Never harvested a weed before? No problem. Awesome human and trained herbalist Siloh Radovsky will help you find your first bounty.
Chances are high your town or local neighborhood haunts are home to edible and medicinal plants. You might think of some of them, such as dandelions or garlic mustard, as unsightly weeds or even invasive species. But many have a long history of culinary and medicinal use — and by getting better acquainted with them, you’ll discover opportunities for culinary experimentation that no grocery store can match.
Before embarking on your first adventure, it’s important to make sure you know the plant you’re working with. Improperly identifying a plant can lead to accidental poisoning, and also — importantly — you’ll want to avoid harvesting rare plants that are at risk of extinction. Fortunately, we all possess astute pattern recognition capabilities. And once you get to know what a plant looks, smells, and feels like, it’s easy to pick out in a crowd.
Extra caution is advised for plants that share family members with poisonous plants. Sweet cicely, for example, is a member of the wild carrot family (which includes some toxic cousins) and should always be identified with the aid of a photo reference.
In general, if you’re new to plant identification, try to get your hands on a reputable guidebook or region-specific online resource for in-depth instructions on how to “key” or identify your plant. You can also check out United Plant Savers, another great resource, for invaluable information on medicinal plants at risk of extinction.
(FYI: All the plants listed in Botanic Romantic are abundant and ecologically appropriate to harvest in the Midwest.)
Once you’ve established the appropriateness of harvesting the plant you’d like to pick, there are a few other rules to keep in mind.
Photo: Andrew Neel
Where to Find the Goods
Finding spots to pick from requires consideration of both ownership and pollution. Public parks are usually illegal to harvest from, and may be sprayed with pesticides. But look around in your neighborhood and you will find that there are often ambiguous “no-man’s lands” where plenty of plants proliferate.
Hot tip: Offer a friendly conversation to a neighbor about the “weeds” growing in their lawn and you may find they welcome your wildcrafting*. Share the bounty of salads, snacks and beverages you make from the harvest and you might even make a new friend.
How Much to Harvest
A common rule of thumb is to harvest absolutely no more than 1/3 of the plants in a given area if it is abundant. This ensures the stand survives into the future!
If you’ve found a solitary shrub or tree
Never harvest more than 1/3 of the foliage or twigs, ideally from the outer edges of the plant.
If you are harvesting wild roots
Herbalist Michael Moore suggests only harvesting 1/2 of the immediately visible roots, and leaving the younger roots to grow and re-seed.
Try to keep an eye on your spot over the seasons and make sure that you’re not depleting the bounty.
Photo: Joanna Kosinska
How to Do the Deed
Bring a sharp knife (or even some kitchen scissors) and a paper bag or basket to harvest into, and you’re ready to get rolling. Harvest from healthy-looking plants, and keep the following considerations in mind:
Should be harvested after the morning dew dries, and ideally early enough in the season before the plant flowers; cleanly slice stems at the junction of leaves.
Can be harvested when they are blooming, and fruit or berries when they have ripened.
Are best harvested in the late fall, when the green part of the plant begins to retreat for the season.
Photo: Allie Dearie
What to Do With What You’ve Got
If you’ve picked fresh plants & fruits
If you’re using fresh plant material, use promptly after cleaning. Remove leaves from stems and they’re good to go!
If you don’t want to cook right away
If you’d prefer to put the cooking off, allow the leaves to dry and keep them refrigerated, much like you would with your store-bought salad greens. Treat fruits and berries like store-bought fruit, keeping it dry and cool until use.
Berries can also, of course, be frozen: lay them out on a baking sheet in a single layer (so they don’t clump together) and stick the whole pan into the freezer. Once frozen, the berries can be transferred to a freezer bag and saved for upwards of a year later.
If you want to dry leaves or flowers
If you’re going to dry your plants for teas, you can hang small bunches of stems together in a dry, dark spot of your house. Tie them together with yarn or string, keeping an eye on air circulation — don’t make too large of plant clusters or you risk molding.
Another method for drying leaves is to use a mesh rack or basket. This method works for drying seeds and roots, too.
Once they are fully dry, gently place the leaves into a jar and store away from light. Dried herbs generally last for a maximum of a year before losing flavor and potency.
If you’ve picked roots
Roots need to be thoroughly cleaned before use. A vegetable scrub-brush works wonders here. If you’re going to dry your roots for teas, slice thinly after they’ve been cleaned. Slice fresh roots before use.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003. (pg 11-13)
Siloh Radovsky is a writer who grew up in Minnesota and will always love its plant-life like none other. She received her B.A. in interdisciplinary writing from the Evergreen State College, which was preceded by studies in herbalism at Minnesota Community & Technical College, the Serpentine Project in Wisconsin, and at the Farmacy in Providence. She has additionally studied at the School of Traditional Western Herbalism in Portland, Oregon, where she learned from Matthew Wood in addition to other notable herbalists like Jim McDonald and Larken Bunce. Siloh currently resides in Olympia, WA, where she is working on a novella themed around contemporary relationships to bodily health, mental illness, and health fads. Examples of her work can be found here.
*Editor’s Note: While the term “foraging” is common and perhaps better known, herbalists more typically refer to the process of finding, using, and/or preserving wild plants as wildcrafting.