Deborah Lee

Deborah Lee, who teaches foraging and has written a book on the subject, picks many unplanted goodies that grow alongside crops on her small organic farm.

For experienced foragers, country roads are supermarket aisles.

Foraging for wild food is one of mankind’s oldest activities. But knowledge faded due to the advent of modern agriculture and the exodus of people from rural areas to cities. The practice has come back into vogue, thanks to the groundbreaking 1962 Euell Gibbons title “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and the numerous books, videos and classes it spawned.

Wild foods run the gamut from native plants to cultivated vegetables that escaped and took root in the countryside, such as asparagus. Many wild foods are familiar and widely foraged. They include mushrooms, blackberries and hickory nuts. Others are common but not as commonly used, such as milkweed, cattail and field mustard.

Deborah Lee has a lifetime of experience with wild foods. Lee, who farms at Quincy, Illinois, in Adams County, is the author of a book on wild foods, now out of print. She also has a DVD — “Eat the Weeds … Wild and Free” — available on Amazon and her website.

Spring brings with it many options for those looking for a free basket of food. In addition, they are particularly nutritious this time of year.

“The spring plants that come up are the ones most rich in nutrients,” said Lee, who is a master gardener.

Lee is especially fond of a plant that is the bane of many homeowners.

“One of my favorite ones is dandelion because it’s everywhere,” she said.

Dandelion tea

She uses it to make tea.

“I scrubbed off the roots, cut them thin and simmered it a wee bit. I did that about a half hour and drank some of that tea. If it’s too strong, add more water if you want to,” she said. “There’s bitter taste, but it’s good for digestion, heart and liver.”

She pointed out that dandelions growing in a shaded area have broader leaves and a milder flavor.

Poke — sometimes called pokeweed — is another plant that comes up in early spring. It is a perennial that grows very large, as high as 8 feet at its maturity. It produces purple berries that stain the flesh or anything else when crushed. During the Civil War, soldiers often used pokeberry juice as ink when writing letters to loved ones back at home.

One can identify them by the previous year’s dead stalks. The stalks are large, brown to tan, and are often bent over, as the weight of the leaves and berries pulled them down in the fall.

This time of year the plants will be sprouting, usually right around the old stalks. The green shoots grow vertically in bunches, the leaves sometimes wrinkled. They are best when picked when they are 4 to 6 inches tall, Lee said.

“You have to be real careful with poke. It’s a little extreme,” Lee said. “You want to get it when it first comes up. Either cook it with eggs or something. If you’re going to do the greens, put it in boiling water then throw off the water.”

The large leaves of mature plants and the berries they produce are considered toxic and should not be eaten.

Edible wildflowers are also a big part of Lee’s diet, especially this time of year.

“Violet leaves and violet flowers are really high in vitamins A and C, which help the immune system,” Lee said. “The leaves are nice in salads. Also, the flowers are wonderful. You can collect the flowers in a container and they’ll last a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.”

Chickweed also is in season. The plants cover the ground like a blanket.

“It’s wonderful in salads,” Lee said. “It’s a wonderful spring green.”

Other greens that will be at peak stage soon include lamb’s quarters, wild lettuce and stinging nettle.

“Another fun thing for flowers are redbuds,” Lee said. “One of the first things is red bud flowers. Strip them off. They’re pretty in a salad and are nutritious.”

Here are a few guidelines for first-time foragers, provided by Deborah Lee.

1. Know what you are picking. Be absolutely sure it is the plant you seek. Many edible plants have a poisonous look-alike. As a further precaution, once the edible plant has been identified, take a tiny nibble, then wait for 30 minutes to observe for any adverse reactions. Be extremely careful when collecting mushrooms. Mistakes can be fatal.

2. Know what part to pick. One plant part may be safe to eat and another toxic. For example, elderberry blossoms and fruits are edible, but the leaves are an emetic and make you vomit.

3. Avoid collecting plants in commercially fertilized areas or where herbicides or other chemicals may have been sprayed. Avoid collecting under power lines, in unfamiliar weed lots or lawns, beside commercial crop fields or close to roadsides. Err on the side of caution!

5. Collect with consciousness. Make the area looks as though you were not there. Take what you need, leaving plenty for wildlife and future years.

6. Before you prepare a food, read. Many plants can be mildly toxic and may require cooking or parboiling (and then discarding) the first and second “waters” before ingesting.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.