Two experts lead us into the woods on a hunt for ramps, mushrooms and other indigenous edibles

As someone who walks a lot and is always hungry, I often pass by an intriguing mushroom or interesting-looking plant and think: “I wonder what that tastes like? Is it even edible?”

Yeah, I am one inquisitive glutton.

Those questions also arise, though, because I'm a strong believer in the increased health benefits and reduced carbon footprints of naturally grown, unprocessed foods. That's why I frequently shop for things labeled “local” and “organic.”

But there's a less-expensive, more hands-on — and even radical — ingredient frontier that bypasses common grocery-store labels. Obtaining food this way is embraced by a knowing group of mainstream-skeptical insiders with a taste for untamed nature, adventure and free groceries. These pioneer-spirited people can answer my aforementioned questions because they're experienced Columbus foragers.

For the unfamiliar, foraging isn't about dumpster diving or writing bad checks. It's about educating oneself on indigenous edible plants and fungi, communing with nature, and harvesting foods rife with the nutrient-dense flavors of still-wild Ohio.

This is obviously nothing new. But foraging has become newsy lately because many of the most sophisticated, exclusive and expensive restaurants in the world have become heralded for preparing dishes made with rare and ultra-local, foraged ingredients. Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark — perhaps the planet's most praised and influential eatery over the past decade — has been leading this movement.

With spring in full bloom, diners can now occasionally find Ohio-foraged goodies enhancing daily specials at Columbus restaurants that showcase local ingredients. The flavor-packed stars of this lineup — highly prized morel mushrooms (which Comune has lately featured) and the addictive wild leeks called ramps — are traditional harbingers of the warmer seasons.

“Eating ramps is a delicious way to celebrate spring,” said local restaurant mogul Ismail Alshahal of A&R Creative Group during a brief interview. Alshahal then introduced me to his chef at the Clintonville Crest, Stephan Madias, who described how he eagerly incorporated locally foraged ramps into an inspired recent veggie-burger special.

After mind-opening outings with the two foragers you're about to meet in this story, I can testify that incorporating a little foraging into your life is another great way to celebrate spring. But be careful out there: Never eat anything you haven't triple-checked with a field guide, and educate yourself about the curiously strict Columbus laws that decree foraging in most public spaces to still be illegal.

Forager: Kate Hodges
Age: 35
Neighborhood: North Linden
Recommended Field Guide: Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants

“Edible wild foods are all over, but most people just pass them by,“ Kate Hodges said as she parked her car not far from the city limits. We'd stopped just feet from a verdant expanse that shall remain undisclosed — foragers are secretive about their sites, lest others pick them clean.

“Obviously, I don't need to forage to feed myself, but it's always fun to taste something different,” Hodges said. She illustrated this point with a poignant memory.

“I grew up in Michigan with great food because my parents have always gardened. But on my way home from school in the springtime, I loved to pull wild red-clover flowers from the sidewalk and suck out the nectar. It's sweet as honey.”

This ripe parable about living a seize-the-moment life was an apt preamble to the adventure awaiting me as I followed Hodges toward a path we'd later wander from. It was the first summery day in May, and the aroma of unfolding flowers and sun-baked foliage accompanied us to a clearing where Hodges paused amid what appeared to be a jumble of random greenery.

Facial Recognition

Scanning the thicket, Hodges said, “When you know what a plant looks like, it's like knowing what a person looks like. All these plants have stems and leaves, just as all people have noses and eyes. But if you know what you're looking for, you realize only particular leaves belong to a particular plant. Just like there's only one face that belongs to G.A., and there's only one G.A. Benton.”

After I jokingly said the universe was better off concerning her last observation — and Hodges laughed suspiciously hard in agreement — she resumed my education by pointing out that the tall weeds with small white blooms facing us were garlic mustard.

Hodges yanked off a segment of one, gave it a quick wipe, put a few leaves in her mouth, and then handed me some saying, “Garlic mustard is an invasive species, a nuisance to many people, but it's very edible.”

Chewing the stuff, I picked up a radicchio-esque bitterness followed by potent horseradish accents. I'm drawn to such bold, mouth-filling flavors and made a mental note to try adding a little garlic mustard to lend my future salads more pizzazz.

The inelegant plant's strange but seductive flavor provoked a Thoreau-indebted observation: Where an untrained eye sees a tangle of invasive weeds, an experienced forager sees an exotic buffet.

Reap What You Sow — and Forage

Hodges has been introducing people to the buffet of wild, Midwestern flavors for a long time. During the past five years, much of this has been accomplished as the co-owner of Foraged & Sown, which operates a busy booth at the Clintonville Farmers Market. There, Saturday customers line up to buy organic herb and vegetable seedlings, as well the company's popular and handsomely packaged herbal teas and finishing salts — the latter flavored with wild local flora such as ramps.

“Kate was my introduction to foraging on a more formal basis,” Rachel Tayse said by phone. Tayse is a well-known food writer and, as the co-owner of Foraged & Sown, is Hodges' business and organic urban-farming partner.

“Kate taught me that you can find intense wild flavors right in your own yard that are impossible to replicate through cultivation. Edible chickweed is common in Columbus. And mulberries and serviceberries — ornamental plants that most people never realize bear delicious fruit — grow all over town, especially around German Village. Eventually you can head into the woods to investigate the landscape and learn about nettles and ramps and wild mushrooms.”

Characteristic of many foragers, Tayse is generous with her hard-won knowledge. Which is great, because learning to identify, harvest and savor wild natural plants is something often learned outside of academic circles. And it's perhaps something that's more important than ever when you consider the often unhealthy consequences of our modern industrialized food system.

Life Lessons

Two recipients of such knowledge are Hodges' 10-year-old son, Darren, and Tayse's 13-year-old daughter, Lillian. The budding entrepreneurs started Cat Trek — a successful little catnip business named after “Star Trek” — to raise funds so they could help pay their way to Scandinavia, accompanied by their moms.

Hodges, who is of Finnish descent, said on that trip the group gleaned firsthand knowledge about a liberal culture steeped in foraging, and in which — unlike in Ohio — families go out in droves to legally forage practically anywhere they please.

Back on my foraging expedition with Hodges, my next lesson would be that one of the richest sources of antioxidant-packed, cancer-fighting lycopene on Earth is autumn olive, another invasive plant native to Ohio. Hodges motioned to autumn olive shrubs growing like mad a few yards from the garlic mustard patch.

“Their tart-sweet, red fruit is astringent, but I find it addictive and eat as much as I can when it ripens in the autumn,” she said. “It might be an acquired taste eating it like that, but it's really good in jams and fruit leathers.”

Hodges noted that, unlike common grocery-store produce bred for sweetness and crunch, the wild flavors and textures of uncultivated plants are frequently accompanied by a much denser nutrient content because the plant DNA hasn't been tampered with.

That elucidating comment was an apt introduction to the next plant Hodges showed me: stinging nettles. Google this one and you'll see a long list of purported health benefits and a history of consumption stretching back centuries.

“You really have to love these — and I do — because they really can sting if you're not careful,” Hodges warned. After plucking some leaves, she rolled and tucked them into little parcels that protect a consumer's tongue from the stinging cells. She showed me how to do this, and it's pretty easily mastered.

“I think they taste like green beans,” she said. I picked up that flavor, too. But the curiously soft leaves also tasted of parsley and watermelon rind. As I mulled this over, Hodges demonstrated her ergonomic quick-harvesting technique: attaching a plastic bag to the straps of her overalls so the bag dangles beneath her chin like a basket, and then going to town with two hands.

I'd earlier let Hodges know I was a big fan of ramps. So when her detective-like skills — and clues from Tayse — eventually led her to the kind of moist soil that ramps favor, and Hodges finally located some, I couldn't wait to taste them straight from the ground.

Hodges, who follows an ethical harvesting code for in-demand plants like ramps, said we'd only sample a few leaves and wouldn't harvest any bulbs because these were young specimens. The broad, flat green blades offered an unexpected sublime sweetness that led to a wonderfully pungent, garlic-like explosion. The haunting, unique taste echoed faintly throughout my mouth for what seemed like hours.

Forager: Marlee Francis
Age: 27
Neighborhood: Clintonville
Recommended Field Guide: National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms

While waiting on Marlee Francis, who was running late, I chatted up Jovan Karcic — an old friend, a local music legend and the owner of the inimitable Yeah, Me Too coffee shop in Clintonville, where Francis was to meet me on a recent Saturday afternoon.

“She's passing down her knowledge to my kids,” Karcic said about Francis, who regularly babysits his two daughters. “We'll be walking out in the woods and [Karcic's 5-year-old] Nikolina will suddenly point and say, ‘Look, those are turkey tail mushrooms!'”

When Francis arrived soon after, it wasn't long before we struck pay dirt. About a 10 minute drive from Yeah, Me Too, brought us to a muddy path that snakes through the woodsy area she'd selected for us to explore. In a lightning-fast span of time after hitting that path — maybe 15 seconds — she spotted two morel mushrooms.

With one arm gently steadying Olen, her 5-month-old son strapped to her chest, Francis slowly lowered into a demure squat, then one-handedly extracted a black pocket knife and sliced a mushroom from its stem. She was careful not to uproot the mushroom because she knows it's only a “fruit” jutting up from a complex, tree-tethered organism of mysterious filaments that mostly lives underground.

While preserving this mushroom-harvesting moment with a photo, I thought: A benevolent ninja forager with blond dreadlocks and a puzzle piece tattoo near one ear.

Into the Woods

Above the narrow, tree-lined lane where we'd begun treading, the milky-white sky was darkening to gray and occasionally releasing rain as we continued down the path. Birds chirped in the pale light. A deer ignored us as it flitted by, as if we were a normal part of its urban forest — or perhaps a harmless mirage.

Gazing down at the cherished fungus Francis had so quickly guided us to genuinely surprised me. I'd gone into this experiment very ignorant about the harvesting of wild mushrooms. But I'd devoured my share of delectable morels in upscale restaurants and I know they're notoriously elusive.

Because of that, and because they only sprout in spring, and because they're nearly impossible to cultivate, morels are a forager's dream. Consequently, these rare mushrooms with a meaty, bewitching flavor and Dali-esque caps — they look like partially melted conical honeycombs — are quite expensive if you can even find them for sale.

Yet within the blink of an eye, Francis and I already had a couple right under our noses. So is finding morels really this easy?

No, it's not. Certainly it's not for “normal” people. Then again, Francis might not be what you'd call a normal person.

Call the Doula

The self-taught naturalist and West Virginia transplant who was raised eating kale grown in the family garden is what you'd call a multifaceted person, though. She's the mother of two, a nanny and a doula who works for C.H.O.I.C.E. — the Center for Humane Options in Childbirth Experiences. She's also an avid home cook, a server at Portia's Cafe and an entrepreneur who sells bean-based vegan treats under the banner of Marlee's Beany Baked Goods.

But the reason Francis was leading me through a wooded patch that afternoon is because she's the founder of the “Columbus area mushroom hunters!” Facebook group.

“I started the group a couple months ago because people kept asking me how to identify wild mushrooms and other edible plants,” Francis said. “And I wanted to encourage others to forage, and wanted to provide a forum to ask questions and share information.”

How often does she forage?

“I can't turn it off! I'm always looking down, always searching, even by a sidewalk or a mulch patch. But I make a point to go out two to three times a week — less during winter.

“Foraging is a whole sensory experience that a grocery store can't compare with. You're out in nature — you see beautiful plants, interesting fungus. You smell these things.

“Plus, it's free food! And it's food that's natural, wild and full of nutrients. I doubt we'll be in a survival situation soon, but I still like to know I could get by, if I had to, by eating the edible plant and fungus life around me.”

Shroom Service

Francis has only been foraging seriously for about 18 months, but said her love of mushrooms — which are believed to have more animal than plant characteristics, and belong to the peculiar fungi kingdom — is “long term.” She even met her future husband on a mushroom hunt.

“Way back then, we didn't even eat many. We just loved studying mushrooms and the fascinating way they grow. Many people don't realize they play a huge role in the environment by forming deep relationships with trees and other plant life.

“And they're really healthy to eat — no cholesterol, low in calories and fat, tons of vitamins. They can replace meat on your plate, which saves so much water and resources.”

Like a tour guide in a fungus theme park, Francis began ticking off the other mushrooms we'd encounter that afternoon. So I was soon introduced to antioxidant-rich “turkey tails,” which were fanned out along a log close to the two morels. Francis makes a broth with turkey tails that she swears by, and which she says kept her family free from illness all winter. Like most of the fungi I'd learn about, their colloquial name comes from something they uncannily resemble visually.

On another nearby log were “wood ears” — yes, they look like dark flabby ears — that I recognized from Chinese restaurants. Francis puts these in homemade spring rolls.

Just down the path a spell, she pointed out hefty, good-to-eat “pheasant backs.” The feathery-patterned brownish disks with a telltale cucumber scent protruded from a dead elm like elaborate, craggy-edged Frisbees thrown into a tree by someone with superhero strength.

After showing me the blue, all too credibly named, not-considered-edible “dead man's fingers” — which were ghoulishly sticking up from the ground like something from a horror-movie set — we gave in to the quickening rain and called it quits.

I retreated to a bar to look over my notes. A couple of hours later, Francis texted me a photo in which she's standing in a field and smiling ecstatically with her jacket draped over her head as a drizzle shield. She's holding Olen tightly to her chest with her left hand. In her outstretched right hand is an enormous morel mushroom that looks like a triple-dip ice cream cone made out of honey, caramel and gold.

Correction: An early version of the piece identified Marlee Francis as a midwife, as well, which is not the case. Alive regrets the error.