If we learn anything from the bear about emerging from winter, it should be to not mistake the mud of spring for barren ground. There might not be showy greens and flowers waving their flags for us to come eat, but if we had the sense of a hungry animal we’d know that the real meal is in the soil, not above it. The roots that we want to sniff out as food are typically the roots of perennial, or biennial plants. These are also known as plants with a multi-year life cycle.
In the winter, the aerial parts of these plants die back and all the energy and nutrition that was gained from that year’s growth is stored safely underground inside the root until the spring. This period of nutrient density, paired with the ease of digging in the soft, muddy ground, makes spring the ideal time to harvest wild roots. In no time, the ground will lose its give and lock those sweet roots in a grip that won’t want to let go. The roots will feel the squeeze and start spending all that savings on greens and stems and flowers, leaving the roots pretty much tapped out. So now is the time to dig.
There’s a stunning array of native root vegetables across North America that have been tended and eaten by humans and animals alike for thousands of years, sustaining us in lean times in ways that greens and fruits just can’t. You can still read the greater landscape and get a sense of where humans traveled, and where we stayed, based on what edible root and tuber plants are present. Camas root, biscuit root, groundnut, prairie turnip, and many more have beautiful histories with humans on this continent, and it’s good that we know these plants and learn these histories. But these aren’t the roots that I think we should all be digging now.
To dig a root oftentimes means to end the life of the plant, as opposed to picking a fruit or a leaf which does little or no harm. Digging roots responsibly requires that we not only identify the plant and know its life cycle but also take the time to know its local and regional abundance, its habitat health, and its role in the ecosystem. Learn the stories of your local roots and you’ll probably learn some family history in the process. But instead of digging right in, let’s ring in the spring with these three roots that can handle a lot of hungry humans.
Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) You might not have been born without sunchokes. In the year “eighteen hundred and froze to death”, or 1816, the aftermath of a volcano disrupted weather patterns so dramatically that New England had freezing temperatures every single month of that year, causing devastating crop failures and famine. Sunchokes were one of the only substantial food plants that still yielded, and they saved a LOT of people from starving.
Sunchoke isn’t technically a root, it’s a tuber. But I’m taking the botanical liberty to lump all “underground storage organs” into the root category here, forgive me. Sunchoke, sunroot, Jerusalem artichoke, and earth-apple are all names for this native tuberous sunflower. Its original range was limited to central North America, but people loved it and it was quickly adopted as a food crop of farms and gardens, where it readily jumped the fence and naturalized itself from coast to coast.
Today you can forage for sunchokes around old abandoned homestead sites and the edges of farm fields, but they’re also becoming more common in grocery stores and seed catalogs. Buy some this spring at your farmer’s market to see if you like them, then keep your eyes peeled for masses of tall, slender, sunshiney flowers in mid through late summer.
Burdock (Arctium minus) Burdock likely needs no introduction. I’m sure you’ve noticed it as a long-term squatter in your lawn and a frequent flyer on your wool sweater or your dog’s coat. Most people are uncomfortably familiar with burdock by way of trying to pluck its velcro-like seeds out of their clothing and pets' hair, but many have yet to be introduced to burdock as a food.
Those burrs that cling to everything are the fruit of the second year’s growth of the burdock plant’s life cycle. The root that you want to eat comes from the first year plant. To find the first-year roots, look for the stately, second-year plants, then scan the ground around them for the basal rosettes of the first-year plants.
Burdock roots are notoriously deep and tenacious, and even in loose soil, you’ll need a digging stick, fork, or a long, narrow transplant shovel. I like to loosen the soil with my tool all the way around the plant by stepping it in, straight down, and prying it back. With my hand, I’ll then pull away the soil from the top of the root until I can grab ahold of it, and then I pull straight up. It’s rare that you get a root on your first pull, and even after meticulous soil loosening and pulling, it’s rare that you get a whole root. They often snap off, and that remaining piece will sprout a whole new plant.
Once you’ve got your root out of the ground, trim the leaves off, wash and peel your root and use it in place of, or alongside your other favorite root vegetables like carrot, radish, and parsnip. I love to cut it into matchsticks and sauteé alongside carrot, soy sauce, and sesame for Kinpira gobo.
Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata) Garlic mustard leads the ranks as the number one most invasive plant on the planet. Do you know what the best defense is? Pulling them up by the root. While I do think that the conversation about invasive plants should be much more nuanced than “us vs. them” or “good vs. evil,” I do see the value in trying to keep the tenacious garlic mustard out of certain ecosystems. This is much better done by hand-pulling when possible rather than spraying persistent chemicals.
If you need incentive other than being a good steward, what if I told you that the root, when grated with vinegar, tastes like a garlic mustard version of prepared horseradish? You can find garlic mustard almost anywhere, and unlike horseradish, it’s fairly shallow-rooted, so the next time you stumble into some, which I guarantee will be soon if you’ve got your eyes open for it, you don’t even need a digging tool if the soil is loose enough.
Pull up as many plants as you’ll use, and then pull up a few more for the sake of whatever place you’re in, and snip the roots from the stem. Bring them home and make garlic mustard horseradish sauce that’ll pair perfectly between two slices of bread with that turkey you’re chasing this spring. It stores really well by freezing or canning to pair perfectly with you venison and goose this fall, too.