Early spring foraging is hardcore. Before the spring ephemerals emerge, very little green exists. Sometimes you have to take off your boots and socks, stand in the cold snow and take a deep breath before stepping into the frigid water of a swamp. The bounteous cattail awaits if you have the courage to go for it.
It’s been close to two weeks since I started the challenge to eat wild edibles every day for a year, including the winter. Starting on April 1st was difficult because the ground was still covered in snow here in western Vermont and there was no sign yet of spring ephemerals, which are the short-lived greens that precede all others and dieback before the mainstays arrive.
To make matters worse, April 1st fell on a Wednesday, and my foraging time had to compete with work, and work kept me inside till almost dark every day that week. Luckily, I had some dried sarsaparilla roots, which I used to make tea. The roots were from last October, so they had lost most of their flavor, but with a healthy portion, I was able to make a pleasant tea.
When the weekend came, I was able to spend several hours in the woods of central New Hampshire while visiting family. The ground was covered with over a foot of snow there, so spring ephemerals were still out of reach. However, the mixed evergreen and deciduous forests provide for many opportunities for edible teas. I harvested yellow birch twigs, eastern hemlock needles, and white pine needles. I also found some broken white pine limbs, which gave me the opportunity to harvest inner bark, which can be nibbled raw. I wouldn’t harvest the inner bark of any of these trees unless they have already been sent to the ground by a storm or logging operation, and even then they still have to be fresh to be good. All three of these trees have edible portions of inner bark that can be eaten raw or made into tea, or sometimes ground into flour if you can adequately dry them without them getting moldy or rancid.
The cold weather came back the next week and resulted in some light snow and sleet, so I drank tea every day from the yellow birch, eastern hemlock, and pine.
This weekend, the 11th and 12th of April, my girlfriend and I headed to the woods of western Vermont toward a place where we knew we could harvest cattail. Cattail is such a versatile wild edible, offering various foods all year long. Early in the spring, the most readily available portion are the rhizomes, both mature and immature. Immature rhizomes are amazing if you can find them, but the more common find is the mature rhizomes, especially early in the season.
Half of the swamp we went to was still covered in ice and about a quarter of the ground in the woods was covered in snow. I found a nice peninsula that allowed me to get close to the start of the cattail patch on dry land. I couldn’t reach the cattails without going into the water, so I still had to remove my boots and socks, roll up my pant legs and walk into the frigid water. Luckily, there were some old logs criss-crossing the swamp, which allowed me to only get wet up to my ankles. The water was so cold that it stung on contact, and my hands were so cold that I almost immediately lost all feeling in them when submerging them in the mud. I felt around in the mud, following the rhizomes as far as I could and then pulling them out. I should have used a knife to cut them, but I only had my good knife and didn’t want to cover it in mud. I was also able to find the lateral end of one rhizome, which is a delicious snack that can be eaten raw. And, I was also able to find one tiny bud, which I ate later after peeling off the outer leaves to get the softer core, much like you do with cultivated leaks. The mature rhizomes would make great flower for use in baked goods throughout the week.
Later in our journey, we found some gold thread and partridgeberry, two very small plants that offer few calories or nutritional value, but in the icy springtime you’ll take what you can get. The gold thread roots can be nibbled on to extract vitamins. They are very strong and can create a numbing effect in your mouth, which is why they are used medicinally to treat oral problems. The partridge berries can be eaten raw. Like wintergreen berries, they are one of the only berries that survive the northern winter. Unfortunately, they are mostly flavorless, unlike wintergreen which at least offers a mild minty after-taste.
Before heading out of the woods, we also collected some white pine needles for tea and some inner bark of white pine and white birch. The strong woods and heavy snow load of the winter had knocked over several trees, allowing for guilt free harvesting of inner bark. I’ll use the inner white pine bark for tea and a raw nibble. The inner white birch bark will also be used for tea, and to dry and pulverize into a flour.
The cattails were definitely the highlight of the trip and I spent some time this morning making flour using the wet method. The rest of the items were good finds that will help get me through the week, but we are longing for spring ephemerals. We are going to go to a lower lying place today where the snow has been gone for almost a week, so hopefully we’ll find some.
Despite the fact that it’s too cold for spring ephemerals in most places, it’s not too cold for ticks. I found a deer tick on my lower abdomen this morning. It had already infected the area. I will keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t develop into the signature bull’s eye associated with Lyme disease. You can still get Lyme disease without the bull’s eye, but I believe the bull’s eye is found in a high percentage of cases. Every year, my girlfriend, my dog, and I each get dozens of deer ticks on us. They are almost impossible to avoid entirely. The best prevention is to tuck your pant legs into your socks, and tuck your shirt into your pants, so that if a tick gets on you, it will have to walk all the way up to your neck or your wrists in order to reach your skin. I find this strategy to work about 90% of the time. You have to make sure to brush yourself off before entering your car or your home and then, if possible, have someone else check your bare skin as well. Sometimes I import ticks into my home via my clothes and they bite me later on.
To successfully and safely remove ticks, use strongly closing tweezers to grab them on the top most part of their head and pull them slowly and steadily backwards until they release. You want to avoid ripping off their body and leaving their head attached to your skin. You also want to avoid squeezing them with the tweezers because you can squeeze the viruses and bacteria into your body like a syringe. Clean up the area with alcohol and/or antibiotic cream, wash your hands thoroughly, and keep an eye on the bite to see how it develops. It’s also a good idea to save the tick in a closed container if you can in case you need to test it later. Climate change is only going to increase the habitat and the breading season for ticks in the northeast, so dealing with ticks is something we all have to get used to.