Gathering Wild Edible Plants
The season for gathering wild edible plants is upon us. The earth has once again reached it’s vernal equinox. The woods and water of the Wolverine State (Go Green!) are exploding and breathing new life. Steelhead clog every river connecting to the great lakes, thunderous gobbles echo through the timber and farmlands, and Morels begin popping through leaf mould from the previous fall. It’s Spring in Michigan, and with every new sprout and bud comes the opportunity to gather some of the most succulent wild edible plants you’ve ever tasted. You just have to know what to look for.
For any Michigander, springtime gathering equals Morels. A dubious little fungus that is harder to find than Waldo. If you’ve ever gathered, or tried to gather Morels, you know just how unpredictable they can be. Year after year, we search for a pattern as to where and why they grow, but usually to no avail. However, a few features of potential Morel rich ground have been identified over the years.
Whether it’s feast or famine, tramping miles of woods as they spring back to life is half the fun.
One key identifier is an area of wooded land that has experienced a wildfire or prescribed burn in the previous year. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has put together a fantastic map of these identified areas as they pertain to public accessible land. Though this isn’t guaranteed, it’s a great place to start. Whether it’s feast or famine, tramping miles of woods as they spring back to life is half the fun, and gathering some other equally delicious, wild edible plants offsets the defeat in the event of a Morel-less trek.
Morels are not alone on the edible mushroom list. Pheasant Backs, as we know them in Michigan, or Dryad’s Saddle Mushrooms, are also on my list of favorite savory sauteed fungi. Pheasant Backs are found in higher abundance than Morels and can certainly fill your basket when morels are scarce. Growing on numerous hardwoods, they are best plucked in May and June when they are still young and tender. Use your palm as reference when picking; any bigger and they will certainly live up their name and be tough as saddle leather. Leave the larger ones to offer yourself a nice boost of encouragement for the upcoming year when the Morels test your resolve.
I don’t venture far beyond eating these two types of mushrooms and I recommend doing your own research and ensuring your own safety when gathering and consuming them. To help you along that path, Michigan Morels has put together a great archive of edible fungi including pictures and other characteristics to get your feet wet. If you want to take your knowledge and education a step further, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has continued a collaboration with Midwest American Mycology Information (MAMI) in facilitating a Wild-foraged Mushroom Identification Certification Program. This is a one day class offering hands on experience and information to achieve Certification as an “Expert Mushroom Identifier,” which is recognized by the State of Michigan.
Let’s venture beyond the mushrooms, and tap further into the produce section of Michigan’s wild edible plants.
Have you ever caught a distinct whiff of garlic and onion in the woods? I did last weekend while propped against and old elm in some Southern Michigan hardwoods. My concentration on a thundering Longbeard was momentarily broken by the pungent aroma of wild leeks as I realized I was surrounded by them.
Usually the first glimpse of green life on the forest floor in Spring, wild leeks are distinguished by their broad green leaves and are usually found in large patches and emit a strong onion/garlic smell in the woods. Always make sure the plant you picked carries this distinct aroma. If it doesn’t smell like onion, DO NOT EAT IT. It could be Lily of the Valley. A dangerously poisonous look alike.
Wild leeks are best picked in moderation as they don’t last too long once removed from the soil. Pick the ones around the outside perimeter of the patch, and never pick them all. The greener the leaves the better. The entire plant is deliciously edible and is commonly used like a scallion in cooking, a perfect addition to my morning scrambled eggs or any other recipes to spice up their flavor!
I can smell wild leeks just talking about them!
I don’t know a single piece of Northern Michigan forest that isn’t covered in fern growth on the forest floor. Did you know in early spring they are edible and extremely tasty?
Beginning their growth beneath last Autumn’s leaf litter, as the days grow longer and warmer, Fiddleheads of the Ostrich Fern begin to sprout and slowly unfurl. Popping up at the same time as Morels and wild leeks, Fiddleheads make a great addition to a successful day gathering in the woods. Pick them when they are still tightly curled, not much bigger than a half dollar, and clean them thoroughly. They require a good wash to rinse off a bit of brown papery material that peels from the plant as it grows. Likened to the taste of asparagus, or broccoli, these greens are what I would call a fresh taste of Spring. Some gourmet dishes can be procured with little effort, and Fiddleheads are a great addition to everyday recipes. Try them out. You won’t regret it.
On to the sweeter side.
Remember the song that Baloo, the Bear, sang in the Jungle Book?
“Now when you pick a pawpaw
Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw
Next time beware
Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear
Try to use the claw
But you don’t need to use the claw
When you pick a pear of the big pawpaw”
All those times as a kid jamming to a song about picking Pawpaws, I never knew I could find them right out my back door. For real, who knew? I first heard about them from my Aunt. She talked about how much she loved the sweet flavor describing it as a cross between a Banana and a Mango. Who can resist that!?
The Pawpaw is a late summer early autumn fruit that needs to be harvested at just the right time. It doesn’t last long once it becomes ripe and falls from the stem easily. Find ones that can be plucked from the tree with little effort , and they will be at just the right stage for eating. They can be found near streams and rivers and grow wildly in the Great Lakes Region, making them a must try if you haven’t already. In cooking, they are quite versatile which allows you to render them for many different palatable Pawpaw treats and each one is equally satisfying and unique.
Conserve the wild edible plants that the earth gives us and they will always be there for us to enjoy.
I could go on and on about all the wild edible plants in the Great Lakes State, but this article doesn’t even scratch the surface. If you want to give some of these wild edible plants a try, my suggestion is to get outdoors and into the woods. It’s riddled with organic items that have no shortage on taste and health benefits. Get back to the basics of our ancestors and the true essences life, with unprocessed, unaltered, natural food the way Mother Nature intended for us to eat. Utilize what we can from what we are given, be thankful for it, and respect the resources we are blessed with. Hold the responsibility of conserving these resources in high regard and always strive to leave the land in better condition than when we found it.
Finally, only take what can be used completely, never allowing it to go to waste, and leave some for next to find. An old Native American proverb says,
“The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.”
Conserve the wild edible plants that the earth gives us, and they will always be there for us to enjoy.