Ramping Up for Spring Foraging

By Nikki Honosky, Alternative Agriculture Extension Associate

As a cold and dreary April comes to a close, we are finally beginning to see spring arrive in full. The temperatures are starting to warm back up, and everything is starting to sprout new growth. Spring is also the time that wild forest plants begin to appear for future foraging. There are plenty of different plants that can be foraged, but they be can different ones by location. Another factor that affects what plants are available is how the weather fared throughout the year. For example, if the year was particularly dry, certain mushroom picking spots may not have grown.

In West Virginia, one of the most common wild plants we have is the ramp. Ramps are sometimes referred to as wild onions or leeks and they grow in the Eastern parts of Canada and the U.S. during the spring. Their appearance is similar to scallions but smaller with one or two broad leaves. Their taste is sort of a mix between garlic and onion. In some places, ramps are very popular, but the problem with ramps is that they are scarce. They take their time growing and can take up to four years to do so. They’re rare due to the fact that they are seasonal, so the only time that you can get them is for the few weeks in the spring when they are in season.

Harvesting ramps can be difficult to forage due to their popularity, which has affected their population levels and can make them difficult to find if you set out too late. When looking for ramps in the forest, look for the broad leaves and purple stems. You want to be careful when harvesting them as they closely resemble the lily of the valley, which is highly poisonous. The biggest differences between them are the smell and the flowers/blossoms. The lily of the valley is scentless with bell-shaped flowers along the stem, but ramps have a strong odor with blossoms clustered at the end.

Another popular wild plant to forage is the mushroom, like the popular morel mushrooms pictured above. Harvesting wild mushrooms can be dangerous due to the fact that a good amount of the different mushroom species can be poisonous if consumed. Some tips to avoid those types are to avoid mushrooms with white gills, a skirt or ring on the stem, those that have a sack-like base, and those that have red on the cap or stem. These tips will help you to avoid most of the poisonous types of mushrooms even though you may miss some of the more edible ones. To be on the safe side, unless you are completely sure that the mushroom you have is safe, it is better to not consume it. Before going looking for wild mushrooms, research some of the safer mushroom species in order to have an idea of what to look for. You may also need to consult experts on the subject in order to get a positive identification on your mushrooms you pick to further avoid the poisonous species.

You may want to search for groups that deal with fungi like mushrooms. There are plenty of them that you could ask for advice. Do some research on the area you live in by using regional field guides to learn about what mushroom species grow near you. Always seek to identify the mushrooms you find before trying to do anything with them. Something that could help you when foraging is to take two containers. One for those you are completely sure are safe and the other for those that you are unsure about. When first beginning to forage you may not have too many positively identified, but over time you will learn how to identify what’s safe as you grow more experienced. One last piece of advice is if you take any pets with you while foraging, be extremely careful that they don’t consume any of the mushrooms. Pets, especially dogs, have been victim to it more than even humans.

Ramps and mushrooms are just two of the plants that you can forage for in West Virginia, but there are plenty of other plants available as well. This article is just to get you started on how to proceed when foraging wild plants. Other types of forageable goods include berries, pokeweed, edible plants such as dandelions, nettles, starchy roots and tubers, and so much more. Do research on what can grow in your region and have fun foraging.

You can easily learn more about this by doing research on the Internet or by asking those that are experienced in foraging for advice. If you have any questions, you can contact me at the WVSU Extension Office at the Welch Armory. I am available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Feel free to give me a call at (304) 320-5446.