Working Towards a More Sustainable Harvest of Edible Wild Plants in and Around the Queen City
Written by Melanie Brotz, RD – ediblewildplantsvermont.com
Everywhere you look this spring, new shoots are pushing up through the soil, buds are swelling, leaves are opening, and fields are greening. Even in the city, we are surrounded by wild, green plant life. And we as humans are fundamentally dependent on this plant life, not only for our oxygen, but for all of our nutrients and calories. Any animal-based foods we eat also originate from the plants those animals have eaten. We are essentially made of plants!
Happily for us, we have an abundance of prolific wild plants growing around us that are delicious and nutritious, and also deeply healing. Some of these plants are so assertive in their growth patterns that they are labeled as “invasives”. This means that harvesting these plants in quantity will not lead to the depletion of sensitive plant communities, as long as it is done carefully, with a focus on habitat and soil protection.
This article will highlight a handful of these delicious and nutritious wild plants: Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), Burdock (Arctium lappa) and Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album.)
But first I would like to mention that there are a few wild edible plants that are being over-harvested in our densely populated area and are considered locally at-risk or threatened; they are Wild Ramps and Fiddleheads. At this point restaurants and grocery stores and people harvesting in large quantities are advised to transition away from these over-harvested native species and to shift to plentiful and delicious non-native/invasive wild edible plants. In certain places in Burlington, like the Intervale, people are asked not to harvest at all.
Wild Ramps (also known as wild leeks) are on the “to-watch” list according to United Plant Savers, a native plant protection non-profit. Wild ramps take many years to establish and mature, and are generally found in undisturbed areas in the wild. Development and clearing of forested land destroys Wild Ramp populations around Burlington. In the locations where ramps do still thrive, several people or groups often harvest in the same areas, and populations of these plants are showing signs of depletion.
The local popularity of Fiddleheads has created a high demand for them in the Burlington area. Groups of people have been seen “clear-cutting” entire crowns of these ferns in the Intervale area, instead of taking just a few fiddleheads from each plant. They walk out with multiple large garbage bags full of fiddleheads with fully stripped fern plants trailing in their wake. Grocery stores and restaurants have no way of guaranteeing that harvesters have used careful, sustainable methods in their collection of large quantities of fiddleheads or wild leeks, so it’s time to shift away from these native plants to the wonderful, abundant alternatives that can easily be incorporated to local wild food dishes. Read on….
Easy to find, abundant, “invasive”, delicious, nutritious, and healing wild plants:
Garlic Mustard is a Eurasian transplant. It moves in from the edges of woods and grows so quickly that it out-competes native plants. Its leaves are heart-shaped to triangular, and they have a remarkable, pungent garlicky flavor – ranging from mild to somewhat bitter. Garlic Mustard is excellent in savory dishes, soups, egg dishes, pesto, as sandwich greens, and as part of a green salad mix. It’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, and shows up at the top of listings of the most nutrient dense plants. It contains vitamins A, C, E and some of the B vitamins. It is also a source of potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, and manganese as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Japanese Knotweed favors wet areas, river banks, sloping embankments, and road-side ditches. Originally from Japan – it was brought over to Britain as an ornamental plant, and for erosion control. It often reaches heights of 6’ to 10’ with segmented stalks that look a bit like bamboo. The young shoots can be harvested while they are still under about 10 inches tall, and used as a cooked green vegetable – something like a mix between asparagus and rhubarb. At this stage the leaves will still be partially clasped to the stalk. It is tender and has a tangy, pleasantly sour flavor – and is excellent in baked desserts like muffins and scones, mixed in as a portion of an apple or strawberry pie, or as a side dish. Japanese Knotweed Root is a key commercial source for Resveratrol – a powerful antioxidant. Plant medicine made from the root is also an ally in the treatment of Lyme disease.
Burdock grows at the edges of farm fields, dirt roads, and in open areas ranging from parks to disturbed soil. It has very large leaves, and creates the burrs that attach to dogs and clothing. Many parts of the plant are edible, including the taproots, young leaf stems, and the central flowering stalks before the flowers form. The root is a staple food in Japan – known as Gobo. Burdock root is harvested before the plant starts to send up a central stalk. The root has a distinct, rich, earthy flavor. It is a good source of inulin, a pre-biotic starch that feeds the beneficial bacteria in our GI tracts. It’s also a rich source of many other vitamins and minerals including Vitamin C, B vitamins, Vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and manganese.
Lambsquarters may have originated in India. They like to grow in garden beds, farm fields, dirt mounds, and on disturbed soil. They are often the first seedling to show up in a garden before other vegetables have been started. The growing tips and undersides of the leaves have a distinctive dusting of a whitish powder – a helpful attribute for positive identification. Sometimes called wild spinach, lambsquarters have a delicious, mild, nutty flavor – similar to but better than commercial spinach. It is an extremely versatile green – good fresh, steamed, cooked, juiced, in prepared dishes, on pizza, and in pesto. Lambsquarters are rich in protein, iron, calcium, beta carotene (Vit. A), Vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium.