The first plant Tom Seymour looks for in the spring is evening primrose. He cooks the roots as he would parsnips. The foliage is great in salads but can also be steamed and eaten as cooked greens.
“It’s only good in the early spring, as soon as the snow melts,” Seymour said in a 2015 interview for BDN Outdoors Magazine. “Later, the roots become pithy and the leaves tough.”
A lifelong forager and naturalist, Seymour lives in Waldo, where he’s either spending time outdoors, writing about it or sharing his knowledge with others through seminars and workshops. His book credits include “Wild Plants of Maine,” “Nuts and Berries of New England” and “Foraging New England.” He also has published books on Maine wildlife, fishing, birding and hiking.
“I’ve always used wild edibles,” Seymour said. “I suppose it goes hand in hand with fishing and hunting. To me, it’s all the same.
“I’m convinced that my outdoor lifestyle and my diet of fish, game and native plants contributes to my general health and overall well-being,” he added.
Spring is an exciting time for Seymour and other Maine foragers. Plants are popping up everywhere, blossoming and unfurling their leaves. Mushrooms emerge. All of the sudden, there are wild edibles everywhere — dandelions, burdock roots, wild strawberries, nettles and fiddleheads.
“I love all the spring edibles, but Japanese knotweed — what people erroneously call ‘bamboo’ — is one of my favorites,” said Seymour, who gently simmers knotweed as he would asparagus. He also enjoys making knotweed chutney to be served on crackers or bread.
From Tom Seymour’s “Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide”
2 pounds knotweed stem tips
Grated peel of 2 lemons, reserving the pulp
2 cloves crushed garlic
1- to 2-inch ginger root, peeled
3 cups honey
1½ cups cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
Cut the knotweed stem tips into inchlong sections. If using larger shoots, peel them and discard any stringy material. Place all ingredients in a large saucepan. Turn to high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue boiling and stirring until the mixture thickens. Then remove ginger root and pour into sterilized 8-ounce canning jars. Seal with new tops and screw lids down tightly. The heat from the mixture suffices to seal the top. Allow to sit on a dark shelf for 6 weeks before using. Makes seven 8-ounce jars.
Few people forage the variety of wild plants Seymour does, but many Mainers head into the woods each spring in pursuit of one particular edible: the fresh, flavorful fiddlehead.
When New England folks talk about “ fiddleheads,” they’re usually talking about young ostrich ferns in their fiddlehead stage, when the fern is curled into a spiral, yet to unfurl. All ferns go through this fiddlehead stage, but not all ferns are edible.
“Some ferns, such as bracken fern, can cause cramps,” Seymour cautioned.
That’s why it’s important to pick only ostrich fern fiddleheads, which have smooth, shiny, deeply grooved stems that are covered in a brown papery, peeling layer. More detailed descriptions of edible ostrich fern fiddleheads can be found in many foraging guides, including Seymour’s “Foraging New England.”
Once you’ve picked the correct type of fiddlehead for eating, you need to make sure to cook it property. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no matter what recipe you’re following, you should steam or cook fiddleheads at a steady boil for at least 10 minutes. Any less, and they might make you sick. And if saving them for later, keep them refrigerated.
Another wild edible that often makes people ill are mushrooms. Some mushrooms are toxic. In fact, the poisonous destroying angel (scientific name Amanita ocreata), a luminous white mushroom that grows in Maine, can cause death.
“Some mushrooms are not poisonous in themselves, but react to alcohol if consumed while drinking alcohol,” Seymour said. “Besides that, some mushrooms just don’t agree with some people. Even when finding a safe, edible mushroom, it pays to just consume a tiny bit and wait a day to see if there is any reaction. For some, it really isn’t worth the risk.”
Fortunately, few people consume wild mushrooms heedlessly. In the past 35 years, an average of two or three people per year die of mushroom poisoning in the U.S., according to the North American Mycological Association.
“Basically, anyone who has patience to follow guidelines of a foraging book can learn much on their own just by going out and identifying plants,” said Seymour, who suggests beginner foragers focus on learning just a few plants at a time.
He also suggests attending field trips with experienced foragers.
To learn more about Seymour, visit his website at wildplantsofmaine.com and his blog at wildplantsandwoolybears.blogspot.com.