Finally! May is here and by now even the last corners of the remote sub-arctic territories are beginning to melt. If you happen to live in one of those climatatic zones that experiences short summers, the transition from a bleak frozen landscape to a lush carpet of flowers and greens seems like a miracle. As if somebody had turned on a switch, everything begins to green at once. For foragers this is a busy and blissful season of gathering, learning, exploring and experimenting. There are always new things to discover, recipes and preserving methods to try out, new plants to get to know and new ways of using old favorite herbs to explore.
May surely is the most glorious month of the year in the northern hemisphere and every field day turns into a feast day. So many spring greens to pick and flowers to smell, fields and forests to explore and opportunities to share this bliss with family and friends.
Depending on your climate zone most temperate regions tend to have the secondary growth phase well on the way by now. Some of the early flowering trees have meanwhile started to set leaves and are busy developing their fruit. It won't be long before the first cherries and strawberries will be out, the first sweet fruit delights of the summer.
But first there are still more greens and flowers to pick, though the early spring greens are getting a bit past it by now. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)leaves are turning bitter, though the flowers can still be used for wine and fritters. Here is a recipe for Dandelion Flower wine:
Pick the flowers and separate them from all the stalky bits. Place into a large bucket, cover with 1 gallon of boiling water and leave to infuse for three days, stirring occasionally. On the third day add the sugar and fill into a large pot. Bring to the boil and add the zest of the fruits only. Simmer for 1 hour. Return to the bucket and add the pulp of the lemons and orange. Allow to cool down before adding the yeast. Cover and leave for another 3 days. Strain and fill into bottles, but don't fill them all the way to the top; divide the raisins equally between the bottles. Do not cork until the bubbling stops. If made in May or June the wine will be ready for Christmas.
Variations on this theme could include a little Ginger and or Cinnamon, and perhaps a few Elderflowers (Sambucus nigra), Violets (Viola odorata) along with the Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinalis).
Adapted from Lesley Gordon's 'A Country Herbal'
Hedge Garlic-Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is just beginning to flower and thus about to get rather bitter. If you don't mind a touch of bitterness the young, small leaves are still edible so long as they don't dominate the dish. Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) has grown into full-fledged plants by now, but the younger tender leaves are still good for soups or salads. But while the best gathering season for these herbs is coming to an end, others keep coming up.
One of the most widespread and best-known wild edibles are Cattails (Typha latifolia). Cattails have been considered an essential and tasty wild food by many generations of foragers as almost any part of it is edible depending on the season.
In May/June its' offerings are the green flower spikes, which can be boiled, steamed or wrapped in aluminium foil and roasted among the embers of a bonfire. Roasting is the best method to bring out their subtle flavour. Serve with garlic butter and salt. The core is a little tough and wiry but the buds can be nibbled like corn on the cob or scraped off the core and mixed with other vegetables, like tout mange peas, corn or peppers.
As soon as the spikes break into flower they develop abundant pollen, which can be used as a delightful sweet and nutritious addition to regular flour for making muffins, pancakes and other sweet breads. However, it is a little tricky to collect as it flies off fairly easily. Best gathering conditions are on a calm, sunny day after the dew has dried. There are different methods of collecting the pollen. One fairly easy way is to bend the pollen-laden flower head into a plastic bag and shake and rub off the pollen, which collects directly in the bag. This method keeps the pollen reasonably contained and prevents it from flying off in the wind.
A note of caution: reeds, cattails included, are great environmental purifiers, in other words, they have a tendency to absorb heavy metals and environmental pollutants from agrochemicals, industrial toxins or car exhaust fumes, which are then accumulated in its various parts, especially the roots. Thus it is essential to be sure that the pond or ditch you are collecting from is as clean as clean can be, which sadly, is a rare condition to encounter in any wetland area these days.
For wild greens, Nettles (Urtica dioica) might still be good, though often they tend to get a little stringy and tough late in the season, or insects and aphids start munching on them. Usually the very tips are best and most tender. Keep an eye out for Goosefoot (Chenopodium album) and Bistort shoots (Polygonum bistorta), which both make delightful spring vegetables. In the north of England Bistort and Nettle pudding is a traditional spring dish prepared between Easter and the beginning of May. Here is a traditional recipe, which can be improvised upon according to taste.
Take 1lb of Nettle tops (Urtica dioica) and 1½ lb of Bistort leaves (Polygonum bistorta), and a few handfuls of other greens, e.g. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Ramson (Allium ursinum), Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) etc.; chop fine and mix with a cupful of Barley (washed and soaked) and half a cup of Oatmeal, season with salt and pepper. Wrap in a muslin bag and boil for 2½ hours. Tie the bag firmly as the Barley will expand while the greens will shrink. Turn the whole thing into a very hot bowl, crack an egg into it and stir with a large knob of butter. The heat will be sufficient to cook the egg. Another version recommends a slightly different procedure whereby the pudding is made in the oven. Improvisation could yield interesting results. A good measure of Ramson (Allium ursinum) leaves would certainly contribute a nice garlicky note to the dish. Ramson (Allium ursinum) is just about to flower and where it grows prolifically the woodlands exude a strong garlicky, earthy smell at this time of the year. Ramson (Allium ursinum) is delicious as a green leafy vegetable in soups or fillings, but can also be enjoyed raw on sandwiches e.g. with hard boiled eggs and butter.
Identify carefully though! Before the flowers appear, the broad, smooth Ramson leaves (Allium ursinum) can be mistaken for Lily-of-the-Valley leaves (Convallaria majalis), which are poisonous. However, Ramson (Allium ursinum) can easily be distinguished by its distinctive smell. Many people collect both leaves and roots. However, as the leaves are quite tasty and versatile by themselves it would be wiser to protect the wild stands of this beautiful plant by limiting one's collections to the aerial parts.
Other greens to look out for at this time of the year are young, tender Yarrow leaves (Achillea millefolium) and Ground Ivy leaves (Glechoma hederacea), both of which are highly aromatic and add an interesting flavour to any soups or salads. Edible flowers such as Violets (Viola oderata), Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and Borage (Borago officinalis) are lovely to add to salads for a dash of colour, though they don't add much flavour or nutrient value.
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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.