By Trina Schmidt, Ed.D.
Being able to go outdoors and see a plant and know that it is edible is a valuable survival skill. However, for many, eating wild plants sounds unthinkable and even a bit crazy. A few years ago I might have even said the same thing.
I grew up in the suburbs during the eighties where food only came from a grocery store and anything growing wild would be met with severe suspicion. No one questioned where food came from or what was in it.
A farmer’s market was a dirty, smelly place downtown that you visited maybe once a year for the experience. Genetically modified food was something from a science fiction novel and intolerance to whole classes of food like grain was unheard of.
Fast forward to today’s world where pesticides are built into the genetics of some of our most basic foods and the prices of products noticeably increase weekly. Is it any wonder with the uncertainty of our food quality and the increasingly dire economic situation of our nation that a new interest in foraging for wild food has taken the United States by storm?
You can find hotbeds of foraging groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. Gourmet chefs are finding new and unusual uses for what was once considered weeds. Unfortunately, foraging skills are all but lost domestic art forms to most of the population.
How do you begin to learn these skills? This article will discuss the steps to learning how to forage.
Safety is the first rule when foraging. Imagine a banana. You know what a banana looks like. You would not hesitate to pick it up and eat it. That is how sure you need to be that what you are eating is safe. For any new plant that you forage, you should confirm from at least three sources that what you have is what you believe it to be.
Also, keep in mind that you may have an allergy to certain plants that you do not know about. Always try just a small amount first to see if you have a reaction. These wild cousins of the grocery store vegetables did not make it to the produce aisle for a reason. What you see at the store is the milk toast of vegetables, least likely to cause reactions in people and chosen for the monetary benefit of the producer, not the consumer. Unfortunately, you also trade nutrition for over bred easily digestible vegetables.
For instance, while we consider spinach to be a powerhouse of nutrition, dandelions have seven times more phytonutrients . However, because dandelions are so easily available, there is no money in its addition to the grocery store shelf. Unless of course, you are Whole Foods and import it from California to a clientele who would never even associate this vegetable with the plant that actually grows in the parking lot! This example is far from being unique.
Safety is not only in what you consume but in how you acquire your wild edible. Make sure you wear bug spray or you might just bring home a nasty collection of chigger bites and ticks. If you are on private property, be sure and ask permission. Be prepared for hot weather and bring a lot of water. Always tell someone where you are going.
Evaluate What You Do Know
Did your grandmother ever pick Poke plant growing up? Do you know what a blackberry looks like? Often you will have knowledge of plants that if just connected to their edibility will open a new world to you. For instance, as a child did you ever pick the clover flowers and make chains?
These flowers are edible and can even be dried and ground into flour. Do you have roses growing in your yard? The petals can be used for jellies, syrups, candy and in bread. Do you know what a pine tree looks like?
The pine needles of many pine trees can be used to make a delicious tea which has 4-5 times the vitamin C of fresh squeezed orange juice and is high in vitamin A. It has been used throughout history to treat scurvy . Did you ever enjoy the sweet nectar of the honeysuckle as a child? Honeysuckle makes an excellent jelly.
Look around you. What is currently blooming? Throughout the growing season, there will be waves of plants showing up. Here is the South, there is a time where thistles will be prolific. Their purple spikey flowers will show up everywhere. It turns out that thistle is edible and if you remove the prickly edges, the center of the stem is quite tasty.
Research has also suggested that thistle has anti-cancer effects by reducing the blood supply to tumors and preventing cancer cells from dividing and reproducing . Take the time to identify your currently blooming plants. If there is a field of flowers, stop and photograph that plant and research it until you know what it is.
I began foraging three years ago all due to a tree that I had obliviously passed for six years. One day I realized that it had small green balls of fruit growing on it. It was next to a stop sign at my kids’ school. I finally stopped and took a sample to a local plant nursery.
The young employee thought it was a cherry, but I knew that was wrong. It had multiple small seeds not a single seed. I kept searching until I found a match online and discovered it was a crab apple. I then began experimenting with recipes, and I was hooked. This tree was abundant, and I could make jelly all summer long. I was always into saving money and to discover all this potential free healthy food everywhere was exciting.
Because of this experience, I began to look around me more closely. Suddenly I was seeing wild grapes at Home Depot, blackberries at the Post Office and mulberries in my local park. They were always there, I had just not paid attention.
Look in unusual places. I have found some of the best wild edibles in the growth behind grocery stores and in business parking lots. Some of the prettiest blooming trees are fruit trees and often business parks will plant them. Pay attention the next time you go to your dentist or pediatrician’s office.
Our local post office has the most amazing field of blackberries next to it. Our local Target has twenty beautiful large crab apple trees behind it. Some foragers will even volunteer where these trees are. Check out Fallingfruit.org to see if your local area foragers have mapped some of these wild trees.
Connect With Other People with Similar Interests
The internet is an amazing tool for foragers. If you belong to Facebook, join the Plant Identification group. It is always helpful to have others look at your finds and help you identify them. At the very least it will reassure you that you made the right determination. Also by reading the other requests, you gain knowledge as well.
There are also Facebook groups for Wild Edibles Plants that you can join where people share their finds and recipes. Pinterest has a huge collection of wild edible links. You can also use the search tool on Pinterest for specific plants.
Find out who in your local area is knowledgeable on foraging and take a class. I have taken several classes with our local naturalist. It was a fantastic way to jump-start my knowledge. Photograph and write everything down that is discussed and research it when you get home so that you will remember it. Try searching Meetup.com to see if there are any local teachers or groups available in your area.
Acquire a Good Selection of Reference Material
Thrift store book sections are great places to look for reference material. I have found many books on herbs, mushrooms and several on wild edible plants. Try your local bookstore for relevant material. My local bookstore has a small section on wild edible plants in the “nature” section (not usually found in gardening). It even has one or two wild edible cookbooks!
Amazon has a large collection of wild edible books. Some of my favorites include Edible Wild Plants; Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas, The Forager’s Harvest; A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samual Thayer, Mushrooming without Fear; A Beginners Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms by Alexander Schwab, and one of the foraging classics, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.
Your local library may be a great resource. See if there is anything in the nature section and also in the cookbook section. I have found that some of the cookbooks with antique recipes in them (like founding fathers, old South, and Civil War cookbooks) contain wild edible recipes.
YouTube has a large collection of foraging videos. Green Deane is one of my favorites. You can find his site at Eattheweeds.com. He has over a hundred videos and is very knowledgeable. He will even answer your questions. While photographs of plants are a great resource, seeing the plant being used gives you a much better understanding. Just knowing how big a certain plant is will be very helpful in looking for it.
Keep Track of Your Information
Write down what you learn. A simple notebook will work. When you visit an area, write down the location, date and what you find. What you find will change throughout the year. This way you will know where and when to find your treasures! I also use it to store my research on the plant and recipes for its use.
Add your finds and locations to an online calendar. Set it up so that it repeats every year. That way you easily know when to go hunt for those Mulberries or pick that Plantain. I use Cozi.com which is a free service and my whole family has access to it. It sends you weekly emails letting you know what is coming up.
It takes courage to try a new plant. However, I guarantee that after you try it the first time, the fear will disappear and you will look forward to finding that plant next year. This year I cannot wait for the milkweed flower pods to begin forming because last year I tried it for the first time, and they taste just like asparagus.
If you are still hesitant, try growing some of the wild edibles for confidence. Many of the wild edible plant seeds can be found online. It is a slower path but you will become intimately knowledgeable about all stages of the plant. Try Rareseeds.com for a nice collection of seeds, some of which can be found in the wild. I have done this with plants that I just cannot find locally but really want to see.
Foraging is a wonderful hobby and life skill. It is a treasure hunt that can benefit you financially and nutritionally. It is a great skill to teach to your children as well! While your kids may complain (mine do), I can pull up to a stop light and point to the grassy medium and my nine-year-old daughter can usually name at least two wild edibles available. In these uncertain times, that skill may become priceless! Happy hunting!
References Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food (The New York Times)
By: Robinson, Jo.http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19431126&id=0thOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=uf8DAAAAIBAJ&pg=7201,3982067  Scientific Evidence Of The Significant Anti-cancer Effect Of Milk Thistle (ScienceDaily)