Master Maine foragers know that the Pine Tree State boasts a wide variety of edible plants. Spring is an especially exciting time for Maine foragers, as dandelions, burdock roots, wild strawberries, nettles and fiddleheads all emerge.
Some edible plants are ones that you may not think to eat. If you are going on a walk through the woods and feeling bold, there are a number of woodland plants you may not have known were edible, like blue violets and partridgeberry.
If you are just getting started, here are some easily-identifiable things you can forage, what you need to know to do it safely and how you can use your foraging finds in tasty and creative ways.
The dark green whorled tops of ostrich ferns are basically a Maine delicacy.
The foraging season for fiddleheads is short — about two weeks in any given place — so get out while you can. Fiddleheads can be found in damp places with freshwater streams or rivers nearby.
When you go fiddlehead foraging, make sure you are collecting the right fern. All ferns form whorled tops when they are growing, but the ostrich ferns — with their smooth stems and papery husks — are the ones you can eat. Th is short primer about collecting fiddlehead s will help you get started.
Once you have gathered your fiddleheads, you will need to clean them and blanch them to make sure they are safe to eat. Check out this guide to identifying, cooking and storing fiddleheads, complete with delicious recipes like quick pickled fiddleheads, a shrimp and fiddlehead medley and fiddleheads dijon.
Speaking of recipes, once your fiddleheads are prepared, you can sautee them in butter, salt and pepper as a tasty side dish, or you can get creative. Try this recipe for garlicky fiddlehead risotto, cream of fiddlehead soup, fiddlehead carbonara. Each forager will have their own techniques, though: this interview of a group of women from the St. John Valley who have been foraging for some time shows a range of methods for both foraging and preparing fiddleheads.
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Spring also means that dandelions are basically ubiquitous. The oft-maligned weed is actually a delightful thing to forage and use in recipes (though you should avoid foraging them from areas that are heavily doused with pesticides or herbicides). Both the blooms and the leaves can be used in various ways if they are properly harvested and cleaned. In fact, the bitter, peppery greens are packed with beta carotene, and can be used raw in a salad, where a vinaigrette dressing might soften the green’s bitterness.
Check out this guide on how to collect, store and cook dandelions, which includes a recipe for dandelion greens with chopped onions and parmesan cheese. If that doesn’t tickle your tastebuds, try this dandelion “honey,” or this recipe for dandelion cheese squares.
Who knew invasive species could be so tasty?
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Maine forager Tom Seymour, author of “ Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide,” said that one of his favorite plants to forage in the spring is Japanese knotweed, a member of the buckwheat family that can be found along riverbanks, roadsides, lawns and gardens. During spring, reddish-purplish shoots appear from the ground and fat spears lengthen from bright pink crowns.
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Seymour said that he simmers knotweed like asparagus or turns it into a tasty chutney. Knotweed can also be made into a scrumptious strawberry and knotweed pie.
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Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are at their peak between mid-May and early June in parts of Maine. Look for broad, green leaves near patches of fiddleheads on sandy river banks or on the edge of the forest. Though they are sold with a bulb in the grocery store, when foraging, try to take only the leaves. It takes years for that bulb to get even that big, and ramps are in danger of being harvested into extinction. This garlicky edible makes a delicious ramp pesto, or a creamed spinach and ramp soup.
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Native to Maine, stinging nettle is common and usually grows in forests by rivers. Stinging nettles can be a bane for spring hikers, but they are a delicious treat for foragers. Some gardeners will even intentionally grow stinging nettles to mix into home-cooked meals.
Look out for green teardrop-shaped leaves with jagged edges that grow opposite of each other up a central stem. The plants also have tiny hairs covering the stems and leaves, which are made up of a narrow, tapering, closed cell and a sac-like base filled with fluid that can break off into a sharp point that can penetrate the skin, forcing in the fluids, which contain histamines and acetylcholines, chemicals that cause itching.
When you collect stinging nettle, you should wear gloves. You should also continue to wear gloves as you prepare it. Steaming or blanching will disarm the stinging properties, leaving behind a sumptuous, juicy green taste. Stinging nettles are delicious in pesto, pasta or just sauteed in olive oil or butter. You can also include generous amounts of stinging nettle in dishes like spanakopita.
No matter what you are foraging, make sure you know what you are looking for. A guide like Seymour’s will help, or you can consider going with an experienced forager and enjoying the experience at a safe social distance.