Published May 21, 2013
The snow melting is one unmistakable sign, but for David Grabowski, it’s not really spring until he pulls his boots on and heads into the woods looking for dinner.
He’s looking for vibrant green clumps of ramps, a leek that grows wild across the woodlands of Western New York. After five years of ramp-stalking, Grabowski, a physical education teacher at Clarence’s Ledgeview Elementary School, will head to his favorite spots to do a little al fresco shopping.
It’s a rite of spring followed by a growing group of Western New Yorkers who savor the ultimate local produce: food foraged from fields and forests.
Sun-sweetened raspberries and blackberries are the most popular woodland quarries for casual foragers, but veteran foragers bring home a wealth of herbs, buds, roots, nuts and mushrooms for food and medicinal purposes. Oftentimes a good guide, in person or printed form, is necessary to separate the nice from the nasty. (Introductory and in-depth foraging classes are available this week; see sidebar below.)
Ramps, with their distinctively oniony taste and smell, are hard to mistake. That’s part of the reason they’re a popular gateway plant for many foragers.
With the permission of property owners, Grabowski looks for the lilylike leaves jutting from the ground, often near deciduous trees like birches and maples. He uses a fork to loosen the soil and removes only 5 percent to 10 percent of the plants, aiming for the biggest ones, with flat, emerald leaves, eight to 12 inches long.
Back in his kitchen, after washing and trimming, the ramps might be grilled and presented in crab cakes with sriracha chile aoli, or tossed with fried rice. Even before the purple-tipped Niagara County asparagus arrives in farmers’ markets, ramps are the first flavor of the new season, said Grabowski. “They’re just that first harbinger of spring.”
For many foragers, reaping food from the wilds satisfies more than their bellies. It’s a way to pursue closer connections to nature, as canny foraging requires participants to pay close attention to what’s happening in the world around them.
Chuck Bartlett, ecological projects manager for the Buffalo Audubon Society, said he and his wife Amy started taking foraging excursions as part of a larger effort to “become more connected to our food sources, and strive to live a life more in balance with natural cycles,” he said.
They’ve become farmers’ market regulars, but as apartment dwellers, haven’t been able to start a garden. Heading to the woods for ramps – and later in the season, sorrel greens and edible mushrooms like chanterelles and puffballs – meets their goal of “eating closer to the land.”
For the Bartletts, foraging “helps to build a connection to the food you eat, increases respect for the food you eat, and forces you to become connected to the seasonality of the natural world,” Bartlett said. “It’s just healthy, and natural, to go spend an afternoon in nature and return home at the end of the day with something you collected for dinner.”
The first step for would-be foragers should be education, said Sanford Geffner, coordinator of the University at Buffalo’s environmental studies program.
Geffner has been foraging for 30 years, since his first taste of milkweed as a Cortland State College undergraduate, and he’s been teaching would-be foragers for decades. Milkweed is primarily known for its sticky sap and monarch butterfly-attracting properties, but experienced foragers know there’s more to it.
“Milkweed is really good if you harvest the right parts of the plant at the right time of the year,” Geffner said. “We harvested the flower buds and cooked them up – they tasted very much like broccoli. Then we harvested the immature seed pods before they got too white and gooey. They taste like peas.”
Geffner teaches six steps to take before eating wild plants:
• You must positively identify the plant. (That takes an experienced forager or a good field guide, like “Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers,” used properly, he said.) This is especially crucial if collecting wild mushrooms, which despite warnings kill even experienced foragers.
• Identify its purpose. “Is this plant a food, medicine, poison – or all of the above, which is possible in many plants,” he said.
• What part of the plant do you want? “Different parts can have different properties,” he said. “Think of rhubarb: You eat the stalk, but the leaves are toxic.”
• How should you prepare it? If you boil peppermint, you lose healthful delicious volatile oils. But if you simply steep it in hot water, the tea preserves the herb’s best qualities, he said.
• When do you collect it? “You have to know when the part you want is ready.”
• Know your environment. Is it unpolluted and clean? For instance, Geffner collects watercress that grows wild along streams. But not if he’s not sure what’s upstream, such as large dairy farms or septic systems that could affect water quality.
“Before any plant is harvested, you should know these six things, is my take, or you will be harvesting irresponsibly,” said Geffner.
Ramps are hard to mistake for other Western New York plants, though early on their leaves can resemble those of the false hellebore, Geffner said. The onion smell is a reliable identifier, however.
Start with one or two plants you can surely identify, and learn from there, he suggested.
“If you know a couple of plants like those, it’s a wonderful way to get started and enjoy the whole aspect of foraging.”