Cocktails flavored with different plants and herbals are now all the rage among foodies and at popular restaurants. Beyond the garden, foraged, wild flavors can be gathered from the woods and fields to be blended into infused liqueurs, simple syrups and handmade bitters for the cocktail cart.
The windfall of falling walnuts becomes noticeable in mid-summer as the green fruits of the black walnut begin to drop. Your main competition for this fruit will be the local wildlife, particularly the ever-aggressive squirrel.
The wild walnut of the Juglans nigra (black walnut) is a forager’s delight – not only does it offer delicious nutmeats for cooking and baked goods, but the green hull has a fragrant, citrus-like aroma that infused in liquor makes a delicious aperatif.
Traditionally, nocino is made from the English walnut, but here in the Midwest, black walnut may be used. In some literature, there has been question whether or not the juglone content of the roots in the black walnut render the nut inedible (as it is a gardener’s nightmare for plants intolerant of the juglone), but there is enough traditional and contemporary use of the black walnut to negate this potential concern. The only issue that the black walnut may cause is in companion planting in the garden!
For more tips on identifying the black walnut, get a copy of my book, Midwest Foraging to take with you into the fields!
In “Midwest Foraging,” I describe that the green hulled walnut can be transformed into a traditional Italian digestif known as nocino, an aromatic spicy liqueur that contains clove, orange peel, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Try making a nocino with the herbs of the spicebush, tulip poplar, and wild ginger.”
To make your own nocino, gather 4 quarts of green walnut hulls. In the kitchen, stuff large ball jars to the brim with the nuts, including a tablespoon each of clove, juniper berries, orange peel, cardamon, ginger, and 2 cinnamon sticks. Cover completely with vodka (or white wine), and let macerate for 8 weeks. Strain and preserve in a glass bottle to let age.
Enjoy as a sipping liqueur or in a dessert course with fragrant cheese and dark chocolates.
There’s no better place on earth in summer than #PureMichigan. Summer vacation is a time to load the car and head to the lakeshore – bikes tied to the back and sandals in tow. The great thing about our Great Lakes state is that we are never more than 20 minutes from an outdoor adventure that can rival any escape to greater terrain up north or out west.
As part of your outdoor escape, get the kids, neighbor’s kids, and even dog outdoors to plan an foraging expedition to learn wild edibles. From bogs to dune habitats at the lakeshore, this is a great chance to expose children to parts of Michigan they’ve never experienced before AND teach them new outdoor skills.
Short on time and want an even lower cost excursion? Plan this endeavor to take place in your own backyard! There are many wild edibles to discover right outside your doorstep.
To begin to learn and identify wild edibles with the children:
Pick a place to explore: Let the kids select the plants around them to learn, sometimes the most adventures can actually happen right outside the back door in the yard!
Safety: Remind the explorers to never pick nor eat a plant until they can properly ID the plant.
Remind the children of the rules of foraging: Ask permission if it is private property you are exploring and respect the rules of any parks area.
Respect plant sustainability: Teach the children that we are stewards of the land and can help plants grow and propagate, especially native plants and never harvest plants that are on the threatened or endangered list.
Pack a foraging kit: Include a notebook, colored pencils, a camera and perhaps a snack, sunscreen and bug repellant (need an herbal recipe? check out my blog here).
Find the right expertise: Head to the library and select a few good field guides and consider picking up a copy of Midwest Foraging at your local bookstore.
Let this journey be kid-led. Let them explore the outdoors, make a plant journal and even let them get really dirty. Create a cool certificate or bad for those kids completing the adventure and celebrate them for trying something new. It’s low-cost, high-yield activity that offers lessons that last a lifetime.
To find a trail:
Thanks to the glaciers long ago, the ecosystems of Michigan area are very diverse. And what better way to learn about them than to explore them on foot with the family in tow?
In Kent County, the Kent County Parks Foundation and The Friends of Grand Rapids Parks offers miles and miles of maintained trails in its expansive parks network that local residents can explore free of charge. The State of Michigan also offers great resources for hiking. Headed north? Try the Leelanau Land Conservancy for ideas of local nature walks. Some programs offer walks free for area residents.
Be sure to add to your summer bucket list nature centers and eco-preserves to walk the trails and experience the land that might be different. Remember, many of these habitats may have stringent rules prohibiting foraging – be sure to use these areas as learning laboratories only, taking nothing and leaving only footprints.
A PureMichigan summertime is made up of camping trips, picnics, and summers by the lakeshore surrounded by family and friends. But usually unwelcome visitors to the festivities include the pesky mosquitos, ticks and spiders – unavoidable in our forests and backyards.
To fully ensure you will stay bite free, cover the skin up in lightweight fabrics – tech ware for the lake and woods are now increasingly more affordable and available to extend the enjoyment of being in the outdoors. To prevent the pesky (and potentially infectious) tick bites, be sure to wear shoes, socks and tuck long pants into the socks while hiking in the woods or through tall grasses.
While there are many commercial chemical bug sprays on the market to help deter and even soothe bothersome bug bites, it’s best to go chemical-free when at all possible. There are plant-based and natural alternatives to helping keep the bugs away and the itching at bay. Consider making your own blends of herbal bug repellant!!
For herbal tincture formula, mix equal parts tincture:**
Combine herbal tincture formula. Add 1 part formula to 1 part distilled water (50/50) blend to a spray bottle. Add essential oils of lavender or lemongrass as preferred, 15 drops/4oz bottle. Can be spritzed on clothing and skin to deter bugs, and also can be used topically to soothe bites.
**Plants can be foraged in the wild and prepared as tinctures or purchase tinctures pre-made from reputable sources like Mountain Rose Herbs.
Got bites? Plants helpful for soothing bites, scratches and itches topically include plantain, chamomile (as a tea to apply topically, or tea bags added to a soothing bath), chickweed, and calendula. Other natural remedies to relieve scratching include baking soda baths and applying zinc oxide on the scratches (especially to dry wet, weepy rashes). Avoid using oil-based creams and lotions on bites as that can increase irritation.
In the event of suspected West Nile virus (influenza like symptoms), visit your doctor but also consider an herbal protocol like echinacea, elderberry, boneset, yarrow, elderflower and medicinal mushrooms like reishi and maitake to support the peripheral immune system while fighting the virus. In the event of a suspected tick bite that may carry Lyme’s Disease (symptoms include a bull’s eye marking, rash, fever, dizziness, blurred vision), visit your MD immediately to seek antibiotic treatments.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing your new book for the first time. As a mom, it’s sort of like seeing your newborn child – mixed emotions of excitement and uncertainty and relief and nervousness all combined.
The day my book arrived, I was writing at my desk at home, not expecting a package. When I opened the door, I realized it was my book in that plain envelop. In urgency, I called after the UPS man to wait because I didn’t want to open the package and see the book for the first time alone. We opened it together (funny thing, sharing such an intimate moment with a complete stranger), he was impressed and said, “You must know a lot about plants to write such a big book.” I didn’t know what to say – simply hugged him and said thank you for staying and delivering my book today, and that it meant a lot for his kind words.
I returned back to my desk alone to savor those first moments with my text. As I flipped through the pages, memories and images of me producing the book flashed across my mind.
As I flipped through the pages of my newly minted work, I was somewhat in awe. In part, in awe because 1) I produced another book, 2) I produced another book despite all that was happening in my life around me. I saw that in that book was my life embedded in print. From childhood to adulthood, my learnings, my relationships and most of all – my relationship with the earth — all of these were embedded into the pages.
Writing Midwest Foraging spanned two years from signing the contract with Timber Press in 2013 – one year writing, photography and one year of editing and publication. Those two years happened to span the most two difficult years of my life. I wrapped up a divorce, sat by my father’s side in the ICU until his death at home in hospice, up-rooted my gardens and moved across town, and abandoned running to nurse a blown disc. It was an epic time in my life, but in that time, I was surrounded by the most amazing people to help me through the tough stuff and to produce my book.
Each of of my experiences with both people and plants have helped make Midwest Foraging possible. And albeit intense, I would not change any of it.
Now, these are more existential musings than musings of plants and wild edibles. Working with the plants have taught me so much – they’ve helped me grapple with the cycles of life and death, find peace in the struggle and offer hope in moments of the unknown and despair. The wild plants hold the keys to our past and can unlock the doors to our future if we choose to sit and watch and listen and pay attention.
For this reason, I’ve begun describing my writing as part botanical field guide, part culinary treatise and part memoir. The wild flavors of plants that I describe in Midwest Foraging are not the same as the flavors in the grocery store. They are real and vibrant. They are raw and unfettered. The wild plants reflect the diversity of experiences in life – the bitter and the sweet.
Embracing the wild tastes of the wild plants help me embrace the wildness of life. The wild tastes awaken all my senses, and encourage me to be fearless and enjoy life’s spectrum of experiences more fully and appreciate all that the journey has to offer.
So with that, I share with you Midwest Foraging and invite you to fearlessly step into the world on your own wild journey. And may you embrace each moment of living in the not knowing, living with hope and excitement as to what may be around the next bend.
During a weekend of work and play in Chicago, I made my way down the stairs on Wacker to the riverfront for a morning walk. Musing about the layers of the city and metal beams my partner commented, “Chicago is a city built of steel with 3 dimensions.”
I thought more about that statement in relation to the environment- the three dimensions. The stark contrast of metal and concrete to the blues of the harbor and green of the gardens and uncultivated weeds. The intersection of plants and human development. How the plants are persistent, and how humans are affected – or affect – this presence. How nature expresses itself. How we express humanity toward nature in the city.
As we walked, I took note of the blooming lindens along the Chicago riverfront, the lambs-quarters popping up in newly sown grasses. The plantain edging the sidewalk and the succulent chickweed encroaching on the roses in a private garden bed.
Through Millennium Park I walked and stopped, walked and stopped. In part for my own rest and to just watch other visitors around me fall into a comfortable relaxation among the plants. I appreciated the park staff’s integration of my favorite wild plants like elderberry in the formal gardens of Millennium Park.
For a city of its size, Chicago has a refreshing abundance and intentional focus on green space and greening initiatives- from the new garden spaces (including edibles!!) in many of the municipal parks to the secret gardens and spaces across the city maintained by city residents. Green space is valued by Chicagoans.
Finishing the walk, I left the manicured gardens of Millennium Park and turned back toward the riverfront to climb the metal stairway to back up to the hotel. I looked down at my feet, paying attention to the weedy plants along the alley and intersection. But then I stopped.
Among the weedy plants, I noticed a small sign that said “Look Out For Plants.”
Then another sign, “Please don’t walk here.”
And another, “Fire Department Garden.”
Sure enough, alongside my favorite wild weeds of burdock, dandelions, lambs-quarters and wild carrot were squashes and cucumbers planted in the spaces between a vacant lot and a sidewalk.
Beneath the cacophony of the steel overpass structure there was the human effort to cultivate nourishment in a small space of vacant land. The paper garden signs were a small request for people to be mindful and pay attention to these efforts. All offered quietly planted with loving tenderness.
I don’t know the front or backstory behind these plants – though I am curious. But less important than the story was that this small, cultivated space contrasted among the persistent wild, weedy plants and vacant lot did make me stop and take pause in appreciation for the humanity of the gesture.
It’s the simple things. Take notice. Care for what’s around us. Plant seeds. Even in places where you think no one will notice. Perhaps those are the best places to root your efforts.
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a common invasive plant across the Midwest, found in damp riverbeds, woodlands, trailsides, sand dunes, and open fields. The poison ivy is abundant this year – finally leafing out and growing in large stands in backyards, along trails and carpeting the woods, keeping the morel mushroom hunters at bay and irritating gardeners who want it eliminated from their cultivated garden beds.
“Leaves of three, let them be” may be a good start to identifying poison ivy, but the plant takes many shapes and if you only look for leaves of three, then you will also be avoiding plants like the raspberries and the roses. Poison ivy has compound leaves in sets of 3-5, with outside asymmetrical leaves and a middle leaf that is symmetrical that alternate along a woody stalk.
When the leaves first appear in the spring, they can be a soft or shiny purple leaf than changes to green over the season. It can be a small creeping plant, or the stalk can also be a thick, hairy vine that winds up and along tree trunks and buildings. Poison ivy produces inedible berries in the fall, and its hairy vine can be identifiable in winter. It can be easily confused with box elder, whose leaves are also compound but are opposite along the stem.
Poison Ivy & The Gardener
To the surprise of many, I actually admire poison ivy for it’s ability to mark territory and protect lands from trespassing or overuse. It was once told to me that poison ivy was given to us humans when we started to forget to say “Thank You” for the abundance of the earth’s blessings. This makes sense – poison ivy doesn’t pull down vegetation like the bittersweet vine, rather it creates a blockade causing humans to step back. Poison ivy protects the land while allowing it to regenerate.
Next time you see a large plant of poison ivy with runners all along a piece of land, take a step back and consider what is going on with the area’s ecology. Is it trying to heal itself from overuse? Is it an area that gets a lot of human traffic that needs to be limited? Something to consider, and perhaps help shift your perspective on the role of poison ivy in our environments.
Frequently I am asked how to manage the plant in gardens and in landscaping. And my answer is that I usually don’t feel a need to remove poison ivy, rather learn to identify and avoid it (those that are highly allergic never like this response, but nonetheless, I feel it’s a more realistic strategy than trying to aggressively remove the plant from the yard).
A Few Favorite Remedies for Poison Ivy
Invariably, folks that enjoy the outdoors – especially in springtime before the plant fully leafs out – will come into contact with poison ivy. There are a lot of homemade remedies to help care for the aggravating wet, weepy rash, and I list a few of mine below. Take note, that oil-based preparations should be avoided with poison ivy as it can worsen the rash. For those with serious allergies, a visit to your MD sometimes is the most prudent course of action.
Rose Vinegar One of my first aid kit must-haves is a rose-infused vinegar in a spray bottle – which is great for poison ivy rashes. A rose-infused vinegar is useful in the herbal apothecary for topical skin infections, abrasions, burns and rashes.
Preparations of rose – teas, liniments or soaks – are naturally astringent and antimicrobial can be used topically as a skin wash to cool and soothe inflammation. Vinegar – especially the naturally fermented apple cider vinegar – can also be used to wash and astringe the skin, especially conditions that are wet and weepy caused by rashes like poison ivy (it can also be used directly on the leaves and vines to help force it back from an area you are trying to clear).
Together – the rose petals extracted in vinegar -makes an awesome vinegar-based wash that is so very soothing on poison ivy inflicted skin. Simply infuse the vinegar with the rose petals and leaves (fresh or dry works), let steep for a week, strain and add to a spray bottle. Keep refrigerated, and mist skin as needed. Also perfect to soothe a summer sunburn.
Echiancea Echinacea is an excellent herb to help support the immune system’s response to septic infections. It can be used topically as a preparation of tea (strained, cooled to room temperature) to wash the wet and weepy skin infection of poison ivy. It should also be taken internally as a tea or tincture to support the immune system’s response to the plant.
Jewelweed Jewelweed is a tall succulent annual plant that sometimes grows densely like ground cover. Its root system is shallow and its hollow stalk a neon translucent green, growing about 3 to 5 feet tall. The plant is very juicy when crushed, and makes a wonderful topical poultice to apply to areas that have had contact with poison ivy, but the skin hasn’t had any eruptions. Jewelweed can also be made as a tea for a skin wash. For use throughout the season the plant can be frozen into ice cube trays for later use, or even incorporated into handmade oatmeal soap recipes for a poison ivy wash.
Of course, soaking in a tub of oatmeal water still works to soothe the itch, as does Mom’s calamine lotion. It also helps to reduce the metabolic load on the system while the body fights off the reaction – this means eliminating alcohol, sugar, refined carbs and coffee. This just opens up more bandwidth to help the body clear up on its own. Lymphatics like red root or cleavers can really help with this process.
To the mothers who are also wives, ex-wives, widows, girlfriends, professionals who work out of the house, professionals who work in the home, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, caretakers, and/or insert label here: Take time to remember who you are this weekend.
Strip away the labels you’ve given yourself or allowed others to give you. Pare down to the essentials. Consider YOU and your identity. Remember your goals, your visions, your purpose and dreams for this life, regardless of age.
Children only remain children for so long. Families only need us in the caretaker capacity for a certain duration of time. Careers shift and change. Partners may change, leave or even die.
But at the center of it is you. Carve out time to consider that. Sit with it. Say hello to yourself and give yourself the hug you deserve that simply can’t come from anyone else.
Revisit the promises you’ve made for you and your future, and make new commitments to yourself. Beyond this Mother’s Day, strive to meet your own expectations.
The young people around us will come and go and have their own lives to manage eventually. But for us? We will be with ourselves until the end of time.
Consider this permission to do a bit of self-mothering this weekend. Because before we were moms, we were ourselves.
Abundant at the forest’s edge, along roadsides, and on river floodplains, garlic mustard is deemed by many as a noxious, invasive species that chokes out native vegetation. But we mustn’t forget that garlic mustard is also a highly nutritious spring green.
An invasive species like garlic mustard is a wonderful early spring staple in the forager’s kitchen — it makes a delicious and utilitarian pesto. We can help minimize the plant’s invasiveness in native habitats while providing nourishment at the table by incorporating it into regular mealtime.
The earliest appearance of garlic mustard was recorded in the mid-1800s on the Atlantic coast. High in vitamin C and a nutritious bitter green, it is believed to have been brought by settlers to the area of Long Island, N.Y., for food and medicinal purposes. Since that time, garlic mustard has spread south and west and has wreaked havoc on natural areas throughout the eastern United States, particularly in disturbed areas within fields, floodplains, and woodlands across the Midwest.
Garlic mustard thrives on disturbed land and areas under development. It is a winter-hardy biennial plant and can reproduce lightning fast in its second year, able to produce hundreds of seeds once it goes to flower. Once the plant sets its seed, the seeds can remain viable in the soil for many years.
Frequently, the entire plant is pulled before it goes to flower to help maintain control of the garlic mustard’s population. Try to work clean in removing the plant from the soil, as this will mean less soil to remove in the kitchen. If you don’t remove the entire plant and only want to gather the leaves, kitchen shears can easily trim the edible greens. The stems are best harvested before the flower buds appear or open. Trim these succulent stalks of their leaves and discard the leaves before cooking.
One of the most popular ways to prepare garlic mustard greens is as a versatile, delicious pesto. Pesto recipes can be adjusted (the lovely thing about pesto!) to suit personal taste preferences and the flavor of the garlic mustard that is being harvested. Want to prepare a large batch? Pesto can be made without the nuts and frozen into ice-cube sized portions that will last for several months until the local basil is ready for harvest. Add the nuts later, when are ready to serve the dish.
The pesto can be added to pasta, used in soups (like a French soupe au pistou), served on crackers with cheese as an elegant appetizer, or even used as a base for a wild foods pizza of local morels, homemade soft cheese, and wild onion. In other dishes, partner garlic mustard with complimentary flavors like parsley, walnuts, and lemon to suit your palate.
Basic Foraged Greens & Garlic Mustard Pesto
4 cups leaves, stems of Garlic Mustard (washed)
1 cup wild chives
1 cup wild garlic scapes
1 cup parsley (if desired)
1 cup walnuts
4 TBSP coconut oil
1tsp sea salt, pepper, squirt of lemon juice to taste
Add all to food processor, puree. Check flavor, add parsley, salt, pepper to preferred taste. Serve over crackers, on pizza, pasta, soup… the ideas are limitless and the pesto can be used in similar ways to traditional basil pesto.
An early spring ephemeral, the wild leek—or ramps—is an aromatic, delicious wild onion. The bulb sweetens when roasted, pickles well for martinis, and has tops that are delicious as garnish or incorporated into a spring salad.
While they may seem to carpet the floor of the woods in the spring, there is growing concern for overharvesting wild leeks for the restaurant market and by hobby foragers.
Regionally, wild leeks are distributed as far east as New York State and through Canada, west into the forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and south into Appalachia. Wild leeks are plentiful in the well-drained soil of beech and maple hardwood forests along rivers and on the back dunes along the Great Lakes shoreline. The broad leaves of the wild leek are frequently found alongside unfolding mayapples and trout lily.
Recently, the wild leek (Allium tricoccum) has been the forager’s darling, showing up on menus and in farmers’ markets. This increase in popularity is putting pressure on the wild leek population along the East Coast and has the potential to do so in the Midwest. It takes about three years for a seed to develop into a mature leek ready for harvest—a long time!
It takes about 18 months for a ramp seed to germinate, and another two years for that seed to grow into a small bulb** that sprouts two broad, smooth leaves of about 6 to 8 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches across. A sizable, mature bulb should be at least 3 years old or more.In midsummer, the plant sends up a flower stalk with a white flower cluster which then bears small, round 1/8-inch seeds.
But harvest with care: recent popularity has threatened it.
The bulbs can be easily dug with a garden fork, but only harvest the full plant in moderation. The most sustainable way to enjoy the wild leek is to only clip the tops for use in cooking. Take time to first learn the distribution of leeks in the area before harvesting, and chose to harvest tops only.
Transplanting wild bulbs within the wild can help expand stands of the plant. Also, local growers are beginning to propagate the wild leeks for private forest gardens, making this a sustainable option for the forager wishing to enjoy the bulbs in the early spring.
I won’t lie: I really love ramps. But unless we take some pressure off of the wild plant populations, we will ensure their demise. Helping ensure a good foraging ethic is an important part of cultivating a sustainable local food system.
To that end, cultivate your own stands of wild leeks to ensure a small harvest each year. Be sure to inquire at markets and at restaurants as to the forager’s sourcing and practices in gathering the wild leeks. In doing so, you can enjoy this delicious spring vegetable and help ensure patches of leeks in the wild can also be enjoyed by future generations.
For a more information on sustainable harvesting of wild leeks, view this recent article in Epicurious.
The wild leek is a early spring bulb that is markedly oniony in both flavor and scent. This early spring food could easily be mistaken with the false hellebore and lily of the valley, both of which are poisonous and neither of which smells or tastes like onion. If in doubt, scratch and sniff.