Would you like to eat extra nutritious food that is literally free? Look no further than your own back yard!
If you are not spraying pesticides on your property, a whole grocery store of greens, wild onions and mushrooms can help you get those “super nutrients” without spending a ton on supplements. Here’s your chance to get outside with your loved ones to collect delicious food for your home pantry!
Years ago, I got caught off track in the beautiful and wild Wind River Range of Wyoming. Separated from the main group, my boyfriend and I had plenty of rice and fished for the best trout I ever ate. We marveled “if only we knew which plants to eat…just think how long we could survive with a bag of rice out here?” Even as a child, I would taste the plants of the rich mountain fields and woods near my home. I would make “soup” with little clover flowers and dandelion leaves which I pretended to feed my sister and my stuffed animals. I’ve had a life-long interest in plants and their place in our kitchens and home-remedy chests.
My grandmothers and great-grandmothers still collected wild foods like “Poke Salet.” This included my Grandmother Hardie, who would go to the edge of I-26 and collect a paper grocery bag full of very young poke leaves. I was mortified by her blatant act of what seemed like vagrancy to me. Now, I wish I had gone with her.
(NOTE poke leaves can be quite toxic once they are bigger than 3 – 4 inches. I do NOT recommend you eat them. My Grandmother’s story is included for historical context).
I did watch as she’d cook and rinse those leaves 3 times or more, if they were very bitter. The grown-ups always thought of that spring “poke salat” as a big treat, though the Southern cooked greens were generally too strong for my young palette. Many families have “ramp festival” traditions like our neighbors did. Their house would ooze a distinct ramp stink for weeks when they came back with bushels of fresh ramps. My mom never accepted any of them for our kitchen because they were too strong for her nose. Our neighbors really loved them, as I do now.
These wild green delicacies also hold super nutrients, kind of like the expensive items you can buy in the health food stores, except these are fresh and whole and in their “free” whole food form. These wild foods provide high levels of various trace minerals and other nutrients. For instance, did you know Pine Needles (Pinus spp.) contain 4-5 times the vitamin C content of an equivalent amount of lemon? (Recipe link: pine needle tea)
Foraging has long been a way to supplement food sources, and it is free to you and me even now.
So how does one get into foraging?
First and foremost, if you want to forage for mushrooms or a host of wild plants, you must know how to identify which are edible. It's best to learn the local poisonous plants too. This way, you will be even more confident.
To learn ID I STRONGLY recommend you find a local teacher or club to help you. There are always folks who will be happy to teach you plant botany and ID. Look to your local agencies and schools:
- Agricultural Extension Agencies (bring your plants in for help with ID)
- Community Colleges
- Garden Clubs
- Herb Schools
- Mountaineering and Wild Food Schools
- Botany Clubs
- Mushroom Clubs
- Facebook Groups for all above
- Conferences where you can meet and learn from a variety of experts
It is imperative you learn how to use a field guide and take at least 1 with you when you forage
Do NOT skip the step of being sure which plants are in fact edible; you will want to become an expert at identifying the plant you want to eat!
Do NOT harvest from roadsides or other areas where chemicals may have been sprayed. Beware old apple orchards which were sometimes sprayed with chemicals that last many decades. Best to avoid them, unless it's been in your family for generations and you can be certain your (great) grandparents didn't spray. Most everyone did!
The good news is, many of the most useful plants grow right around us and are fairly well recognized. Try thinking of these foods and stop spraying to get rid of them!! You can save our waterways and eat your yard, simply by giving up the idea of perfectly manicured lawns. My "herbal" yards are always greener when my nieghbor's perfect lawns suffer from drought-like conditions.
My yard is greener because edible weeds are typically nitrogen fixing, meaning they add nitrogen to the soil where they grow. They are nature's repair for disturbed areas, which is exactly why they have so many nutrients that are good for us! And its' why they want to grow in the lawn so. Mono-cropping (like grass) strips the land of nutrients.
Do you have any of these in your yard or neighborhood?
- wild dock
- yellow dock
- wild onion
For your basic backyard spring green gathering… get some scissors, a plastic bag or a basket, and go outside.
Take a little trowel if you are gathering wild onions, so you can collect the bulb, which is super tasty.
You will need a knife for mushrooms and always take the mushroom from the ground for identification. The field guides will have you looking at details such as stem shape and how it attaches at the ground, how the cap attaches to the stem, and how it forms spores. Mushrooming is a perfect activity for Herb Nerds like me.
As for the nutrition, you can hardly find a more nutrient dense option than wild foods. Wild greens and mushrooms are packed with all kinds of nutrition, in particular trace minerals and phytochemicals that promote health and wellness.
Dandelion leaves happen to be good for your kidneys, and are a long-time favorite spring tonic green. The root is edible as well, usually harvested in the fall. Dandelion root is delicious when cooked in a soup or sliced thin and stir fried, adding a rich, earthy flavor. Or try roasting the roots and make into a decoction! (Simmered low for 30-40 min).
The bitter quality of dandelion and many of the wild greens, lends to an important component of healthy digestion. When you taste something bitter a marvelous boost to digestion results. Every part of digestion is activated. More on Bitters.
Wild foods often have a bitter component, making them super nutrients that also encourage more robust digestion. Proper absorption and digestion is a keystone of health. The rich nutrients found in wild foods help encourage a general wellness and keep us connected to the land in a way that is ancient.
This information is for educational purposes only. Any plant or food may cause sensitivity or undesired effects on individuals. Whenever you introduce a new food or plant, start with a small amount and make sure you are tolerant of that food before enjoying a hefty portion.