Foraging Beech Leaves, Cleavers, and Virginia Waterleaf Greens

Cleavers (Galium aparine) are inescapable on the mountain right now, and so they are featuring in all my foraging outings. They have a sweet scent and are rather weird to eat raw, but they make an excellent cooked green.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Cleavers (Galium aparine), also called sticky weed, or bedstraw

I’m also gathering another plant that’s everywhere in the slough, and in fact it’s mixed in with cleavers, and that’s Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), or Shawnee salad. And as you can see, I threw a few chickweed blooms in the bucket because I love chickweed and they were right there near where I was foraging…

Waterleaf is not for beginners. I have two kinds of waterleaf growing in the slough — Virginia waterleaf and broadleaf waterleaf — and while both are said to be edible, they grow with a third plant that is definitely not edible: a hooked buttercup (Ranunculus recurvatus). The foliage of the three plants is very similar. Hover over each photo below to learn what the plant is.

I’ve been working on these identifications for a long time now, and I even made sure to wait until two of the three bloomed. I dug up the roots, did my research, and triple-checked everything in all the resources I could find, and having lived with this now for a while, I feel pretty confident. And even though I learned in a few sources that the broadleaf waterleaf is edible, the Virginia waterleaf is the one most people talk about, and it even has a native American history of being eaten (Shawnee salad), so I decided to harvest that one, for the least amount of risk.

I also foraged beech (Fagus) buds and leaves, since our grove is leafing out nicely right now. The beech trees are mixed in with ironwood (also called musclewood, or American hornbeam, or Carpinus caroliniana) whose leaves are very similar to the beech. However, all the ironwood has already leafed out; beech is only just beginning.

Beech buds and leaves
Beech buds and leaves
Young beech leaves
Young beech (Fagus) leaves

New beech leaves are very sweet and make a great trail snack, but if the downy hairs bother you, you can eat the buds, or just cook most of them, like I did.

Foraging bucket
Foraging bucket with cleavers, beech buds and leaves, and Virginia waterleaf

I washed my greens carefully, chopped them some, and heated them just enough to “melt” them down. Since I had leftover rice in the fridge, I spooned that over my bed of wild greens, and topped it with toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, peanuts, salt, and pepper.


Rice on wild greens
Rice on wild greens with peanuts and sesame seeds

Note: When you’re foraging, be absolutely certain of your identification before you harvest. And please harvest sustainably. 

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