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Foraging Ideas for Spring

Elspeth Hay

Now that it’s getting warmer out, I’ve been checking my foraging spots. I’ve got two for stinging nettles and one for watercress but I’ve been wondering—what else could I be getting? So I put out a call to my foraging friends. Are you going out? I asked. What are you finding? The voicemails started coming in.

“Oh Hi Elspeth, it’s Patricia, Patricia Gadsby, a quick report from Woods Hole. Onion grass is growing everywhere in clumps that look like chives.”

Onion grass! I haven’t picked that in a while. There’s a small white bulb underground beneath the green stems, and once you notice it, you see it everywhere on the side of the road. It smells super strongly of onion —because it’s a type of onion, just wild. My friend Victoria called about another wild version of a familiar plant, this one in the mustard family.

“Good Morning Elspeth, it’s Victoria. I am weeding some wintercress. Wintercress is one of those cool weather weeds. And they’re lovely, they have these beautiful little flowers. Unfortunately they have a gazillion seeds in their pods, and they explode.”

I’ve never eaten wintercress, but from Victoria’s description I know exactly what she’s talking about. I’ve had more than one of those plants explode and hit me painfully in the eyes when I’m weeding. Before they go to seed, they have little white flowers, and the leaves are much smaller than a garden arugula, but they’re almost exactly the same shape and a little bit darker green. They grow close to the ground in a rosette. They’re also called hairy bittercress, and just like garden arugula, mustards, and kale, they’re in the brassica family.

One thing I hadn’t thought about looking for right now is mushrooms.

“Hi Elspeth, this is Nicole Cormier, so a couple things that I’ve been gathering and harvesting are turkey tails.”

Turkey tails, I found out, are mushrooms. They get their name from the way they look, and they grow on dying or rotting hardwoods. Nicole uses them to make immune boosting tinctures and teas.

“Another fungi that is flourishing right now is reishi. It’s a polypore that typically grows off of a hemlock tree,” said Nicole.

I don’t have hemlock trees near me, but Nicole says she’s found reishi all over the Cape. My last call was from a friend who likes stinging nettles so much she planted them.

“Hi Elspeth, this is Alyssa calling in about my nettle patch I have growing in my yard. I transplanted two nettle plants last summer and their babies are coming in which is super exciting. I feel deeply in love with nettles after the Herbal Apprenticeship last spring and I’m looking forward to having them for food and medicine making. So, yay nettles!"

Uh, I love nettles. I dry them for tea and use them in place of spinach in all kinds of recipes like minestrone soup and frittatas and even spanakopita. I also just discovered a killer nettle pesto with walnuts and garlic. One other thing we’ve been picking and eating is daylily greens from our yard—they’re excellent sautéed with olive oil, onions, and garlic and you can pick them a few times before you let them grow tall and flower.

If you’ve never been foraging, don’t be afraid to try. I think we all have more of an instinct for it than we know. My eight year old found something new to me the other day when she started picking beach pea shoots in the dunes by the bay. I bet we can eat this, she said. And she was right.


Here is a link to Elspeth's blog postwhich has photos of each plant, tips to help identify the plants, and recipes.

This piece first aired in April 2020.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.