Every spring our part of the world makes a big deal about mushrooms. April is morel mushroom season after all, and lets be honest, who doesn’t love a tan-yellowish colored mushroom that bares a striking similarity to a brain? Oh, you don’t? Well, mushroom lovers be damned, if you want to forage for food this summer you do have other choices and we’ve provided your guide.
Come on, I had to mention them. These are probably the Metro’s most famously and most commonly foraged food. Big articles pop up every year about people and their sacred mushroom hunting spots. If you find someone who will share his secret make him the best man at your wedding, or better yet, marry him. If you’re already married and simply tiptoeing your way into the world of foraging you might enjoy a guided tour (see sidebar).
If you are a confident mushroom hunter and you just need a place to go, public lands, state park and recreation areas as well as managed wildlife areas are available to you. It’s best, however, to stop by the visitor’s center to verify access and clarify restricted areas. To sum it up, woodland areas are where you want to be.
Wild Asparagus is often associated with abandoned farmsteads, but you can also find it in low-lying, wet areas such as road ditches. The wild variety resembles our grocery store fare but are much thinner.
“It’s pretty hard to see it when it first comes up because other grass and vegetation can hide it,” explained Mike Fritz, Natural Heritage Zoologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “The best thing to do is watch for it this year, mark the location and come back next year to harvest it.”
Wild Violet Blossoms:
Many gardeners lament the arrival these cute but pesky flowers in their formal gardens, but the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach is the best way take on these dainty blooms. Pluck the bluish/purple blossoms to use in salads, candy for decorations or create wild violet syrup from Kay Young’s book, Gathering and Cooking Wild Plants of the Great Plains.
These little gems are a type of wild current native to eastern Nebraska. They are a low to the ground, deciduous shrub with a prickly little thorn on them. They have a small yellow flower and bloom early. The berries are striated, celery green early in the season and morph into a dark reddish color as the months progress. Early-season, pea-sized berries are best for pie (with lots of sugar to counteract their tartness) but later on they can be eaten right off the bush.
“The berries could be confused with those of a yew bush, which is an evergreen and often used in landscaping. It’s important to make sure you have the correct plant,” cautioned Fritz as yew bush seeds (which are tiny and inside the berry so you might as well not eat the berry either) and leaves are poisonous.
You’ve probably seen these miniature strawberries in someone’s yard. They are highly invasive and are a whole lotta berry flavor in a tiny, tiny package. Wild strawberries look exactly like their larger relatives but are smaller than the tip of your pinky finger. If you and your neighbors keep non-chemically treated yards consider the strawberries as an extension of your garden. If not, you can also look for these treats in grassland and woodland areas.
Everyone knows that you can eat dandelion greens, but if you want to mix up your yard salad try Purslane. It is a spreading, low to the ground succulent-type plant with oval leaves. “You can pick it and eat it raw or add it to your salad,” explained Fritz. “It almost has a fresh pea pod flavor to it.”
June-July: Flower August-October: Berries
Be mindful when looking for elderberries that you don’t confuse it with pokeweed or Poisonous Hemlock. Pokeweed is not a shrub and has berries that grow in a clump similar to grapes of about a dozen along the stem. Pokeweed can be poisonous if not prepared properly. Poisonous Hemlock is highly toxic and a small amount of any part of the plant can be deadly. The flower heads can easily be confused with wild carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace) or Elderberry blossoms. It is critically important to know the difference before foraging for elderberries or elderberry blossoms.
The white flowers of an elderberry shrub are overwhelmingly sweet but perfectly edible, however most people associate these blooms with their berries – often made into jelly or wine. Elderberries should only be eaten when they are perfectly ripe and the berries are deep purple or black. It’s easy to spot the woody shrubs often growing in rural road ditches by the size of their large, white, drooping, umbrella-shaped flower heads. Shrubs can be 4-13 feet tall. One flower head can be up to 8’’ across and hold hundreds of tiny berries that are scarcely more than 1/8 ‘’ across.
We intentionally compiled a list of easy to forage foods commonly found in our area and not easily confused with deadly plants (except for the elderberry). That being said you should remember a few good neighbor and common sense tidbits when foraging. Be mindful of other people’s land and property. There is no need to get arrested for trespassing when all you wanted was an itty-bitty strawberry. Know your source either by doing your research or connecting with a person who can verify that these wild delicacies haven’t been sprayed with something that could harm you. Our list is in no way comprehensive. Use it to inspire further research Google the images so you know exactly what the plant looks like. Kay Young’s book and Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson are solid resources for foraging in the Great Plains. Certain wild foods need to be prepared in specific ways. Make sure you know how to do that. Finally, have fun. It’s a great way to experience the beginnings of our modern food flavors.
“A lot of the plants you see in the grocery store have their origins as a wild species,” shared Fritz. “What we’ve done is cultivated them for a certain purpose but it’s fun to go out and explore the origin of familiar flavors. It also helps you appreciate how hard Native Americans worked for their food.”
Local Food News
The Great Mushroom Hunt. This year’s event is April 28 in Peru, Neb. You must preregister for the event by April 20. Call Linda Tynon or email her at email@example.com. It costs $20 per person, but children 5 and under are free.
If you have a community garden, the folks at Douglas County Health Department would like you to answer a few questions so people can find you. Contact Patty Falcone at 402.444.7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/gardens2012
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