Opinion

Now’s the time to forage native and non-native edibles

As the big leaf maple pollen settles in a fine layer of yellow dust on everything, it signals that the cornucopia of spring edibles has arrived.

This week I collected the new growth of salmonberry, red huckleberry, Indian plum, sweet ciceley, heal all, nettle, bittercress, violet and miners lettuce, chopping it all up finely into a salad bowl. I then garnished it with the flower petals of salmonberry, Oregon grape and dandelion and sprinkled some homemade rose-pink nettle vinegar and nettle gomasio over the top.

The result was not only delicious but vitamin- and mineral-packed as well.

From a forager’s standpoint, this is as good as it gets!

The most prominently displayed wild edible these days is the much-maligned dandelion. Its bright yellow sunflower face lights up lawns, and yet it is vigorously eradicated and bad-mouthed. The irony here is that the plant was intentionally brought to this continent by early Europeans because of its wide use as a spring green and as a potent medicinal.

I recommend leaving a few in your garden, since it is beneficial to your other plants; its long tap root is designed to draw deep soil minerals to the surface for other plants to access.

The fresh leaves of dandelion have always been a popular salad green, although some find them too bitter. This bitterness stimulates the liver functioning, but the taste can be disguised by chopping it finely and mixing it in with other greens.

The leaves provide high amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin B-complex, Vitamin C and the minerals iron, calcium, potassium and copper.

Fresh dandelion leaves can also be brewed into a nutritious spring tonic or blended with tomato juice and spices for a non-alcoholic cocktail. Picking the leaves of any plant before the plant flowers reduces its bitter flavor.

Dandelion root teas and tinctures are recommended by naturopaths for hepatitis, anemia, cirrhosis and gallstones. It is a diuretic, promoting the elimination of excess fluids and toxics. It is also slightly laxative and recommended for treating constipation. The roots can also be roasted in the oven until barely crunchy and then boiled in water for a delicious nutty-flavored drink.

The brilliant yellow flowers are said to be an antidote for depression and have been historically made into wine and beer.

Another plant that has everyone talking now is the nettle. Although nettle is not native, it is considered naturalized since it was brought to this continent more than 600 years ago. The fresh young plant is a delicious edible and when lightly steamed loses all evidence of its sting. It is loaded with vitamins A and C, and fresh nettle leaf juice is an excellent source of amino acids, calcium, iron and magnesium.

Dried nettles are 40 percent protein by weight. I make fresh nettle pesto, dried nettle gomasio (seasoning salt), nettle vinegar, nettle beer and nettle soup. A friend just told me that a sip of the nettle vinegar helps relieve his symptoms of seasonal allergies.

A wild nettle patch indicates rich soil. High in nitrogen, it makes an excellent addition to your compost pile. Nettle tea is a great fertilizer for house and garden plants. Growth of tomatoes and strawberries is said to be enhanced by proximity to nettles.

This time of year, when plants in the garden are mere shoots, the wild forests around us are providing a diverse and nutritious bounty. Almost every native plant in our Vashon forests is edible, and foraging as you walk provides a mega-dose of natural vitamins and minerals.

— Erin Kenny is director of the nonprofit Cedarsong Nature School. She can be reached at cedarsongnatureschool.org.

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