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Foraging Wild Food in the Midwest: Easy First Forages

Foraging Wild Food in the Midwest: Easy First Forages

With winter soon behind us, it’s time to get ready for foraging wild edibles. Foraging food is a great way to get outside and enjoy the outdoors, while also learning about local botany and picking up some extra food in the process. Through foraging, you will learn about the different seasons of foods, which can be easily taken for granted with year-round access to most foods at the grocery store.

Note that, especially for first-time foragers, it is important to consult a professional before consuming wild edibles. Equally important is to maintain foraging ethics, such as only taking what you intend to use, avoiding harvesting of endangered species, and leaving the area better than you found it.

With so much to learn about foraging, we’ll focus on a few easier-to-identify foods that you can find in the Midwestern United States.

Springtime Foraging

Forage for fiddleheads in early spring before the leaves unfurl. Credit: The Cosmonaut (CC BY-SA 2.5 CA), Wikimedia Commons

For many in the Midwest, morel mushrooms are a harbinger of springtime. Finding morels is a source of great pride for mushroom hunters and foragers. Morels start popping up in March-April, with a short window of opportunity to find them. Morels typically range from 1 to 2 inches tall and grow only on the ground in wooded areas. They grow in moist ground conditions and are often found near sycamore, hickory, ash, and elm trees. Be sure to watch out for and learn to identify false morels, which look similar but are poisonous. Don’t eat morels raw or undercooked. They contain a mild toxin that is destroyed when you cook them. You can sauté them in butter or oil and add to pasta or eat them with bread for an extra earthy addition to your food.

Early spring is also the only time you can forage for fiddleheads, which are the early growth of ostrich fern leaves. These also have a short window of opportunity to forage because after the fern leaves grow too much, they are no longer edible. You can find these in the upper Midwest and Northeast in shady and damp wooded areas such as a hillside nearby a creek. There are easily cooked by boiling or sautéing and are rich in antioxidants and iron.

Wild onion and wild garlic, both found in early- to mid-spring,  are easy to spot in yards, parks, fields, and meadows. These  are tall green “weeds” with multiple small shoots and an onion scent. Both the greens and the bulb are edible. Mild in flavor, these are useful if you have a soup or entrée that needs an extra sprinkle of color on top.

Summertime Berries

Watch for ripening mulberries in June and July. Credit: Chiring chandan (CC BY-SA 4.0), Wikimedia Commons

An easy food to forage for in summer is berries. Blackberries, raspberries, and mulberries are prolific berries that are easy to spot and identify. Safe to eat raw or cooked, they are great to eat alone or use in a dessert, a smoothie, or for jam. If you would rather forage berries in your yard, consider planting shrubs with edible berries.

Blackberries and raspberries, both a type of brambleberry, grow wildly in open areas. You can find these thorny shrubs on the edge of wooded areas, nearby roadsides, or in open fields. It’s easy to see when they are ripe by their color – blackberries are black and raspberries are red. Be warned that unripe blackberries are also red, so if you haven’t correctly identified them, the tart taste will quickly inform you they are not ripe.

Mulberry trees are a North American native tree commonly found in the Central and Eastern US. You might see these 20- to 40-foot-tall trees along the edge of wooded areas, in pastures, and along riverbanks. Though the trees are tall, you’ll be able to pick the red or dark purple berries from the lower branches. Keep an eye out when you see the fruit getting ripe in June and July so you have time to harvest berries before the birds get to them, as these are a favorite for birds.

Foraging in the Fall

Oyster mushrooms
Look for clumps of oyster mushrooms the woods. Credit: Tom Romeo (CC BY 4.0), Wikimedia Commons

Pawpaws are a medium-sized fruit that grows on mid-sized trees in the Central and Eastern US. These understory trees have large oval leaves and grow in groups in the woods. The oval green fruit has a creamy texture, with large seeds dispersed throughout. When they’re ripe in September and October, you can gently shake them off the tree or find some that have already fallen on the ground.

Persimmon trees are also native to the Central and Eastern US. They produce small orange fruits, which are edible only after the first frost in September-October. You can find these small trees along the edges of woods, by stream banks, and in fields or prairies.

Oyster mushrooms grow almost year-round but are easy to find in the fall, as they thrive in cool weather. They grow nearly everywhere in the US where there are woods — you can find them on rotting logs. These white-greyish mushrooms have a shelf-like shape with gills underneath and they grow in clumps. Oyster mushrooms have excellent flavor and are easy to cook by sautéing in butter or oil and adding to any savory dish.

Go Forth and Forage

These are just a few of the foods you can look forward to foraging in different seasons in the Midwest. You can learn much more about foraging for wild edibles from university extension websites, informed Instagram accounts such as the blackforager, and books about wild edibles such as the Peterson field guide, ”Edible Wild Plants.” Happy foraging!

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