When most people spot a stinging nettle, they back away so they can avoid the itchy, red rash that gives the plant its name. Maria Wesserle starts planning supper.
“I love stinging nettle. I want everyone to love it,” said Wesserle, an avid forager who delights in finding edible wild plants growing right in the Twin Cities. She enjoys the taste of nettles so much that she eats them weekly when they’re in season.
Blanched in boiling water for two minutes, nettle leaves lose their sting. Wesserle then blends them with nuts, Parmesan cheese, a little garlic and olive oil to make a pesto. Sometimes she makes a dark green nettle iced tea or freezes the leaves and tosses them into a smoothie.
Spring and early summer are an exciting time for foragers such as Wesserle. The wild plants that poke their way up from the earth are at their most tender and tasty when brand-new.
Many Minnesotans get excited about ramps, morels and the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns. But the lesser-known wild edibles that abound here — from nettles and garlic mustard greens to elderberry capers and Juneberries — are also now ending up in farmers markets and on restaurant menus and dinner tables. The James Beard Award-winning cookbook “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” by Minneapolis chef and educator Sean Sherman and local food writer Beth Dooley, features chokecherries, cattails and other wild foods. And a grocery stocking foraged food, called Forest to Fork, is set to open in St. Paul this summer.
As foraging’s popularity continues to rise, city locations to hunt for wild food are expanding, too. After a rule change last fall, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board now allows people to pick certain wild nuts, fruits and berries in most city parks, as long as it’s for personal use.
The Park Board made the policy shift, called the molesting vegetation amendment — picking illegally is called “molesting vegetation” — because many community members asked for it, said spokeswoman Robin Smothers. She said the change is part of the board’s community garden Urban Agriculture Activity Plan, which includes a push to have parkland food available for residents.
St. Paul city parks do not allow any foraging. State parks and forests do, but not for commercial use. Generally, Minnesota foragers who sell to restaurants or at farmers markets can hunt only on private land, although national forests sometimes offer permits.
The list of wild edibles that are now OK to gather in Minneapolis parks is short, but it does include popular treats such as filberts (also known as wild hazelnuts), Juneberries (also called serviceberries) and pine nuts.
Wesserle, who works for the nonprofit North Country Food Alliance, also offers foraging classes and workshops through a side business called Four Season Foraging. During a recent workshop, she pointed out a Juneberry tree to a dozen wannabe foragers gathered along Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway.
“They’re good in smoothies, pancakes and waffles,” said Wesserle, who said she knows people who have been ticketed for foraging in the past. She’s excited to legally gather Juneberries in Minneapolis city parks this year.
In an area of about four city blocks, stretching from Hiawatha Avenue to E. 28th Street, that appeared to the untrained eye to be filled with run-of-the-mill weeds and scrubby grass, Wesserle eagerly identified some of her favorite wild foods for the class: burdock roots that she slices for stir-fries, garlic mustard greens that are “zesty” in a sandwich, hackberries with their “figgy” taste and dandelions that can be eaten in salads or in fritters made from the petals.
“It tastes like something you would get at the State Fair,” she said.
She pointed out broccoli’s wild cousin, the bright yellow-flowered winter cress, and said that milkweed stalks, when they first push through the ground, can be eaten like asparagus. The silky fluff inside milkweed pods, when harvested at the right time, has a “cheese-like quality,” she said. “You can put it in lasagna.”
Besides being careful to identify the right plant, foragers need to be cautious about where they pick. While the Greenway is a great location to show off the sheer number of edible plants growing wild in the city, Wesserle doesn’t eat any greens or roots she finds along it because she is worried that the soil is contaminated with arsenic or other chemicals from pesticides.
“Around the Twin Cities, you have to be careful where you pick because of all of the contamination that is potentially around,” she said.
She largely sticks to foraging in city and state parks or, when given the go-ahead, on private property where she knows there’s no danger of soil contamination. She washes all her wild greens with a bit of dish soap and then rinses and runs them through a salad spinner multiple times to get rid of any dust or soil.
Many of the folks learning how to forage during Wesserle’s workshop said they were hoping to connect more directly to the natural environment. North Minneapolis retiree Sharon Segal took notes along with the other students as they tasted nettle tea and crunched some garlic mustard greens that Wesserle had washed and prepared.
“It’s pretty shocking that garlic mustard is edible,” said Segal, who used to do battle with it as a weed in her gardening days.
She liked the taste and said she was planning to do a little foraging of her own now that she knows what to look for.
“I’m definitely going to look for the garlic mustard,” she said. “That’s like a double service. I get to eat it and get rid of an invasive species.”
You don’t have to go foraging to have wild food for dinner. Mike Kempenich, who runs a business called Gentleman Forager and is set to open the Forest to Fork store, supplies Bachelor Farmer and Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis and dozens of other Twin Cities restaurants with wild treats such as ramps and many types of mushrooms.
He even gathers stinging nettles by the (gloved) handful. “Every week!” he said during a recent foraging excursion near Waterville, Minn. “About 20 to 30 of our clients serve them.”
Erica Pearson (ericapearson.contently.com) is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis.