Spring is upon us and we’re all hungry to get outside. After a long, dreary northeast winter we’re aching for some vitamin D and fresh food. Luckily our friends at Island Grown Schools are highlighting wild edibles as their Harvest of the Month and we’re happy to help them spread the word about delicious, locally available food you can find on Martha’s Vineyard–for free! Now’s the perfect time to get outside and get foraging, your mind and body will thank you.
There’s an air of secrecy that comes with foraging, similar to how the local fisherman are about revealing their spots–they’ll give you pointers and tell you what to look out for, but they’re not telling you exactly where to go. Likewise, we’ll share some tips and let you know what’s out there but it’s on you to hunt it down, plus the pursuit is half the fun! Just make sure you know exactly what you’re doing before you go eating things in the woods.
As a food activist I’ve always been a fan of foraging. Not only are there tremendous health benefits to locally sourced food, but foraging encourages resourcefulness and promotes food security. Plus a journey out to the beach or the woods to go picking brings you closer to the land and its offerings, as well as the seasons and our weather.
In Aquinnah foraging was a way of life, and for many it still is today. When we first moved to Martha’s Vineyard we resided in Gay Head and I became familiar with a lot of the locally available wild edibles. Resident gatherer Kristina Hook-Leslie is a local authority on wild edibles and has amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge since childhood, foraging for everything from wild carrots (Queen Anne’s Lace), to rose hips, grape leaves, sassafras, cranberries, beach plums and more. You can learn a lot just by watching this fantastic video of Kristina foraging in Aquinnah. Her advice for those who want to forage their own wild edibles is to do your homework–make sure you know what you’re picking and be respectful–take only what you need and give thanks to the plants before harvesting.
Personally, one of my favorite things to forage on-Island is stinging nettles. You’ve probably seen them, or accidentally brushed up against them (ouch!). They’re a prickly, leafy green that gets its name from the small, stiff hairs that cover them. They’re one of the first plants that arrive with spring and I’m always careful to wear gloves when picking. When cooked or dried, nettles completely lose their stinging property, making them perfectly safe for consumption. They’re high in vitamin A, C, full of calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium as well as being a high source of protein. They have an earthy wholesome flavor, making them the perfect addition to smoothies, eggs, omelettes, or quiches–you can basically use them in place of spinach or a similar leafy green.
Another thing I do in spring is scout out beach plum plants. They grow all over the Island, along our roadsides, backyards and beaches, and I take note of the most abundant flowers–this later translates to bearing the most plentiful fruit. I then return in late August or early September, when the fruits turn to a deep purple color. My husband Philippe and I use them to make cordial and jam for the holidays. Like most fruits they are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, and can help strengthen the immune system and lower high blood pressure and cholesterol.
There really are so many wild edibles with impressive health benefits on Martha’s Vineyard, ready for the picking if you know where to look. Obviously we have our namesake grape vines, and there’s no shortage of wild grapes. The grape’s fruit can be eaten raw (just watch out for the seeds) or turned into jams, jellies or wine. And the bountiful grape leaves are perfect for stuffing–steam them and stuff with rice or fish. Rose hips are also scattered about, and the hearty fruit of the rose plant can be turned into jams, and jellies, as well as soup, tea or stewed with meat–plus they’re also a great source of vitamin C.
Rampant too on-Island is sassafras, popularly used for tea or root beer, while providing a boost to the immune system or anti-inflammatory properties when applied to the skin. Lastly, purslane and dandelions are two popular greens most people trample over without giving second thought, and they can both be eaten raw or added to salads and soups for an extra dose of vitamins.
Feeling inspired to step outside and get picking? Just make sure you always know what you are harvesting before you eat it. Island Grown Schools recommends “that you go with someone who is experienced, as some pictures of edible plants can be misleading. And make sure you know the rules about picking wild plants in your area. For example on Martha’s Vineyard fiddleheads should not be harvested because some species are rare and can be difficult to identify, but they are often available at Cronig’s.”
If you’re interested in learning more about wild edibles check out this story I collaborated on with Holly Bellebuono and Catherine Walthers for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
Feeling adventurous? Try this wild edible recipe from Island Grown Schools:
1 cup watercress, tightly packed (if foraged- wash well and discard stems)
1 garlic clove
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
¼ cup sherry vinegar
½ cup olive oil
¾ tsp honey
½ tsp kosher salt or sea salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Place watercress, garlic, red pepper flakes, honey and vinegar in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but not pureed (or you can finely chop everything by hand and combine with the vinegar.)
Transfer to a small bowl and add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Combine well. Store in refrigerator until ready to eat. Serve with your favorite sourdough bread or over roasted veggies, tofu, cooked fish, chicken or steak. Enjoy!
Randi Baird is a founding member and president of Island Grown Initiative’s Board of Directors and has long been committed to promoting local, sustainable food choices on Martha’s Vineyard.