Tag Archive | wild food

Wild Strawberries

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Wild strawberry time!  This appears to be a bountiful berry year.  The plants prefer poorer, more acidic soil in the wild fields where there is less competition from grasses.  Conditions for growing strawberries have been excellent this year with plenty of early rain, then a nice spell of warm, sunny and humid.  a3The wild berries are very large, the biggest I’ve seen them.  And delicious.

When I was a child, I spent many patient hours in the hot sun, with deer flies and mosquitoes for company, picking wild strawberries for jam.  It takes two quarts of berries for the recipe.  That’s eight cups of tiny berries!  My hands would be red by the time the bowl was full.  Then all those berries had to be hulled, another tedious job.  The end results were worth the effort.  Wild strawberry jam is the best!  Such a blending of piquant, rich, sweet flavors is not present in the more bland cultivated berries.a2

Strawberries are not really berries.  The tasty red part is the enlarged center of the flower.  The seed-like bits on the outside are the actual fruit.  Wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, is a member of the Rose family and is native to North America.  It grows in sun to partial shade, in dry, open areas.  Strawberries tolerate mildly acidic soil.

The early settlers and pioneers of the plains encountered such a plethora of wild strawberries that the wheels of their wagons became stained red.  I saw an original Conestoga wagon on display in a museum in Cooperstown, NY, with berry-stained wheels.  The pioneer children would gather wild strawberries to add to the breakfast (and supper) griddle cakes.

Wild strawberries grow close to the ground, at a height of eight inches or less.  Their fibrous perennial root systems send out long, tough, above-ground shoots called runners that take root on the far end and create new plants.  A sizable patch of strawberries can form in this manner.  There are areas in my fields covered with wild strawberries.  Maybe I’ll relive a childhood experience and pick enough to make jam.  Or not.a4

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Fiddleheads and Ramps

a3When the blackflies arrive, it is time to gather fiddleheads.  The delectable, immature, coiled fronds or fiddleheads, of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are best found along stream banks after the spring flood waters have receded.  Collect only the tightly coiled shoots, with short stems, they are the most tender and tasty.  Always leave a few frond coils on each fern clump, taking no more than three shoots, so the plant is not stressed.

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Remove the brown, papery covering before cooking and rinse the vegetable well to clean away sand.  Be sure to boil fiddleheads until they are tender and discard the dark cooking water.  Some people recommend a water change half-way through boiling.  The ferns contain toxins that must be removed by thorough cooking prior to consumption.  Boiling is preferable to steaming to remove the toxins.  The cooking is worth the trouble as fiddleheads are delicious with a flavor similar to asparagus mixed with spinach.  I like them hot with butter and salt.  For an authentic backwoods experience, cook fiddleheads with ramps, a wild onion.

If you are ever walking in the woods of New England, perhaps on the way to collect fiddleheads, and suddenly notice an onion scent in the air, you have probably passed through a colony of ramps.  a1These wild members of the onion family grow in rich, well drained soil of shady places on the East Coast from Canada to the Carolinas.  The leaves are broad and don’t look like regular onions at all.  They appear more lily-like.  Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are sensitive to habitat disturbance and easily die out.  When things go well for them, ramps will spread to cover a wide area.

Ramps can be used like leeks.  The bulb and attached leaves are removed from the ground.  Young ramps leaves are tender and can be consumed along with the stem and bulb.  Ramps have an onion-garlic flavor all their own. Add some to a bowl of fiddleheads and you will be eating wild cuisine.a2

Here, my hiking pals, Holly and Otto, demonstrate the best location for finding fiddleheads.a5