Taste of the Trail
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
The love of specific plants comes for a variety of reasons. Some plants rate highly due to their spectacular flowers such as trillium or Canada lily. Plants that fill a niche in the environment often claim a soft spot in our mind. Hay scented ferns and sedum are wonderful for the niche they fill in our forests. The attribute that makes a plant rank high on my list of favorites is edibility. I love walks in the woods punctuated by nibbling on edible plants. Spring is the prime time to begin a habit of “nibbling” as you walk.
An easy first plant to add to your trail “menu” is wood sorrel. This is easily identified by each leaf being comprised of three heart shaped leaflets. It can be confused with clover but since that plant is also edible there is no consequence for mistaken identification. Wood sorrel has a tart lemon-like taste and is high in vitamin C. It is high in oxalic acid which can cause problems digesting calcium so eat in moderation. Pick off leaves, flowers or immature seed pods and eat fresh. It is best to avoid old stalks and leaves. It can be found throughout most yards, gardens and along almost every hiking trail in the U.S.
Most times of the year I avoid greenbriar. Its tough thorns and thick fence-like growth makes it a nuisance when walking off trail. In the spring, I have a totally different opinion of the plant. Often growing vigorously in old homesteads or areas of past human disturbance, greenbriar is undervalued as an edible. The new growth or greenbriar “tips” are abundant and delicious this time of year. While the tips can be cooked, this plant is best utilized by snapping off the top light green colored portion of the plant and eating fresh. You can generally tell how tasty they are by the large amount of deer browse seen on greenbriar tips. Hurry and get this plant soon before the deer do!
Garlic mustard is a plant that deserves our disdain. This invasive plant replaces many of our native plants and changes the chemical composition of the soil in the process. That being said, this plant sure packs a punch in the edible department. This plant contains vitamins A, B, C and E, as well as potassium, calcium, omega fatty acids and many more nutrients. Leaves, flowers and roots are edible but avoid the leaves and flowers later in the season due to bitterness. The internet is loaded with garlic mustard pesto recipes which are quite unique. Your kitchen will smell like garlic in the preparation of this dish. Rarely will I say this but please go pick all the garlic mustard you want. Parks in Maryland and Minnesota go as far as hosting an annual garlic mustard festival aimed at riding it from the landscape and putting it into people’s bellies!
One of my all time favorite sources of food in the wild is the beautiful redbud tree. This nitrogen fixing woody plant offers multiple options for nibbling. The lovely flowers are high in vitamin C and add great color to any salad. The seed pods are high in antioxidants and protein. You can go as far as using the unopened buds as a caper substitute or snacking on young leaves as you venture through the forest. Think of this wonderful tree as the health food store of our forest or yards.
The spring is the time to test out these food sources. The plants are succulent and fresh in the spring and become hardened off by the first day of summer. Enjoy these food options as you wander the forest!