Warning: Very photo-heavy post ahead!
One of the the benefits of foraging is learning more about the natural cycles of plants, and how weather and seasons impact those cycles. The big fancy word for this is “phenology” (which is totally different from phrenology, so make sure you spell it correctly!). You learn about cycles over the course of years, by noticing which plants are at which stages of their lifecycle at different times under different conditions, so it takes years to really understand the patterns at work.
For instance, this spring in Maryland was especially cool and wet, with very late frosts, leading to all sorts of problems with a backyard garden. How had the weather impacted the wild food? I suspect everything is behind where it “should” be at the end of June; unfortunately, I’m still too new in this field of study to really know. But here is what I found on a walk in this woods this weekend.
Berries & Fruit
Mock Strawberry (Potentilla indica)
Edible, but not worth it. The mock strawberry is often confused for wild strawberries, but in fact is a completely different, unrelated plant. My June-bearing strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa) really failed to produce this year and I wonder if these mock strawberries are likewise struggling.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Blackberries seem far behind last year. I visited Timber Creek Farm in early July, and they had huge amounts of ripe blackberries at the time. Granted, their climate is slightly warmer than ours because they are closer to the coast and we’re closer to the mountains. But the wild blackberries I found this week aren’t even starting to change color yet. The fruit size also seems very small.
Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)
The wineberries also seem behind schedule this year. Often the first week of July is when we can start picking them, but now the fruit is still nowhere to be seen.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Spicebush appears to be doing extremely well this year, which surprised me. The female plants were laden with fruit. Last year, neither spicebush nor autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) produced fruit to speak of, which I attributed to a late April frost. This year, we actually had freezing temperatures in early May!
But the spicebush blossoms seemed to have survived just fine, as demonstrated by all the fruit. The autumn olive, by contrast, did not have one single berry on any of the shrubs I checked.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
It’s a good thing I learned how to recognize serviceberries earlier this spring, because there was NO fruit at all left by the time I got back to these trees. I’m guessing birds made off with most of the fruit, because they certainly ravaged the ones in my yard.
Roses (Rosa multiflora)
Normally I don’t even bother with rose hips because all the local “wild” roses are Rosa multiflora, which generally produces pathetically small fruit. Not worth tangling with the thorns! This year, somehow, they are doing better than usual.
Mulberry (Morus spp.)
The mulberry tree in our yard has seen better days, and the fruit seems small this year. I thought maybe it was just this tree, but the ones in the forest also have undersized fruit which is hardly worth standing on tiptoe to pick.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
The mayapples are particularly problematic this year. Not like I would harvest the fruit anyway, given how much struggle is has been in the past to get a usable amount of fruit! But there were few tell-tale leaves to be seen, and those had no fruit. Good thing I didn’t have my heart set on them!
Flying Dragon or Trifolate or Cold Hardy Citrus (Citrus trifoliata)
Who doesn’t care about your spring weather? The flying dragon citrus doesn’t care about your spring weather! The very random cold hard citrus growing in the woods nearby is just as happy, carefree, and covered with fruit as ever.
The fuzzy fruit is better juiced and used in place of lemons rather than eaten. And this tree will have plenty!
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Another surprise this year: the pawpaw trees are thick with fruit. Last year, we had noticed a lot of flowers, but nowhere near an equivalent amount of fruit. (Somehow I failed to blog about this, and I’m not sure why. Pawpaw flowers are fascinating.) This year, there seemed to be fewer flowers but now the trees are COVERED in fruit. Some trees had multiple clusters of five or more fruit on one branch!
Grapes (Vitis spp.), not grapes (Smilax spp.), and also REALLY not grapes (Toxicodendron radicans), oh and still not grapes (Echinocystis lobata)
The main reason I went into the woods was to find grape leaves large enough to try stuffing. Luckily the grapes didn’t seem to mind the messed up weather so far this year and I found quite a few leaves of a worthy size.
I also found leaves growing in the same location which were not grapes, even though they were similarly shaped and had the same kinds of grasping tendrils. I believe these are wild cucumber.
This is why it is so important to be 100% sure of your plant identification before eating wild food!
I also found grapes that might actually be within reach when they ripen later this year…
And encountered similar looking fruit, surrounded by grape leaves, but turned out to be greenbrier berries.
Greenbrier leaves and young stems are edible, but I haven’t heard anything about the berries so I left them alone. Later I came across even more fruit which looked intriguing…
But that is poison ivy! Definitely something to avoid.
The local nut trees seem to be struggling as well.
Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
I found very few young fruit on black walnut trees. Almost exactly a year ago, I easily gathered enough young walnuts for a batch of nocino, and this year was the exact opposite.
Hickory (Carya spp.)
Likewise I didn’t see many hickory nuts forming…
Oak (Quercus spp.)
And I don’t even have any photos of acorns, because I didn’t see any in the many oak trees in the forest. Perhaps they were all just too high in the branches.
Greens & Flowers
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Even at this late month, stinging nettle still packs a punch if you accidentally brush its leaves and stem. Generally stinging nettle is harvested for greens in the spring, but the young growing tips are still edible in early summer.
Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
Stinging nettle’s northern cousin, Canadian wood nettle, is even more abundant locally. The plants seem shorter this year than last, although I didn’t actually measure them to know for sure. That would get too close to those stinging hairs!
Yellow Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)
The only local jewelweed appears to be Impatiens pallida, rather than the more widely spread Impatiens capensis or orange jewelweed. Luckily its sap makes a soothing salve when you run into nettles by mistake! Most of my foraging efforts have been focused on food, but jewelweed is one of the few medicinal plants I have used as well.
Shiso, Beefsteak, or Perilla (Perilla frutescens)
If you want a tasty green vegetable without fighting stinging hairs, shiso (also known as beefsteak or perilla) grows in the local forests as well. The flavor may be a bit intense for some eaters, so if necessary try blending it with other greens in a side dish. They are just starting to come up, which means they are at their most tender.
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
Tawny daylily continues to bloom under the cover of the forest leaves. The ones in my backyard are almost done, but in the shade the daylilies are still going. These are at the perfect stage for making stuffed flowers.
Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa)
Wild lettuce in the woods grows even taller than my backyard variety. The specimen in this photo towered over my head. At this stage of growth, the lettuce is no longer edible … by a long shot!
As I understand it, this is the size where wild lettuce sap can be harvested and processed for a pain-relieving medicine. I haven’t tried this yet myself, but found abundant details online in this article. If you decide to give it a shot before I get a chance to, let me know how you harvested it and whether it worked! **** UPDATED 7/2/2020 I no longer believe this monstrosity is wild lettuce. It is way too tall, and lacks the spines on the stem which all the examples in my own yard have. Speaking of needing to double check your identifications … and why the information in this blog, by itself, is insufficient to identify wild edible and medicinal plants!
How are things looking in your neck of the woods?