Plants are popping up everywhere right now and spring is coming full tilt! It's so exciting when spring brings the beautiful lush green foliage and stunning flowers. Lately I have been asking, what can I find in my back yard that can heal me or feed me? So I have written up a bit of information on how to forage and what you may find in Michigan in the spring!
I am not a doctor and do not recommend eating anything without consulting one.
Definition of flora: the plants of a particular region, habitat, or geological period
IMPORTANT - READ FIRST:
Be sure to properly identify a plant before harvesting it, consuming it or applying it to your skin, there are a lot of plants out in the world and making sure you get a proper identification is crucial. You don't want to eat something poisonous or dangerous to your health. Below I discuss how you can get to know your local flora to forage safely. The best thing you can do is contact someone knowledgeable about identifying plants and ask for their help. Most plant lovers are pretty cool.
Getting To Know Your Local Abundant Flora:
Research your local flora and get to know it. Find out what is most common in your area because those plants will be easiest to find and easiest to identify. You will be surprised how many plants you know of but you don't know anything about! Starting out with easier to find plants will make the learning process much quicker. I have a list below for spring time in Michigan but you can find websites and books dedicated to any geographical location. Just search google for a list of local flora during a certain time of the year. Learn about at least 10-15 of the most common plants. Also, many common weeds are actually very useful and have amazing herbal properties, so don't disregard them!
After you have done a little research and seen what plants in your area look like and which are the most common, head out to your back yard or the local nature preserve and stop to observe any foliage, flowers, or full plants that you see! Take pictures and make notes about specific characteristics the plants has as well as where you are and what the habitat is like there. You can use a field guide in the moment to more closely observe the details of a plant, which is most helpful when you have the physical specimen in front of you. Be sure to use a field guide specific to your local flora. There are also apps you can use in the field, I discuss a few in the next section.
Usually I spend the first time being with the plant simply observing it and learning about it, and I wait until I am absolutely sure I have identified it correctly to harvest it. I like to visit a plant a few times before harvesting anything from it to show my respect to the plant and the ecosystem. Make sure the plant is not illegal to harvest before you cut! Here is a database that you can search plants to learn their legal status. There may be a large population of he flora in your area but that doesn't mean they aren't on the watch list or endangered list.
When you get back to your house, get on a computer or get out a book and pull up your photos and notes and compare them to what you have seen. On my Resources Page you can find a master list of plant databases I have found to help you identify what you find! Talk to your friends or family and get their opinion on the identification. Next time bring them with you, nature hikes are the perfect opportunity to explore the local wildlife and doing it with friends is even more fun!
Harvesting and Taking from Mother Nature:
Only harvest what you will use! You will end up using less than you think, and remember that you are sharing that plant with the rest of the ecosystem. So if you do harvest, only take a maximum of 15% of what you see, and for certain plants you should take even less. There are certain windows of time to properly harvest certain plants, and if the window is long you can always come back later to harvest again. If you see the plants are just getting established in the spring leave them alone until they have established because you could risk wiping out an entire population. Be mindful of what mother nature has provided you with and don't be greedy. Our world is so abundant, and we should take care to embrace it and be grateful, not take advantage of it. After you take from the earth you should always ask, "How can I give back to the earth today?"
When harvesting make sure to use sharp cuts and proper positioning of the cut so that the plant doesn't get infected. Things to know about the plant before harvesting:
--How much are you going to harvest
--What part of the plant to harvest for your purposes
--When is the best time to harvest that part
--How is the best way to harvest
--What effect your harvest will have on the ecosystem (think about other organisms)
--What you are going to do with it when you get home
Once you do harvest something, you want to make sure that you store it properly and prepare it for use properly. Every plant is different so you will have to do a little research on each specific one. I'm not going to go into it here because it is so plant specific!
Apps for the Modern Forager:
There are a few apps that are amazing for helping beginners and experts identify plants and forage safely.
PlantNet - Snap a pic of a plant and run it through a database of about 4100 species instantly! I have identified many plants with this app. It is simple and easy to use.
iNaturalist - This website and app is the same concept, but has way more flora and significantly more activity and people uploading photos. You can identify plants and contribute to the database, helping to teach others and bring awareness to your local flora! You can also connect with others in your area to help you identify what you have found.
These apps are easy to use, but I don't rely on them completely. If I do use the app, I use it as the first step in the ID process, and then I take what the app has identified the plant as and look up more photos and information to make sure it is accurate. The best bet is to consult with someone in your area that has knowledge of the plants you are looking at.
A Brief List Michigan Flora in the Spring:
Plantain - Plantago major
Rubbed on parts of the body stung by insects, nettles, etc., or as an application to burns and scalds, the leaves will afford relief and will stay the bleeding of minor wounds. The fresh leaves are applied whole or bruised in the form of a poultice. Source.
Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale
Diuretic, tonic and slightly aperient. It is a general stimulant to the system, but especially to the urinary organs, and is chiefly used in kidney and liver disorders. Dandelion is not only official but is used in many patent medicines. Not being poisonous, quite big doses of its preparations may be taken. Its beneficial action is best obtained when combined with other agents. Source.
Chickweed - Stellaria media
Relieves inflammation and has cooling properties. It is held in great repute among herbalists, used mostly in the form of an ointment. The fresh leaves have been employed as a poultice for inflammation and indolent ulcers with most beneficial results. Source.
Nettles - Urtica dioica L.
Painful to touch due to the stinging hairs it has, and must be cooked to be eaten. Nettle is anti-asthmatic: the juice of the roots or leaves, mixed with honey or sugar, will relieve bronchial and asthmatic troubles and the dried leaves, burnt and inhaled, will have the same effect.. The seeds and flowers used to be given in wine as a remedy for ague. The powdered seeds have been considered a cure for goitre and efficacious in reducing excessive corpulency. Source.
Ramps/wild leeks - Allium tricoccum
These plants are delicious garlicky flavored tiny onions that grow wild right now. They taste great used just like a green onion or a regular leek. More info here.
Wild mustard - A variety of types
There are quite a few different types of mustard, black being the strongest medicinally. Irritant, stimulant, diuretic, emetic. Mustard is used in the form of poultices for external application near the seat of inward inflammation, chiefly in pneumonia, bronchitis and other diseases of the respiratory organs. It relieves congestion of various organs by drawing the blood to the surface, as in head affections, and is of service in the alleviation of neuralgia and other pains and spasms. Source.
Wild garlic - Allium vineale L.
The whole plant is antiasthmatic, blood purifier, carminative, cathartic, diuretic, expectorant, hypotensive, stimulant and vasodilator. The raw root can be eaten to reduce blood pressure and also to ease shortness of breath. Although no other specific mention of medicinal uses has been seen for this species, members of this genus are in general very healthy additions to the diet. Source.
Violets - Viola odorata and more
The older writers had great faith in Syrup of Violets: ague, epilepsy, inflammation of the eyes, sleeplessness, pleurisy, jaundice and quinsy are only a few of the ailments for which it was held potent. Gerard says: 'It has power to ease inflammation, roughness of the throat and comforteth the heart, assuageth the pains of the head and causeth sleep.' Source.
Blueberries - Vaccinium spp.
We all know blueberries are good for us! There are wild blueberries all over Michigan, some are even invasive.
Blackberries - Rubus spp.
Blackberries also grow all over Michigan! Make sure to properly identify any berry before trying to eat it! Check out more info here.
Purslane - Portulaca oleracea L.
Hydrating, cooling, and high in Vitamin E and C with a few micro nutrients as well. Source.