The Northeast can be oppressively buggy in the summer and bone-chillingly cold in the winter, but this land of forests, mountains, and water is also the home for many great wild edible plants. Get to know the different foods that nature can provide there.
Warning: Use a reputable field guide to positively identify any wild plant before eating it.
Saps and Syrups
Many trees throughout the U.S. are capable of producing sugary syrup in late winter, but the Northeast seems to have the market cornered. By far, the most sap-to-syrup genus is maple (the genus Acer). Growing from Canada down to Tennessee, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is your best bet. Sugar maple trees have the highest percentage of sugar in their sap (compared to all other North American trees), but maple isn’t your only sweet tree sap. We can also harvest sap from sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), hickories (the genus Carya), black walnut (Juglans nigra), and butternut walnut (Juglans cinerea) trees. The birches (the genus Betula) are also sweet sap producers, flowing heavily, about a month after the maples.
Black birch (Betula lenta) is the best, and it’s also known by the names sweet birch and spice birch. It can be found from Canada to northern Georgia, and its delicious syrup has a wintergreen flavor. To make any of these syrups, you’ll first need to positively identify the leafless tree (no small feat) by using the branch patterns, buds, leaf scars, and bundle scars – and you’ll need to be there at the right time of year. The sap only runs for a few weeks each year, in late winter, when the days are above freezing and the nights are below freezing. Drill a ½ inch hole in the tree trunk (any convenient height), and insert some kind of tube or hose to direct the sap away from the trunk. Collect the sap in a freeze-proof container (I use plastic jugs), until you have several gallons. Boil this down over an outdoor fire (there is too much steam to do this in your home kitchen), and reduce the liquid until it is as thick and golden as fresh motor oil. You’ll need about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and February or March are the typical months for sap production (depending on elevation, latitude, and the quirks of each season).
In the northern bogs and wetlands of the Northeast, fall brings an odd little fruit to ripeness. The cranberry (Vaccinium spp.) is a close cousin to blueberries, and various species can be found across the Northern Hemisphere. Growing on small evergreen shrubs or trailing vines, cranberries prefer acidic wetlands to grow their fruit. Starting out as a nearly white fruit, they ripen to a vibrant red color in autumn. While they are not the most pleasant raw fruit (too bitter and sour, no sweetness), cooked ripe cranberries can be sweetened and transformed into sauce or preserves. Three and a half ounces of fresh cranberries will provide 46 calories and a light assortment of B vitamins and minerals, mostly manganese.
Native to northern forests and found along the Appalachian Mountains further south, thirty-five different species of spruce (Picea spp.) can provide tea and edible inner bark throughout the year. These abundant northern trees are coniferous evergreens in the pine family. Trees may be short (60 feet tall) in tough growing conditions, and exceed heights of 200 feet under ideal growing conditions. Looking something like pine trees from a distance, the “leaves” of this evergreen have a sharp needle tip, a square shaft, and grow out from all sides of the twigs. This helps with identification and differentiates spruce from another evergreen with an overlapping range. Just remember “flat, friendly fir and sharp, square spruce.” When new tips emerge in spring, these twig tips can be used as a cooked vegetable or used as a flavoring. Spruce needles can be chopped and steeped in hot water to make a tea with high vitamin C. The inner layer of bark can even be stripped out, dried until brittle, and ground into powder (which can be blended with flour to bolster your supply).
Widely grown as Christmas trees, there are over four dozen species of fir (Abies spp.) growing through Europe, Asia, and North America, even dipping down into Central America and Northern Africa. The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is the most plentiful North American fir species. These large pine family members can exceed 80 feet in height and have soft needles arranged in a flat pattern (a bit like green feathers). The chopped needles can be steeped in scalding hot water to make a vitamin C rich tea (like pine and spruce). The inner layer of bark (cambium layer) can also be dried and pulverized into a coarse meal-like spruce inner bark. This type of “bark flour” is roughly 600 calories per pound.
The marshes of the Northeast have been producing this strange grain much longer than people have been cultivating its distant cousins in Asia. Wild rice (Zizania spp.) is a native wetland plant in the grass family (Poaceae), which grows best in shallow water. Reaching heights over 8 feet tall, these annual water grasses have long been harvested from canoes and boats. The traditional method is to lean the tall stalks over and tap the ripe grain heads with a stick to drop them into the boat. Tougher and nuttier tasting than Asian rice (Oryza sativa), 3.5 ounces of uncooked wild rice provides 100 calories, many B vitamins, iron, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. Don’t forget to bring a canoe, it’s the only practical way to collect this nutritious wild grain.