by Avery McGuire
Spring is upon us. The sky is a vast and brilliant blue. The sun is bright and blinding, and lingers longer each evening. Flowers speckle the first grass with yellow, white and periwinkle. The air is sweet with new life.
The city is awake. People are out, their cheeks blushed, wrapped in blankets with hot coffee or cold beer in hand, soaking up every golden drop of sun no matter how chilly it may still be.
Step out your front door and watch the world budding. There are new shoots and buds, delicate young leaves, and the very first flowers – many of which are not only safe to eat, but healthy and delicious!
ramson. photo credit: Afton Halloran
Over the last few years, ramson (Allium ursinum), a variety of wild garlic, have (re-)entered into mainstream food and become quite popular. You can find ramson pesto, soups and oils on restaurant menus across Europe. You can even find fresh ramson being sold in higher-end grocery stores and food markets. A similar resurgence has been happening in the US and Canada with ramps (Allium tricoccum), the eastern North American wild garlic. But why buy it when you can forage it for free?
Ramson grow abundantly and are easy to identify, making it a great plant for beginner foragers. They favour semi-shady areas and grow mostly in wooded areas or along riverbanks – usually in large colonies, often covering 100 square meters or more (Irving 2012). Here in Copenhagen you can find them all over Assistens Kirkegård, Amagerfælled, Kalvebod and Kongelund – just to name a few spots.
Ramson have long elliptical leaves that taper to a point. The leaves are slightly ribbed and brilliant green. As the season progresses the plants will produce a tight, rounded cluster of small white, 6-petalled flowers. At their root is a small bulb which looks like a clove of garlic. When the leaves are crushed they smell strongly of garlic.
ramson botanical illustration.
photo credit: http://mybotanicalgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/allium-ursinum-and-low-genetic-variability/
Miles Irving, a professional forager in the UK, has some words of advice for how to distinguish ramson from lookalikes:
“The leaves are the easiest part of the plant to harvest – however they can be confused with other plants. Two of the most important potential lookalikes are Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majus) and Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum). Lords and Ladies often grows in amongst ramsons so it can slip into a bag if you are not picking carefully.
Both of these plants are highly poisonous, so it is important to be fully familiarised with them before harvesting ramsons. However, neither of them smells of garlic so if you think you have found ramsons always crush a few leaves and smell them, as part of the wider identification process.”
— Irving, 2012
Rasmon are extremely versatile in the kitchen. They have strong garlicky characteristics yet are also quite herbaceous and floral. They are great in pesto, infused into oil or vinegar, mixed into butter, blended into soup (nettle season is here as well!), incorporated into pasta dough, eaten fresh by the handful…
ramson close-up. photo credit: Afton Halloran
The ramson season only lasts a month or two so one had better act fast. By now, they are producing flowers and in some places, will have already begun producing fruits – small three-lobed fruits with an intense garlic flavour, delicious and powerful fresh and perfect for pickling and lacto-fermenting.
Yet ramson are just one of many tasty wild plants available at this time of year. Here are some other plants you might find walking though a park, in the forest or along the beach:
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – this succulent ‘weed’ is somewhat crunchy with a slight lemony taste. It can be tossed into salad or used in place of spinach in many recipes.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) – You can eat the roots, leaves and flowers of this common ‘weed’. Toss the leaves in a salad or cook them into a quiche. Roast or boil the roots as your would parsnips. Add the bright yellow flowers to your next salad for a pop of color and an added zesty flavor. Or dip them into batter and fry them.
Violets (Viola odorata) – These delicate purple flowers are often used as decoration on cakes and other confections. They can be infused into cream for custards and ice creams, or infused into spirits. They can also be brewed into tea or added to lemonade for a refreshing floral summer drink.
Lambs quarters or goosefoot (Chenopodium album) – The leaves of this plant are a bit bland but highly nutritious. Use them as you would spinach. Sauté them in garlic and oil, use them as pizza topping or turn them into soup. Although they are not the most interesting wild plant, they grow abundantly in many areas of the world, and are one of the most common agricultural ‘pest’, growing quickly between crops and along fields and hedgerows. More interesting then the leaves of this plant are the seeds, which can be dried and ground into flour to be incorporated into bread or other baked goods. The seeds have a very tannic and earthy taste (they are in the same genus as quinoa) and a bit of a coarse texture.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) – Make sure you wear gloves while harvesting this plant. The leaves cause an uncomfortable stinging sensation. Do not worry though, this defense mechanism will disappear after just 30 seconds of cooking the leaves in boiling water. Alternatively, sauté them in olive oil or butter for three to six minutes. Use them in a similar way to spinach in curries and stews, risottos, baked omelettes, gnocchi and pies.
Purple Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) – Though a member of the mint family, the purple deadnettle tastes nothing of mint. This plant can be easily recognized by its long square stalk (indicating its mint family identity), delicate purple flowers and fuzzy spade-shaped leaves. It’s best to add the young leaves and flowers to salads or gentle sautés.
Blackberry leaves (Rubus fruticosus) – Although the fruits of a blackberry bush are not ripe this time of year, do not overlook the other parts of this surprisingly versatile plant. The young leaves of blackberry bush have a distinct coconut/fig leaf aroma, and can be dried and turned into tea which for has been used as a digestive aid for centuries. They make a delicious drink regardless of whether you are feeling healthy or a bit under the weather.
Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) – Another common garden ‘weed’, the young shoots of this plant with their folded leaves make excellent herbal additions to both raw and cooked food. Use as an herb in salads, a garnish for meat, fish, and eggs, or along with other cooked greens as above for a fresh, somewhat celery-like flavour without the bitterness.
Garlic mustard or onion cress (Alliaria petiolata) – Here’s another one that likes hedgerows, woodland edges, and unused soil in the garden. The leaves have some of the aroma of garlic and the pepperiness of mustard at once. Excellent in salads and tossed through pastas at the last minute. The white flowers are currently in bloom and have a lovely garlic/mustard flavour with floral notes, sometimes faintly of bitter almond.
Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) – This costal plant is a relative of beetroot, chard and perpetual spinach. Much like its relatives, sea beet has pointed leaves and firm stems. The glossy, fresh leaves are an excellent vegetable and can be served in just about any recipe that calls for cooked spinach or chard.
Sea Kale and Sea Kale Broccoli (Crambe maritima) – This hearty vegetable can be found growing in the sand, on rocky shores and along the coastline. The firm stalk grows about 1 meter tall and produces thick fleshy leaves with a deep purple vein and wavy edges. Before the sea kale blooms, the flower head is reminiscent of broccoli.
Sea Arrow Grass (Triglochin maritima) – Cilantro of the sea. Sea arrow grass can be found growing along the waterline, on rocky shores, and in seashore meadows. The tender lower tip tastes of salty, yet slightly sweet cilantro. It is advised not to eat too much of the upper green leaf, although it is not dangerous to consume in small quantities.
Many of these plants can also be excellent in beer. We recently made a spring brew with our friend and master brewer Morten using some of these herbs, like nettles, violets, and blackberry shoots. It turned out nicely – complex, herbaceous, and well-balanced.
But before you set out to explore the edible world just beyond you front door, prepare yourself wisely and remember not every plant is safe to consume. Below you will find a guide to ease the fear of the unknown and make foraging fun, safe, accessible and sustainable.
Identify – Be sure you have confidently identified the plant you are looking for. If you are not 100% sure, do not eat it until you are. In other words, “when in doubt, don’t pull it out.” Smell the plant, observe its leaf shape and arrangement, its stem’s shape, and type of flowers. For more information on plant identification in Denmark check out this site.
Time of year – Know what plants are available at the given time of year so you have a rough idea of what you can expect to find.
Environment – Know what kind of plants grow in a given habitat. Be aware of the ecosystem around you and know how certain plants fit into that habitat.
Method of harvesting – This includes both location and technique. Be sure it is legal to take plants form the land and make sure the land has not been sprayed with harmful pesticides. Harvest plants sustainably. Only take as much as you need, and familiarize yourself with the appropriate harvesting technique for each plant based on the part you want to consume and how to propagate its future growth. For more information on best foraging practices, check out some of our guidelines for sustainable foraging.
Irving, Miles. The Forager Handbook: a guide to the edible plants of Britain. UK: Ebury, 2009.