Spring is now firmly upon us and foraging as the first spring foliage bursts from the earth is something that, for centuries, humans have counted on. Spring’s new growth is nutrient rich and bountiful nourishment after winter.
While fresh food is of course available all year round through supermarkets and independent food retailers, many of us still like to walk in the steps of our hunter gatherer ancestors.
Foraging is becoming much more popular, but there are a few things you should always remember:
- Never harvest a plant that you are not 100% sure what it is. Many plants have poisonous look-alikes. Go on plant walks with an experienced forager a few times before going on your own. Cross check your plant in at least two reputable reference books. There are also many short courses and useful books available on foraging.
- Never harvest on someone’s property without checking with them first.
- Never forage where there is any chance that pesticides or other chemicals may have been used. Roads and well used public footpaths are best avoided!
- Never gather endangered plants
If we undertake a Shamanic Journey with the spirit of the plant to understand its deeper meanings for us and come in to a relationship with it this can support us in choosing plants that can be beneficial for us. Often, the plants that grow very close to where we live are the ones that are most we most need – that predominant one taking over our garden is most likely there to help us now, its just been waiting for us to notice it!!
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
Everyone knows dandelions! We have them in abundance here! Dandelion’s nutrition includes iron, manganese, phosphorus, and vitamin A. One of the first plants of spring, with yellow flowers vital for supporting the emerging bee population, the leaves can be gathered and added to salads.
The younger smaller leaves are sweeter as the older and larger they get, they more bitter they become. That said many herbalists prefer the bitter leaves to be used as a spring tonic, so the choice is up to you. The flowers can be used to make dandelion wine and also be added to salads though I prefer to leave mine to the bees! If flowers are chosen to use then make sure to plan on working fast as they begin to close shortly after they are picked.
Other uses for dandelion include dandelion jelly, marmalade, soup, cookies, and the leaves can be added to other greens to makepesto.
BORAGE (Borago officinalis)
Borage is a fairly common domestic which emerges in early spring and flowering June to October. It has a good reputation for its beneficial affect on the mind, being used to dispel melancholy and induce euphoria and is soothing, diuretic herb that supports damaged or irritated tissues.
Externally it is used as a poultice for inflammatory swellings. The leaves are harvested in late spring and again in early summer as the plant comes into flower. They can be used fresh or dried but should not be stored for more than one year because they soon lose their medicinal properties.
The hairy leaves can be used raw or cooked and used as a pot-herb or be added to salads and are rich in potassium and calcium. Drying Borage leaves is not recommended as they lose their flavour and colour if dried. I make a refreshing tea from the leaves and include some fresh flowers.
Cautionary Note: the plant contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver cancer. These alkaloids are present in too small a quantity to be harmful unless you make borage a major part of your diet, though people with liver problems would be wise to avoid using the leaves or flowers of this plant.
NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
Of all the spring forages, my favourite is nettle. Nettle is great for a spring detox!
We have lots of nettle growing here and I generally harvest when it is less than 18” and only take the unblemished leaves. You should wear gloves if you aren’t used to working with nettle—we all know nettles sting and the rash can vary from person to person, from mild irritation to a vivid red rash.
Nettle is a very nutritious plant: high in calcium, chromium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, protein, selenium, thiamine, vitamins A and C and zinc. It is a powerful herb and can be used in many dishes or dried for teas. I personally love nettle soups and there are many different recipes. I also make nettle barley broth, pasta, quiches, and pesto.
A tip for pesto though is that the Nettle leaves should be blanched prior to adding them to a pesto and then blended as this removes the sting.
ELDERFLOWER (Sambucus nigra or S. canadensis)
Elderflower can sometimes be difficult to identify at certain times of the year but not so in Spring! However there are still several large white fluffy flowers that appear about the same time; so take an experienced forager to help you identify it the first time. Once you get a whiff, though, you’ll probably never forget it.
Each year we enjoy elderflower fritters, made by dipping the flowers in pancake batter and deep frying it. We use the stems as handles, but they must not be eaten. I also make elderflower cordials, which can be used as a simple cordial, or an equal amount of sparkling water added. The syrup freezes super well to allow you to enjoy this throughout the year.
I make a simple syrup (1/2 water and 1/2 sugar) and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the juice of one lemon. Then add the elderflower heads, stem up (the flowers should be submersed, but not the stems) and let them sit for 3 – 4 hours, off the heat. Strain and drink, or save it for later.
I hope I have armed you with some ideas for your own spring forage. Imagine a lovely green spring salad with yellow dandelion petals and sparkling elderflower drink as you watch those beautiful early spring sunsets settle into summer.