When Rachel Goclawski was a little kid spending her summers in Orleans, she says she was always tasting weeds.
“Other kids thought I was a little weird,” she says. “But I found some tasty weeds.”
Goclawski works full-time as a US Army Information Technology Specialist assigned to a green energy testing camp at Ft. Devens. She says foraging is a hobby she combines with hiking and biking.
“I jam on my brakes when I see a big mushroom,” she says.
She got interested in foraging when she had kids of her own and was looking for ways to save money and still feed her family healthful foods. When she needed a natural solution (rather than a steroid cream) to a terrible poison ivy rash she got while she was nursing, she discovered the healing powers of jewelweed. That plant neutralizes the oil that makes humans react to poison ivy. By mixing the jewelweed with plantain, an invasive weed that grows in lawns that has great disinfecting powers, she created a salve that removed the rash. From there, she became more and more interested in the plants she could eat.
Besides things like blackberries and blueberries that people might expect, there are many wild foods unique to the Cape including beach plums, glasswort, sea beans, sea lettuce and beach roses. Believe it or not, you can make jelly out of the petals of beach roses, as well as from the rose hips which are a great source of vitamin C. But don’t harvest the hips when the roses are big and beautiful — wait until after that first frost because they’ll be sweeter, she says.
Boston-based Russ Cohen has been foraging for more than 40 years and leads foraging walks all over New England. He’s even written a book, “Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten.” He says the hips are such a concentrated source of vitamin C, one cup has as much of the vitamin as 12 oranges.
And even though most suburban families hate dandelions, Goclawski says they are a very valuable wild food that helps fight all kinds of diseases from macular degeneration to digestive problems. Even the flowers have tons of antioxidants.
“I batter them up and fry them, (or) put them in pancakes,” Goclawski says. You can make decaf coffee from the roots and the best time to eat the leaves is before the flower stem grows. Just cut them from the root (the root will grow another one) and enjoy the greens in a salad.
Still, foraging on the Cape goes beyond native species: Goclawski says she loves harvesting invasive plants like garlic mustard and autumn berries that are very nutritious because she gets healthy food, can pick as much as she wants, and it helps the environment.
Dave Scandurra owns Edible Landscapes of Cape Cod in Brewster, which creates customized vegetable gardens and full landscapes that incorporate local food and edible plants. Although these gardens tend to use cultivated plants, he has been foraging for more than decade.
He says one of his “all time favorite wild edible snacks” is the invasive garlic mustard. Scandurra says that if you harvest the shoots in early spring they are “succulent and juicy and tender.” He eats the garlic-flavored stems raw, but he says you could also steam and stir fry them — or throw them in a frittata.
Besides the garlic mustard, Scandurra says basswood tree leaves are edible, grow all over the Cape and are great to eat cooked when they are young and tender. When hostas put out shoots in the spring, just before they unfurl, Scandurra suggests snipping them off and sauteing them. Another fun fact? You can tap red maples for sap — you’ll just have to boil it a little longer than sugar maple sap to get syrup.
Protect the environment
But always keep the environment in mind when foraging. While foragers can take as much invasive species, like garlic mustard or green fleece seaweed, as they’d like (it actually helps the environment,) they should take care when harvesting native species. As a general rule, Cohen says you should harvest less than half of what you find on a bush or tree.
So where do you go to find nature’s bounty? Cohen suggests the first place people try foraging is in their own backyard — some weeds that grow in the garden are just as nutritious, if not more, than those folks are deliberately trying to grow, he says.
Goclawski recommends some conservation lands (check first!) and even downtown areas and unkept parking lots.
“You’d be surprised how much you’d find,” she says. “But be careful that pesticides and herbicides aren’t used in the area.”
If you aren’t sure, call the town DPW and ask if they spray.
Appreciating the hunt
Besides the nutritional and medicinal benefits of foraging, Goclawski says there’s a certain spiritual side to being out in nature and appreciating the incredible gifts available there. She’s a Christian, but says she has friends who are New Age and Jewish who all benefit from seeing how the land gives sustenance and medicine.
Supply vs. demand
But even if foraging is enjoyable, it won’t likely become your main source of food. At most, Cohen says 10 percent of his diet is from foraged foods — otherwise he eats a fairly conventional mix of supermarket, home-grown and restaurant food.
Tamar Haspel moved to the Cape from Manhattan and writes a monthly Washington Post about food supply issues. She took a self-imposed challenge in 2012 to eat 20.12 percent of her calories from first-hand food (that which she grew, hunted, etc.). But not much of that food was foraged, even though Haspel has tried her hand at the task.
“I’m kind of a curmudgeon on foraging,” Haspel says, adding that she thinks that a lot of foraging is overrated. Still, she loves looking for mushrooms and berries. “Mushrooms are my number one foraging target.”
Marvelous mushrooms require care
Wesley Price, founder of the Cape Cod Mycological Society (a sister of the Boston Mycological Society), is interested in the study of all fungi, but enjoys foraging for edible mushrooms. His favorite mushroom to forage for is the tricholoma magnivelare, also known as the American matsutake or pine mushroom, because it doesn’t appear above ground and you have to look for it very slowly and carefully, searching for bumps in the pine duff, and then carefully unearthing them.
But keep in mind that many mushrooms are dangerous to eat — don’t just pull one out of your garden or yard and assume it’s safe for consumption.
That being said, “No one who has ever joined a mushroom club has ever expired due to poisoning,” Price says reassuringly, adding that mushroomobserver.org is a great place to get confirmation on whether or not a mushroom is edible.
Regardless, humans should always cook edible mushrooms before eating them. Price likes to break off the mushroom stem, chop it up into fine pieces with garlic and parsley (maybe some bread crumbs and peppers) and re-stuff that into the cap. Put it on broil for 10 to 12 minutes and enjoy!
For the amateur forager, Scandurra recommends “A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America” by Lee Peterson. Cohen doesn’t do his walks to make money, but says a walk like his is one of the best ways to learn about what you can and can’t eat. Or, of course, you could attend Goclawski’s talk.
Even if foraging won’t replace your weekly grocery budget, Cohen says he wants to help people connect to the outdoors through their tastebuds.
“Knowing what you can nibble on makes being outside so much more interesting,” he says.
Goclawski says beach plums will start ripening at the end of summer and make a great jam or jelly. She likes this jelly recipe you can fine at www.spectacularlydelicious.com by searching for “Beach Plum Jelly Reduced Sugar Recipe.”
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