Spring has sprung, which means it’s time to stop hiding from the environment and start consuming it. Even now, months before the berries arrive, there are plenty of tasty morsels to be had in forests and by streams.
First, this is the perfect time to go nettle hunting! The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a very common edible plant, found on the edges of sunny areas, especially disturbed sites, all across North America. You can often find many of them together. Nettles have opposite leaves that are round and wide at the stem and taper to a point. The leaves are serrated and have a thick spine on the underside. Older plants will have a jumble of tiny, string-like white or off-white flowers at the top.
Stinging nettles are covered with a very fine hair or fuzz. This fuzz houses the defence mechanism that gives the nettle its name. The hairs are coated with a powerful irritant, and most skin contact will result in an itchy, painful rash that can last anywhere from a few minutes to a week, depending on the person’s sensitivity to it. The irritant is most concentrated on the veins on the underside of each leaf, and at the top of the plant. The stems and stalk of the nettle have a much lower concentration and it is not produced on the top of the leaves. Older plants tend to have a more potent sting.
When harvesting nettle, long sleeves, pants, shoes, and gloves are recommended, but the nettle does no lasting damage so it is the reader’s preference. Additionally, repeated exposure to nettle irritant will increase your resistance to it, so each time you get stung, it will hurt less and last a shorter period. Ideally, only the nettle leaves should be harvested. A pair of hand pruners is more than enough; just clip the leaf off where it meets its stem. Lacking gloves and pruners, the leaves can be folded over to hide the stinging underside and torn off by hand. Be aware: taking more than a third of the plant’s leaves may kill it! Since they usually grow in large groups, I usually only take two or three of the young leaves from any plant.
Nettles can be eaten raw by folding the the leaf over to hide the stinging underside as described. Some people, a small minority, are resistant to nettles inside their mouths and don’t need to fold the leaves, but nettle stings inside the mouth are very painful–use discretion. In cooking, nettles can be used anywhere spinach can. It goes wonderful in stir-fries, quiche, lasagna, or as its own dish. It can be boiled into a soup, or dried and made into a spice or a tea. It makes a particularly bold and earthy pesto.
High in iron, plant protein, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, nettles are very, very good for you. Their taste reflects that, sharing the bold, iron flavor of baby spinach, but with a slightly sour hint from the other minerals. As a tea is makes a mellow, earthy tisane. Older leaves lose their flavorfulness and become bitter and stringy, though remain edible. Try to pick leaves from plants under a foot high, and avoid the flowering plants.
Also putting out new leaves is the omnipresent dandelion (taraxacum officinale and erythrospermum). Found as a weed absolutely everywhere, the dandelion is best harvested away from roads and urban areas, since they tend to soak up everything in the soil, including pollutants. Look for green grassy fields, such as cow pastures, in rural areas for the healthiest and tastiest plants.
All of the dandelion is technically edible, though the roots are extremely bitter. The stem and flower base are also very bitter, but the young leaves are almost sweet, and the flower petals are mild and sour. Like the nettle, dandelion leaves become more bitter and tough as they get older. It’s a very hardy plant, so you can take more than half of the leaves without significantly harming it, and although taking the flowers will keep the plant from reproducing, they’re so ubiquitous that a few non-reproductive plants will not harm much.
Again like nettles, dandelions can be eaten raw or cooked, although they shrivel impressively when cooked. The petals and young leaves are excellent additions to a salad, and dandelion pesto is sweet, with a sharpness that basil can’t produce. Because it has a lighter flavor than nettles, it doesn’t work well as a spice, and drying brings out the bitterness—though with very young leaves it isn’t as potent.
Finally, salmonberry (rubus spectabilis), a plant native to the west side of the Rockies, is currently putting out shoots. Its leaves are alternate and trifolate, with distinctive serrations on the edge. If you tuck the center leaflet underneath, the remaining leaves often take the shape of a butterfly. The salmonberry stem is tan and woody, often with many tiny thorns, especially near buds and on thicker portions of the stem. The new shoots will be a light green, occasionally turning an auburn color near the stem. Because of its sometimes nondescript appearance, salmonberry is commonly confused with twinberry and ninebark, which also have tan, woody stems, but proper leaf identification should remove that confusion.
Salmonberry grows in thick, dense patches in marshy, wet conditions. You can find it on almost every pacific northwest hiking trail and along any west coast stream. It grows at nearly all elevations and ranges in height from three to eight feet, commonly. Avoid harvesting it from roadsides or urban areas, since, like dandelion, it absorbs pollutants. The best areas are marshes or streams deep in evergreen forests.
Salmonberry bushes produce edible and tasty berries later in the year, but in early spring they have bursts of new growth, sending out shoots from their larger stems. These shoots are very tasty. Harvest them once their base begins to take on an auburn color, but avoid them when that color has spread more than a quarter of the way up the shoot. Once you have cut or snapped the shoot off the stem, peel the skin from the auburn base towards the leafy end with a knife or fingernail. Be very spartan taking the shoots. Each plant will only send out perhaps a half-dozen or so, and all of them will bear fruit in later spring. The more shoots you take, the fewer berries will be available later on. I usually take only one shoot from any plant, and leave smaller plants with fewer than six shoots untouched.
You can eat the peeled shoots raw, or throw them into a stir-fry for a juicy sweet-and-sour addition. The shoots flavor is similar to the berry, tart and sweet, though the shoots are somewhat tarter than the berries. They have a firm, pleasant texture and an aftertaste similar to granny smith apples. Some people find them too intense, but those who like tartness will find them highly desirable.
So happy spring and bountiful harvesting! Remember to give thanks to the plants and where they grow, and avoid being greedy—if you over harvest, you can single-handedly ruin a good harvest spot. Common sense applies, too—don’t trespass, and watch your footing, especially for salmonberry. Keep yourself dry and wear gloves. And most importantly, have fun.
Commeatus is a writer from the Northwest.