Home Food and Drink Wild Eats: Foraging Gently to Make the Secret Spots Last

Wild Eats: Foraging Gently to Make the Secret Spots Last

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The author (right) with her daughter, Aurora Brush, after harvesting leeks last year. This year’s harvest will focus on clipping leaves instead of digging bulbs. Photo by Charles Stevens.
I’d seen so many pictures of ramps on social media in mid-April, I worried I’d missed the season. After a week out of state, I finally made it to the woods and noted that the trout lily leaves have barely emerged here in Montpelier. They’ve thrust through the leaf mold, true, but haven’t yet grown to their full size.

If you didn’t know they would eventually grow into lanceolate leaves, just a few inches long, mottled brown and green like brook trout (hence the name), you wouldn’t notice them. And if the trout lily leaves aren’t full grown, it’s unlikely the ramps are ready. (Trout lily leaves, by the way, are a delicious early spring green; tender and sweet in salads or sauteed lightly).

After trudging to my favorite ramp spot, I confirmed the suspicion: leeks are up, but they’re small, not ready yet.  Also, the blue cohosh has started unfurling on gorgeous purple stems; I find leeks perfectly mature when the cohosh leafs out. You can harvest earlier, for sure, but the leeks won’t be fully grown. It could be a personal quirk, but I wondered: how many people are harvesting leeks early? 

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but the thought of people eager to get those wild foods as soon as they sprout worries me. With a new spate of residents having COVID-purchased property here, and wild foraging gaining more and more fad-like attention, what might be the effect of more people in our woods, and how will our sacred wild spots get on?

Last year a friend reprimanded me on Facebook for posting a photo of me and my 24-year-old daughter, each of us holding an armful of freshly dug ramps. This was our “buck in the back of the pick-up” shot, the favorite seasonal harvest.

The reprimand, followed by some “splaining” (done with kindness, I should add), came about because I’d dug the ramp bulbs, rather than just clipping the leaves. The clipping technique is recommended for sustainable harvesting, intended to preserve clumps of slow-growing ramps. Some people even go so far as to only harvest one leaf per plant — a bit tedious for my temperament but better for the long-term health of the ramps.

My friend didn’t know my 50-plus year history harvesting wild food sustainably. We didn’t toss around buzzwords such as “sustainable” and “forage” when gathering food in the woods back then. I learned from my father, taught to him by his grandmother, taught to her likely by her Mi’kmaq family, and so on. Dad says my great-grandmother LaBree used to go into the woods and emerge shortly afterward with overflowing baskets of wild foods. 

Dad taught us the foragers’ rule: take no more than one third of anything we picked, leaving one third for the next person, and one third to keep growing. This “rule of three” is, to me, a metaphor. It means take a little bit, not too much, leave the rest for others and (more importantly) for the woods.

Growing up on a homestead where we raised livestock and my father tended to a massive market garden, “foraging” was a thing we did to have food on the table. Wild foods supplemented our diet because, at times, we may not have had much to eat without them.

During a three-month period one spring in the early 1970s, Dad waited on payment for five of his freelance articles. None of the checks came on time. But we still had to eat, and it was too early in the year for the garden. So, for those months we ate rainbow trout and wild greens: milkweed shoots, dandelions, cowslip, and others. He fished daily, and we all picked the greens. To me, it was a magical time, filled with abundance, delicious meals, and the joy that comes when you immerse yourself in the outdoors all day.

But it must have been stressful for him, knowing that only the wilderness and his skill would determine what his kids ate that day.

I thought of all this while reading that Facebook reprimand about my harvesting tactics last year. I went on the defense, tried to explain, and then left the conversation. Given a year to think about it, and a new ramp season upon us, I’ve decided to try it my friend’s way, snipping leaves.

I’m not sure it’s the right way for me, but it’s gentle, and that’s important. I am sure of this, however: even with my experience and deep respect for the sacred nature of the wild things that feed us, I cannot deny the sheer numbers of people who are doing the same thing I’m doing. It may be newer to them than it is for me, but none of us knows the toll this will take on our favorite foraging spots. I want mine to exist generations from now, so my great-great-grandchildren can enjoy spring ramps the way I do.

In the meantime, you can find me harvesting trout lily and wild leeks in my favorite secret spots.

Cassandra Hemenway is the managing editor of The Bridge, an avid gardener, wild food harvester, and has completed courses at UVM Extension service as a master gardener and master composter.

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