Although hunting the elusive mushroom is a favorite springtime activity, foraging is not all about fungi. High steps over fallen logs and crawls under thorny bushes have led to the sighting of a rare wood orchid, the jackhammer of a pileated woodpecker on a standing dead fir, and a warning stamp from a protective doe’s hooves when I ventured close to a bedded-down fawn.
Deeper into the Blue Mountains might lead to a pile of scattered deer bones; suggesting a winter kill. Rarely does evidence of a struggle come with antlers, though. Perhaps gleaned by someone who hunted “sheds” when snow first melted from the shade of tall timber? Shed antlers in good condition can bring $10 per pound on the open market. Other weathered racks are sure to be nailed above the front door of a rustic cabin.
First up alongside the shaded wilderness trail is a small patch of fiddleheads. Fiddleheads are the young, developing fronds of bracken fern. According to reputable sources, they are a springtime delicacy to be eaten as if asparagus, raw or cooked. Wild plant afficionados prep fiddleheads by first rinsing and rubbing off any papery brown skin. The rhizome or rootstock can also be eaten.
I grab a handful. Consumption of fiddleheads is controversial because bracken ferns contain the carcinogen ptaquiloside. The compound is water-soluble, however, and denatures at boiling temperature. This means a good soaking followed by boiling renders young fiddleheads “safe” to be braised, sautéed, roasted or pickled.
Further down the trail, along a gentle slope saturated by snowmelt, I encounter a familiar plant that grows hollow, jointed stems from underground root stalks. Horsetail or Equisetum spp. is an ancient plant that predates the dinosaurs. Its stems and branches have high silica content that makes them abrasive. As Boy Scouts, we found the plant useful for scraping burnt food off a frying pan. It’s also thought that rubbing the plant on your scalp can stimulate hair growth
As many as 20 species of Equisetum can be found in the Pacific Northwest. All are considered toxic to livestock. Therapeutic uses include treatment for kidney and bladder stones, urinary tract infections, and also incontinence. As a friend once related, “They used to give it to kids that wet the bed.”
Regarding culinary application, the fertile shoots of horsetail can be peeled and cooked to produce a mild flavor similar to celery. Young sprouts are edible if boiled and fried, although it’s unlikely you will find the item highlighted on the menu of an eclectic restaurant.
The next hour finds me casting a fly on a small tributary of the Umatilla River where newly emergent rosettes of non-native mullein sprinkle a flood-damaged landscape. Mullein is not considered edible, but is commonly used as a mild-flavored base for herbal smoking blends. Other useful properties include a remedy for coughs and diarrhea.
Reaching back for another Boy Scout memory, the soft wooly leaf of mullein also serves as a useful substitute for toilet paper. I allow mullein plants to grow to maturity near our cabin because the seeds attract downy woodpeckers and American goldfinches. Interestingly, mullein seeds ground to a fine power are purportedly used to poison fish. My preference is to harvest fish with a fly rod.
I collect a handful of bitter dock from an open bank next to the rushing stream. Dock is often one of the first greens to emerge in the spring. The leaves have lemony flavor if harvested before the plant sends up a stem. You can also peel the outer layer of the stem before flowers appear and pickle as if for string beans.
Similar to spinach, Swiss chard, and rhubarb, dock contains oxalic acid, which prevents the assimilation of calcium and iron. Consequently, consumption should be limited for those individuals whose diet does not require supplements of the same. Perhaps a recipe from the book Foxfire 3 best explains how to make use of dock for the dinner table: “add chopped onion, horseradish, sour cream, salt, and pepper. Serve on toast and top with fried bacon.”
Not all edible wild greens come in a large package. For example, the leaves and blossoms of tiny wood violet and wild strawberry are high in vitamins A and C. Hint: their presence on the forest floor is sometimes indicative of morel mushrooms. Miner’s lettuce, once used by California gold miners to treat scurvy, is another common salad plant. Their leaf greens and flower buds can be used raw as salad or cooked as a vegetable.
As for eating any wild plant, moderation is the key. Mix in small amounts with garden lettuce or stir fry to mellow out any bitterness and test your tolerance. Never pick from an area that may have been treated with herbicides or insecticides and always be sure of identification.
It’s fun to imagine you could live off the land. On a fine spring day when song sparrows sing from the brush, small trout rise to the fly, and salad greens are there for the taking. After all, foraging doesn’t have to be all about the elusive mushroom.