There is such a thing as a free lunch, and it awaits adventurous foragers in backyards, city parks, mountain meadows and even sidewalk cracks. From nutritious weeds and juicy berries to delicate, delicious flowers and refreshing tree sap, wild, edible foods abound in cities, suburbia and rural environments.
Throughout most of history, humans were foragers that relied on local plant knowledge for survival, as both food and medicine. Today’s foragers are reviving that ancestral tradition to improve diets, explore new flavors, develop kinship with the environment, and simply indulge in the joy and excitement of finding and preparing wild foods.
Wild Foods As “Superdiet”
“There are many benefits to eating wild food,” says Deane Jordan, founder of EatTheWeeds.com, of Orlando, Florida. “Wild plants, because they must take care of themselves, tend to be more nutritious than cultivated plants—particularly in terms of phytochemicals and antioxidants. They also tend to be lower in sugar and other simple carbs, and higher in fiber.”
Purslane, a wild succulent, has more omega-3s than any other leafy vegetable, says John Kallas, the Portland, Oregon, author of Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate. Mustard garlic, a common invasive plant, is the most nutritious leafy green ever analyzed, says Kallas, who holds a Ph.D. in nutrition. “However, the real dietary benefit of foraged plants is in their great diversity, as each has a unique profile of phytochemicals. There is no such thing as a superfood, just superdiets,” he adds.
Know Thy Plant
Rule number one of foraging is to be 100 percent sure of your identification 100 percent of the time, says Leda Meredith, the New York City author of The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles. Foraging experts say the fear of wild plants is largely unfounded. “The biggest misconception is that we are experimenting with unknowns,” says Kallas. “Today’s wild edibles are traditional foods from Native American or European cultures we have lost touch with.”
For example, European settlers brought with them dandelions, now considered a nuisance weed, as a source of food and medicine. All parts of it are edible, including flowers, roots and leaves, and have nutritional superpowers.
To assess a plant, Kallas adds, a forager must know three things about it: the part or parts that are edible, the stage of growth to gather it and how to prepare it. “Some plants have parts that are both edible and poisonous. Others can be toxic raw, but perfectly edible cooked,” he says.
Timing is everything, adds Meredith. “A wild ingredient can be fantastic in one week, and incredibly bitter a week later, so it’s important to know when its prime season is.”
Kallas recommends staying away from highly trafficked roadsides and polluted areas. Given that many lawns and public areas are sprayed with herbicides, Sam Thayer, author of The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, recommends not foraging in an area if it’s uncertain whether chemicals have been applied.
Environmental awareness includes understanding how foraging may positively or negatively affect the ecosystem, says Meredith. “Overharvesting can endanger future populations. But there is a ‘win-win’ way to forage, where I get fantastic food and the landscape is better for my having foraged, by clearing invasive plants around natives or planting seeds while collecting a local plant gone to seed.”
Thayer, of Bruce, Wisconsin, suggests collecting where species are abundant and thriving: “Fruit, for example, can be harvested limitlessly, as can wild invasives that disrupt the balance of the ecosystem and crowd out native species.”
Vinegars, jams and cordials from wild fruits and flowers can be wonderful, but require some patience for the payoff, yet many wild edibles can be eaten raw or lightly sautéed, requiring very little prep work. Thayer recommends sautéing wild greens with just a little soy sauce, vinegar and garlic.
Foraging builds confidence, powers of observation and connections to the natural world. The biggest benefit, says Thayer, may just be the fun of it. “You can experience food and flavors you cannot have any other way. A lot of these foods you cannot buy anywhere, and really, it’s better food than you can buy.”
Connect with Washington, D.C. freelance writer April Thompson at AprilWrites.com.