Spring Foraging in the Pacific Northwest – Vancouver Island Wild Foods

When I first started foraging, one of the biggest challenges for me was finding geographically relevant information. Though countless foraging and wild food identification books exist, I could find very little information on when certain foods were in season in my area, and where to find certain types of terrain locally. I hope by sharing this I can inspire exploration of your local landscape and familiarize yourself with a few wild edibles.

Though this list is nowhere near exhaustive, these are my go-to wild foods to forage in spring in the Pacific Northwest. I live on Vancouver Island, but depending on where you live geographically, your season may be a few weeks ahead or behind of ours. Also note that precipitation, daytime and nighttime temperates, and other weather patterns effect the growth of wild foods.

Please note that this article is intended as inspiration, rather than an all-inclusive guide or identification resource. Before you go foraging for foods that are new to you, please do ample research, reference identification books, and always confirm your findings with an experienced forager before consumption.

Here are a few of my favourites!

1. Fiddleheads

Cleaned fiddleheads from lady ferns (athyrium filix-femina)

Fiddleheads are the small shoots or “baby ferns” that poke through the soil, gradually unfurling into a tall, mature fern. These are often one of the season’s first finds, and are highly sought after from late March to the end of May, depending on daytime temperatures.

Their flavour is often described as somewhere between asparagus and greens beans, though they also have an underlying – yet pleasant – bitterness that reminds you of their wildness.

There are a number of edible fiddlehead varieties – most commonly harvested and sold is from the ostrich fern, but on Vancouver Island, we are more likely to find the (equally delicious) lady fern. Harvest fiddleheads when they’re no taller than 4”, due to the bitter alkaloids that become more concentrated and potentially irritating in the mature plant. Always only pick a few fiddleheads from each fern to preserve the integrity of the plant.

While ferns grow anywhere and everywhere, I most often find the edible varieties in mixed forest near freshwater. Some of our favourite spots are along river trails, but you can even find them lining ditches in rural areas. It’s best to avoid harvesting any wild food too close to a busy roadway to reduce the potential of pollutants and contaminants.

2. Stinging nettles

Fresh stinging nettles

Stinging nettles are near the top of my foraging list, and are one of my all time favourite greens. While potentially intimidating due to their “sting factor” these can be safely handled with bare hands by the experienced forager. (For the novice forager, it’s wise to wear gloves while you get to know the plant.)

Nettles are actually now cultivated and available at markets and in grocery stores, but they grow readily in every province (and supposedly every state, too). Stinging nettles are most abundant in March and April, and are best picked young when the plant is about a foot in size. Like many wild foods, nettles thrive in moist conditions. They grow well in disturbed soil and along riverbanks and streams.

During spring months, I eat fresh nettles daily. They are best steamed, as you get the tender, nutrient dense and robustly flavoured greens, as well as the leftover water which is in essence, an infusion, or strong tea. You can also sauté nettles or add them to soups, sauces, and even raw in smoothies.

In Chinese medicine, nettle is used as a blood tonic and is considered a “building” herb due to its high nutrient density. It is also a cleansing herb, acting as a diuretic and eliminating toxins through the kidneys and urinary system.

3. Horsetail

Mature horsetail found growing along the estuary

Perhaps the easiest to find herb of all time – horsetail. This herb grows literally everywhere. Along streams and rivers, in boggy areas, on the side of the road, in the ditch…

On central-northern Vancouver Island, horsetail is best for harvesting in April and early May, when the shoots are still young and the leaves are still partially closed. When the herb’s leaves are fully splayed out, this indicates the plant’s maturity. At this point, it will contract a bitterness and becomes woody.

Horsetail is used primarily as a tonic herb in the form of tea, either fresh or dried. While it’s flavour is fairly neutral (best described as “green”), it is a very useful herb to support hair, skin, nails, and strength of the structural system (bones and cartridge) due to its silica content.

4. Oyster mushrooms

Pearl oysters (pleurotus ostreatus) growing on a dead standing alder

Mushrooms are one of my favourite wild edibles. The hunt creates a childlike playfulness and an unbreakable presence and connectedness, as we scan our surroundings and squat down onto the earth.

Oyster mushrooms are probably in my top 3 of mushrooms, if there were such a heirchy. Their delicate flesh and light mushroomy flavour is very versatile, and they hold up equally well sautéed on a heavily peppered grass fed steak as they do in a delicate white wine cream sauce for a pasta.

There are a few varieties of oyster mushrooms on Vancouver Island, including the pearl oyster (pleurotus ostreatus), which is the more commonly known variety, and the Phoenix oyster (pleurotus pulmonarius) with a paler cap and more pronounced stem. These two are used interchangeably from a culinary perspective, and grow in similar conditions.

Look for oyster mushrooms in mixed forest, particularly hardwood such as alder, birch and oak. Oysters grow most often on fallen logs or dead standing trees. Lookalikes do exist for this species, so do research and be careful in your identification.

5. Morels

Black morel mushrooms (morcella elata)

Oh, the elusive morel! This spring mushroom is highly sought after by chefs and foragers alike. These honeycomb textured fungi grow almost anywhere, yet due to their high demand and particularly effective camouflage, they are often hard to find.

Most commonly found in disturbed soil, around wood chips, and burn sites. Deactivated logging roads can be a good place to look, where they can often be found around burnt slash piles or even on the side of the road. Once you spot one morel, take a squat and scan the ground carefully as there are almost always more nearby.

Once you are familiar with the appearance of a morel, it is unmistakable. However, there are a few lookalikes – including the false morel – that could be confusing to a new forager, so educate yourself on the differences between the species.

Morels are a delicate specimen, so I prefer to keep their culinary use fairly simple. A little grass fed butter or ghee, some garlic and leeks, and a hit of white wine… These can be eaten as is, topping a seafood of choice (goes particularly well with white fish), or as a pasta sauce.

I hope that this article was of value to you. If I’ve left out any of your favourites, please share with the tribe in the comments below!

Remember that this list is intended as inspiration only – always do ample research on wild food before going out on the landscape, and bring along a seasoned expert whenever possible.

Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.

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