Still time to forage for spring greens in East Lansing

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Monday, May 23, 2016, 8:25 am
Chris Root

Above: picking stinging nettles.

This year’s long, cool spring has extended the time to forage for spring greens. I’m grateful for the longer season because I am still just learning what to forage and where to find it locally.

It’s important to make sure you know what you’re picking and that it is not a poisonous plant with a similar appearance, so check several sources before you pick; don’t just rely on this article. There are many good sources, including the websites,, and as well as books such as A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson or (for those of us who were reading paperbacks in the 1970s) Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.

I was motivated to forage this year by being one of six lucky participants in the “Eat Wild” class led by Carol Ingall and Jim Coty, sponsored by East Lansing’s Prime Time program. Not only did the leaders identify plants that can be foraged locally now – from cattails to invasive garlic mustard – but  Ingall was extraordinarily generous in serving us dish after dish made with local wild ingredients.

Another local learning opportunity was the May 12 talk at MSU’s Beal Garden on “Edible Wild Spring Greens” talk by assistant curator Peter Carrington. I went on this walk a few years ago but had to miss it this year. What I remember most from this walk was Carrington’s answer of “peanut butter and chickweed sandwich” to the question, “What is your favorite way to eat a weed?” Since then, I haven’t added peanut butter sandwiches to my diet, but I now regularly add chickweed to mixed greens salads.

Before the Prime Time class, my spring wild harvesting has centered on dandelion flowers (which I wrote about last year) for which I had to travel no further than my back yard.

So I set out last week to look for three wild edible plants: stinging nettles, wild yellow mustard, and garlic mustard. So far, I have been to three locations no further than ten minutes from Hannah Community Center. I headed for spots with at least partial sun and rich soil near lots of moisture, in the vicinity of any of East Lansing’s many boggy areas. Armed with this basic knowledge about what habitat these plants like, each trip yielded plants worth harvesting.

Stinging nettles are unusually mild among wild green plants. I have found it easy to forage an abundant supply, but you must wear gloves with plastic or rubber palms when you pick and clean the plant because it is covered with fine, stinging hairs. Also, always cook the nettles before eating!

Some people say you can count on the sting as a way to identify the plant, but because you may not feel the sting right away, you shouldn’t rely on that. The shape of the longish serrated leaf, hairs, and squarish, ridged stem are better characteristics to look for, but be sure to look at color photos before or during your foraging.

Stinging nettles simmered with onions and potatoes or rice and then blended makes a brilliant emerald green soup. Add a dollop of Greek yoghurt, and you have a tasty Green & White lunch. Stinging nettles taste much like spinach, and you can use them in recipes calling for spinach or try one of the many online recipes for the wild plant.

Green & white  soup made with foraged greens.

Wild yellow mustard, whose flowers have four yellow petals in the shape of a cross, is a somewhat more strongly flavored wild green. Cooking it takes away much of the bitterness. I found that I preferred recipes featuring stinging nettles in soup and pasta dishes when I mix them with mustard greens.

I thought I wouldn’t like garlic mustard because it has such a strong flavor, but I was surprised by the huge difference in flavor between mild, almost sweet, leaves I found in the shade on the edge of a wooded area as compared with the stronger flavor of another patch in full sun. I harvested young, first-year specimens of this biennial plant in both shady and sunny spots and mixed the leaves half-and-half in a recipe for garlic mustard pesto (lovely on a slice of toasted wholegrain baguette). I’ve also used the milder leaves in a salad with lettuce and arugula, which have grown well this year in a small raised bed in my garden.

Second year garlic mustard

When you forage, there are a couple of good rules to follow. Avoid areas that may have been sprayed with pesticides or near busy roads with lots of exhaust fumes. Best practice is to leave plenty of plants behind in each patch you find for other humans (or other animals) to enjoy, and so you can go back for another harvest at a later time. For example, when harvesting stinging nettles, break off only the top four or so sets of leaves (the tastiest, most tender leaves), and don’t harvest from more half of the plants in a patch. Don’t pull plants up by the root.

Good practices to protect the plants definitely do not apply to garlic mustard, however, because it is an invasive species in the U.S. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) is a very successful invader. Researchers at MSU Extension and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that garlic mustard is allelopathic, meaning that it releases chemicals that can inhibit the growth of some other plant species, thus reducing competition from nearby native species. Garlic mustard seeds grow on seed stalks that develop on second-year plants, and can remain viable for up to five years, so eradication projects need to continue for this duration.

If you forage for garlic mustard plants, pull them up by the roots. Heather Surface of East Lansing Parks and Rec advised that, when preparing the plants, you should cut off the roots, tie the roots in a black plastic bag, and throw them in the trash. In East Lansing, invasive plants are allowed in trash headed for the landfill, the one exception to organic material being prohibited in trash containers. Handling the plants this way isn’t going to eradicate this invasive species, but at least foragers who follow this practice won’t contribute to its invasion into neighborhoods.

If you would like to volunteer to help eradicate garlic mustard in East Lansing, you can join volunteer work days in Harrison Meadows Park on the second Saturday in June and July.

Because ELi reporting is firmly rooted in East Lansing, we researched whether the East Lansing code prohibits foraging in City parks. Two sections of the East Lansing Code of Ordinances – Sec. 28-31(b) and Sec. 26-231 were brought to our attention by Heather Surface, after she consulted with Tom Yeadon, the City Attorney.

Sec. 28-31 is specifically about parks and playgrounds. It says people may not “injure, mar, remove, deface, or damage in any manner, any…tree…shrub, [or] flower” or “remove dirt, sand, sod, or shredded bark from any park.” Sec. 26-231 makes it illegal to “willfully destroy or damage or in any manner deface, destroy, or injure any property not his/her own” or that is publicly-owned, including a shade tree.

So it is clearly illegal to remove trees, flowers, or shrubs from parks. It is not entirely clear whether this applies to wild plants that are commonly thought of as weeds, as distinct from flowers and shrubs planted purposefully in a park.
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