Although the winter season can provide some scenic views and a unique perspective on trails you typically visit during the regular hiking season, there is nothing like going for a hike when the forest is beginning to awake from its winter slumber.
The temperature is just right, it’s not too buggy(an excess of insects), it is one of the first opportunities of the year to enjoy the outdoors and get some fresh air, and there are numerous plants to observe in their blooming stage. Since I try to take advantage of the beautiful spring weather, maybe we’ll bump into each other on the trail!
The northeast is plentiful when it comes to hiking trails, from easy beginner day hikes to long hikes that span many miles. Miles and miles of trails span across this region of the United States, offering breathtaking views and the opportunity to observe wildlife and plants in their natural habitat.
Each state offers smaller hiking trails appropriate for day hikes or longer hikes that might require an overnight stay. The Tucquan Glenn trail in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for example, offers beautiful day hikes along the Tucquan Creek.
Perhaps you live in the New York state area? Diamond Notch Falls, which offers a variety of hiking trails up to four miles through the Catskills in New York is a popular place for small hikes. For the more adventurous hiker, longer day hikes such as Rocky Peak Ridge in the Adirondacks and the northeastern part of the Appalachian Trail afford excellent views of local flora and fauna.
Many of the plants found along these trails in the northeast can be harvested and either eaten or used for their medicinal benefits. However, caution should always be taken when harvesting any wild plant to be absolutely sure that the plant being harvested is the correct one.
If in doubt, it is best to consult a more detailed plant manual, or just leave the plant alone and simply admire it for its beauty. Without further adieu, here are ten plants that are common along northeastern hiking trails in the spring.
Chicory is a common perennial herb found in temperate climates across the U.S. It is easy to spot on trails with pale bluish, purple or white flowers and long spiky leaves similar to dandelions. It is a small hardy plant, often growing where other plants can’t and is considered to be a weed. The flowers of the chicory only last for a day. The chicory has uses as both a medicinal and nutritional plant.
Its leaves and roots are both edible and the tender leaves may be consumed in salads if you have a more bitter taste palate. The roots may be boiled and eaten as a root vegetable or roasted and used as a substitute for coffee. In addition, the plant is a fantastic source of Vitamins A and C and has even been used in folk medicine for the treatment of gastro-intestinal ailments, sinus problems and cuts and bruises.
The American Pokeweed is a common perennial growing up to eight feet. At maturity, it has reddish stems and large oblong leaves. Starting in May, clusters of flowers and green and red berries top it. Pokeweed is somewhat of a controversial plant with some insisting that it is poisonous and other touting its wide list of medicinal and nutritional benefits. Some of the claims on its medicinal benefits include a potential treatment for cancer and other viral diseases.
Along the trail, you can harvest Pokeweed for food. Many Native American and southern cultures incorporate this plant into their cuisines by cooking the young stems like any other greens.
The trick to receiving the benefits of Pokeweed is for it to be harvested before it is mature and the stems have become red. After the Pokeweed matures it develops a toxin that can be harmful. The roots should never be ingested. Some side effects of the toxins of a mature Pokeweed plant include diarrhea, vomiting, internal bleeding and much more. So take care when handling this plant.
3.) Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy is one of the better-known poisonous plants that can be found along the trail. This adaptable plant can grow under various conditions and can look different depending on the location and the season.
Although Poison Ivy can be hard to identify, look for three broad spoon-shaped leaves and a low growth habit similar to vines. It also likes to grow along the edges of forests and in fields in sunny spots. In the springtime, the leaves are usually bright green with a waxy look and the center leaf usually has a small stem, different from the two side leaves that grow directly from the plant’s stalk.
There is a common saying with poison ivy: “Leaves of three? Let them be”. If this plant brushes bare skin, an allergic reaction will occur. The sap of the plant contains a compound called urushiol, which causes painful itching rash. In extreme cases, anaphylaxis can occur so care must be taken and contact with this plant avoided.
Dandelion is arguably one of the easiest plants to identify and it is plentiful along the hiking trails of the northeast, particularly the Appalachian Trail. Their bright yellow flowers and spiked leaves make these small low growing plants stand out amongst the landscape. Dandelions are often found growing in clusters and are commonly known as a weed. They are exceptionally hardy and both roots and leaves are harvested by some as a food source.
Similar to Chicory, dandelion roots can be used as a coffee substitute. The leaves contain an abundance of Vitamins A, C, and K and are an excellent source of calcium. Medicinally, dandelion has been used to treat infections and as a diuretic. Although a weed, dandelion is very beneficial to wildlife, particularly bees, and it adds much-needed minerals and nitrogen to the soil. Be careful though, dandelions can cause allergic reactions when eaten and occasionally create skin reactions in sensitive individuals.
These attractive perennials are easily spotted on the trail with their large orange flowers. They like to grow in sunny areas and have six-petaled flowers that face upwards. The daylily has light green long pointed leaves, but the stalk that supports the flower is leafless.
In the spring, the flowers will not quite yet be in bloom but the young stalks are edible and can be used in salads and stir-frys. The plant in spring is similar to irises and some lilies which are poisonous so care must be taken to identify them properly. The easiest way to identify this plant in spring is by the roots which have small potato-like tubers with tiny hairs attached to them.
Cattails are easily recognized by their furry dense seed heads standing atop long thick stalks. The young shoots begin to emerge in early spring growing in dense bunches. By late spring, the cattail shoots can reach up to nine feet tall. There are two types of cattails, Typha latifolia, and Typha augustifolia, but T. Latifolia is more common in the northeast. They grow around water so if you find cattails, water is sure to be close by.
Cattails are one of the more important plants to look for along trails if you’re in need of a food source. Their roots and shoots are full of easily digested starch and will keep you full and sustained with energy for a long period of time. They’re also about 80% carbohydrate and have a lot of nutritional value. The flower spikes of the cattail begin to emerge in late spring and the green part is also edible.
Cattails have been used medically as well with its pollen being used as an anticoagulant. Some of cattail’s medicinal properties include its use as a diuretic, a stimulant and an astringent. Pregnant women are cautioned against eating the cattail and if this plant is harvested it should be done so above the waterline to avoid water borne diseases.
There are two types of sumac that could be found along hiking trails in the northeast: safe sumac such as the Staghorn and the poison variety. The Staghorn Sumac is a safe non-rash inducing variety of the plant and is much more common. This woody perennial is a shrub or small tree growing on clearings, hillsides and roadsides. It has compound spiky leaves that can grow up to 24 inches and contain many two to five inch long leaflets. Its stems are covered with soft hairs. Clusters of red berry-like fruits may still be visible in spring.
Poison Sumac is not as common and typically grows in very wet areas. It’s a large shrub most common in northeast areas such as New York and Vermont. It has compound leaves that are flat and smooth. Its stems are hair free with about seven to nine leaves on each stem. Although this type of sumac is rare to come across, care should be taken if contact is made since this plant also contains urushiol and like poison ivy will cause a rash.
Violets are some of the first flowers found in spring. They usually begin to bloom in early April in the northeast. This small weed grows low to the ground in early spring but can eventually reach a height of ten inches. Its purple flowers are easy to spot. They tend to be scattered instead of growing in dense clumps. Violet’s flowers have five petals and the plant has large heart shaped leaves.
Violets are actually edible and are generally eaten raw in salads. The entire plant is edible, possessing a mild flavor. Medicinally, violets have been used to treat a variety of ailments such as headaches, sore throats and even asthma. It has anti-fungal, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties as well.
9.) Wild Garlic
Wild Garlic, also called crow garlic, is a plant that grows in the northeast. It is not the same as the garlic found in grocery stores but it is somewhat similar. Wild Garlic can be identified by green grass-like stalks that grow in tufts, similar to wild onions or scallions though thinner. This plant can be seen in early spring before other herbaceous plants. The plant is very fragrant and can often be mistaken for onions as the smell is similar. The stems or bulbs can be crushed. If it emits a smell like regular garlic or onion it is wild garlic and is edible.
This plant can be eaten the same way as regular garlic and the leaves or stems are similar to chives. Wild garlic is also known to have medicinal benefits including lowering blood pressure, regulating cholesterol and acting as a digestive tonic. It is very nutritious and contains a high amount of minerals and vitamins. There are some poisonous look-a-likes to wild garlic, such as the Star of Bethlehem but wild garlic is easily identified by its smell.
This plant, also called poor man’s pepper, is a member of the mustard family. It has a high branched stem and is annual plant that can grow up to two feet tall. Flat seed pods sit above the stem and are topped by tiny white flowers that grow in elongated clusters. It has toothed slightly hairy leaves and likes to grow in sunny places, particularly along trails and roadsides, pastures and prairies. Peppergrass is considered by some to be a weed. In the northeast, peppergrass is seen beginning in May.
The entire plant is edible and its seedpods have often been used as a substitute for pepper. The root can be ground and made into a substitute for horseradish by adding vinegar. The young leaves have been used in salads and stews and contain Vitamins A and C as well as protein and iron.
Hopefully this article will add some value to your next hiking adventure. You can now recognize common plants that will ruin your hike like poison ivy and poison sumac and don’t forget to bring the salad dressing because you should now be able to forage for your own salad! For other hiking advice and tips, see what my Eagle Scout buddy has to say in his article, 5 Crucial Tips for Beginner Hikers.