Walking through forests and fields with an experienced forager is a lesson on observation and survival that truly changes how one looks at the natural world.
I’ve attended several foraging workshops and nature walks in recent years, which has given me the opportunity to learn from many different people. And because there are so many edible and medicinal plants in Maine, each time I go out with one of these foragers, I learn something new.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when I attended a wild edibles workshop at the Becoming an Outdoors-woman in Maine (BOW) spring mini series, a daylong event in which participants attended three workshops of their choosing. Hosted in western Maine at the University of Maine 4-H Camp & Learning Center at Bryant Pond, the event was all about women acquiring outdoor skills, stepping outside their comfort zones and making connections.
The leader of the foraging workshop, Emily Fox, was knowledgable and enthusiastic about native plants and their many historic and current uses. Most of the plants we found and talked about that day were entirely new to me. Then there were plants that I’d seen a million times before but would never have never guessed were edible, let alone tasty.
Before I share some of what I learned, I’d like to make clear that this post will not help you actually identify edible plants. To do that, you’ll need at least a plant guide. There are so many different characteristics — leaf shape, stem color and length, texture, scent — that act as identifiers for plants, helping you distinguish one species from another.
And one more thing. When harvesting wild plants, leave some behind so the species can reproduce and return the following season. The general rule is to harvest one of four wild plants, but in some cases, you may want to reduce that percentage to one in 10 plants. And if the plant is rare or endangered, don’t harvest any at all.
Now that I’ve gotten those important disclaimers out of the way, here are a few fascinating and common wild plants in Maine that you can eat.
Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana)
As soon as we stepped into the woods, we came across Indian cucumber, a small forest plant that has two tiers of leaves, the first containing five to nine leaves all growing in a circle, and the second containing fewer, usually three. The plant is green and kind of blends into the landscape. Its flowers are small, greenish yellow and hang down below the upper tier of leaves. And in the late summer, the plant produces dark purple berries. However, these are not edible. In fact, the only edible part of this plant is the roots, which taste — you guessed it — like cucumber. The plant’s crispy roots are often used in salads or can be pickled.
WARNING: If harvesting this plant, make sure there are at least three other healthy plants within a three foot radius that you leave alone. This will ensure you don’t deplete the resource. Also of note, a look-alike to this plant is the starflower, which can be toxic. However, starflowers only have one tier of leaves, not two.
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
I’ve always been told not to eat random red berries because they’ll make you sick, and that’s partially true. There are plenty of red forest berries that can make you sick in Maine, but there are a few that are entirely edible and could just help you in a survival situation. One of those is partridgeberry, a common woodland plant that produces bright red berries. This evergreen plant has slender stems that trail along the ground and are covered with small, shiny dark green leaves. On these plants, only the berries are edible, and that doesn’t mean they’re particularly tasty. In fact, they don’t taste like much at all, and their consistency is mealy. However, because these berries stay on the stem over winter, they’re an important nutrient source during that time. Also, historically, these berries have been used medicinally for a variety of things, including to treat delayed, irregular or painful menses. They’ve also been made into a wash to soothe hives, arthritis and rheumatism.
A look-alike for this plant is wintergreen.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
Another forest plant that grows low to the ground and often in the same places as partridgeberry is wintergreen, which has thick, shiny, oval and slightly toothed evergreen leaves that smell and taste distinctly minty. These edible leaves, which alternate on the stem and often grow in clusters of three, can be gathered throughout the year and make a good tea or trailside snack. You can also eat the berries, which were once used to flavor beer. Traditionally, wintergreen tea was taken for colds, headaches, stomach aches and fevers, and externally it was used as a wash for sore muscles and rheumatism. The leaves were also used as a remedy for toothaches.
WARNING: Do not boil the leaves. Boiling releases potentially toxic oils.
Common broadleaf plantain (Plantago major)
This plant is something I consider to be a “weed.” In fact, for a long time now, it’s been the most despised weed in my lawn. Its wide leaves spread out, killing grass all around it, and its roots are thick and run deep. So it was a great surprise to me to learn that common plantain is actually quite yummy if harvested while young. They can be boiled, like spinach, or eaten raw in salads. And as a remedy, the plantain has many uses because it has astringent and soothing properties. It’s been used to help prevent infections, treat diarrhea and soothe insect bites and prevent poison ivy from spreading. This last use interested me the most. Basically, all you have to do is chew or shred the leaves and apply it to the bite or rash. Also, an infusion of the leaves and seeds have been used to treat a wide variety of issues, including bronchitis and bladder disorders. To find this plant, just visit a yard that hasn’t been chemically treated and gets a lot of sun.
Eastern hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis)
To end the foraging workshop, we gathered about a cup of new growth from the tip of eastern hemlock tree branches. These fresh, light green needles were then thrown into a pot of hot water and steeped to make a tea. The eastern hemlock tree is one of the many evergreen trees that grow in Maine, and they can be identified by their needles, which are fairly short, flat and rounded at the tip (not spiky) and, if you look underneath them, each needle is marked with two very thin white lines that run the length of it. The tea made from hemlocks are rich in Vitamin C and other nutrients, which may explain why loggers in the area sometime brewed this tea during the winter. Medicinally, the inner bark and leafy twig tips of the tree were used by Native Americans to treat a wide variety of ailments.
WARNING: Don’t boil the needles. Boiling can release volatile oils. Simply steep the needles in hot water. Also, a look-alike of the hemlock is the American yew, which is a toxic shrub that often grows right next to hemlocks. The American yew lacks the white stripes on the underside of its needles.
Blue violets (Viola sororia)
To sweeten our hemlock tea, we picked blue violets — another common “weed” found in lawns throughout Maine — and made them into a simple syrup. To do this, you harvest just the purple flowers (they’re called “blue violets” but they’re purple) and steep them in a mason jar of warm or hot water for 12 to 24 hours. Strain the violets out, then add the liquid (which should now be a bit purple) into a pot. Add two cups of sugar for every cup of water and stir over low heat making sure not to bring it to a boil. Add in a few drops of lemon juice to keep the purple color of the mixture vibrant. When the syrup gets to a consistency you like, you’re done. It should be bright purple. Because they’re edible and mild tasting, violets are also often used in decorating cakes and salads. And like most wild edibles, violets have a history of being used in medicine for a variety of ailments.
WARNING: While the leaves and flowers are edible, do not eat the roots, which can cause nausea and vomiting.
These six wild edibles are just a small percentage of the many edible species of plants that grow in the Maine forest. To learn more, I suggest attending a foraging workshop like I did and investing in a few good books on the topic, such as “Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide” by Tom Seymour, a very well-known forager and outdoorsman who lives in Maine.