Foraging for food on Shelter Island

Dan Fokine munching on wild onions during a recent foraging expedition. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

Dan Fokine munching on wild onions during a recent foraging expedition. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

With Memorial Day behind us, we can look forward to locally grown fruits and vegetables that will soon start populating local farm stands. But did you know that in addition to farm stands, there’s another way to get your greens?

Try eating weeds. 

It’s called foraging and lots of folks on the East End do it, including Shelter Island’s Daniel Fokine. There’s a Facebook page (of course) — East End Foragers — dedicated to the procurement of wild food.

Growing all around us are a number of edible plant species. They can be found along roadsides, in the woods and in our own backyards. Many of these plants possess leaves, roots or berries that wouldn’t just sustain us in end times, they are actually tasty and nutritious for an any-day-of-the-week salad.

That became evident during a recent foraging outing with Mr. Fokine a short distance from the Reporter’s office. A quick walk through the Nursery Woodlands Annex off St. Mary’s Road yielded quite a few edible species.

While no one wants to inadvertently pick and eat the last of some local endangered plant species, it turns out that most of the edibles encountered on this spring day were invasive species. Meaning that eating them is not only good for your body, it’s good for the environment, because, as Mr. Fokine notes, invasive species are a huge problem for the Island.

“Help by eating your enemies,” he joked. “Gain their strength. It’s good for you.”

Among the most readily available edibles in these parts, and the first one encountered on this walk, was garlic mustard. Once you know what to look for, you’ll see it everywhere.

“Sauté it like a green,” advised Mr. Fokine. “As it gets older, you want to use the leaves, then just the tips.”

The plant has four small white petals and smells like garlic when the leaves are crushed. High in vitamins A, C, E it contains lots of minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, helps control weight, is good for heart health and lowers cholesterol. It also makes a mean pesto.

Another common edible in these parts is mugwort. Also referred to as “Common Wormwood,” this unassuming little plant is good for digestion and other intestinal complaints. The leaves can be used in salads, cooked in soups or made into tea.

“It’s an import from Europe and was originally used for brewing beer,” Mr. Fokine said. “It was one of the original hops and was used for the astringent in beer.”

A Japanese knotweed. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

A Japanese knotweed. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

By the way, the potent drink absinthe is made from a plant in the same genus.

“Here’s one of my favorites,” said Mr. Fokine, pointing to a tangle of dead-looking stalks that didn’t seem particularly appetizing.

But then he crouched down and cut a few small, green shoots. Japanese knotweed, he explained, which is similar to rhubarb, but with a sour, citrusy flavor.

This invasive is quite aggressive and so is a good one to chow down on. “The root only has so much power, the more you cut it the less strength it has,” Mr. Fokine said, and researchers are looking into a tincture made from the plant to prevent Lyme disease.

That’s the thing about so many of these plants, explained Mr. Fokine. When there’s a problem, nature often has a funny way of providing the solution, if we take the time to look at what’s in front of us.

“If something like poison ivy grows next to plantain, it turns out that plantain is a cure for poison ivy,” he said. “The plant is not wanted in some sense, but needed in others.”

One of Mr. Fokine’s favorite recent finds are the shoot tips for bull briar or cat briar. This is actually a native species, but we would do the world a favor by eating more of it.

“It’s a horrible, green thorny plant that grows everywhere and blankets the forest floor,” he said. ““But its tips, the first five or six inches in spring, are edible.”

Spring, indeed, is the time to forage for your supper, and Mr. Fokine explained why historically it was the most important time for people to search out greens to eat. “Humans would’ve relied on this stuff heavily in spring after eating salted meat and cabbages all winter,” he said.

This walk, it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Fokine said he also experiments with foraged plants by making soda, teas, and low alcohol ales and beer.

But first things first. With summer fast approaching, what would Mr. Fokine recommend putting in a roadside salad?

“Dandelion, chickweed — the horse farm has it in abundance — and a tiny bit of mugwort for a fun garnish,” he said. “And a lot of vinaigrette.”