Spring Foraging Guide: Part One
A Few Plants to Eat Instead of Eradicate
It’s wild how many “weeds” that you see every day in spring are not only edible, but full of nutrition and are sometimes even medicinal. I grew up in a small town in a subdivision where most residents had their yards sprayed at least once a year (and wouldn’t hesitate to call the city to complain if you didn’t do the same). Dandelions, chickweed, and clover were seen as troublesome weeds destroying the beauty of a well-manicured lawn. Probably my favorite part of playing outside as a kid was picking the tiny flowers, making “potions” out of them by mixing them with water, mud, and who knows what else, or making flower bracelets, rings, and crowns out of them. I really loved the weeds.
I have always thought these weeds added a touch of color and beauty to a plain old lawn, but as a child, I understood that adults probably knew better and that they had to be eradicated. As an adult, I now know that this wasn’t actually necessary. A short-trimmed lawn of only grass is nothing more than an outdated aesthetic, and the wild plants that tend to pop up aren’t harmful, unlike chemical poisons spray on lawns where children and animals play. Each year it seems like more and more people become aware of the perils of pesticides, to the health of both our bodies and the earth. I hope will everything I have that this continues, though so much damage has already been done, it feels disheartening. To me, the other side of eradicating weeds with chemicals— is eating them instead. There is free food all around us, and with the insanity of grocery store prices, perhaps this practice will become more commonplace.
When you’re new to foraging, it’s best to stick with plants that are super easy to identify. While you definitely shouldn’t be afraid to forage locally, consider a few precautions:
Be certain that the area you’re foraging from hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides.
Don’t over harvest. Each plant is different, but generally, only take what you need and leave enough of the plant for it to be able to produce more. Wild plants are an important part of their ecosystems. Forage responsibly.
Be 100% sure of what you’re harvesting! Take a plant identification guide or reference photos with you. Plant ID apps are nowhere near 100% on many plants. This is why it’s best to start with easily identifiable plants while you build your foraging confidence.
Obviously, I am not a health care practitioner. Please know your allergies and medicinal contraindications before consuming wild foods.
Wild onions (Allium canadense)
This spring foragable goes by many names: Meadow Garlic, Wild Onion, Wild Garlic, Onion Grass, and probably more! This is an easy one because of its strong onion aroma and the fact that it grows from a bulb. Wild onions tend to grow in clusters throughout a field or meadow, and they look quite distinct from other grasses because of their thin, round leaves. If you aren’t certain you’ve found wild onions, your nose will tell you right away. All parts of Allium canadense are edible and make a delicious addition to spring recipes.
In early spring, wild onions have long, narrow, round leaves with bulbs a few inches below the soil. There is only one poisonous look-alike, but boy is it a serious one, with a serious name to match: Death Camas, or Toxicoscordion venenosum. Both Allium canadense and Toxicoscordion venenosum are in the Lily family and have similar looking leaves, but you will know by the plant’s scent whether or not it is the edible Wild Onion or the potentially lethal Death Cama. If it doesn’t smell like fresh garlic, don’t eat it.
Tall, narrow, rounded leaves
Grows in open meadows and fields
Notable garlic/onion smell
Small white bulb a few inches under soil
Edible Parts: All: leaves, root, flower
Flavor & Nutrition: Wild onions are extremely versatile. I love to chop them up and put them in breads, biscuits, soups, and eggs. They are a perfect addition to any recipe that you would add garlic or green onion to. Their flavor is somewhere between onions and garlic, but a bit more mild. Wild onions are high in Vitamins A and C, calcium, manganese, selenium, and potassium. Similar to common onions, they have been shown to lower bad cholesterol levels in the body.
Medicinal Properties: Wild onions have medicinal properties that are similar to bulb onions. They offer strong anti-inflammatory properties, help to lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, and are known to decrease insulin sensitivity. Of course, diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure are nothing to mess around with, and you should always consult a physician if you have these issues, rather than relying on herbal remedies alone. However, herbal medicine and a good diet can provide a lot of support to the body’s function in conjunction with necessary prescription drugs.
Potentially dangerous look-alikes: Death Camas
Recipe: Spring Herb Biscuits
2 cups flour
¾ cup milk or buttermilk
5 tablespoons butter (or oil)
pinch of salt
desired amount of wild onions
Mix flour and salt together.
Add cubed butter (or oil) and mix together with a pastry cutter (or clean hands) until there are only very small clumps visible.
Add milk and mix together until the dough comes together and is somewhat sticky.
Sprinkle in chopped wild onions and mix together so that they are distributed evenly throughout the dough.
Spoon dough onto oiled baking tray so that biscuits are about 2-3” in diameter, depending on your preference (they will grow drastically in size!).
Bake for 12-15 minutes at 425F or until tops are golden brown.
Violets (Viola papilionacea)
Violets were one of the first foragables that I was 100% confident about identifying. Their uniquely positioned purple petals and the petals droop significantly from the stem. Their leaves are heart-shaped, which helps to distinguish them before they bloom, but they do have look-alikes, so it’s best to wait until they bloom to know for sure (plus, the flowers are the part you really want anyway). These beauties tend to bloom in early March around here, and don’t last very long. When the weather gets hotter and more humid, they die back until the next spring.
Violets have a wonderful, slightly perfumy scent, and vibrant purple petals. They grow in clusters, even taking over garden beds if allowed. Some see violets as a pesky weed, but as with most weeds, you just have to recognize their value. You’ll mostly find wild violets in shaded woodland areas, especially near a stream or other water source.
5 petals in a butterfly shape
Vibrant purple (shades from lavender to dark) petals with white/yellow at center
Some early blooms can be yellow, but these may be easy to confuse with Lesser Celandine (See below under potentially dangerous look-alikes)
Heart-shaped, toothed leaves
Head of flower droops notable from stem
Edible Parts: Petals and leaves
Flavor & Nutrition: Though all parts of Viola papilionacea are edible, only the flowers are worth harvesting. The leaves are rich in vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium, but you’d have to eat a lot of them to make it worth it. Though not nutrient-dense, the Viola papilionacea flower has a wonderfully soft, delicate, floral flavor. It’s hard to explain, but it just tastes like springtime. It’s sort of similar to rose, but more subdued.
Medicinal Properties: Immune system support
Potentially dangerous look-alikes: Lesser Celandine, however, these blooms are yellow and shaped differently than violets, so if you wait until it blooms, you’ll know for sure which it is.
Recipe: Violet syrup
For a dose of springtime herbal pizazz, you can add violet syrup to fresh lemonade, iced teas, baked goods, and more. I do not have a specific recipe for violet syrup that is my own, so I will share this one: https://fareisle.com/wild-violet-syrup/#wprm-recipe-container-11393. Fun fact: Violet syrup changes color when lemon is added!
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)
Sunny little guys that appear at the beginning of spring and pervade yards all throughout the spring and summer, Dandelions are hated by many, but treasured still by some. The dandelions those of us in North America find in our yards are not native. Native Dandelions do exist (see: Taraxacum ceratophorum), but they do not grow in my region of the states. What does grow here is Taraxacum officinale, an extremely stubborn and determined variety which is actually considered invasive. These dandelions grow in poor soil, doing the work of improving that soil with its deep taproot, contributing nutrients to that soil. At least they’re contributing in a positive way somehow! However, you may find them impossible if you are trying to grow a garden where they live. You can cut them down, but they will always grow back with a vengeance. The good news is that all parts of this plant are edible: the flowers, roots, leaves, and stems!
- Yellow flowers form ray florets with many, many tiny petals
- Leaves are long and slender, all connected at the base, above the taproot
- Leaves are deeply toothed
Edible Parts: All; flowers, leaves, stem, root
Flavor & Nutrition: Each part of the plant has a different flavor. The petals have a mildly sweet, honey-like flavor, the stems and leaves are earthy, slightly bitter flavor and taste similar to other dark green leafy vegetables, and the roots are bitter and deeply earthy, used ground and roasted as an herbal coffee substitute. Dandelion leaves are packed with beta-carotene (more than carrots, and the flowers have this nutrient too!), iron, calcium, vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6, B12, C, E, P and D, biotin, potassium, magnesium, zinc, inositol, and phosphorus. That’s a lot of nutrition for a tiny weed!
Medicinal Properties: Dandelion root has been used for centuries by making a decoction for supporting the kidneys, and as a tonic for those with diabetes and hypoglycemia. The glycoside taraxacin in the plant supports liver function and immune system function. It also helps to reduce inflammation and can help manage issues with the gallbladder.
Potentially Dangerous Look-Alikes: Cat’s Ear, or False Dandelion is a look-alike, but is not known to be poisonous to humans. See False Dandelion.
Recipe: Dandelion Salad
In 2020, when the pandemic began and I was at home all the time, I happened across this YouTube channel called Great Depression Cooking in which an Italian-American women who survived the Great Depression records how to make the recipes that got her and her family though that time. She has a lovely recipe for Dandelion Salad here:
You can also gather the blooms, wash them thoroughly, and steep them in boiling water to make a delicious herbal tea. As I mentioned earlier, you can boil the roots (for 15-20 minutes to make an herbal coffee alternative. Dandelions can also be infused with oil and combined with beeswax to make healing skin salves, and made into jelly.
I hope this short guide encourages you to forage (responsibly!) this spring. If you are interested in a tangible, bring-withable field guide for edible plants, I recommend the Peterson Field Guide for your area. As I mentioned before, plant ID apps are notoriously unreliable, and you need reliable when foraging things to eat!
Stay tuned for next week when I share some more spring forageables! I’d love to hear about your favorite springtime forageables below. :)
Thank you for being here!
Until next time,
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