Friday, April 2, 2010

First Forage of Spring

This Saturday, March 27, we went on our first foraging trip. Yub-yub conveniently fell asleep on our ride down to the boat launch into the Connecticut River. The floodplains were still flooded, and only a few rosettes were uncoiling. The trees down by the river were not the trees I know in the uplands, and I found myself struggling to identify them by bark. Gill-over-the-ground (Glechoma hederacea) was blooming, our first bloom of spring, a tiny but rugged thing. This little plant is ostensibly edible, but we’ve tried a tea of its leaves in college. We barely tolerated its bitter flavor. We know where to find it if we become desperate for a few edibles to complete our list of 100, but we’ll hold off for now.

After our first stop we headed south to another riverside spot. There was less greenery growing there than upstream, but we did find a dark green rosette of Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris), an edible plant we’d never tried before. We searched for more, but that one was all we found. We decided to split one leaf between us, thinking that that loss of a single leaf would do the plant no harm. That one taste was all we needed. We spat out the bitter leaf after the merest bite. Our Peterson field guide says, “As the weather warms up, the leaves start to become bitter.” Had the few warm days we’d had that week been enough to turn the plant? They certainly weren’t “excellent” as he extols about the early leaves.

This trip helped us to realize a few things.

1. Moving into a new habitat means lots of new plants. If you think you know all the plants around, go to a place that is wetter, drier, rockier, or richer than you’re used to. You’ll find all kinds of new mysteries.
2. You need to know plants by all their parts. I love my field guides, but they are only a sure shot when plants are flowering. The trouble is that many edibles are not gathered during the bloom. I know of no other way to be certain about identifying a shoot or rosette than to have watched the whole life cycle of a plant the previous year. I don’t do this intentionally, but I’m always checking out mystery plants when I walk in the woods. Over time, I’ve learned many stalks and leaves almost unconsciously. Still, there are so many plants. There are thousands. I wonder how many good meals that I pass by because I can't identify them without a flower.

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