Published March 30, 2020
Just because many things in our human world have ground to a halt doesn’t mean that the wheel of nature has stopped turning! There is a beautiful world unfolding all around us, especially now with spring just around the corner (or already here, depending on where you live). In this scary and destabilizing time, it’s so healing to spend time in nature. I’ve been using this time to get in tune with phenological (good vocabulary word: look it up!) events in the natural world like the buds bursting, migratory birds returning, first blossoms, and amphibian migration. Getting outside has helped me feel more grounded and peaceful. At Red Spruce Grove, we know this on an experiential level; I hope everyone can remember this in small ways during this time.
Here are some ways I like to connect with the changing of the seasons:
Hunting for Wildflowers
One year I had a competition with some friends to see how many wildflowers we could find at the beginning of spring. This would be a great project for the time of social distancing! I’d suggest doing this in a suburban, urban, or edge habitat, rather than in deep forest, to make sure you don’t harvest a rare or protected wildflower like trillium or spring beauty.
If you can pick one flower without harvesting more than 1/6 of the patch, bring a flower home to press and add to a collection. You can easily make a flower press at home, using printer paper or cardboard as blotter paper, and weighing down the flower between several heavy books. You could even make a mini field guide using the pressings, tracking down the scientific name and some fun facts about the plant. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide is an excellent resource for identification. Finding wildflowers as they bloom for the first time in spring is like discovering treasures hidden in the leaf litter!
Springtime Wild Edibles
Spring is a fantastic time of year to dip a toe into harvesting wild edible greens. Foraging allows us to experience reciprocity with nature, as we have a direct connection with the plants we’re eating. When I harvest wild plants, I understand so much more about them: the sensory feel of a fuzzy wild mint, the specific soil type that purslane loves, or the variety of colors in wild violet flowers.
In the spring, plants are putting their energy into growing leaves as fast as possible, so now is the time for greens! Making a wild greens pesto is a wonderful way to eat springtime edibles. It’s nutrient-dense and delicious. You can simply substitute any combination of wild greens for basil in your favorite pesto recipe. Here are five common wild edible greens that are most likely also growing where you live:
Chickweed – The mildest, tastiest spring wild edible, in my opinion. Chickweed likes garden beds, lawn edges, and partially shaded moist soils.
- Stinging nettle – Very easy to identify, as it will give itself away with its sting! Nettle is one of the most iron-rich plants in the world. It likes stream edges and wet valleys. Once you cook, dehydrate, or blend nettle leaves, they lose their sting.
- Dandelion – We all can recognize this one. It’s bitter, but when you harvest the small leaves before the plant flowers, it’s bitter in a nice way. That bitter quality means it’s good for the liver and for digestion.
- Plantain – If you are an F&W camper, you might have learned about this plant for its use in reducing the pain and itching from a bee sting or bug bite. You can also eat it when it’s young and tender! Plantain is easy to identify because of its parallel vein structure. It likes a similar habitat as dandelion, and you can often find them growing together.
- Garlic mustard – This is an invasive plant, so if you harvest it, you are also being an ecological steward! The flavor is all in the name; it has a spicy, garlicky, pungent taste. Garlic mustard grows everywhere. Use sparingly in pesto, for some extra flavor.
Some foraging tips: Make sure you know how to effectively use a field guide for identification before harvesting, and use the 1/6 rule. Stay away from roadsides and areas that may have herbicides or other pollutants, and again, edge zones and suburban areas are great. Never pull up a plant by its roots, unless it is an invasive plant. Use scissors or a small knife to cut leaves. This way, it can re-grow. And thank the plant for its gift!
Catching Frogs (and salamanders and toads)
Amphibians are out, migrating from winter territories to spring breeding areas. Flip some logs and see what you can find. Whenever you pick up a frog, salamander, or toad, make sure your hands are wet. I recently learned that days when the weather is about 40 degrees, and when it is raining or has recently rained, are the best times to look for migrating amphibians. There is a spot here in the Burlington, VT area where a road separates an upland forest area, which is amphibian winter habitat, from a wetland, which is spring breeding habitat. On warmer, rainy nights, amateur (and professional) naturalists come out by the dozens to help the herps across the road. Folks are now staying 6+ feet away from one another, but we are still able to share in the experience of connecting with critters. Check the weather for a good evening, put on your camp rain pants and headlamp, and explore a road near a wetland area!
My shelter-in-place buddy and Flying Cloud Director, Elliott Siegrest-Jones, holding an adult Eastern Newt last week, in the glow of a headlamp.
There are so many more ways to witness and appreciate the changing of the seasons, from listening for returning songbirds to starting seedlings. I hope you’re able to go out and experience the natural world during this time, as a way to remember our interconnectedness and to rekindle hope. Connecting with nature doesn’t have to be in some remote place, like at Farm & Wilderness – some of my most informative and exciting nature experiences recently have been watching house sparrows and grey squirrels through my kitchen window. And backyards are often the best places to harvest those edible greens. Don’t forget that Wilderness is right outside your door.
Tori Heller (she/her/hers)
Red Spruce Grove Program Director
Posted in Red Spruce Grove