The best time to forage for medicinal plants is in the spring, before the mosquitoes, or in the fall after the mosquitoes. Unless you are in search of the flower itself, the rule is, I think, that it is better to harvest just before the plant actually flowers (dandelion greens for example are much more palatable before that soft yellow bloom). It is now June 12th and the mosquitoes have arrived, so I’ve got to act fast. Most wild plants have only a brief moment in the sun, sometimes a week or two; some, like coltsfoot say, only a few days.
Here’s roughly the order in which things arrive in eastern Prince Edward Island: One of the first things I notice is coltsfoot. Tussilago farfara (good for coughs); it shows up in mid to late April and is an oddity because the small dandelion-like flower precedes the hoof shaped leaf, hence the folk name: “son before the father.” Coltsfoot stand there all by themselves at the side of the road, with their hairy brachiated stems, and miraculously draw nourishment from gravelly, dry, unfriendly soil. Sometimes there are still scraps of dirty snow at their feet. I managed to gather a few handfuls of blossoms in early May and stuck them in the freezer. My plan is to make a cough syrup combining the flowers and leaves. In fact, I recently discovered you can make sorbet with coltsfoot flowers. I must try that! Me and my plans.
After coltsfoot, comes horsetail (Equisetum) which I always think of as a dinosaur herb. I put it in a category with other ancient plants like ferns and orchids. Horsetail’s initial pale green coloured spears, segmented with brown notches, sort of resemble worms with teeny pied cones on top. Soon the plant turns into a feathery thing that looks like a bottle brush or a miniature pine tree. You’ve got to nab horsetail the minute it moves from spear to green plant or it will have too much silica. My tendency has been to pick a little bit of horsetail, promising myself I’ll go back for more the next day, but then I never do. I haven’t ever actually used horsetail tea or tincture, though with my cracked finger nails and thin hair, horsetail might be a good thing for me. But no, I collect a bit of it, put the brittle plants in a brown paper bag, resolving to try the tea this year, but then either don’t get to it, or feel daunted by the silica content, silica being the chief ingredient in glass.
Fiddle head: Beautiful but too far gone!
There are many spring plants I’m failing to mention here because I haven’t yet foraged for them myself. I’d love to try young cattails for example. I’m told they taste like cucumbers and have medicinal properties. The problem is they are only edible in the early spring and you need tall rubber boots and be willing to wade in swamps, or streams, if you want to get them. And there are fiddleheads of course, full of antioxidants, which are a most delicious crunchy asparagus tasting vegetable—I love the fact that this brilliant green spiral, like the scrolled top of a violin, holds a fern inside! I only went fiddleheading once and tried my darndest to memorize the place we went (fiddleheaders tend to be secretive, not unlike fishermen, so you either have to have your own spot or sweet talk someone with the inside scoop to take you to her spot). But I forgot where we went, and again, you’ve only got a few weeks before fiddle heads begin to unfurl into lovely ostrich ferns, so I bought them at the farmer’s market instead. They are very tasty cold, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
After or at the same time as horsetail, come glorious dandelions (Taraxacum)! For the first time this year I made batch after batch of pesto with new dandelion leaves. Fabulous! You could eat it with a spoon—which I did. Dandelions are good for you in a thousand ways and are used in particular to detoxify your liver. As a diuretic, one of their folk names is “Piss the bed.” But I’ve eaten roasted dandelion tea and dandelion leaves and flowers and never had this problem. Because they come flooding in at the end of May and fill whole meadows, you think they will be here forever, that you can pick them whenever you please. Not so! You must gather them straight away. The rewards are great. Did you know, for example, you could make capers out of the buds of dandelions? Why didn’t I jump on those buds back in May? Now I’ll have to wait until next spring.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) companions horsetail and seems to like the same habitat. It grows so fast you can almost stand there and watch it. I’ve always dismissed Japanese knotweed as an invasive species (which, of course it is) and thought of it as a “bad” plant. But to my surprise I ran into someone recently, a gourmet chef in fact, who pickles the young tops to good effect and even makes a tart jam combining very young knotweed with strawberries. He let me taste some—it was divine. Next year…
From now until August, one wild plant after another will burst forth; often many new plants together will show up in the meadows and along the roads, and you must be ready for them. Unless you are foraging for roots, the best time to gather most wild herbs is when the plant is new and green and shimmering with life.
It is now early June. When I finish writing this, I’m going to put on gloves and go harvest the nettles which were, mere weeks ago, tender and small, delicious in a tea, wonderful for soups, full of minerals. By now those same nettles are practically trees! –Up to my waist. And their once delicate little stems are thick and woody, and sting like hornets. In a blink, they will flower; then the game is up for this year. So I’ll go out there now, snip those nettles at their base, stuff as many leaves as I can into a pot of boiling water and make a brilliant dark green soup out of them. The rest I’ll tie together and hang upside down from the roof of the porch, or lay on a screen to dry, then hope to remember to make medicinal nettle tea some time down the road. Me and my plans!