A couple weeks ago, the Hungry Native team attended a Wild Edibles class taught by Suzan Bellincampi, of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. The class started at Felix Neck’s Nature Center, where Suzan had prepared handouts detailing our activities for the day, as well as a varied selection of books on the subject of foraging.
She started the class with an introduction to foraging on the Vineyard, with a focus on giving us the skills to go out and identify wild edibles on our own. Suzan discussed the ethics involved in foraging, such as avoiding harvesting rare or endangered species, and making sure to only take what you need, so the plants can continue to reproduce.
She also stressed the importance of avoiding plants growing in questionable locations, such as along busy roadsides or old dumpsites. After showing us the basics of how to use a field guide to classify various plants by their leaves, stems and flowers, Suzan took us out to the trails of Felix Neck to test our new-found knowledge.
Because Felix Neck is a teaching lab, they don’t allow foraging on their grounds, but it was a great place to practice plant identification. We learned to distinguish high bush blueberry from black huckleberry, as well as how to recognize sassafras trees before they have leafed out.
Walking the paths of Felix Neck, we studied red cedars, virginia rose and pitch pines, learning the difference between shrubs and trees, as well as toothed and lobed leaves.
Once we had the hang of things, we piled into a couple cars with our sights set on watercress. Yes, the same watercress you pay big bucks for in a restaurant salad grows wild here on the Vineyard. An important factor to consider when harvesting watercress is location, you want to find a patch growing in and around a clean, clear, moving fresh water.
Stay away from any watercress that might be growing downstream from a farm or other potentially contaminated water source, as it may harbor the deadly liver fluke. When harvesting watercress, you want to make sure that you only trim the very tops of plants, leaving the delicate roots undisturbed.
Suzan’s crisp and crunchy salad of watercress and grated fennel was a great showcase for wild edibles, showing how you can find restaurant quality ingredients on your own, without breaking the bank.
At the second location, one of Suzan’s favorites for foraging, she explained that both of the plants we were looking for at this property were actually invasive species, so the the owners of this particular property were more than happy to let us forage, as long as we followed certain guidelines.
The first species we went after was Aliara Petiolate, or Garlic Mustard.
Resembling a member of the mint family, Garlic Mustard has bright green, heart shaped leaves and four petaled white flowers that bear a similarity to broccoli when in bud form.
Every part of the plant, root, leaves, stem and flower are edible, with a sharp garlic-like flavor followed by a mild mustard burn. Since it is invasive, it is important to remove the entire plant, roots and all, so as not to encourage its further growth. As with all wild edibles, it is important to thoroughly wash your greens prior to use.
Garlic mustard can be used in place of basil to make pesto. We cut off the roots, using the stems, leaves and flowers for the pesto.
Combined with pine nuts, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper and bit of lemon juice, it will make a pesto so flavorful, you’ll wonder why you’ve never heard of it before.
It can be used anywhere you would regularly use a basil pesto, in salads, as a dip or on pizzas.
This same property also has an abundance of a second invasive species, Japanese Knotweed, also known as Mexican Bamboo.
Looking a bit like giant asparagus, patches of Japanese Knotweed can be found along stream banks as well as areas of disturbed soil. Picked in the spring, shoots up to two feet high are considered edible, anything taller tends to be a bit woody.
Knotweed has a flavor not dissimilar from rhubarb, with a bit more of a citrus flavor. It can be used in much the same way as rhubarb in desserts, as well as being a great asparagus substitute in more savory dishes.
To prepare, knotweed needs to be striped of its leaves, and then peeled, revealing the tender inner shoots. It can be eaten raw, or sautéed, roasted or baked. Raw chopped knotweed makes a great addition to salads, having consistency close to cucumber with a much more interesting flavor.
Like rhubarb, Knotweed pairs well with strawberries, or any dessert requiring a tart component.
While green is a color you don’t often see in desserts, this Knotweed Crumble was actually very tasty, sweet with a hint of lemon flavor.
We used this recipe for rhubarb cinnamon muffins substituting knotweed for the rhubarb. They came out delightfully moist, tasting almost like an apple pie, with a welcome citrusy tang.
While wild edibles may be all around us, make sure you know exactly what you are dealing with before you just start eating whatever greens you find in your backyard. Take a class like the one offered by Felix Neck, buy a couple books on the subject and most importantly, be safe. If you are unsure about a plant, or it appears unhealthy, bruised or burnt, don’t eat it!
Help support Hungry Native with AMAZON.COM, we get a very small percentage of anything you buy through this link. Thank you! If you liked this post you may be interested in these books; “Moraine to Marsh” by Anne Hale, “Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten” by Russ Cohen, “Edible Wild Plants of Martha’s Vineyard” by Linsey Lee and “Berry Finder” by Dorcas S. Miller. All of these books, and more, are available in the Felix Neck gift shop! For information on future classes at Felix Neck check out their website or Facebook page. If you enjoy foraging you may also enjoy our article on American Wintergreen which grows wild here on Martha’s Vineyard. For more photos from this post and others, head over to our Facebook page WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/HUNGRYNATIVE
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