Foraging is a fun way to teach your kids about nature while also providing them with survival skills. As spring ramps up, outdoor adventurers can stumble across a bounty of free and wild produce in their own backyard. Foraging is also a great way to get connected with your local wildlife and learn more about the native plants in your region.
Here are five plants and fungi from across the country to look out for when you go foraging with your kids this spring!
Found in all 50 states, dandelions are better known as weeds that sprout up between concrete slabs and in backyards. They are easily identifiable after they have flowers, showing a bright yellow round flower that turns into puffs of seeds later in the season. While the flowers steal the show, the dandelion greens are actually the true star of the plant! A great way to prevent the plant from flowering is to put an upside down pot over the plant until you are ready to harvest the greens.
Dandelion greens are high in antioxidants, vitamins, and calcium. Early in the spring, before the plant flowers, dandelion greens can be harvested to add a bright, bitter crunch to a spring dish. They are delicious in salads, braised with garlic, and added to pesto. Make sure to harvest these earlier in the spring before they flower or the leaves can become woody and quite bitter.
One of the most exciting foraging finds is the elusive morel mushroom. Due to their inability to be cultivated, morels can only be found in the wild in specific regions after specific weather conditions. They typically can be found in the northeast region of the United States around the Appalachian region, as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Vermont. After a good early spring rain, morels can be found popping up within two days and only last about four days once grown.
When foraging, take a closer look at oak, elm, ash, and aspen trees. Look for dead or dying trees too, as morel mushrooms tend to grow right around the base. Always double check to make sure you are harvesting a true morel, as false morels can cause sickness. Morels are most often found in higher-end restaurants as a star of a spring dish due to their high cost. Morels must be fully cooked to be eaten and go well with buttery dishes. Morels are high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Also known as spring onions or wild garlic, ramps are an Allium (onion family) that grows in most parts of the United States. The northern half of the country is the prime growing location for ramps with the most abundant regions being in the forested areas of those states. They have been found as far south as South Carolina but do not extend into much of the southwest.
When foraging ramps, make sure to only trim the leaves off of the top. Ramps grow from a bulb, and when that bulb is removed from the ground during harvest, it can prevent more ramps from growing. Overharvesting ramps can occur in highly trafficked regions near cities, so be sure to check with local wildlife experts about their availability. They are characterized by their bright green foliage and pink to purple stems with a flavor and aroma somewhere between onions and garlic. They are delicious in pasta dishes, ramp butter, and fresh salads.
This peppery green needs moist soil to grow and is most commonly found along bodies of water. Ponds and gentle streams are the ideal growing environment as the soil stays moist without being disrupted. Watercress can be found in most parts of North America and is actually considered an invasive species in 46 states. Watercress can be harvested until the plant begins to bloom, at which point the flavor can become overly bitter as the plant matures.
A member of the mustard family, watercress has a peppery taste when raw, which diminishes when cooked. While it can be eaten raw, watercress that is grown near livestock should be cooked through. Watercress is a great addition to stir-fry, steamed and added to pasta dishes, and added as a bright punch to salads.
Turkey Tail Mushrooms
This superfood mushroom has become more well known as an additive to immune-boosting supplements. Its variety of powerful antioxidants support a healthy lifestyle and has even been shown to help fight certain cancers. Turkey tails are one of the most common mushrooms in the forest, and grow in North American woods, generally on fallen logs and trees. They are characterized by their colorful rings, which range from a light brownish-red to dark gray.
While their flavor and texture do not lend themselves well to recipes, you can harvest them and let them dry before turning into powders as an additive to soups, stocks, and other broth-based recipes. Another option is to add whole turkey tail mushrooms to broths and stews to give flavor, removing the mushroom before serving.