Ethically Foraging Wild Edibles & Medicinal Herbs
The sounds and sights of spring unfurling renew a sense of hope. Wild edibles and spring ephemerals are shooting up from the ground at the same time we are emerging from a long winter. Nature is always talking to us, generously offering exactly what our bodies need seasonally, such as in the spring: dandelions, violets, ramps, nettles, knotweed, plantain, chickweed and cleavers. Many of the first plants to sprout up stimulate digestion, move the lymphatic system, and promote liver cleansing.
Whether walking out to the backyard or hiking deep into the forest, the greening earth lays out feasts of wild foods. It is as if an ancient mechanism inside my body tells me to fill my basket with everything in sight. Then, my consciousness kicks back in reminding me to slow down and listen. I’m not in a grocery store walking through the abundant aisles, I am beholden to the delicate ecosystems of nature. What a gift!
Herbalists, like me, encourage others to eat the weeds. They are packed with nutrition! This chart reveals how wild nettles, dandelion, chickweed and burdock root compare in nutrition to spinach and kale. I love making wild salads with a combination of dandelion leaves, violets (leaf and purple flowers), chickweed, and wild mustard topped with a homemade vinaigrette dressing.
Amidst the abundance of wild edibles, there are also more delicate plants such as ramps (wild leeks). Some medicinals and edibles take several years to reproduce and grow in delicate ecosystems and depend on one another for a balanced environment. When one is removed, the others are impacted as well, reminding us to be careful and mindful when foraging.
Before venturing out with your basket, it is best to learn from a skilled forager who honors the following ethics:
Ask permission of the plant before harvesting. Learn to listen and tune into their “yes” or “no.” Respect the “no” and move on.
Offer something as a symbol of gratitude. In grocery stores we offer money, in nature I offer tobacco which is the way I have been shown by Native American teachers. Tobacco feeds the spirits of the land and says, “Thank you”. Find your own way of saying thanks. Sing a song, bow your heart to the earth, pour milk and honey, or leave a piece of your hair, whatever feels right to you. I suggest looking into what your ancestors traditionally offered as ways to honor the plants.
Never take more than 10% of what is growing, even if the population is robust.
Only take what you need and if you end up having extra, give it away.
Be 100% certain a plant is edible before consuming it.
Transplanting certain weeds and edibles to other locations keeps them proliferating - except for invasive species, which Jade Alicandro Mace of Milk and Honey Herbs kindly refers to as, “opportunistic”.
Only share foraging places with people you trust who also understand these guidelines of ethical foraging.
Never harvest under power lines, within 50 ft. of roads, or where chemicals have been sprayed.
Last week I took my apprentices to my favorite ramp location only to discover that 90% of the fragile alliums had been removed. Thousands of plants were gone and our hearts sank because ramps take seven years to reproduce. This precious area will regrow if people leave it alone, but it will take decades to become as abundant as it was last spring. That is why education about ethical and sustainable foraging practices is so important.
Cultivation of herbs and wild plants has been offered as a solution to the destruction of natural habitats. I believe the wild medicinals are a far superior medicine to the cultivated varieties because they are growing freely, adapting to soils and pests, and using their own immune systems to stay alive. The strength of plant medicines determine the strength of our health, we are interdependent. Thus, protecting our forests and wild ecosystems is crucial to maintaining healthy communities.
Whether digging up the ever-abudantant and much detested Japanese Knotweed roots (which happen to aid in the treatment of Lyme disease) or gathering a few ramp leaves (never the bulb) in the delicate streams where the blue cohosh and trilliums cohabitate, please be respectful and mindful. Enjoy the deliciousness of spring!
Nettles & Potato Soup
• 8-12 ounces stinging nettles (about the amount in a bag of spinach), rinsed
• 1 onion, chopped
• 1-2 TBS olive oil, butter or ghee
• 2 pounds potatoes of your choice (russet, yukon gold, reds, etc), peeled and
chopped into cubes
• 6-7 cups chicken, beef or vegetable broth
• salt and pepper, to taste
• sour cream or creme fraiche, to taste (optional)
1. Saute onion in oil/fat for 5-7 minutes until softened
2. Add potatoes and chicken broth and simmer about 15 minutes until potatoes are
3. Add nettles and simmer another 5-10 minutes until nettles are thoroughly wilted
4. Use an immersion blender and blend soup well.
5. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix in sour cream or creme fraiche for
added creaminess, depth of flavor and thickness (if desired).
Garlic Mustard and Nettle Pesto
1 C garlic mustard greens
2 C nettle leafs
1.5 C walnuts
1 tsp. Garlic mustard root, sliced
1 C fresh basil, chopped and packed
6 TBSP olive oil
Salt to taste
4 ounces parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
Extra garlic to taste
Process ingredients in a food processor until smooth and add other culinary herbs to taste, explore and have fun making new variations with nettles, parsley, basil, rosemary, and other herbs.