If you could see through the fog this week you may have noticed some emerald treasures: edible shoots, nudging their way up through winter’s leaf litter. Fiddleheads, garlic mustard, milkweed and dandelions are just some of the wild treats that appear in the early spring.
Fiddleheads are the furled frond of a young fern and have been appearing on menus throughout the Northeast with increasing frequency. Not all fiddleheads are edible (some, such as Bracken, have been shown to be carcinogenic in animals).
“They all look kind of the same,” says Tom Seymour, Waldo-based naturalist and author, most recently, of the third edition of “Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide.” Seymour leads foraging expeditions throughout Maine including Hancock County. “All curled up like the scroll of a fiddle. But that’s where the similarity ends.”
In the Northeast, the most commonly cooked fiddlehead is from the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, which is notable for the deep groove in its bright green stem and the brown papery husks that cover the uncoiled fiddlehead. Fiddleheads grow in clumps near streams, swamps and bogs and should be picked before they begin to unfurl. Remember to leave a few behind so the plant will survive. Sautéed, stir-fried, steamed-with fiddleheads, “your imagination is the only limit,” says Seymour.
“Garlic Mustard is the new plant on the block,” says Seymour. Alliaria petiolata, a native of Europe and Asia, the plant was introduced to the United States by early European settlers, and quickly began outcompeting native herbaceous plants with its tolerance of a variety of growing conditions.
A tall, biennial herb with white flowers, it spreads easily and can grow almost anywhere. Almost all of the plant is edible. The spicy, horseradish-like white taproot is picked in early spring and fall, and leaves and flowers can be tossed into salads. The toothy, heart-shaped leaves, which may turn bitter in the hot sun, smell of garlic when crushed.
One of the most recognizable (and to some, pesky) “weeds” in New England, Dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, are considered a delicacy by some. Flowers can be fried, says Seymour, for a simple, tasty treat; leaves can be cooked or added to a salad, and are often described as similar to endive or arugula, bitter and nutty. The roots of a dandelion also are edible and can be ground into a coffee substitute or cooked like carrots.
You’ll need gloves to harvest them, but Stinging Nettles, Urtica dioica, with their bright yellow roots and tall wiry stems, are “full of nutrients,” says Seymour. Cooking or soaking the plant removes its stinging spines. Look for plants below knee height, ideally before they’ve flowered. They can be used as a substitute for spinach as well as for pesto.
Young Orpine, Sedum telephium, makes a great “trail nibble,” says Seymour. “There’s no need to cook it.”
This hardy perennial is adaptive, growing well in poor soil and “wet parts of your lawn,” says Seymour. “They look like little cabbages.” Mature plants have blue-green foliage, maroon stems and blush pink flowers. Leaves can be boiled or thrown in salads, and the plant’s tubers are also edible when cooked.
Growing around “lawns and railroad tracks,” Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, leaves are “quite a nice treat,” says Seymour. The herbaceous plant, with its violet and pink flowers, is closely related to arugula and has bitter, tangy leaves that can be simmered until tender or thrown in salads. “It also releases this wonderful perfume at night,” says Seymour.
“Most of the wild edible plants have a limited window of opportunity,” says Seymour. But don’t worry if you miss a species this year: “a good way to learn any wild plant is to follow it throughout the season. If you can identify it off season a whole new world of foraging will open up.”
Seymour also recommends looking for wintercress, curled (or curly) Dock, Japanese knotweed (“A really good edible that few people know about”), violet blossoms, large-leafed astor, common milkweed and common cattails. “You don’t need to take supplements when you eat wild foods,” Seymour adds.
For more information on edible wild plants, look for the third edition of “Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide,” published by Topsham-based Just Write Books, online and in local bookstores.
Seymour will lead plant walks this summer at Brooksville’s Holbrook Island Sanctuary on Saturday, June 9, at 2 p.m., Saturday, June 30, at 2 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 4, at 11 a.m. Call Friends of Holbrook Island Sanctuary at 326-4012 and visit www.friendsofholbrookisland.org for more information.