My journey with wild foods began when I first became aware of the problems that plague our food supply including depleted soils on farmland, the crazy dependence on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, Monsanto’s diabolical acts with pesticides, herbicides, and genetically changing seeds, and more. I bought several wild edible field guides and began to look for the plants. For the past few years, I have added a few wild edibles to my knowledge base and diet. Last fall, I found a revoluntionary set of books on wild food that my set of wild food adventures on fire! Those books are John Kallas’ (KAY-less) Edible Wild Plants and Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. I’ll be talking about the books in coming posts but I want to dive into some great and ready-right-now wild foods that are easy to find and identify. In the meantime, you should check out their reviews on amazon.com.
So, let’s take some wild food adventures together! Spring is a great time to learn about, find and eat wild foods because there is not too much vegetation to overwhelm you — at least in the Midwest and northern part of the US. Once the heat of late spring and summer comes, it might be harder because so many things are growing.
The first and tastiest wild vegetable that I want to urge you to go out and find is ostrich fern shoots and fiddleheads. Oh my goodness, if people were to be introduced to wild foods with ostrich fern shoots and fiddleheads rather than dandelion leaves, we might have more wild food eaters. And, one more thing before we begin: I will only post about wild edibles that I have personal experience with.
Green Deane, who runs the most watched foraging channel on youtube called EatTheWeeds (http://www.youtube.com/user/EatTheWeeds), teaches us to itemize a wild food. ITEM = identification (be sure the plant is what you think it is by examining its features), time of year (is it the right time for eating a particular plant part?), environment (where does it like to grow; under what conditions?), and method of preparation (can you eat it raw or must you cook it a particular way?).
So, we are going to itemize ostrich ferns because there are some fern species that you don’t want to eat.
Identifying features of Ostrich ferns during the edible season for this plant which is spring when the trees are leafing out:
- The ostrich fern shoots are either green, smooth and shiny or have a thin whitish powder covering the stalk. The ones that I’ve enjoyed are the ones with a very fine whitish powder.
- They have a tightly coiled top (called a fiddlehead).
- They have a deep groove running up the middle of the shoot (think of a celery stalk groove) and, according to Samuel Thayer on page 80 of The Forager’s Harvest, this groove is what distinguishes the ostrich fern from other INEDIBLE fern shoots.
- They taste crisp and sweet.
Time of year for collecting and eating ostrich fern shoots:
- Mid-spring; about the same time as when the leaves begin to emerge on the trees
- The Midwest and Northeast of the US in river bottom forests and “places prone to erosion by floods or human disturbance” because they need bare soil its spores to germinate.
- Mine are in a flood plain of a creek. Unfortunately, I do not have large population of them so it is a rare spring treat to have a few servings of them in the spring.
Method of Preparation:
- Pick the stalks near the base when the stalks are between 8 and 28 inches tall AND they still have the tightly coiled top (the fiddlehead).
- Only pick 1/3 to ½ of the stalks from one rosette so as not to kill the entire plant and only do this once per season for each rosette.
- They can be eaten raw but boiled or steamed until tender and served with butter is a very tasty way to eat them.
- Thayer lives near a super abundance of them and collects enough to freeze and pressure-can some so that he can enjoy them throughout the year.
Here is a video of ostrich fern shoots growing on my property:
Lastly, I want to give you a phrase to memorize that might help you to remember ostrich fern shoots: Green fiddleheads with a celery groove
Remember that “knowledge weighs nothing” and, even if your food storage is stolen or destroyed, you can still have food by knowing the foods that nature supplies! Practice eating wild foods now so that should you ever need to rely on them for short-term or long-term you will have confidence in foraging for them.