Spring Foraging in Vermont

Spring Foraging in Vermont

When most people think of spring, they think of flowering crab-apple trees, warm weather, baseball and summer vacation just around the corner. When John and I think of spring, in mid April, all we talk about is wild leeks, stinging nettles, toothwort, wild violets, pheasant back mushrooms and fiddle-heads. We start scouring the forest floor in mid April. We are disappointed until we see the first purple shoots of wild leeks poking through the brown leaves under the last traces of snow. We can feel the ground beginning to warm up as the maple sugarers are beginning to clean their equipment and re-stack their woodpiles.

For us  the first sign of spring are the tiny spotted leaves of the trout lilies and then…the wood anemones. Soon the Dutchman’s breeches begin to show off on the dirt roads and the burdock roots begin to erupt through the dirt on roadsides.We know then that the leeks are soon to follow. Leeks are generally found  in the same places each year. The best time to look for them is while driving down dirt roads in early spring, they  stand out. By the time  48 jars of leek pesto are put in mason jars the fiddleheads are ready  harvest. Below is a photograph of emerging fiddleheads…too early to pick!


We  again head into the woods with our knapsacks and knives to gather bags of fiddleheads. Fiddleheads need to be cleaned with a soft brush to remove the brown chaff that surrounds the curled fern. Fiddleheads need to be boiled or steamed for 10-12 minutes before eating. Fiddle heads can be frozen after boiling for later use. Do not harvest fiddleheads once the frond begins to unfurl. The are best taken when the stalk is a few inches tall. Eating them after they begin to unfurl can cause illness. In the picture above ,the fiddleheads are past the time for safe harvest, they have begun to unfurl leaving tiny leaves on the stalk. The fiddleheads pictured below were harvested about two weeks earlier.fiddleheads

Just when we think we can take a break, the stinging nettles are ready for picking along the edges of sunny cornfields, around barns and in the woods.



As we tromp off with bags of nettles, our back aching from bending over, we come upon several downed trees covered in pheasant back  mushrooms.pheasantback

Phesantbacks, also knowns as the dryad’s saddle, are easily identified, however, do not eat any foraged plant using only a book for identification. The first time you forage, go with someone with experience in identifying edible plants. Many edible plants have poisonous look alikes which can cause illness or death.

As we head back home we come across a wodded area covered in toothwort. This little plant has a pretty white flower and a rhizome with little knobs that is quite tasty reminiscent of mild horseradish. It can be used in salads and  salad dressings.

Violets are also seen in the woods in early spring. The little white and purple flowers are edible and use in salads for color.


Following a good  rain next on our list will be the common cattails and morel mushrooms, but that story has yet to be written… stay tuned.

Last but not least are dandelions. Eighty milion pounds of pesticides are used each year to eradicate dandelions, yet the earth keeps pushing them back up. Dandelions are very nutritious. The leaves as well as the flower buds are colorful and tasty when added to salad green. Bitters produced from dandelions are an aid to digestion and should be consumed 20 minutes before each meal.

Foraging is a treasure hunt and provides purpose for hiking in the woods in the spring. It is important to be mindful when harvesting edible plants in our Vermont woods. Take small amounts and leave plenty of plants for the following year. If you take everything you find, there will none left in the following year. Nature provides a bounty, but even that bounty has limits.

Since we began foraging, we have learned to better appreciate the food we eat because we understand how much effort is needed to harvest a pound of wild vegetables. Harvesting your own food provides pleasure and satisfaction that a supermarket can never equal.

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