You already know that shopping at your local farmers market or CSA is a great way to reduce your food miles. And, if you take that one step further, growing your own food can eliminate shopping altogether. But what’s the ‘greenest’ form of feeding yourself? How can you feed yourself with the smallest possible carbon footprint? Foraging, of course! Finding your food underfoot.
The following tips will help you begin finding food everywhere you go. Whether you live in the city, country, or ‘burbs, it is possible to skip the greasy junk at the mall that’s been flown in from the other side of the planet in favor of the free food in the park beside your apartment. (Just make sure you’re not in the dog park…’cuz ew!)
The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, by Matthew Stein. It has been adapted for the web.
WARNING: Never eat any wild plant unless you have 100 percent positive identification that it is edible, or you have taken the time to complete the 2-day plant edibility test described in Chapter 4 of When Technology Fails. A small bite of certain plants is enough to kill an adult.
Brief Guide to Wild Edible Foods
There are thousands of edible varieties of plants in North America. Some edible plants are truly delicious, but many considered edible taste bad and are primarily useful only in survival situations. A few of the more common and tasty wild edible plants are listed below. I suggest that you pick up one or two “real” guides to edible plants in your geographical region. Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places is an excellent start. It is entertaining, practical, and offers varied cooking suggestions and recipes.
A good plant guide will also warn you about potentially poisonous “look-alike” plants that might be confused with the one that you think you are identifying. Harvesting wild edible plants can be fun and will help you make your diet more complete by adding more vitamins, minerals, and trace elements than are found in typical grocery store veggies. Use caution in your forays into wild edible plants, because nibbling on wild plants can kill you if you make a serious mistake. (For a list of recommended edible and medicinal plant guides, see the suggested references in Chapters 4 and 9 of When Technology Fails.) In addition, Foxfire 2 has an excellent section on foraging and cooking with wild greens from the Southern Appalachians.
Acorns. Acorns are the nuts from about 55 varieties of native oak trees. Gathered in the fall, acorns were traditional staple foods for several indigenous peoples. They were stored in baskets and crushed or ground into flour for cooking. In my local area, grinding depressions, where indigenous peoples ground their nuts into meal, are a common sight on the granite slabs adjacent to lakes and rivers. Some varieties of acorns are sweet and may be used without special preparation, but bitter varieties require treatment to remove excess tannic acid prior to eating. To remove bitterness, shell the acorns and boil in water until the water turns brown. Drain and repeat until the water stops changing color. If boiling is not an easy alternative, wrap nutmeats in a cloth and soak in a clear running stream for a few days until they taste sweet. Soaking acorn mush to remove bitterness takes less time than soaking the whole seed. Acorn meal makes excellent pancakes and muffins.
Black mustard, field mustard, and others. These weeds grow more or less anywhere in fields and disturbed areas. Most mustard leaves are best when harvested young in the spring, but some in the mustard family are good throughout the summer. Seeds can be harvested, ground, and mixed with vinegar, like commercial mustard. Young basal rosette looks similar to dandelions, only there is no milky sap. This is a tangy treat if you like strong flavors. There are no poisonous look-alikes.
Bulrush. Like cattails, bulrushes provide a source of year-round food. Found in wet, marshy areas and shallow waters of lakes or ponds. Identified by long, nonbranching stems, with a spiky cluster of flowers. Young roots and shoots can be used as a vegetable. Older roots can be pounded to remove fibers and then ground into flour.
Burdock. Burdock grows throughout the United States on roadsides and in fields and disturbed areas. The large broad leaves look a bit like rhubarb leaves (and rhubarb leaves are poisonous), so be careful. The leaves are bitter tasting, but the first-year plant’s long taproot tastes like a delicious cross between potato and artichoke heart. The root may be harvested until the second year flowering, when it becomes inedible. Peel roots, slice to break fibers, and then boil or sauté. Burdock root has excellent nutritional and healing properties for the skin and kidneys, and for overall health. Young flower stalks may be peeled and eaten raw or boiled. Burdock flowers with purple to pink crests grow into sharp, hooked, little burr balls that are either annoying or great toys, depending on your point of view.
Cattail. Another staple of indigenous peoples, cattails are still used for food throughout the world. Find cattails in shallow waters of swampy areas. You can dig up roots in early spring to find delicious sprouts that can be eaten raw. Young summer stalks, up to 2 or 3 feet tall, may be peeled for their tasty core (known as “Cossack asparagus”), which is eaten raw, steamed, or boiled. Young buds can be picked before pollen ripens and boiled like mini corn on the cob. Roots can be harvested in the fall through spring. Dig, dry, and peel, and then pound into flour. Pounded roots may be soaked and then decanted to render starchy material. Poisonous look-alikes are the stalks and roots of wild irises, so be sure to identify stalks by the presence of old cattails. Pollens can be harvested as a flour or flour extender.
Chicory. Like its close relative the dandelion, chicory is a staple green in many countries and has a long taproot. When young, the leaves look like dandelion leaves with the addition of irregular hairs on most of the leaves. When it matures, the resemblance to the dandelion disappears as it grows a tall hairy flower stalk with numerous sky-blue fringed flowers. Widespread, chicory is found in fields and other disturbed areas. Harvest leaves and shoots early in spring. Older leaves may require boiling and water changes if bitter. The taproot is rather bitter, but makes a good caffeine-free coffee substitute when roasted at 250°F for 2 to 4 hours until brown, and then ground.
Curled dock, yellow dock, and sour dock. In early spring, this plant is easily recognized by its rosette of long, narrow leaves—up to 2 feet long—with curly edges. It grows throughout the country in fields, disturbed soil, and near water. Early spring leaves are delicious steamed and may be acceptable raw, but should be washed first. For later harvests, boil the leaves with multiple water changes to reduce bitterness. In summer, the flower stalk may be peeled and steamed as a vegetable. With much difficulty, the seeds may be threshed and ground into flour. Dock was a staple green during the Depression. The taproot is too bitter for eating, but is a useful medicinal herb for skin and liver conditions.
Dandelion. The common dandelion is quite a versatile and delicious plant. It is found throughout the country in open fields and disturbed areas. The young leaves are excellent as salad greens, and are more nutritious than any you can buy in the grocery store. Peel young roots and eat raw or slice thin and boil. If leaves or roots are bitter, boiling in a couple water changes improves the taste. Dip the blossoms in fritter batter and fry in oil, like tempura veggies.
Fiddleheads (bracken and ostrich ferns). Collect young ferns in midspring, before the round “fiddlehead” has started to unfurl (up to about 8 inches tall). Wash to remove fur or unpleasant scales. I found the not-so-furry ostrich ferns much sweeter and not bitter like the furry bracken ferns. Perhaps it was just due to local effects or the age of the fiddleheads? Steam or boil bracken fiddleheads to remove mild toxicity. Large quantities of mature bracken have been known to poison cattle. Fiddleheads are an expensive delicacy in upscale restaurants. Please leave a few fiddleheads in every cluster, as they will not return if you harvest the whole lot.
Lamb’s quarters, goosefoot. “Along with dandelions and watercress, lamb’s quarters is one of the most nutritious of foods” (Brill 1994, 47). Being widespread, tasty, long-seasoned, and easily identified, lamb’s quarters is a prime candidate for the beginner to learn to identify. This plant has little or no odor, so if the plant you pick has an odor, it’s not lamb’s quarters and may be poisonous. Leaves are alternating, almost triangular, with a blunt tip and jagged edges. Leaves may develop a white tinge, but they remain perfectly edible. Harvest young shoots up to 10 inches tall, or tender new growth until late fall. This plant is a good pot herb, although it shrinks by about two-thirds when cooked.
Pigweed (amaranth). Similar to lamb’s quarters (which is sometimes also called pigweed), but with smoother, more elongated leaves. Use young leaves as a lettuce substitute. Harvest seeds and grind for flour. Seeds have more nutrition and higher protein than grains. Amaranth was a key staple cultivated by the Aztecs for its seeds. Pigweed concentrates nitrates, so use sparingly if taken from fertilized fields.
Pine trees. Harvest pine nuts in the fall from hard, green pine cones. Open the cones in the heat of a fire to reach the pine nuts buried inside. “Open” cones have probably already dropped their nuts. Pine nuts from the piñon pines were once a staple food for the indigenous peoples of Nevada. One of the ways that the U.S. government used to force these tribes to move off their land and onto reservations was to destroy the piñon pines, thereby removing one of their major sources of wild food. Pine needles can be boiled in water to make a tea rich in vitamin C, and in a survival crunch the inner bark can be eaten.
Plantain. Plantains are identified by their distinctive parallel veins, running the length of the leaves. This plant is another weed common to fields and disturbed areas. Leaves grow in a basal rosette and the plant grows a long, green, central flower stalk. Harvest young greens and new growth for salads or as a pot herb. After midspring, the leaves become very fibrous and are mostly good for vegetable stock or as survival food. Harvest seeds for storage and sprouts.
Purslane. Cultivated in ancient times, purslane is now mostly seen by gardeners as a pesky weed. Both the seeds and the greens are very nutritious. This plant has succulent- like, smooth, fleshy leaves, often reddish-purple, and tends to lie flat in thick mats. Pinch or cut leafy tips from June through September. Purslane shoots are excellent cooked or raw in salads. This weed likes fields and disturbed areas, and has spread across the country. It has no poisonous look-alikes.
Ramps (wild leeks). Similar to its close cousins, wild onions and wild garlic, ramps are found ranging from the Great Lakes to New England and south to the mountains of Georgia. Wild leeks thrive in partially shaded, moist, rich woodlands, often under maples. They have long leaves with parallel veins, similar to many poisonous members of the lily family. Crush a piece of one leaf and smell for the characteristic strong onion odor. Plants that smell like onions are not poisonous. In early spring, they look much like smaller versions of grocery store leeks before the leaves shrivel and are replaced by a slender stalk with an umbrella-like cluster of small white flowers. When a few of the small, three-lobed seed clusters survive the fall, they point to an underground winter supply of delicious bulbs. Harvest green leaves in the spring or the bulbs any time of the year. Use as flavoring in soups and stews or sauté like onions.
Rose hips. Wild roses are found in many different varieties across the United States. Their fruits are a fantastic source of vitamin C. The larger fruits can be quite good raw, although you may want to avoid the bitter seeds. Many people collect rose hips for a delicious tea. They may be boiled and strained to make a sauce with the consistency of applesauce.
Sheep sorrel. An excellent green, sheep sorrel is one of the few wild plants that does not get bitter as summer comes along. It is distinguished by its elongated arrowlike leaves with “ears” that resemble the front view of a sheep’s head, and is found in fields and disturbed areas or areas of poor soil. There are no poisonous look-alikes, but this plant sometimes grows alongside the poisonous vines nightshade and bindweed that also have arrowshaped leaves. Sheep sorrel leaves are tangy, tart, and kind of lemony. Mix them in salads with blander greens.
Watercress. “Along with dandelions and lamb’s quarters, watercress is one of the most nutritious of foods” (Brill 1994, 256). Watercress is another Eurasian-introduced, cultivated green-turned-weed that has spread across America. It is usually found in clear running water, such as springs and small creeks. Wild watercress looks like the store-bought variety and is excellent in salads, sandwiches, and cooked like spinach. Collect young growth nearly all year, but it is best in the spring and autumn. Each sprig of leaves grows alternating off the main stalk and contains paired leaves with a single central leaf at the tip. It flowers in clusters of small, white, four-petaled flowers about one-fifth of an inch across and produces slender, capsuleshaped, ¾-inch-long seeds. The look of the watercress in my local spring varies considerably with the season. In early spring, the leaves sprout with dense, closely spaced, fleshy leaves that lay on the surface of the water. In early summer, shoots rise up out of the water, bearing thin, widely spaced leaves and flowers that look more like the illustration. It is very delicious with a slight peppery taste.
Wild onion. Wild onions are found throughout the United States, except in the hot and dry areas. They are found on the plains, hills, and mountains, usually in open areas, and all have the characteristic onion or garlic smell. Its bulb is usually reddish-purple, and the plant has tall slender stalks with a typical allium cluster of flowers. Avoid all onion look-alikes that do not have a strong onion smell when the leaves are crushed, because they may be poisonous.
Poisonous Plants to Avoid
Some poisonous plants to look out for are listed below. A few of these plants are also listed as medicinal herbs, but they are poisonous when eaten in quantity. Both Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide by Elias and Dykeman and Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Harrington contain illustrated guides to some of the common poisonous wild plants.
Common Poisonous Plants
American false hellebore Anemone (wind flower) Angel’s trumpet (Datura)
Arrowgrass Azalea Baneberry (pretty white or red berries)
Bleeding heart Bloodroot Bouncing bet
Black locust Butterflyweed Castor oil plant
Celadine poppy Christmas rose Chokecherry
Cocklebur Columbine Corn cockle
Crocus Daffodil Daphne
Deadly nightshade Death camas Desert rose
Dieffenbachia Dutchman’s pipe European bittersweet
Foxglove (Digitalis) Frangipani (Plumeria) Horse chestnut
Horsetail Horse nettle Hyacinth
Iris Jack in the pulpit Jimsonweed
Jessamine Larkspur (annual delphinium) Laurel
Leafy spurge Lily, flame Lily, glory
Lily of the valley Lobelia Lupine
Marvel of Peru (Mirabilis) Marsh marigold Mayapple (except fruit)
Mistletoe Monkshood Morning glory
Mountain laurel Narcissus Oleander
Poinsettia Poison hemlock Poison ivy
Poison milkweed Poison oak Pokeweed
Poppy, horned Poppy, Iceland Poppy (Somniferum)
Privet Purple cockle Rhododendron
Rhubarb (leaves) Rosary pea Skunk cabbage
Snowdrops Solomon’s seal Star of Bethlehem
St. Johnswort Tobacco Water hemlock
Wild black cherry Wisteria Yew