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Foraging in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is rich with so many natural and edible herbs and plants to enjoy, but it is also a region that really does experience the four seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter, and these seasons have an impact on these various herbs, berries and plants allowing you to experience different elements depending on the season.  In order to truly be successful when out there foraging, not only do you need to be aware of what to forage for but also when best to harvest those edibles and what parts of them are better to focus on depending on the season. So let’s look at a few of these edibles that are best in each season and what parts of them are best to use.

Winter:

Since we are all in the middle of the winter season, some of us more so than others, the plants we would be looking at are going to be in their dormant stage so the focus would be on the roots and interior parts of the plant.  There would also be some greens and berries that are still available on these dormant plants. A popular root plant available during winter is the cattail and for berries it would be the evergreen huckleberry.

Cattail:

Cattail is commonly found throughout the Pacific Northwest along shorelines of lakes and ponds as well as in flooded area, marshlands and even ditches.  (Fun Fact: the Native Indians of the Pacific Northwest saw the importance of using things to their fullest and found the cattail to be a great source of food and medicine as well as a sturdy element to be used in constructing huts).  The cattail has a tender, white inner part of the shoots that is edible raw or can also be boiled into syrup or baked or dried and ground into flour. The bright yellow pollen, which can be harvested by shaking the spike into a bag, can yield about one tablespoon of powder and can be used to make foods such as pancakes.  The green flower spikes can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob, and the fluff from the brown-cylinder can be burned to separate and parch the seeds, which are edible.

“Cat Tail” (Typha angustifolia)

Evergreen Huckleberry:

There is about 450 species of this plant worldwide with about 45 of them in North America and 15 of those in the Pacific Northwest known by various names.  The Evergreen Huckleberry is found in the western regions of the states of coastal states and mostly found in areas close to the pacific coast as well as coastlines of the Puget Sound.  The plant is generally found in second growth forests especially around the edges and openings, and while it is known to grow slowly it can reach heights of 3-6 feet in the sun and up to 12 feet in the shade.  While the Evergreen Huckleberry is very common in the wild, it has also become a popular plant to add to any natural revegetation project due to its versatility, and can form an attractive hedge given time. The plant itself has lance shaped foliage that is evergreen, leathery often with the a pinkish-brown or purplish tinge.  When flowering, the flowers are a pinkish-white bell shape and when once formed the berries are small purplish-black in color, and you may also find some plants that produce a berry that is larger and more blue similar to a blueberry. The flowers bloom during the spring season and the berries ripen late summer and early autumn, but often remain on the plant until December and are known to taste sweeter after the first frost.  The berries are a favorites of the local wildlife (songbirds, bears, chipmunks, deer, elk and rabbits) and was also a favorite of the local native tribes who ate the berries fresh or dried them into cakes. Today many use the berries to bake into muffins.

Spring:

Ah yes spring time, the season where everything springs back to life, to start anew.  It is a time of awakening when both animals and plants awake from their deep winter slumber to start a new life.  For the plants this is when sugar and nutrients are directed to their new leaves, flowers and stems and it is these parts of the plant that should be the main focus when foraging and harvesting during the season.  During this time of the year these parts of the plant will commonly be fresh, soft, sweet, pliable, and nutrient rich. In spring we have access to many early season berries along with edible shoots, new leafs and leaf buds, as well as bulbs and flowers.  A couple of great times to forage for during the spring season are wild rose that can be used for food and tea, as well as dandelion that is most commonly known to be used for tea and in salads.

Wild Rose:

The Wild Rose is a perennial plant that is part of the rose family that is native to western North America.  The plant can grow to as much as 10’ in height, has pale green paired leaves with toothed edges and prickles at the base.  The flowers grow to 2”-3”, are pink in color and usually grow singly but can be found in groups of 2 or 3, and appear blossom in the early summer months.  The Wild Rose can be found growing from sea level to mild elevations, growing along forest edges in both moderate sun and shade and in both moist soils as well as dry glacial till soils.

The Native Tribes of the region were known to use elements of the plant for medicinal purposes.  It was also used for ceremonial purposes as well as in handcrafts and as a food source. Almost all parts of the plant are edible.  While the young shoots and leaves are edible, as well as the rose petals, it is the fruit of the plant, the hip, that is most commonly used.  The outer shell of the hip is edible, it can be eaten fresh or dried for storage. The rose hip is high in Vitamin C and often used in beverages, preserves, jams, on cereals, and in breads, butter and soups.

Dandelion:

The dandelion is probably the most plentiful and easy to find edible plant, the key is to be assured that they are free from any and all pesticides.  Salsify and Sow Thistle, while also edible, are sometimes mistaken as dandelions. A little known fun fact is that the dandelion is not a native plant to North America, it was actually brought over by settlers on the Mayflower in 1620 as a food crop.  

The plant is a simple perennial that is propagated by seeds that are plumed and blow in the wind.  The dandelion germinates in the spring and summer, has sharply toothed leaves that bear a milky juice.  The plant flowers in early spring and often again in the fall. The young leaves, flowers and unopened flower buds are excellent for cooking.  The older leaves, especially after the plant has flowered, are too bitter to enjoy raw, but are satisfying after a brief boiling with a change of water once or twice.  The flower buds and flowers are less bitter than the leaves, and are well suited for stir frying.

Summer:

Ah summer, that time of the year when people, animals, and yes even plants, love to soak up that sunshine.  While the same process of developing and directing sugars to certain parts of the plants that occurs in spring continues during the summer, it is during the warm months of the summer season that the plants turn their attention more directly to matters of reproduction.  This is an excellent time to harvest berries, seeds, and nuts, as well as to continue to harvest leaves, flowers, and shoots that continue to appear and grown on many edible plants. The summer season is perfect time to forage and gather wild berries such as Thimbleberries and edible greens like Wild Mint.

Thimbleberries:

Thimbleberries are considered a compound berry meaning it is edible.  It is part of the same genus family as raspberries, blackberries and loganberries (Fun Fact: it is also part of the Rose family).  The plant is known to grow from 1.5’ to 6’ in height, has a thornless stock. The flowers are white, grow up to 1.5” in width and consist of 5 petals which resemble a wild rose.  The leaves can grow up to 10” across, resembles a fuzzy maple leaf (a little fun tip for follow foragers, if you find yourself out foraging and nature is calling and you didn’t pack any toilet paper, the soft fuzzy leaves of the Thimbleberry plant are a perfect replacement).  Mature berries will be red-opaque in color resembling a raspberry, will be juicy and seedy with a flavor from tangy to sweet punch. The Thimbleberry can usually be found growing in open sites such as forest edges, clear cuts, country roadsides and shorelines.

The Native Northwest Tribes were known to use the plant for many purposes.  The young shoots of the plant were eaten raw as a vegetable and the berries were dried smoked with clams.  Leaves and shoots were known to have medicinal benefits by being brewed into a tea in order to treat such ailments as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dysentery.  The berry itself is rich in Vitamin C and can help boost your immune system. The leaves when turned into a dried powder can be used to treat burns, and fresh leaves can be crushed and applied to treat acne.  The berry itself is a great substitute to any berry that you would use in your favorite dish. It is a great addition to any cakes, breads, muffins or pies as well as can be turned into amazing jams, wines or salad dressing.  The leaves and shoots are a great addition to a salad and great to use to wrap around fish for cooking.

Wild Mint:

The Wild Mint is a flowering perennial plant in the mint family that is native to temperate regions of Europe and western and central Asia, east to the Himalaya and eastern Siberia, and also North America.  The plant generally will grow 4” to 24” in height but on rare occasions can grow up to 39” high. The leaves are in opposite pairs and the flowers are pale purple, but can occasionally be white or pink, found at the bases of the leaves.  The Wild Mint can be found worldwide, it grows in low lying areas where soil is rich and moist but not directly in water. It will grow in either full sun or partial shade and spreads through creeping rootstocks, and can grow quickly and take over a garden if not maintained.

The Wild Mint was mostly used by Native Tribes for medicinal purposes by crating a lotion to be rubbed on the chest to help battle pneumonia.  Parts of the plant would also be used for stomach pains, colds and headaches. Today the plant can be used for many of the same medicinal uses that the Native Tribes used it for but also can find use for the oils extracted from the plant to be used to rub into the skin for aches and pains.  Adding it to your garden or in pots around your patio will create a natural repellent to insects as well as rats and mice. The leaves are edible raw or cooked. Because they have a rather strong minty flavor, they are great to enhance the flavor of other foods such as additions to salads. They can also be dried and turned into a powder that can then be sprinkled onto drying meats to repel insects.  But of course the most traditional use that we know of is as a tea. The leaves can be used fresh or dried to make a mint tea that is known to be calming and relaxing.

Autumn:

I have to be honest, while most people prefer the sun and warmth of summer, autumn is my favorite season of the year.  The amazing colors of the leaves as they change color while trees and shrubs begin the process of moving into their dormant state, and the crisp cool mornings that give way to sunny afternoons.  Just like many animals that prepare for the cold months of winter ahead, plants are also preparing themselves to enter their dormant state for winter by directing sugars to their roots and other interior storage elements.  Because of this, autumn is the perfect season for gathering edible roots, such as Springbank Clover, as this will be the time of the year that they are at their sweetest. It is also the best time to forage for late season berries in lower elevations such as Oregon Grape.

Springbank Clover:

Springbank Clover is native to Western North America from Canada to Mexico, and grows in many locations from beaches to mountain ridges below 10,500 ft. in elevation.  The plant is classified as a ground cover as it grows to only 4”-6” in height. It prefers a sandy well drained soil that is still moist to wet and prefers full sun but is tolerant of light shade.  The flowers will bloom late spring and summer and can be harvested anytime but it is at is best during autumn.

Native Tribes of the Pacific Northwest placed a high value on the Springbank Clover. They would tend vast wild patches and would sustainably harvest the roots to sell in local trade as well as cook for ceremonial feasts.  While many clovers are edible, this particular species is known for its nutritious and tender white roots or rhizomes, which resemble and taste much like Chinese bean sprouts. The leaves and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked.  The flower heads and seeds can be dried and ground up into a flour. While the plant has its nutritious elements, one should avoid eating in large quantities as it can cause bloating.

Oregon Grape:   

The Oregon Grape is not a true grape, it received its name due to the cluster of purplish-black colored berries that resemble grapes.  The plant is native to North American West from Southeast Alaska to Northern California. It is an evergreen shrub that grows up to 3’ across and 5’ high, with spiny leaves that combined with its width and height allows for the plant to be used as a great barrier or hedge.  The Oregon Grape will traditionally be found growing in understory of Douglas Fir forests, and in brushlands of the Cascades, Rockies and northern Sierra.

The small purplish-black berries are quite tart and have large seeds.  It was found in small quantities to be part of the traditional diet of the Native Tribes of the region, who would mix the berries with salad or other sweet fruits.  Today they can be found to still be mixed with salad, as well used to make jellies. The juice can be fermented to make wine, although it requires a high amount of sugar.  The root can be dried and chopped up to make a tea that can be helpful in the treatment of liver and kidney troubles, arthritis, hepatitis, jaundice, syphilis, constipation and uterine diseases.  The dried root when mixed with rubbing alcohol can be used externally to treat skin diseases such as eczema, acne, herpes and psoriasis.

So to wrap things up, if you are in the mood to go foraging for edible herbs and plants in your area make sure to educate yourself on what plants are in your area, where best to find them and when best to harvest them.  Make sure you are also aware of what elements of the plant are edible. While there are numerous edible plants that can offer up some intriguing additions to your next breakfast, lunch or dinner, many of these plants can also be harmful if you overindulge or eat the wrong part of the plant.  Don’t be afraid to be adventurous, the next time you are planning to go for a hike or just a nature walk, go in search of some of these amazing offerings that nature has and see what you can cook up in the kitchen or over the campfire. Also the next time you are thinking about redoing the landscape at your home, or looking for plants to add to your balcony garden, think about planting some of these amazing wild plant options, not only will they provide some natural beauty to your garden, you can also benefit from the bounty they provide.

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