Black Currant, Blueberry & Wild Bergamot Syrup

Summer is in full swing in Michigan, which means fresh berries and herbs are available in abundance. I love to make various preserves throughout the season so that I have a few jars to give as gifts to friends & family and some wonderful treats to enjoy myself during the long winter months when nothing is growing.

This delicious, unique simple syrup combines some of my favorite flavors of these lovely summer months. Blueberries are a familiar favorite and the addition of black currants and wild bergamot gives this syrup a tasty twist.

Black currants are not extremely popular, at least in this area, and can be a bit tricky to find. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get them at a farmer’s market or find a fruit farm that will let you pick them yourself. We are fortunate enough to have a great orchard nearby where we can pick these tasty berries. If possible, growing your own is a great option. If you can’t find black currants and still want to make this recipe, just substitute an equal amount of blueberries. The currants add a lovely flavor, but blueberry-bergamot syrup is also wonderful.

Freshly picked black currants

When eaten fresh, black currants have a sweet, earthy flavor that some people don’t enjoy. I personally think they’re wonderful, but they are definitely different. Most people do like black currants when they are added to syrups, jellies, and wines as they have a delicious flavor that is similar blackberries, though it is a bit richer and more concentrated.

Wild Bergamot is a lovely plant that can be found flowering in the fields, meadows, and roadsides in our area right now. I love its strong, spicy, oregano-like flavor. It’s definitely not what you would expect from such a delicate and pretty flower! It is wonderful as a cooking spice, garnish for salads, and to flavor syrups and jellies. The below graphic – excerpted from Dina Falconi’s book, Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook – provides lots of wonderful information about how to wildcraft and use wild bergamot. This is one of my favorite books on foraging wild edibles as it has very thorough plant profiles, amazing recipes, and is beautifully illustrated. Click here to get a copy of your own.  Continue reading

Purple Dead Nettle: Not Just A Weed

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium Purpureum) is a lovely and useful herbaceous plant. It grows abundantly around our site in Southwest, Michigan and I see it popping up all over this area. It can be found throughout the US, Canada, and many other parts of the world. This hardy weed thrives in lawns, roadsides, and can grow in a variety of conditions. It is also frost tolerant. It is most commonly found growing in loamy or sandy soils, but will also do well in clay soils. It is an self-seeding annual. Each plant produces lots of seeds (it’s estimated to be several hundred to several thousand) and those seeds can germinate year round.

Purple dead nettle is considered to be an “invasive species” due to its ability to thrive and reproduce in many environments. In fact, much of the literature available on this plant is geared towards methods of eradication, including pulling up the herb to control its population. It is interesting to note that purple dead nettle seeds germinate better when the soil is disturbed. “Invasive” plants like purple dead nettle often grow in places where humans have disrupted the natural balance.  These plants are simply trying to restore equilibrium to their environment. When we pull and spray these plants we are further disturbing the areas where they grow and actually increasing their ability to return and spread.

If we care about the environment, should be be attempting to eradicate these species, like purple dead nettle, that have been determined to be invasive? Research shows that meddling with nature isn’t necessary and could cause more harm than good. Tomás Carlo, assistant professor of biology at Penn State, states that “Invasive species could fill niches in degraded ecosystems and help restore native biodiversity in an inexpensive and self-organized way that requires little or no human intervention.”In 2011, he conducted a study on how invasive species affect their ecosystems.  He found that some invasive plants actually helped improve natural areas that had deteriorated due to human use. He stated that attempting to get rid of invasive species could actually harm the newly found balance in these ecosystems. In fact, the areas he studied, for example,have actually had an increase in the native migratory bird population because the invasive plants that grow abundantly there provide an important food source that had previously been displaced by human development. Carlo also stated that trying to eliminate invasive species on a large scale could also be a waste of time and money. He explained that when organizations try to rid an ecosystem of a particular invasive plant, it often ends up growing back despite all of their efforts.

Instead of pulling and spraying these weeds, we can appreciate and utilize them. Invasive plants often play important roles in their ecosystem. For example, purple dead nettle blooms in the early spring and is an valuable food source for insects when not much else is is flowering.  Many invasive plants are also useful to humans and make wonderful food and medicine. They require little to no care as they often occur and thrive naturally in our gardens and yards. These wild edibles can be a great low-maintenance, free food source. Foraging wild greens like purple dead nettle is easier than tending to more fickle commercially grown greens and is certainly cheaper than buying organic greens at the store. If you aren’t sure how to forage purple dead nettles, visit the Edible Wild Food site for more tips on finding and identifying this plant so you too can enjoy this spring green.Always be sure you properly identify a plant before eating it! For more foraging tips, check out our post on foraging spring edibles.

Purple dead nettle can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves have tiny little hairs that some may find strange texturally, but I have found that they aren’t bothersome when the plant is cooked. The leaves taste similar to spinach. When bruised, the plant has a noticeable green, earthy scent. Purple dead nettle leaves are great source of fiber, iron, and other important nutrients. They can be used in recipes much as one would use more conventional greens like kale or spinach.

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Foraging Spring Edibles

Spring is my favorite time for a walk in the woods. I love seeing everything come back to life and explode into green again. One of the very best things about spring though is the great opportunity it provides for foraging and wild crafting some fantastic wild foods. Finding and harvesting wild food is a great way to get outside, learn more about nearby the forests and fields,  and to enjoy unique, fresh foods.

Though foraging for your own food may seem daunting, it’s actually really easy to do. Many of the woods, fields, and riversides by your home will be full of plants that you never realized were edible. When I go anywhere where wild plants are allowed to grow, I am on the lookout for wild edibles (even if I won’t have the chance to forage them). You would be surprised to see the many places that food grows. You probably have some food growing in your front yard right now.

As a society that is very out of touch with nature, it is important for us to learn about wild plants and their multitude of uses. The following tips will help you begin to take advantage of the food that is growing all around you.

  1. Choose your foraging site wisely. I never forage plants for food off the sides of roadways or in places where I think people may be inclined to spray chemicals. Though many plants found in the wild are safe to eat, the toxic chemicals that people carelessly introduce to the environment are not at all safe for human consumption and can make you very sick. I don’t say this to scare you. Just be smart about where you forage and consider any potential toxins that may have been introduced to the area.
  2. Respect the Forest. Be sure to treat the area that you have chosen to forage with respect. Do not over harvest one small area. You want the plants to keep coming back every year so you, and others can enjoy them. Insects and animals depend on plants and fungi for food and habitat. Don’t ever take more than you need and never ever take all the plants from one spot. Be considerate to the plants you are harvesting and don’t harm them any more than necessary. For example, if you are foraging something just for the greens, snip only the leaves, and leave the roots and part of the established plant intact.
  3. Don’t Forage from Nature Preserves. Nature preserves protect the health and well-being of their land and the plants that grow there. Don’t ever collect plants from protected areas.
  4. No Trespassing. Know who owns the land you plan to forage and make sure you have their permission to do so. Most people don’t mind if you take their nettles (actually most people thank you for doing so), but just make sure you ask first.
  5. Know What You’re Harvesting. While much of what grows in the forest is edible (even though it may not taste great), there are certain plants that can be dangerous if consumed. Know how to identify the plants you plan to eat and make sure you know the proper methods for preparing them (some plants aren’t edible til they’re cooked). In general, our nature phobic society is too cautious of plants, however, there really are some plants that can make you sick so just be smart about what you eat.

wild ramps growing in the forest
Now that you have an idea how to forage, let’s talk about what we’re looking for. The plants available will certainly vary based on where you live, but the following plants are common in many areas of the United States.

 

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) 

Nettles are by far my favorite spring food to forage. They are delicious and amazingly versatile. I’ve used nettles in teas, soups, smoothies, paninis, pastas, pizzas, spanakopita, infused vinegars and oils, and more. Nettles are also great for you. They are low in calories and high in important nutrients like potassium, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. After a long, hard winter, nettles are the perfect nourishing food. Below are some great recipes for using the nettles you harvest this spring.

For more information about nettles, check out this video where herbalist, jim mcdonald, talks about them in more detail.

Morels

You’re probably already familiar with this edible mushroom. It is one of the most well known wild springtime foods and I often see people looking for them along the forest trails I frequent. Often morels are sold in grocery stores and at the farmer’s market in the spring, but they are very expensive. This definitely makes it worth it to forage your own if possible. As with anything you are harvesting, be sure you are able to properly and confidently identify any mushrooms before consuming them. For more tips on hunting morels, check out this quick guide.

There is a very short window of time during which you will find these delightful fungi, but if you can locate some, it’s certainly worth it. They are very tasty sautéed with butter or as a unique pizza topping. Check out the recipes below if you’re looking for ways to enjoy morels this spring.

Ramps

These wild leeks are another one of my favorite spring foods to forage. They have a fantastic onion-garlicky flavor and are great on salads, pizzas, and eggs.

Though ramps are easily enjoyed in a variety of dishes, it is best to harvest them sparingly. Recently, ramps have become an increasingly popular wild edible. Over harvesting this slow growing plant can easily cause an area to stop producing and that’s what’s happening more and more now that ramps are in high demand. If you’d like to read more on the topic, this wonderful post from Heartstone Herbal School goes into more detail about how to harvest ramps sustainably and why it is important to do so. 

When foraging ramps you should harvest only the leaves (and don’t take more than one leaf per plant) so the rest of the plant can remain and continue to grow. The leaves are just as flavorful and versatile as the bulbs , so you won’t be missing out.

For some ideas of how to use ramps, check out some of the recipes below.

 

Violets

Violets make wonderful infused vinegars, gins, vodkas, syrups, and other beverages. They can also be used in wild flower jellies. I love using violets as a delicate garnish on a salad or any other spring dish.For more information about using violets and some great recipes, check out this post I wrote earlier this spring about wildcrafting violets.

Dandelions

This common weed is one of my favorite springtime foods. All parts of this cheery little plant are edible and each has a variety of uses. The nutritious leaves are great in salads, stir fries, egg scrambles, pizzas, pastas, and more. The root can be used in teas, bitters, and stir fries. I especially enjoy using the sunny yellow flowers in the springtime. These make syrups, wine, fermented condiments, and veggie burgers. Check out the recipes below for more ideas.

For more information on foraging dandelions, click here.

Chickweed

Chickweed is another nutritious and tasty common weed that is easy to find in the spring.  There are many delicious ways to enjoy this pretty little plant. Some of my favorite uses are adding it to salads, sandwiches, pizza, pesto, or egg scrambles. Chickweed does not store well because it is so delicate, so it is best to use it fresh and soon after harvesting.

 

There are many more spring edibles worth collecting and eating. I’ve just mentioned a few of the ones I find and use most commonly to help get you started. We are always finding and foraging new things, so check out the blog throughout the season for more recipes and information about our favorite wild edibles.

If you’re looking to learn more about plants you can forage and how to enjoy them, I recommend checking out the book Foraging and Feasting by Dina Falconi. It is beautifully illustrated and has lots of great recipes and tips for foraging and cooking with a variety of wild plants. You may also enjoy perusing the following blogs for foraging tips and seasonal recipes:

 

Happy foraging!