In excitement for our upcoming Processing “Wild” Foods Workshop with matt hansen (for what is “wild”, exactly? Join us April 1-2 to chew on this over some delicious edible staples!), we’ve gathered for your enjoyment and exploration a list of some of our favorite springtime edible plants in the Southeast.
Before we rush and harvest, let’s remind ourselves that plants are their own beings. Plants have their own individual consciousnesses – and I’m saying this as a biologist. A lovely article by Anthony J. Trewavas & František Baluška in the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal offers:
Plants have individual experiences, as rich as our own (albeit very different). When you go for a nibble, we invite you to do it with the intention and integrity that you’d use when approaching a neighbor’s house uninvited. Plants are beings. Food is sacred.
With that in mind, we invite you to meet a few of our favorite edible plants!
Wild Edible Plants
A Few of Firefly's Springtime Favorites
We’re sharing this information as an educational resource. Before you consume any plant or mushroom, be sure you get confirmation on your identification from an expert. See the end of this article for helpful identification resources, or check out our upcoming workshops and Annual Firefly Gathering to learn first-hand from out expert instructors.
Let’s be honest, some people have the magic to find morels, and others don’t. I am in the latter category: I’ve looked for morels every year in my family’s apple orchard (a characteristic morel habitat) but I’ve only found a handful or two each year. Folks with the magic touch say that it’s best to look upwards along a slight slope, allowing the form of the morels to be better distinguished from leaves.
Typical morel habitats include recently burned forest, orchards, forests, sometimes even lawns.
While lookalikes for the morel are rare in some parts of the Southern Appalachians, they are very common up north and out west, and a misidentification can lead to poisoning. You don’t need a microscope or chem test to distinguish them, but you do need a careful eye and patience, and if you’re new to morel hunting, be sure to get confirmation from a local mushroom nerd, or your local mushroom group. For more info about morels and look alikes and potential hazards, check out the handy guide by the Michigan Department of Health.
Use a basket (ideally one you make yourself at one of our upcoming basket weaving workshops!), paper bag, or box for collecting, instead of a plastic bag, that way the morels can breath and don’t turn to mush.
Morels have a toxic compound in them, so never eat them raw. Cooking removes these toxins (be sure to cook for 10+ minutes). The toxins are released in the steam – it’s fine to cook morels indoors, but try to refrain from doing those deep inhales close to the pan (hard, agreed). Some folks also say that alcohol can exacerbate the effects of that toxin, so consider avoiding wine or beer with your morel dish! For more tips on cooking with morels, check out Foodprint.org.
2. Creasy Greens (Cress)
Farm fields are loaded with creasy greens, or Cress, this time of year! If you’re driving by an open field, you’ll often see a sea of green plants with yellow flowers – that’s usually creasy greens! These are hearty greens with a mustard taste, and unlike most of the greens on this list, they are beefy enough to add to a stir fry! And folks love them so much that they’re even planted in gardens deliberately, they’re that good!
Fallow gardens, fallow farm fields, lawns.
Creasy Greens have typical mustard style leaves originating from a rosette, and a bright yellow flower with four petals (classic Brassicaceae). You might mistake the leaves of Packera with Cress. Packera has a compound flower (Asteraceae, think Dandelion), and the flavor of the Packera is not mustardy, more like soap – don’t eat that!
Leaves and flowers are delicious! Using scissors to snip off leaves often feels less destructive than just pulling off leaves.
Stir frying the greens and flowers in some oil and sunflower seeds is quite tasty! Or throw them raw into a salad, or include them in a spring roll. Yum!
3. Garlic Mustard
Eat these. Eat these. Eat these! Garlic Mustard is an invasive plant that is altering ecosystems in the Southern Appalachians. An endemic moth is threatened because it has been laying its eggs on the leaves of Garlic Mustard, and its eggs are dying as a result of its allopathic compounds. Not only that, Garlic Mustard negatively shifts the biochemistry of the soil, shifting forested ecosystems. As every flower sends out numerous seeds, which stay in the soil seed bank for years. This is one plant you can indulge in heartily here in North America while having a positive impact!
Along and downhill from logging roads (seeds are brought in by logging equipment), in selective cut forests, mature forests, or young forests. Please help restore forested habitats by pulling this plant before it comes into flower!
Garlic mustard has stalks that are 4-12 inches long, with alternating serrated heart shaped leaves, and small four petalled white flowers (Brassicaceae).
Try to harvest right after they emerge in the spring, before flowers form, and ideally after a rain so that they pull out of the ground easily. Don’t leave the roots in the ground, take them all and wait to snip off the bases until you get home.
The flowers can be quite bitter, but they are the most important to remove out of the forest before they set seed, so bring a trash bag for the flowering stalks, and a basket for the unflowered stalks. Our forests are out of balance. Do our forests a favor, get out there before Mustard Garlic starts to flower, and harvest every little bit.
Deliciously mild tasting, Chickweed is almost addictive in its refreshing lettuce-like flavor. Chickweed grows profusely in fallow garden beds in early spring. If you don’t have your own garden, seek out a neighbor or go to your local community garden and ask if you can help weed – you’ll be delighted by the harvest you bring home, and the friends you’ll make!
Fallow garden beds, young forest floor.
Chickweed has opposite leaves and miniature star shaped flowers, and its stems are long and branching, rarely upright, and usually growing as a rosette / from a central basal root. There aren’t many lookalikes to Chickweed, but they often grow amongst Geranium, Horse Nettle, and Ground Ivy, so be sure you don’t accidentally harvest those.
Chickweed can keep growing as long as you don’t take more than say 30% of each plant, and leave their roots intact, so for this, scissors are ideal, as is a basket to carry them home in!
Homemade spring rolls with Chickweed, or Chickweed added to salads is delicious, as are garden nibbles while you’re weeding!
5. Common Nettles
Nettles, plants of healthy boundaries, we bow to you. Nettles can hurt if you touch them with bare hands, as its formic acid (like red ants) leaves your skin itchy and hot – but if you cook them for a moment (or just toss into a blender for a minute), those prickles disappear and you’re left with one of the most nutritious plants of spring!
Common nettles can be found along hedgerows in the bright sun.
Nettles grow to be about 1-2 feet tall, with heart shaped alternate leaves. As far as look-alikes, the sting of a Nettle plant makes confirmation of your ID an easy one!
Nettles develop kidney damaging compounds when they go into flower, and the flowers are green, so be sure you keep an eye out for them. Often the stems look purple before they’re about to go into flower. Other harvest tips – wear gloves and long pants if you’re sensitive to their sting (most people are, but some are not!).
6. Dandelion Greens
Oh Dandelions! We all know about these abundant and nutritious neighbors, so let’s celebrate them!
Lawns, lawns, and more lawns. Just be sure that you don’t harvest right next to houses (heavy metals and other toxins).
Are there lookalikes for Dandelions? Well, yes, and no. If you’re out in western North America, you might be excited to know that Dandelions (Taraxacum spp) are endemic to many areas, and the distribution of these species demonstrate glaciations, orogenies, climatic change, etc. Out east, we don’t have as many endemic species, but we have a cluster of microspecies that are causing microbiologists and botanists to scratch their heads in wonder.
Their flowers make a lovely bright addition to salads, their leaves are delicious and stimulating for the liver, their roots are best left in the ground until autumn, when you can dig them up, chop them, and roast them for a chocolatey tea. Be sure to leave some of their flowers for the bees!
7. Wild Garlic
Abundant in lawns in early spring, these are delightful to harvest and easy to spot from far away! These are a spring favorite that can’t be beat by any other Allium (we’re intentionally leaving out Ramps – delicious, yes, but Ramps are overharvested and becoming threatened)!
Lawns, fallow gardens, young forests.When wandering your neighborhood, look for the characteristic tuft of Wild Garlic poking out of flat early spring lawns! They’re just about everywhere once you start looking for them.
Wild Garlic has hollow leaves that are circular in cross section, and smell like garlic! Can’t be mistaken for anything other than your neighbors Garlic or Walking Onion patch! If you leave the tiny bulb in the ground, these babes will keep growing year after year!
Leave the bottom inch or two intact, so that they can keep growing! Scissors or a blade are great for this!
Raw or cooked. Great in spring rolls, in stir frys, in salads. The taste is mild enough to eat as a delicious nibble – and often can cut sweet cravings in a pleasurable way!
Newcombs Wildflower Guide is a great for IDing plants without needing to know a bunch of taxa specific terms. The handy field guide, Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians is a favorite for the Southern Appalachians, it has color photos, notes about look-alikes, and uses of plants, all in a small fanny pack sized book! Surprisingly, the free inaturalist app Seek is quite good at IDing common plant species. As for mushrooms, A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas is a good one for our area, and MushroomOberver.com is the best place to get confirmation on your mushroom IDs by professional and amateur mycologists.
Want to get hands-on experience with wild edible plant Identification, harvesting, and preparation? Check out our upcoming workshops and Annual Firefly Gathering to learn first-hand from out expert instructors.
This piece was written by Nastassja Noell, Firefly’s Registration Coordinator. As a toddler, she was considered odd for her fetish of mushrooms – as she grew up, her appreciation for mushrooms expanded. She’s the author of “Radical Lichenology,” a chapter on lichens in the awesome mushroom tome Radical Mycology by Peter McCoy (available at Firestorm Books in Asheville). You can find more about her and her work on her website beinglichen.org, Instagram: @beinglichen, or Twitter @nastassjanoell.