Foraging In The Bay State: 6 Wild Foods In Season Right Now

by Edgar B. Herwick III & Amanda Kersey

"The way I describe foraging is connecting to the landscape through your taste buds."

-- Wild edibles expert Russ Cohen


Edgar B. Herwick III, left, and Russ Cohen. (Amanda Kersey Photo)

There was a time when humans were among those wild creatures scouring the landscape for food. But not today, when foraging for food is more likely to describe the process of selecting your favorite from among 87 different flavors and brands of canned soup at the local grocery store.

But in the Greater Boston area, there are more than 150 species of edible plants growing wild on roadsides, near farms, and on nature preserves — everything from mushrooms to Jerusalem artichokes, hickory nuts to wild cherries. And about two-thirds of those species aren't just edible – they are pretty tasty, too, whether raw or prepared.

More than a dozen of those delicious wild edibles are in season right now. And they can be foraged legally in scores of land trusts and nature preserves around the state. And organic farmers will often give you permission to walk the edges of their fields or uncultivated areas as well.

I learned all this — and more — spending an afternoon foraging along a few mile stretch of the Allyn Cox Reservation & Clam House Landing in Essex, Massachusetts, a beautiful 31 acre conservatory consisting of woodlot, salt marsh, farmland and river frontage. The area is maintained by the Essex County Greenbelt Association an organization that conserves and maintains thousands of acres of land north of Boston, much of which is open to the public for enjoying — and foraging. My guide for this adventure was the capable wild edibles expert Russ Cohen, author of Wild Plants I Have Known… and Eaten. Cohen has spend decades studying and teaching foraging, often on walking tours. Cohen taught me how to identify some of the more delicious species out there, how to forage safely, and how to forage responsibly.

And this brings us to the obligatory and all-important warning. The fact that we had an expert with us was no accident.  

"I didn't learn this stuff by walking down a trail and popping stuff in my mouth and see what happens," Cohen said.

Trial and error work around eating wild foods has been done over eons, and here in America for thousands of years by Native Americans before the colonists ever even step foot here. There is a lot of accumulated knowledge on this topic, so whether its a well-researched field guide or a trusted expert, lean on that knowledge heavily if you are inspired to get out there and do some foraging for yourself.

Cohen also reminds us that our own taste buds are an important tool when it comes to foraging safely. He noted that you really need to ingest a poisonous wild plant in order to get truly sick.

"The risk of getting seriously poisoned from eating a raw plant is relatively low because the vast majority of our poisonous plants taste horrible," he said.  

So if you have identified a plant that should taste good raw – and if it doesn't, or if you bring something home and prepare it according to instruction and it tastes plain bad, spit it out. Don't override the warning your taste buds give you.

Finally, keep in mind that humans aren't the only creatures that need to eat. The foods that taste good to us taste good to plenty of other creatures – most of whom need it more than we do. A good rule of thumb is, if you are going to pick fruits or nuts from a tree or bush, make sure there are a lot of them when you start picking and a lot when you are finished.

Here are some of the highlights from the afternoon with Cohen, and some ideas about what you can do with some of the more delicious wild species that are out there right now, waiting to be foraged.


Staghorn sumac

(Rhus typhina)

This large shrub/small tree, which grows wild and abundant through northern New England, is pretty easy to identify. The branches and thick twigs fork and have a velvety texture, reminiscent of a young stag's antlers (hence the name). Its distinctive large, cone-like, dark red berry clusters are hard to miss. From mid-summer, onward, the clusters are ripe, and they produce a tart flavor on the outside. That is the edible part; not the berries themselves.

How to use: Make a lemonade substitute (sometimes called Indian Lemonade) by immersing the berries in cold water, rubbing them to release the juice, and then leaving them for several hours to soak and infuse into the water. Strain, sweeten, and serve.

Fun fact: Beekeepers sometimes use dried sumac as a source of fuel for their smokers.

WARNING: Staghorn sumac is not to be confused with the related poison sumac. While related, they are quite different—even to the naked eye. The poison sumac berries are green-grey-white in color and do not cluster in the conical shape that the red staghorn sumac berries do.


Barberry

(Berberis vulgaris)

A deciduous shrub native to Europe, brought to New England by the colonists for its culinary uses. The leaves are small oval, with a serrated edge and appear in clusters of two to five. The twigs and branches have thorns—one of the reasons its called barberry. The fruit is an oblong red berry that ripens in late summer or autumn. The berries are found in clusters—about a dozen berries per cluster. They are rich in vitamin C, but extremely tart.

How to use: Because the berries are so sour, they stand up well to the quantity of sugar used in jam or jelly. Like the colonists, you can also add the berries to other things that you are preserving, like pickles, to impart a tart flavor and a beautiful red color. Or take a cue from the cuisine of Iran, where the barberry is commonly used as a currant in rice pilaf.

Fun fact: In Italy barberry is called holy thorn, as legend has it that it was used in Jesus's crown of thorns.


Shagbark hickory

(Carya ovata)

The shagbark is pretty easy to identify because, as its name implies, when the tree is mature, it has what can only be described as shaggy-looking bark. The trees are tall, growing up to almost 90 feet. Thankfully, the edible nut that the tree produces falls to the ground, protected by a round green husk. The just is green, in four equal parts. It tastes like a walnut that's been sprayed with maple syrup. Nut production is erratic, with good crops every second or third year. In between few or no nuts appear and the entire crop may be lost to animal predation.

How to use: Remove the nuts from the husk and leave to dry in a cool, dry place for at least two weeks. Crack open the nut and lightly toast the nut meat for best result. The bark can also be used to flavor syrup, and the wood is popular for use in smoking meats.

Fun fact: Shagbark hickory trees can live for upwards of 200 years.


Black cherry

(Prunus serotina)

Native to North America, the black cherry tree is a tall flowering fruit tree. It can be upwards of 70 feet tall, with long ovular leaves and broken, dark gray bark that looks a little like burnt corn flakes. The fruit is dark—as the name implies—and when ripe has an stringent but somewhat sweet flavor.

How to use: The cherries are great for jelly or pies. They can also be used in chocolates, cakes, ice cream and as a garnish in cocktails.

Fun fact: The eastern tent caterpillar enjoys the leaves of the black cherry tree. They have been known to defoliate entire groves some springs.


Riverside grape

(Vitus riparia)

Found on a trailing or climbing vine, riverside grapes are small, dark and juicy, if somewhat sour and lacking the flavor of some other area grapes, such as the Concord. The leaves are green on both the top and underside, unlike some other species of grape vines. Riverside grapes are best picked ripe in the late summer through October.

How to use: The grapes are good fresh off the vine. They can also be used in jams, jellies, and wines. The leaves, when harvested in the beginning of June, are prized for stuffed grape leave recipes.

Fun fact: The riverside grape is particularly cold hardy and fungal resistant. As such, its been used widely in grape hybridizing programs.


Beach plum

(Prunus maritima)

This fruiting shrub is native to sandy, coastal areas in the Northeast, of which New England has plenty. The leaves are pale green, egg-shaped and finely serrated at the edges—typically twice as long as they are wide. White flowers blossom in the spring, with the fruit ripening in late summer and early fall. The ripe, bluish-purple plums are small—more the size of a grape than a typical plum. They cluster on slender twigs and rare easy to pluck off the branches. Each plum has a white powdery coating called a bloom. This protects the fruit from drying out.

How to use: Eat the tasty little plums right off the bush, or use them to make preserves and jellies. Also, there is a winery in New Jersey that makes a wine from beach plums.

Fun fact: Plum Island, Massachusetts is named for the beach plum.