Clockwise from top left: Lamb’s Quarter, Oyster Mushroom, Morels, Chantarelle.
The onset of spring brings us out of the winter doldrums and sparks the desire to get outside and enjoy the warmer temperatures and the green-up taking place all around us.
Bright sunny days, coupled with warm nights, gets the mushroom hunters out in the woods looking for a “mess” of morels to cook up for a long-anticipated meal. If you really want to maximize your harvest of nature’s bounty, it may be time to look at Missouri’s other wild edibles and add them to your list as you walk the woods.
There are a number of choice edible mushrooms that come up throughout the spring in addition to ones in the morel family, including the Chanterelles, Pale and Sulfur Chicken of the Woods and Oyster Mushrooms. The Missouri Department of Conservation has a page on the Discover Nature section of their web site devoted to mushroom identification with color pictures and descriptions. It’s important to correctly identify mushrooms before eating them, as there are some edibles that look similar to poisonous varieties. If you’re not sure, pass on picking them until you can verify that they are safe to eat. Even with edible varieties, it’s important to try a small amount if you’re eating them for the first time to be sure you don’t have any adverse reaction. With a little research and time spent looking, you can actually harvest mushrooms throughout the year. There are several great varieties that grow throughout summer into fall.
There are plenty of spring “greens” available for harvest in early spring as well. Growing up, my father had us out picking poke, mustard and wild lettuce for our first taste of fresh greens of the season. A carry over from the days when you couldn’t buy fresh produce at the supermarket, the early green plants were a valuable source of vitamins for people who had been living on home canned vegetables all winter. Other plants that make good salad ingredients include dandelion, lambs’ quarter, stinging nettle (cooking it takes out the “sting”), shepherd’s purse, plantain, curly dock and purslane. It’s important to make sure plants haven’t been sprayed with chemicals before harvesting and eat a small amount when adding a plant to your diet for the first time. Some spring greens have a mild flavor and others are strong or even bitter and should be mixed with other plants for best results.
These are just a few of the plants available in the spring. Cattails, pepper weed, wild onions and red dead nettle are also readily available. Many wild plants have medicinal value, so you should be aware of the pros and cons of consuming them.
There are plenty of field guides available to help identify plants that are edible in Missouri. One great resource is Wild Edibles of Missouri, by Jan Phillips. It is currently out of print, but can be downloaded as a PDF file on the Missouri Department of Conservation web site, or purchased used on Amazon. CookingWild in Missouri, by Bernadette Dryden, has plenty of recipes to help you enjoy the fruits of your foraging. Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms, by Maxine Stone is filled with great information to help you get started. Both of these books are still available for purchase from the Missouri Department of Conservation Nature Shop. www.mdcnatureshop.com
I hope you get a chance to get outside this weekend and enjoy Missouri’s great outdoors.