried leaves handy for winter months, as plantain tea is also beneficial for clearing up coughs and colds.
Raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus) are best harvested in spring before the flowers emerge, so when the nettle is low, find those canes and pinch just a few leaves from each plant, leaving the rest to turn into flavorful berries. It is beneficial for women in particular, as it eases menstrual discomfort, strengthens and tones the uterine wall, and most of all, the herbal tea is refreshing on a sunny day.
Red raspberry leaf tea is extremely rich in essential nutrients, including B vitamins, manganese, calcium, iron, niacin, and phosphorus. Save the young leaves now, and in the height of summer, you can make a raspberry leaf infusion that can be frozen into popsicles to treat both diarrhea and nausea.