I ate a dandelion yesterday. Picked it out of the ground, brushed it off as best I could, and ate the yellow flower head whole. A little sweet, a little grassy, a little crunchy. Kind of like a young lettuce leaf. And, ultimately, pretty good. Shockingly good, I’d say.
Shocking because each of us has seen, what, a billion dandelions in our lives? How are more people not talking about eating them? Picking them up by the basketful and throwing them in salads, or smoothies; breaking off their leaves and eating the young, bitter greens raw, or else boiling them and tossing with vinegar and bacon? They’re everywhere, they’re free, and they’re pretty good!
Truth is, I hadn’t thought much about eating dandelions until chatting with local forager Debbie Naha-Koretzky, who, under the moniker The Wild Edibles Lady offers foraging classes, backyard visits, cooking demos and more. Though Naha-Koretzky is now a foraging expert with experience in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it, too, was the humble dandelion that initially sparked her interest in foraging.
“Someone told me that you could eat the dandelions, and that was the beginning of it. I just wanted to know more after that,” she says. “I just wanted to know what’s out there that grows in the wild that is food for our species. We tend to know what the birds eat and the deer eat, but what’s out there that’s nourishment for us?”
Naha-Koretzky has worked as a professional nutritionist for most of her life, and found there is a crossover between what grows in the wild and what’s good for us. Early in her career, she read every book she could find on the subject and took trips with local foragers to grow her foraging knowledge base.
But before you head out and start munching on whatever looks good, Naha-Koretzky advises starting small. Because of its ubiquity and ease of identification, she likes to start those interested in foraging with—you guessed it—dandelions.
“If you’re relatively careful, there aren’t plants that look like dandelions that are going to hurt you. Any of the look-alike plants, really, are edible,” she says. “But I like to start with dandelions because you can eat the entire plant. You can eat the flower, leaves, the root. There’s no special preparation involved. You can eat it raw or cooked. There are parts of dandelions available to eat pretty much year-round. They’re super nutritious, really high in vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants.”
Moving beyond dandelions, however, requires some work. If you walked through your yard, if you have one, or a friend’s, or a community park, how many wild plants would you be able to identify? For the average person (like me), not many. Let alone being able to confidently identify edible plants. Fortunately, Naha-Koretzky wrote a book on the subject, Foraging Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which helps walk you through the process.
Still, there’s a mental leap that must occur for the newbie forager—it’s one thing to search, identify and pick an edible plant in the wild, it’s another to eat it. Things you’ve passed by forever while cutting the grass or taking the dog out, might be packed with good stuff and taste pretty good too, but only if you have the knowledge to identify it and, critically, the will to eat it.
“So many people are really surprised to find out how much out there is edible,” Naha-Koretzky says. “A lot of people are hesitant. Some people are braver, but a lot of people really want to know all they can, which I encourage. I always tell people, ‘Know this plant 100% before you ever put it in your mouth.’ Sometimes people like to see me eat it. I tell people, ‘Don’t eat anything unless you’re really certain about it, about the identity of that plant, because they could be look-alike plants to be concerned about.’”
Consider: Some plants and fruits are only edible when they’re ripe. Some need to be cooked before they’re safe. With many plants, only part of it is edible. Too, it helps to know a little about the land where the plants grew; you wouldn’t want to pick and eat dandelions from a highway median, for example.
That all may sound like a lot of knowledge to acquire, but it used to be common knowledge for humans; Naha-Koretzky calls it “like a lost body of knowledge.” That said, she says interest in foraging has become “a growing area of interest” during and since the pandemic—if not for the benefits of eating wild, native, local food but for the benefits that come with immersing yourself in nature while foraging.
“We were walking on a woodland trail,” Naha-Koretzky says of a recent group outing, “and some of the people were maybe not even familiar with that environment, and I got comments like, ‘Wow, this is so peaceful.’ I’ll take groups of kids out there, and some of the children have never been into wild places. So, it’s good for the soul.”
Predictably, spring is busy for Naha-Koretzky, with so many plants blooming and bearing early season flowers, leaves and fruits. If you’ve got property, or can access a friend’s (foraging is illegal in most public NJ spaces, but check with your local area), check for redbud flowers, which are edible and can be baked into pastries, made into jelly or sprinkled on ice cream.
Too, ramps are just about at the end of their growing window, but you may still be able to find some. The leek-like plant became super-trendy a few years ago because they’re delicious, but also because, you know… the internet. If you find some, don’t uproot the plant, just harvest one ramp from each and save them from being over-picked. And you may be able to spot morel mushrooms, which also might be peaking at the moment.
You can find a list of some foragable plants at Naha-Koretzky’s website, or, like us, start with dandelion. You might be surprised at what you find.