I am forever scoping out my sites; my little special spots; seeing how the seasonal flora is progressing. This April I found a new spot while scouting for a wild edibles program. It’s a rich, moist, upland site and I was overjoyed to find signs of trout lily – a spring ephemeral.
When I returned a week later, what was just a few tiny furled shoots was an explosion of greenery carpeting the forest floor. And bonus, there was also spring beauty, another spring ephemeral that frequents moist, rich uplands. Now if I could just find the ramps, it would make for a perfect trinity beneath the maples and birches.
An ephemeral plant has a short growing season and in fact, may not be thriving much past the middle of May. There is only a brief window to enjoy these delicate herbaceous delicacies such as Ramp, Spring Beauty, Toothwort, and Trout Lily before summer vegetation shades these dainty woodland beings.
Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) of the Lily family (Liliaceae) has purple-brown speckled green leaves and is fondly named after the Brown Trout which has speckles along its sides. The flowers are brown-streaked yellow with three recurved petals and three sepals. The leaves emerge in mid to late April and the flowers within the following week. The mottled leaves are a tender green and can be eaten raw in a salad. As with any new food that you are experimenting with, nibble on a small amount to be sure your body is happy with the addition, then if all is well, add a few leaves to your salad.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia spp.) shares its heritage with Purslane, a wonderful succulent that graces our gardens all summer long. The slender, paired opposite leaves are low to the slowly warming ground. Then up pops delicate white to pinkish-white five-petaled flowers with darker pink veins. The entire above-ground parts can be eaten raw – yes, leaves, stems and flowers. Throw them in your salad with the trout lily. You can also eat the roots BUT the roots are best eaten BEFORE the plant flowers when it’s tenderer and less starchy. Which means you have to check your sites and know where this plant grows so that you can get to these “fairy spuds” (as they are known) before the leaves come up. Mark the area clearly in your mind and then come earlier in the spring with a trowel. Spring Beauty fairy spuds can be eaten raw due to their tenderness or treated like a potato.
Everyone know Ramps (Allium tricoccum), yes? Why there are whole spring festivals dedicated to Rampson, “son of the ram.” Eaten raw or sautéed, this pungent member of the Lily family packs in the health benefits. The phytochemical, lipid allicin in Ramp is attributed to lowering blood pressure, promoting cardiac health, and reducing the severity of allergic reactions. Ramp bulbs are an antimicrobial and antiviral and the long dark parallel-veined leaves are rich in vitamin C. When preparing, treat Ramp as you would an onion or scallion; chopping green leaf, reddish stem, and white bulb. Its other common name is Wild Leek. Ramp makes an intensely flavorful pesto.
Spring ephemerals, particularly Ramps run the risk of overharvesting. Though they grow in clumps, some quite large, please exercise restraint and conservation practices. When digging for bulbs, do not remove the root crown which is actually the base of the root as this will kill the plant. Cut the plant above the root crown. If you want more of this slow-growing plant the following year, you need to protect your resources.
When identifying any plant you hope to be food, it is recommended to always bring along three wild edible trail guides and be sure that at least two confirm edibility and under what conditions. Or, bring along an experienced naturalist and watch them eat the plant first – just to be on the safe side. So, check your sites regularly and happy foraging!
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, and wild edible enthusiast lives in Ashfield, MA.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News and Shelburne Falls & West County Independent. This article appears in the May 2017 edition of the Ashfield News.
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