Wild Edibles - Forage Local Lands for Free Goodies
Say, those plants along this path look good enough to eat. Well, maybe they are and perhaps we should eat them. There are thousands of plants of all types that can provide healthy, nutritious, organic meals we’ll never see in a grocery store or restaurant.
Just don’t call them weeds. That’s only civilization’s erroneous name for the prolific, edible herbs, greens, berries, roots, nuts, seeds and mushrooms that sustain the neighborhood herbivores (including people). Yes, a few of them are not good for us, even poisonous, but with a little effort, we can easily tell the good from the bad and the ugly.
Many of these overlooked treasures are more delicious than commercial produce. Consider the increasing appreciation of native heirloom varieties of vegetables; growing on their own, without artificial fertilizers or pesticides, their native nutrition value often exceeds that of hybrids grown for appearance and the ability to hold up under long-distance shipping.
It is vital to avoid environmental toxins when foraging, so stay at least 50 feet away from highways and railroad tracks or anyplace that has been sprayed with chemicals. Identifying the plant you want with 100 percent certainty is also paramount. Don’t worry, it gets easier with practice, and easier still in the fall, when growth is mature and characteristics are more pronounced than in the spring.
Another rule of thumb is to harvest where growth is abundant, and take only what’s needed. Foraging is not about stocking up or making money on a crop; it’s about our personal relationship with the Earth and sharing its bounty, so respect that. Picking up any scattered litter along the way also contributes to the benefits.
Shoots and Greens
Wild greens are leafy vegetables, often excellent either raw or cooked. Shoots are edible stems, such as asparagus, which we usually cook. When we elect to eat both the stem and developing leaves, the distinction between shoots and greens becomes irrelevant.
Seasons, like wild species, vary from place to place. Spring, summer and fall all begin at various times of year in different states, as well as in warm, sheltered spots, such as those with southern exposure, or next to a wall or boulder reflecting solar heat. Thus, just a few feet away from a meadow of dandelions in full flower, younger, even tastier ones might be growing, partially shaded by a wall. Dandelions, sheep sorrel and cattails grow all around the country, so let’s look at what they have to offer.
Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
One of the most nutritious of foods, dandelion leaves provide more vitamins A, C, E, K, and B complex, plus the minerals iron, calcium and potassium, than any commercial vegetable. Even the blossom provides vitamin A, calcium and magnesium.
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
Sheep sorrel provides vitamins A, D, E, B complex and C, calcium, iron, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, potassium and phosphorus plus the flavonoid rutin. Kids love this European perennial on account of its great flavor.
Cattails (Typha spp.)
Immature cattail flowers are a good source of protein and essential fatty acids (both rare in plants), as well as a number of trace minerals. The pollen provides the same nutrients, plus vitamin A. People pay premium prices for bee pollen, an energizer, in health food stores. Cattail pollen is identical, except that people, instead of bees, gather it, and it’s free.
Wild edibles are a renewable natural resource that requires no husbandry from mankind; all we have to do is not build houses and parking lots on top of them. In addition to providing nutritious food, many of these plants have a rich, global history as remedies and healing agents. They are the forerunners, and in some cases still the source of, virtually all modern medicines.
Of course, use of pictures is essential in accurately identifying wild plants. My illustrated books and the Internet are handy and portable resources. A good place to start is Foraging.com and the Green Links section of my website.
Nature provides us with an open-ended curriculum to study in every season. Exploring local parks and uncultivated areas shows what they have to offer. Foragers will return home embracing an abundance of viable vegetables at the height of their goodness, with a deeper feeling and appreciation for humanity’s role in Earth’s ecosystems that is unobtainable in any other kind of classroom.
Steve “Wildman” Brill is a naturalist who specializes in edible and medicinal wild plants. He leads tours throughout the greater New York area for school, day camp and museum groups, as well as the general public. His books and DVDs include The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook. Connect at WildmanSteveBrill.com.