Skeletons of some my favorite wild foods still stand in February unbothered by the snow. Browned withered stalks and burst vacant seed pods offer clues for next season's eating. Lifeless, these standing crowds of destined mulch, are billboards for the vibrant creatures napping snuggly under layers of snow and soil, readying for a spring growth spurt.
Anticipating March sap runs, I begin incubating dreams of the green world. I fantasize about tasting and developing relationships with new plants and seeing my old plant friends in new ways. I plot opportunities to share my love of plants with others and scout for future foraging spots.
Plants also begin to appear in my dreams. Last year, in early February, I dreamt of three foot tall Japanese Knotweed shoots. It was an anxiety dream; with the stretches of mild, sometimes frighteningly warm weather that year, my seasonal rhythms felt disturbed and I worried about missing out on Spring unfolding. I also felt an unreadiness and forced pressure, similar to the dreaded test dream: showing up for a midterm exam without ever having been to class all semester!
The message of the shoot: It’s time to grow, get busy, and muscle through the crust of winter. This is not, however, the time of the shoot. We are still squarely in seed time.
Yet, the chaotically fluctuating climate of recent years disturbs our sense and experience of the seasonal cycles. The quality of winter is changing, calling us towards more activity here in the Northeast when we are used to solid slumber. It's no longer pure hibernation and show stopping snow dumps.
Like the nightmare of seasonally inappropriate Japanese Knotweed, the political clamor of recent months has challenged this natural cycle too. The urgency and righteousness I associate with Spring came early this year and at times I've found difficultly respecting the season's important lesson of rest, overwhelmed by daily calls to action.
How can we flexibly maneuver new responsibilities with both vigor and tempered wisdom of the long view? How can we flow with the energy of winter, without ignoring the house fire we find ourselves in?
The challenge of integrating and responding to more information in the winter than usual, I am honing in on the value of developing routine and discipline, effective prioritizing, and the surprise gnosis from spacious quiet. This last piece might be the most important for my own learning. The answers that come from what on the surface appears to be inaction but instead is a deep listening. The magical world of dreams where space and time bend and the world speaks to us.
Winter is a time for capacity building; the part of our cycle when we discover how to be more effective, not through mind over matter or tireless pushing but by humbly allowing and opening.
When I find myself on a hamster wheel of activity, of reacting with a need to know the answers and feeling scarcity of time to give due thoughtfulness, I remember to check the cultural values that fabricate this urgency and do or die mindset. Consideration of how my process and approach holds me and those I organize with back or perpetuates the very qualities I abhor, is vital to any work I'd want to be a part of.
It's true there are huge responsibilities and numerous opportunities for deeper engagement. This is excellent, and groundswell of change is upon us. Let us remember the value of rest, not as a built in weakness that our faulty, mortal bodies require to keep chugging along, but as a crucial piece of being here on earth---it's how we feed connection to ourselves and each other, where we remember restraint and good timing, and where we find insights in stillness.
August Kekulé discovered the nature of the Carbon benzene ring, a major contribution to the field of chemistry, while day dreaming. He imagined the symbol of Ouroboros, of a snake eating its own tail, and suddenly after years of study, the structure of carbon was revealed to him.
Direction or solutions sometimes can't be discovered through concentrated thinking or tireless hammering. When we rest and let go, we open to the novelty of the moment and uncover new ways of seeing.
It's june berry month - the moon of shadberry fruit is newly new. Summer is begun, the days are at their longest, and the time is NOW for the beginnings of the fruit season!
Being smaller, berries ripen before big fruits like apples. Generally, the more northern varieties and species ripen sooner when planted south of their native range, believing the midsummer temperatures to be the early fall they're used to. One such example is 'honeyberry', Lonicera caerulea, a wild berry species from northern Eurasia. It has been widely cultivated there for many years and is beginning to make its way into forest gardens in our areas here. It's a honeysuckle family shrub growing to 6', and being from Siberia, is not tolerant of hot, dry places. It grows well in part sun and rich soil and ripens sour and sweet, long-blueberry-like fruit in late May and early June.
Ripening next are strawberries, garden and wild varieties alike, as well as 'false strawberry', which looks and tastes similar. Look for their three, toothed leaves, in meadows, fields and gardens. Her leaves, like her cousin raspberry, are high in vitamins and have many medicinal uses. Green, unripe strawberries make good and interesting pickles.
Next to ripen in the seasonal cycle, come mid june, are the long awaited, Gusher(TM)-like, purple and amazing June berries. Also known as shadbush, serviceberry and saskatoons, these native shrubby trees, Amalanchier sp., grew commonly in hedges, meadows and edges from the East coast through the Great Plains. Their blooming flowers in spring coincide with the runs of the mighty shad fish, hence their name. Gather the cherry/blueberry flavored shadberry when her fruits are dark red to purple, stuff your face then and there, delight in pies, juices, tarts, etc, or dry them for later as pemmican or dried fruit.
Now, in late June arrive the mulberries! They ripen over a wider window, having some variation between their individual trees. Many of the trees that grace our bike paths, farms, edges and sidewalks are the children or grandchildren of vast mulberry orchards planted in the last 2 centuries in the mill towns of the north east to grow their leaves (berries a bonus) to feed to silk worm caterpillars - their only food. Look for their ripe, dark purple / black fruit dropping down (put a tarp out, don't bother about the sandy ones) from branches with toothed, lobed, fig-like leaves. Don't eat them unripe, wait until they are sublime and dark, even if they taste semi-sweet when plump and white. Mulberries are common enough to recognize growing out of sidewalk cracks, victims of yearly weed whacking. Can you pull them out in spring or fall, and transplant them to a loving forever home where they can spread tall and wide?
Next month -- stay tuned for currants, bramble berries, gooseberries and some color in the wild cherries and early blueberries
Spring offers a rapid succession of wild foods with what seems like all too brief harvesting windows. I understand that the show must go on, and the green world will unfold as she may. Yet, as my spring time favorites sneak past their prime---dandelion greens, nettles, and japanese knotweed shoots---I reckon with the speed of seasonal change and already miss them.
No time for grief though, for the great parade of edibles has just begun! As one window of harvest closes, another opens just in time. Here are three of my upcoming favorites.
Black Locust Blossoms
Breezes thick with the scent Black Locust blooms carry the seeds of next year’s dandelion. Hanging heavy with clusters of edible flowers, Black Locust is a true late-spring delicacy. A strong infusion (pour boiling water over a jar stuffed with flowers, let steep for 6-8 hours) heavily sweetened with maple syrup, makes an other worldly dessert cordial. Freeze or refrigerate your cordial, otherwise you will end up with an exploded jar or fizzy, alcoholic beverage. Russ Cohen, a prominent wild foods educator and writer recently shared his recipe for Black Locust fritters with me. You can also eat them raw in salads, stuffed in spring rolls, mixed in ice cream, baked into custards, cakes, and pasta sauces. Many blogs abound on the identification of black locust flowers, so check out a good one here before you leap! Don’t wait too long though, they are only in their peak form for 1-2 weeks depending on your town’s microclimate. The trees in the Hilltowns (Goshen, Cummington, Worthington, etc.) just began blooming---though the heavy rains may have washed out their fragrance a bit.
Lamb’s quarters, a cousin of quinoa, is another dear friend who is showing up in compost piles and farm fields every where, in prime harvest condition. Similar to spinach in texture and flavor, Lamb’s quarters delivers a hearty dose of vitamin A, C, B vitamins, and iron. When young and their stems break with ease, even up to a foot or more tall, the whole plant can be chopped, stalk and all, and sautéed with a bit of fat and touch of vinegar or lemon juice to maximize digestibility. Adding acid to vegetables generally increases the amount of calcium you absorb from your food by one third. Today I had a simple breakfast of Lamb's quarters prepared this way, seasoned with salt and pepper with a couple of sunny side up eggs---delicious and nourishing! Once their stalks grow too tough to break easily, just pluck off the leaves and continue to enjoy them, as you would spinach, in casseroles, with eggs, or try this "massaged" greens salad:
Marinated Greens Medley
A raw salad best served after a period of marinating---at least 2 hours, overnight is better. The oils and acids help break down the plant cell walls so we can better access the vitamins/minerals in the greens.
Coarsely hand shred or chop an assortment of wild greens: Lamb's quarters, Amaranth, Sheep Sorrel, and Purslane. to equal about 12 cups of greens.
Make a dressing with 1/3c. extra virgin olive oil, 1/4c. apple cider vinegar, 1 garlic clove, 1 bunch fresh cilantro, 1 tsp fresh ground coriander, 1/4tsp sea salt. Finely minced garlic and cilantro and add to the rest of ingredients, or blend it all together in a food processor.
Massage the dressing (add as much or as little as you like) into the greens so that each surface is coated. Let this salad marinate and serve!
Lamb’s quarters are late bloomers compared to the other spring greens, yet their edibility extends far into the growing season, bearing food (leaves then seeds) until the first hard frost. Grab a taste now and compare their changing flavor and texture through the season. Check out this site on Lamb's quarters I.D. with plenty of helpful photos and interesting charts!
Vitis riparia and Vitis aestivalis
Grape leaves are another late spring treasure offering tenderness and optimal edibility only for a short while. Grape leaves appear on plates around the world from Turkey to Vietnam, commonly stuffed with grains, fruits, nuts, fresh herbs, and/or meats. Jars of preserved leaves can be found in U.S. stores, often made with leaves from grape plantations in California. You learn to identify and preserve your own from the local, abundantly growing vines found on forest edges and stream banks everywhere. Harvest grape leaves when they are still tender but large enough to stuff, about 5-6" across. Marinating, blanching, or lacto-fermenting grape leaves before stuffing enhances the flavor and softens the texture. See Dina Falconi's blog post from her book Foraging and Feasting for extensive and specific instructions on harvesting and preserving your own stores of grape leaves for a terrific treat. There are a couple of plants that could be potentially confused with grapes, including Canada Moonseed and Virginia Creeper. Check out this blog post from First Ways for some key identification pointers.