Eat Wild: A Quick Guide to Alaska's Spring Edibles
Spring is marching its way north across Alaska. The willow trees are buzzing with bees and hummingbirds, magenta salmonberry flowers are starting to dot the bare brown stalks, and the world outside is looking greener every day.
The arrival of spring is a refreshing welcome sight, and it has our boots – and our spirits – itching to get out and wander around the woods to see which familiar green friends are making their seasonal debut. We’re ready to step into foraging season! This week I’m sharing three of my favorite wild spring edibles to forage in southeast Alaska.
Working with wild foods is a beautiful way to deepen your connection to the natural world around you. As you learn to identify the plants in your local forest and field, you’ll start to see the world with new eyes. You’ll feel a deeper sense of appreciation and admiration for things you once stepped over. And you’ll bring home the gifts of richly nutritious and delicious foods.
If you’re new to foraging wild foods, be sure to brush up on your plant identification with a good field guide, or ask to go out a few times first with someone experienced and willing to teach you. For Alaska and the PNW coast, Pojar & Mackinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest is an incredible resource for learning the plants of this region. Never harvest or eat any wild plants that you can’t confidently identify. Never take more than you need, always leave plenty of the plant behind to continue growing and thriving, and take a moment to pause and express gratitude for these wild plants for feeding you and your family.
Before heading out to the field (or forest), I gather up my usual kit of supplies – A backpack to carry my gear, water bottle, bear spray, harvest basket (use whatever you like here – a bag, bucket, pillowcase, etc.), garden gloves, and some trusty pruning shears, a sharp knife, or garden scissors.
If you’ve encountered nettle before, you’ve likely not forgotten it’s hot lingering sting on your skin. The fine hairs on nettle’s leaves and stems are the stinging culprit, but nettle’s bite can be avoided if you simply wear gloves while harvesting this super nutritious wild green.
You’ll find nettle near sources of fresh water – streams, rivers, lakes – in rich damp or disturbed soils. Nettle looks very similar to mint with toothy leaves branching opposite of each other.
Harvest wild nettles carefully to ensure the plant continues to grow and thrive by taking no more than half the height of the plant. Find a spot on the stem just above two leaf nodes to snip. From here the plant will branch as it continues to grow throughout the season. Nettles are best harvested in the spring and early summer, before they begin to flower.
Enjoy your nettles sautéed with garlic and butter, chopped and added to soups, blended into a green smoothie, or my favorite, whipped up with garlic and oil into a delicious spring greens pesto. Steaming, blanching, boiling, drying, or pureeing nettles renders their sting inert, so you can enjoy their earthy green flavor and rich nutrients without fear of a stinging belly. If you prefer to drink your nettles, dry them in a food dehydrator or on cookie sheets in the sun and crumble into a jar to use as a loose leaf tea through the winter.
Most of us don’t even need to leave the yard to find one of the most abundant sources of wild edibles – the cheery yellow dandelion! We have a whole post dedicated to the love and eating of dandelions, but for a quick and easy hit of fresh greens I love snipping off the early young leaves as they start to appear.
Choose a dandelion patch that is free from frequent dog visits and potential environmental pollutants and look for the tender young toothy green leaves. Give them a good wash before eating.
Enjoy your dandelion leaves fresh, mixed into a spring salad. Or try them sautéed in a stir fry, mixed into your soups, or tossed in or added in with our recipe for spring greens pesto.
Dandelion greens offer up rich amounts of minerals, vitamins A-C, and are a great source of potassium.
Devil’s club buds
As you wander through the forest, keep an eye out for stands of the tall spikey stalks of Devil’s Club. A powerfully medicinal plant, and sacred to so many indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, Devil’s Club grows prolifically near fresh water sources like stream banks, and on forested slopes. You can smell it's pungent herbaceous aroma permeating through the springtime forest.
If your timing is just right, you can pop off the still tight and yet to unfurl buds at the tip of the stalk (gloves may come in handy here). Harvest these buds sparingly, making sure to leave plenty behind to open into full leaves and drink in the summer’s lengthy daylight. If the buds have begun to unfold and you can spot tiny green fresh new spikes forming, you’re too late, and better off trying again next year.
Spring’s early Devil’s Club buds have a sort of nutty, peppery green flavor, and can be snacked on raw, sautéed up, or (you may notice we have a pesto-obsession theme here...) blended into a pesto!
Get creative and experiment with how you cook and enjoy the wild edibles you discover on spring walks through the woods. Remember to always harvest responsibly and sustainably, taking good care of the resource for others to enjoy long after you’re gone. Express your gratitude for the plants, and notice the new ways in which you start to see and experience the forest as you get to know its inhabitants more intimately.
Happy spring, and happy foraging!