Imagine yourself deep in a mossy forest. What could you find to eat? Plenty, it
turns out. The treasure hunt is on.
The woods at Skylands, Martha's home on Mount Desert Island, Maine, are magical in August. Soaring spruce and fir trees, their trunks spotted with lichens, cast a deep-green shade over the forest floor, and patches of sun shed light on treasures growing underfoot. Many of these plants are edible, and a few hours of foraging yields ingredients for a most unusual feast.
"It's one of the most beautiful places on earth to me," Martha says. "There are many kinds of moss, all sorts of ferns and ground covers. And I'm always looking down. Foragers are a downward-looking people. We love the discovery of an edible something."
Chanterelles, the little orange mushrooms of summer and early fall, first lured Martha into gathering wild food. She savors her finds in omelets and pasta dishes, their subtle flavor amplified by butter. She also keeps an eye out for clover-shape sour grass to use in soups and salads, and in brighter spots, for purslane, whose crunchy, pillowy leaves are tasty raw or cooked. On sun-warmed granite outcroppings she finds wild blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and mountain cranberries, which are smaller and more delicate than the kind we eat at Thanksgiving. These are just a few of the abundant foods to be found in this august forest; the secret is in knowing where and how to look.
People have always foraged for their supper, whether from necessity or a yen for something a bit wild-tasting. The fun of poking among moss-covered logs or in the soil between rocks is about as far as one can get from cruising a fluorescent-lit market aisle. And wherever you live, you can find wild edibles. But to harvest them successfully (and prudently), you must do your homework. Not all wild things are safe to eat, so it's vital to correctly identify them by studying field guides and consulting with a local expert before digging in. To create the delectable spread on these pages, Martha and our food editors relied on botanist Jill Weber, an expert on the native plants of Maine. Armed with knowledge, you can confidently begin your forage.
You never know what you'll find in the woods. So even if you're just heading out for a hike, take Martha's advice and carry a small knife and a paper bag. If you forget the latter and come across something delicious? Use your hat.
Know Before You Go
The descriptions shown are for inspiration only. Never eat anything you cannot positively identify as safe to consume, since even one bite of certain plants (and mushrooms especially) can be dangerous and possibly deadly. Follow our safety tips, and once you have positively identified something as safe to eat, start with just a nibble and wait several hours to see how it affects you, since even safe foods can set off unexpected sensitivities. Above all, always remember the forager’s credo: If in doubt, throw it out.
Fresh finds are laid out in the woods: Sun-colored chanterelles, which pop up in meandering lines beneath the trees, are collected in a sun hat. Mountain cranberries fill a jar. Sprigs of eastern white cedar and resinous eastern white pine are piled in a basket, ready to add a mysterious dimension to dishes. Plump rose hips can be used for syrups, desserts, or jellies.
Chanterelle and Egg Sandwiches
Best without strong seasonings, mild chanterelles bring scrambled eggs on toast to new heights. Baby basil serves as a garnish. It can be difficult to distinguish chanterelles from similar-looking golden mushrooms, which are inedible. Always confirm the ID of your finds with an expert before taking a bite.
Woodsy flavors enhance a mild whitefish in this rustic dish. Branches of eastern white cedar were gathered for their foliage tips and their bark, which was cut into thin strips and soaked to use in place of twine; as they cook together, the foliage infuses the fish with a mild cedary taste and aroma. The fish is wrapped in large striped maple leaves for gentle steaming. A small basket is ideal for carrying trimmings and other forest treasures.
Sea Rocket Potato Salad
Small wild greens are an exciting change from the usual garden herbs. In this salad of baby Yukon gold potatoes, two greens -- sour grass, also called yellow wood sorrel, and sea rocket -- add bright flavors. The sour grass is tart while the sea rocket’s crunchy seedpods taste like horseradish and mustard seeds. Pick the plant as the pods are ripening but before the seeds get too large.
Birch Trug bowl, by Canvas, $100; shop.ochrestore.com
Huckleberry Relish Over Chicken
Huckleberries grow in sunny clearings in much of the northeast. They are similar to blueberries but are black in color, less sweet, and juicier. In an uncooked relish of shallots, parsley, and red-wine vinegar over seared chicken breasts, their untamed quality shines.
Dinner plate, by Daniel Smith, in Celadon, $100; shop.ochrestore.com.
Wild Berry Ice Pops
Making homemade ice pops when you get home is a fun way to try out unexpected wild flavor combinations. These are frozen in paper cups capped with baking cups; twigs make natural handles. The deep-purple ones were made from wild blueberries and eastern white pine needles, which were steeped in hot water and spiked with lime. The red pops were made with mountain cranberry and wintergreen.
Mountain Berry Scones
Red, jewel-like mountain cranberries ripen in late summer; pick them as soon as they’re ready, before the birds gobble them up. Treasured by Mainers, wild blueberries are more flavorful than their fat, cultivated cousins. The two berries meet in tender, buttery scones, which are among the easiest of breads to make. These are perfect for a summertime breakfast or brunch.
Wood-grain plate, medium, $35; marciemcgoldrick.com.
Safety is job one when gathering wild edibles. Be sure to educate yourself well before heading out.
Carry an illustrated field guide such as Lee Allen Peterson's "A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants," as well as one for your region (check your local library for books relevant to your area).
Find a Pro
Botanist Jill Weber led the hunt for this story, and there's no safer way to forage than alongside an expert. To find one, contact a local native-plant or mycological society, a cooperative extension service, an Audubon chapter, or your state conservation service.
Practice Common Sense
Avoid contaminated areas, such as roadsides. After identifying a plant, read up on its proper preparation.
Foraging gets you outdoors and into a whole new world of flavors. What you’ll find will vary greatly with climate, geography, and season. Here is a sampler from the summer Maine woods.
Nutty in flavor and aroma, it looks similar to the poisonous jack-o'-lantern mushroom, so take care in identifying.
This tasty berry has large, nutty seeds.
Eastern White Pine
Try making tea with its vitamin C-rich needles.
This tree's leaves, best when young and soft, impart a subtle maple flavor when cooked.
Distantly related to the bay leaf, this plant grows along the coastal plain of eastern North America.
This popular little berry is a major wild crop in Maine and is wonderful in pies and cobblers.
More mustardy than garlicky, this green makes good pesto.
This low creeper has delicious berries.
Eastern White Cedar
Use for flavor in steaming or smoking, rather than directly ingesting.
Its red florets make a sweet, nectary garnish.
This plant has tough leaves, but its sweet, citrusy florets make a dainty salad topper.
The leaves of this herb are refreshing but not tender, so they're best steeped for tea or chewed rather than eaten.
Little pink flowers are followed by spicy seedpods; its leaves are also edible.
This common weed has a lemony kick.
The best trail snack, this berry is excellent in pies and salads.
The fruits of roses are nutritious and tasty; the ones shown here are jumbo size.
Further Reading on Foraging
Note: Always keep safety in mind when foraging. Never eat even a bite of a wild food that cannot be positively identified. The books that follow will provide insight on the wild foods available near you and on foraging in general, but remember that no book is a substitute for expert advice. So, be sure to seek out a foraging specialist when you’re learning the ropes.
Bradford Angier and David Foster, "Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants."
Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory Peterson, "A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America."
Merritt Lyndon Fernald and Alfred Charles Kinsey, "Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America."
Donald Kirk and Janice kirk, "Wild Edible Plants of Western North America."
Lawrence Newcomb, "Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide."
Gary Lincoff, "National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms."
General Reference and Inspiration
Euell Gibbons, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus."
Euell Gibbons, "Stalking the Healthful Herbs."
Robert Henderson, "The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet."
Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean, "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (And Not So Wild) Places."
David Arora, "Mushrooms Demystified."
E. Barrie Kavasch, "Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes."
Langdon Cook, "Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager."
Hank Shaw, "Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast."
Samuel Thayer, "Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants." (Thayer’s website, foragersharvest.com, is an excellent resource for finding events, expert instructors, and educational opportunities in your area.)