Trees are large organisms, and they can usually handle grazing quite well. At this time of the year, the buds have just opened and the leaves are still light green, smooth and tender. But do you need to be a giraffe to eat leaves from trees? Which species are edible for humans?
Let's take a closer look at some of the trees of which you can eat the leaves in early spring. Always identify properly and pick when the leaves are young and soft - they can become quite tough when growing older.
Beech (Fagus sylvatica), European beech, Common beech
Dutch: Beuk - French: Hêtre commun - German: (Rot)Buche - Spanish: Haya común
These leaves have a very smooth and tender texture. At a very young stage they are so fragile you can even look through them. Hard to imagine these will one day be the autumn leaves that will fall off and lay on the forest ground for a long time - beech is well-known for fact that the leaves decompose very slowly.
Chewing the young leaves, a flavour develops that is somewhere between lemon and sorrel. Very refreshing on a long spring walk, and after tasting one single leaf, you'll probably want to have some more. Definitely suitable as a tasty salad green.
Linden (Tilia cordata), also known as Lime tree or Basswood
Dutch: Linde - French: Tilleul - German: Linde - Spanish: Tilo
Linden is most familiar to us as linden tea or infusion, which is made with the flowers and bract. The bract? That's the long, pale green part that's attached to the flowers and that helps the seeds to disperse. A lot of people think these are the actual leaves, but they're not. The real leaves of linden are heart-shaped and delicious when eaten young.
The texture is great. It has the same crunch that iceberg lettuce has, but with more nutrition.
What about making a heart-shaped salad for your loved ones? Or for yourself, as a special green treat? You can also dry the leaves and grind them into a flour for all your wild kitchen experiments.
Birch (Betula pendula)
Dutch: Ruwe berk - French: Bouleau verruqueux - German: Hänge-Birke- Spanish: Abedul común, Abedul de Europa, Abedul verrugoso, Abedul péndulo
Birch leaves offer a hint of bitterness that will make your whole body fully awake. Don't let the bitterness hold you back from trying it though : it's not overwhelming, and such a boost for your health!
Dry the leaves for a herbal tea (you can combine it with more aromatic herbs from the mint family if you're not the biggest fan of bitter) or eat it in salads, in small amounts, mixed with other greens. It will probably remind you of radicchio.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna or Crataegus laevigata)
Dutch: Meidoorn, Haagdoorn - French: Aubépine - German: Weißdorn - Spanish: Espino albar, Espino blanco
Before the flowers or berries appear, the leaves are at their best, with a rich, nutty flavour. You can eat them as they are, in a salad, but I like to chop them and sprinkle them over my dishes as a parsley substitute as well.
In the UK, hawthorn is referred to as the "Bread and Cheese Tree"; as it was very common for people in the countryside to eat the leaves straight from the tree. As common as bread and cheese.
Spruce (Picea species)
Dutch: Spar - French: Epicéa - German: Fichte - Spanish: Pícea
Yes, needles (even those of cacti) are leaves too! Harvest the highly aromatic young tops of spruce - you'll notice them at the end part of the branches, lighter green than the rest of the tree.
You can turn them into a vitamin C rich herbal infusion or dip them in honey for an extra special treat. When you steep them in apple cider vinegar, the result will be surprisingly close to balsamico vinegar.