Where to Find (and Eat) Spring’s Best Wild Edible Plants Around the U.S.
It’s spring, and the pungent scent of leeks is wafting up from the field. From the woods comes the whiff of mushrooms jutting from the ground, and the tang of garlic mustard just crushed under foot. Dozens of wild spring edibles are finally making their appearance everywhere from the wild to the restaurant.
Want to take advantage of the spring bounty? You could head out into the field and forage — always making sure you’ve properly identified the plant, asked permission from the landowner, and, ideally, brought along a seasoned expert. Or you could grab a seasonal meal from a local restaurant, where the chefs have no doubt been eagerly awaiting spring's fiddlehead ferns, sassafras, and more.
Here's where to find and eat eight of the season's most sought-after wild edibles now arriving in forests, farmers’ markets, and restaurants across the nation.
From a distance, that swath of green growing along the riverbank may look like a patch of mint — but move closer, and you’ll often discover nettles instead. Typically appearing around late April and early May, stinging nettles can be recognized by their opposing leaf placement and the jagged edges of the leaves. Or, perhaps, just by grabbing a handful (and feeling the burn). To prevent irritation, wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, which should happen before the plant flowers. Nettles lose their sting once cooked or thoroughly dried.
Where to find: Any state in the U.S. (except Hawaii, where the urtica species is replaced by a stinger-less genus known commonly as mämake that is not widely eaten) and much of Canada. The Pacific Northwest has an especially dense population.
Where to eat: A nettle pesto can be found gracing the ever-changing menu of Racines NY this spring.
Call them what you will — ramps, ransoms, wild leeks — this member of the pungent lily family (which also includes wild onion, garlic, and chives) is easily distinguished by scent alone. A famous Appalachian treasure, wild leeks actually grow throughout North America. Visually, they can be recognized for their long, flat leaves, and can be easily confused with the trillium flower. A more important identifier is the smell; simply put, if it doesn’t smell pungent and onion-y, it should absolutely not be eaten. Ramps are slow-growing. To prevent over-harvesting and to encourage sustainability, take only one third or half of a cluster and replant the rest in the ground.
Where to find: Eastern North America, from South Carolina up to Quebec — but Appalachia is often considered the epicenter.
Where to eat: In restaurants from Buckhannon, West Virginia, to New York City, but West Virginia is especially famous for its annual ramp festivals and dinners.
This tree, native to the Americas, can grow to 50 feet — but it’s the young shoots that make for the best root beer. Three different leaf shapes grow alternately on the same stem for the sassafras: oval, three-lobed, and a mitten-like two-lobe leaf. But as with many wild edibles, the best way to recognize it is by scent; crush any part of the plant and it will emit a root beer odor. To gather, simply pull up or cut the very young shoots that tend to grow near mature trees.
Where to find: Eastern North America, with the westernmost populations reaching Iowa, Kansas, and parts of Texas.
Where to eat: At Cleveland’s new Larder delicatessen, the passion for wild edibles runs deep. They make their own soda in house, as well as a root beer egg custard.
Drive along any rural highways in May, and you will likely see cars abandoned on the shoulder. Their owners, knee-deep in an adjacent ditch, will be gathering asparagus. Wild asparagus, which grows in virtually every state, likes full to partial sun and moist soil. Identification is easy: in its full-blown glory, it looks like asparagus. Determining where it grows has become less difficult thanks to a handy map from the USDA that shows which counties in the nation grow the cultivated version. To prepare, snap the stalk where it breaks easily and slice on a diagonal. Wild asparagus pairs nicely with morels; briefly sauté the mushrooms until they are just beginning to cook through, then add the asparagus to pan and sauté until the stalks turn bright green and tender.
Where to find: Any state in the continental U.S., and most Canadian provinces as well — typically in rural areas with water nearby.
Where to eat: Restaurants around the U.S. spotlight wild asparagus, but for a guided foraging experience, it's worth looking across the Atlantic. ln Portugal’s Alentejo region, chef José Júlio Vintém of São Lourenço do Barrocal regularly takes guests into the field to search for wild asparagus — and happily adds the spoils to a guest’s meal when they arrive to dinner with a handful.
Before they unfurl, the vibrant green fronds of this delicacy look like the head of a fiddle, curled tight. Many ferns fall under the fiddlehead umbrella, but the Ostrich fern is most commonly eaten; it will have a groove running up the stem, and the stalk is never fuzzy. Beginning in early spring, fiddleheads can be found in river valleys and ravines, roadside ditches and moist woodlands. Harvest them at the stalk while the fronds are still tightly curled.
Where to find: Ostrich ferns can be found around New England and eastern Canada. Other edible fiddlehead-type ferns are common in other regions, like the Bracken and Lady ferns of the Pacific Northwest.
Where to eat: In salads, as sides, and in myriad other executions at Fore Street in Portland, Maine.
A member of the succulent family, the sea bean grows along the coast, in salt marshes, and in saltwater springs. To harvest, break off the tender top of the foot-tall plant — skipping any red parts — then stir fry it, blanch it, or throw it in a salad. Part of the plant’s pleasures come from its snappy crispness (which also makes it good for pickling).
Where to find: On seashores and salt marshes all along the coasts of North America, and even around inland bodies of saltwater (like the Great Salt Lake in Utah).
Where to eat: In restaurants all along the east and west coasts, including at Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay, Oregon, where they're served alongside the pork belly.
Distinguished for its wide, lance-shaped leaves set on long stems, miner’s lettuce grows in low, loose clusters on the West Coast. Growing from southern British Columbia to California, and even as far east as Montana and Wyoming, it favors partial shade and moist coniferous forests, as well sometimes as rich sand or gravelly soil.
Where to find: Miner’s lettuce is native to the coastal and mountain regions of western North America, and it’s especially bountiful in Northern California.
Where to eat miner’s lettuce: Seattle’s Heartwood Provisions regularly serves miner’s lettuce in salads and as a garnish in scallop pasta.
Few mushrooms are so prized, so sought after, as to inspire near mania — but morels are so coveted that entire Facebook communities and festivals have sprung up around them. This spring mushroom may be recognizable by its pitted structure and conical shape, but finding them in the wild can be downright infuriating. Ranging in color from blonde to black, morels seem to disappear on the forest floor. (Pro tip for beginners: randomly stage photos of morels around your home to practice spotting them before you go into the field.) In the wild, morels — which have been found in nearly every state — typically begin appearing after the ground temperature has reached 50 to 55 degrees. Look for them among ash and elm, in old apple orchards (where pesticides have long since disappeared), along creek beds, and even among pines. Morels also love disturbed earth, which is why they occasionally appear in flowerbeds and along sidewalks. On the West Coast, they tend to flourish the first year after a forest fire.
Where to find: All over the country, especially east of the Great Plains and on the West Coast.
Where to eat: Morels are everywhere right now. In Boston, they're served up in style in a Parisian gnocchi at Little Donkey.