Seasonal Wild Edibles

A seasoned forager explores the connections between foraging traditions in two distinct places.

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by Matt Dursum

Ingredients

  • 8 to 10 cups fresh mallow leaves
  • 10 cups dandelion leaves
  • 1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups fresh ramps (or substitute 1 cup sliced leeks)
  • 2 finely chopped shallots
  • Generous squeeze fresh lemon juice
  • 1 egg
  • 1⁄2 cup or more feta cheese, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons fresh Greek oregano
  • 3 tablespoons fresh chopped fennel
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 10 sheets phyllo dough
  • Fresh mallow seeds and grated lemon zest, for garnish
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Northern Michigan and central California couldn’t be more different – in climate, topography, flora, and more. Yet both places have at least one strong parallel: a deep-rooted love for foraging. I’ve had the honor of calling both locations home, and, like my fellow community members, I have been trained in the foraging traditions of these places. Every year, residents like me venture into the forests, hills, and fields to respectfully gather beloved seasonal specialties. No matter where you dwell, foraging brings families and communities together and offers timeless escapades into nature, all in the name of good food. Here are some of my favorite foods to forage in each season.

man walking between bushes of mustard flowers

Spring

As the rains of winter subside and the formerly parched golden grasses turn green, the bounty of central California’s coastal range makes its debut. Along the low-lying hillsides, yellow mustard flowers cover the hills like a Vincent van Gogh painting. Several species call California home, and their tender, sometimes spicy greens make for the perfect stir-fry. Farther up the trails, tucked inside shaded groves, miner’s lettuce grows in abundance. High in vitamin C, this delicate green once provided scurvy protection to the state’s gold miners. It’s perfect for salads or as a nutritious garnish. As foragers venture farther into the more sun-exposed terrain, fennel becomes the most ubiquitous and identifiable vegetable. The sweet licorice-like fragrance and rich taste of their young shoots and leaves make them perfect for soups and salads.

In the towns and countrysides of both states, mallow and purslane, two pervading vitamin-packed superfoods, are harvested extensively. Mallow is a small, herbaceous plant with fluffy leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked and are a great alternative to spinach. Purslane is a small succulent with red stems that has a slightly sour taste, perfect for salads or garnishes. Both love urban areas, making them an easy find for city-dwelling foragers.

In Michigan, nothing presages the coming warmth more than morel mushrooms. Located on forest floors, in orchards, and occasionally in grasslands, these illusive morsels embody the state’s foraging experience. Morels require foragers to get close to the ground and exercise extreme patience. Experience is key, and nothing beats having a morel mentor as a guide. For me, my friend’s outdoor-loving parents and charter-school teachers showed me the ropes. No matter what your experience level, finding them is like finding buried treasure in the forest.

In Michigan, where there are morels, there are ramps, my favorite forest vegetable. Ramps, also known as “wild leeks,” are found in clusters on the forest floor. They prefer to grow under towering hardwoods and old-growth forests. They share similar flavor profiles to their pungent Allioideae cousins: onions, leeks, and garlic. To responsibly harvest ramps, first locate a healthy cluster. Dig a few inches down to the base, and cut the ramp just above where the roots and bulb connect. This will leave the plant intact to form new growth. Only take what you need, to preserve the plants for future growth. In Michigan, they are abundant, yet in some states and Canadian provinces, they are a threatened natural delicacy, and harvesting them should be done with discretion. Always check their status within your state before harvesting. These delicious wild onions can be eaten raw, sautéed, fried in tempura batter, or pickled.

A word of caution: If you found it in a field, it doesn’t have a bulb like an onion, and it doesn’t smell like an onion, it’s likely not a ramp. The common lily of the valley is a poisonous look-alike. However, by using your senses, especially smell, and considering where you found it, such as on the forest floor versus in an open field, you won’t have anything to worry about.

person holding foraged fennel

Summer

Many Californian foragers are fond of carobs, which can be used as a nutrient-rich chocolate substitute. These towering evergreens are native to the Mediterranean, yet they’ve spread throughout the state. Their seedpods contain pulp that can be dried and ground into a powder or eaten fresh. A favorite use in Santa Barbara is to add them to morning smoothies. Their flavor resembles a sweetened chocolate with an earthy bite. I’ve even used them as a secret ingredient in homemade mole sauces.

Summer is the season for native fruits and berries in both states. In coastal California, the hollyleaf cherry is the perfect hiking treat. These sweet, plum-like fruits cover the chaparral forests. Michigan’s sandy soils contain their own plethora of easy snacks. Wild blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, juneberries, and elderberries abound throughout Michigan’s forests. When I was a young forager rummaging through the state forest near my home, I collected vast amounts of wild blueberries. One of my fondest childhood memories is making foraged-blueberry pie with my mother.

black raspberries on a bush

During the Californian summer, nothing excites me more than harvesting cactus pads (called nopalitos) and prickly pears (called tunas). Although the young pads and their fruit are best in spring, they often form in summer as well. By using a pair of tongs, the young, green pads and dark-red fruits can be picked carefully. My preferred method for removing their hairs is to place them on a gas stove or grill. The hairs will quickly burn off, and the heat will soften their flesh. Although they’re used in a number of traditional Mexican dishes, I enjoy making a simple salad of chopped cactus pads, prickly pears, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and a generous dusting of Tajín seasoning.

Once the temperature warms in early summer, swamps and river shoals in both states become filled with edible cattails. The earliest harvestable parts are the crisp young shoots, which are delicious either raw or cooked. Later in the season, the plant’s tender young spikes and their yellow pollen can be boiled or grilled, and they resemble corn in flavor. Later in its life cycle, the plant produces edible rhizomes that grow just below the water’s surface. Foragers can boil them just like potatoes or dry them to make a flour that works as the perfect thickening agent.

Later in the Michigan summer, many species of mushrooms appear. Oyster mushrooms are a regional favorite and are found on decaying stumps and trees in the forests. “There’s one dependable spot of forest on our family’s property that always has unlimited amounts of these things!” said my friend Ella after she picked a hatful for a recent outdoor barbecue. Cooked over a campfire with a little olive oil and garlic, these mushrooms were a hit.

close up of a cactus

Fall

Once northern Michigan’s summer heat subsides and the cool autumnal storms billow in from the north, many edible plants and fungi begin to ripen. Along Michigan’s woodlands and fields, wild grapes coil and crawl. These tart treats are perfect for making preserves and taste best after the first frost, when their sugars are concentrated.

Within the hardwood forests that cover the state, foragers can find a bounty of edible mushrooms. Covering decaying logs in huge clusters are the brown and yellow honey mushrooms, or “stumpers,” as we call them in Michigan. They are delicious boiled in stews or sautéed in butter and garlic. They have a few poisonous look-alikes, including the deadly Galerina, so as with any wild mushroom, it’s imperative to properly identify them. The less-prevalent but just as treasured bear’s head tooth, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods mushrooms are found in the same environment, and finding them is equivalent to finding gourmet gold.

carob pods on a branch

Growing up, I was most excited to collect, clean, and eat black walnuts. These trees grow throughout the eastern United States and produce an endless bounty. To harvest and process them, you must first remove their husks. The most popular local method was to collect them in bags and drive over them with a vehicle. Although this method is fun, it’s better to wait until they soften and turn yellowish in color. From here, separating them with gloved hands is easy. Crushed black walnut husks contain a powerful natural pigment, and if left to overripen, they’ll dye anything they come into contact with. Once the husks are separated, the nuts can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

Autumn in California is a dramatic contrast to Michigan’s fall. In between summer’s fog and winter’s rain, temperatures soar and humidity plummets. During this dry season, many plants produce seeds and nuts that are prized by foragers. The most famous and perfumed seeds to harvest are fennel seeds. These flavorful and nutritious treats can be used as a pungent spice in dishes ranging from curries to classic Mediterranean dips, such as hummus. Try adding freshly foraged Californian fennel seeds to a homemade chai tea blend, and your life will be forever changed.

person holding yellow honey mushrooms

In late fall, rain makes its debut in central California. Violent squalls roar in from the northwest, and when these massive low-pressure systems hit the parched mountainous terrain, they let loose. With the sudden bump in soil moisture, mycelium produce fruiting bodies. Few mushrooms are as prized as the California chanterelle. Large, moist, and richly flavored, chanterelles are a forager’s dream. They are packed with nutrients and can be used in a variety of dishes.

white shaggy bear's head tooth mushroom

Winter

Michigan’s winters are brutal. Fungus become dormant, and only a few families of plants maintain their evergreen foliage when the temperatures plummet. Luckily, many species of conifers, such as white and red pine, cedar, and, my favorite, blue spruce, can be used for food. Their pin-like needles are perfect for making tea and soup stock. By taking a few needles and steeping them in boiling water, you can get an incredibly soothing liquid that’s packed with nutrients and flavor.

As Michigan’s foragers cozy up for winter, California’s depart for the woods. Winter in the Golden State is a gold mine for wild edibles. As the dry air of fall moistens and cools, plants and fungi begin to sprout from the soil. Dandelions, sour grass, and mustard greens cover the hillsides. Wild oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, and other delectable delights pop through the mossy forest floors and decaying trees. Suddenly, the chaparral starts to resemble a hidden fairyland. My favorite Californian mushroom to harvest in winter is the turkey tail. These mushrooms are hardy, antioxidant-rich, and easy to identify. They grow on dead hardwood trees and can be used to make tea and rich soup broths.

white oyster mushrooms growing on a log

A typical day of late-winter foraging in central California begins at the trailheads and takes us deep into the chaparral forests up the mountains. The first thing we usually find is stinging nettle, a plant that’s painful to the touch but delicious boiled down into a tea or used in place of spinach. Continuing up the trail, we collect nasturtiums. Their garlic-like flowers and lily-pad-shaped leaves are a colorful winter staple and make the perfect pizza topping. Winding into the shaded canyons, we load up on miner’s lettuce and fennel greens with the occasional oyster mushroom and turkey tail. With our bags full, we end the day with a cook-off, usually next to a hot fire or on a hidden beach.

Days like these are common for me and my friends in both states. As different as these locations are, their communities share the same passion and dedication to foraging and the same appreciation of the land. The knowledge and experience that come with it are precious community-building resources that honor the places we call home like nothing else.

dandelion leaves on a cutting board

Check out this recipe for Wild Dandelion Spanakopita.


Matt Dursum is a writer and outdoor enthusiast currently living in South America. Matt has written for numerous publications in both the United States and Japan. His interests include foraging, surfing, food, travel, and wine. Connect with Matt at www.WayfarerSoliloquy.com.