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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Finding Wild Edibles in Connecticut

Aug 03, 2014 03:44AM ● By Eileen Weber

Foraging isn’t just for French pigs sniffing out truffles. Mushrooms are a big favorite, but there is much more available – especially in this area - than a few random fungi. Take a stroll through any open woodland preserve and an abundance of luscious produce is at your fingertips. Ever come across a raspberry bush on a nature walk? See any dandelion greens? How about a cluster of ramps in the spring?

Those are just a few of the goodies out there waiting for you if you take the time to go on a short hike. You can enjoy the outdoors while eating nature’s candy. The best part? It’s free.

Renee Allen, founder and director of the Wine Institute of New England in Guilford, has been foraging mainly for mushrooms for the last five years. She came by these succulent wild edibles honestly—she got a dog. Kahuno, her Siberian Husky, needed a lot of exercise. Walking the parks and trails near her home, she discovered some really tasty morsels.

“It’s incredible how much open space we have,” she said of her foraging trips. “I don’t think most people realize that.”

Michelle Spinei, the events and marketing manager at the Greenwich Land Trust in Greenwich, agrees with Allen. She got her love of wild edibles from her grandmother, who grew up in southern Italy. “There is so much right in our backyard!” she said. “We have the coast, which is full of mussels, clams and oysters; forests filled with berries, ramps and mushrooms; and meadows of violets, dandelions and chicory, [just] to name a few!”

Allen occasionally takes her own backyard trip. “Some of the wild edibles I have found in my own yard and woods that I have eaten include sorrel, dandelion greens and roots, burdock roots and autumn olives, as well as fiddleheads,” she said. “Everybody has sorrel in their yard. It is often mistaken for clover but it has a delicious lemony zing that’s great for salads.”

When Allen became passionate about foraging, she researched what to pick and where to pick it. She joined the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society. She went on a tour in New York with renowned forager “Wildman” Steve Brill and even hosted a “forest-to-table” event in Goshen this past spring with a high-caliber chef.
She cautions fledgling foragers about overharvesting – knowing when to leave a crop alone is important to conserving nature’s bounty. A good rule of thumb is to take a small portion and leave the rest.

Joan Palmer, founder and director of The Institute of Sustainable Nutrition (TIOSN) in West Granby, said some plants like stinging nettle, purslane, dandelion and chickweed are examples of plants that can’t be overharvested. “They are so prolific in everyone’s backyard,” she said. “They are just screaming, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’.”
As with any activity, doing your homework reaps rewards. Allen recommends looking at websites that will list indigenous edible plants as well as finding books on the subject. (Amazon has Backyard Foraging in a Kindle edition for $9.99.) Harvesting a plant that is a “lookalike” for another plant can lead to severe intestinal distress or even death. Familiarize yourself with what is poisonous and not poisonous.

While Allen has only been foraging for five years, Bun Lai, owner and executive chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, has been doing it since he was a little boy. His mother taught him everything he ever wanted to know about foraging. Today, he lives on a 10-acre farm in Woodbridge. He picks what he needs in the morning – from mugwort and sassafras to trout weed and garlic mustard – before heading to the restaurant. Later in the day, he will head out to his 70-acre, certified shellfishing grounds off the coast of Branford for his seafood. The grounds are in a green zone away from shore and therefore unaffected by shoreline run-off and pollution. “I’m living the way I always wanted to live,” he explained. “I’m in one of three places: on the boat diving, in the restaurant cooking, or on the farm foraging.”

Lai praised the health benefits of eating foods that are wild and not from an industrial farm. He also counseled against urban foraging saying that picking things in soil contaminated by chemicals should be avoided.

Sam Schaperow, a marriage and family therapist from East Lyme who has foraged for the past 16 years, doesn’t necessarily agree. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t forage in an urban area if that’s where you live,” according to Schaperow. Be aware of “any place that has visual evidence of a problem—it’s near a toxic waste dump, a creek that’s really stinky with colored foam on top,” he stated. “You have to be mindful of your area.”

Schaperow pointed out even some of the local farms we love to visit are relatively close to busy roads. If you are an amateur forager, his advice was the same as Allen’s – do your homework. Research what is in your foraging basket and what is available in your area. Take a foraging tour. In the beginning, stay away from anything unfamiliar.  
The next time you stroll down a wooded lane, take the time to smell the roses. You may just find something to eat.

Eileen Weber is a Fairfield-based freelance writer with a master’s degree in journalism and a professional background in publishing. She has written numerous articles for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and websites, including the Fairfield Green Food Guide.

Local Foraging Resources

Connecticut Valley Mycological Society

Greenwich Land Trust

The Institute of Sustainable Nutrition Holcomb Farm
West Granby

Two Coyotes Wilderness School
Sticks & Stones Farm


“Wildman” Steve Brill

Wine Institute of New England