Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Being a gardener can be a lifelong progression, if we let it. Nothing is static in nature and I find that living in such close proximity with it encourage me to expand and flow in how I do things and why. Taking an interest in wild edibles is such a progression, even if it is at the same time to go back – back to basic. The wild is the only food supply humans used to have before evolving into agriculture so moving in the other directions feels a little bit like catching up. But it also comes with the insight that today, much of self reliant food sourcing, at least in this part of the world, happens in a cultivated and to some degree manipulated form where humans work the land, often by using fossil fuel based equipment, add nutrients and grow crops not always adapted or suitable for the climate. In many cases, this also involves fighting pests or other shortcomings, such as drought, flooding, inferior soil, weeds or lack of pollinators.
My learning curve as a gardener has been steep. Before I came to Maine I had never done any farming or gardening to speak of and was presented with this huge land to cultivate, care for and harvest. This is what I dove into, and for many years I've now been so engulfed with mulching, fertilizing, planting and picking that it's like I haven't even had time to stop and consider what grows on the other side of that hard earned fence I once built. While truly appreciating the year long supply of food I can crank out of our garden, I've also started, in earnest, to acknowledge all the vibrant food sources in the wild, that are free and abundant with no other need of energy input from me than to walk out and get them. Even without a material and energy intensive green house it's almost ridiculous how much effort is put into for example early spring garden greens for example. Preparing of soil, the price and production of the seeds, the compost making, the planting, mulching, watering and bug protection. That this is what I busy myself with to the degree that I don't have time or mental focus to, for example during my walk to the mail box, harvest a whole dinner's salad dish on the side of the road.
Here's a brief comment on some of my favorite spring season wild edible plants. Many of these plants have several other usages, as well as highly valued medicinal properties.
Stinging Nettle is probably my #1 favorite wild edible. It's often found around old homesteads where the ground is rich or in damp areas along road side ditches and streams. If you find one plant you're likely to find many since it spreads rapidly both by seeds and underground rhizomes (hence it's a good idea to keep it away from your yard). I start picking the leaves as soon as they come up in spring and keep harvesting even after the flower buds come out. Nettles are high in vitamin A and C as well as iron. As most greens, I use nettles in just about as many ways and I can think up. I add the leaves to soups and stews, I cook my rice with them or I eat them as a side dish. If I steam them I make sure to save the water and drink as tea or use as broth. I dry the leaves for a warming winter beverage.
I don't think it's too far flung of a guess that Dandelion is one of the most common wild usable plants in the northeast and perhaps in the whole country. It's also one of the first plants to pop up in spring making it very valuable for us who crave fresh greens after a long winter of eating from our root cellar. The Dandelion leaves tend to get bitter as the flower buds form so the prime time to harvest is early, early. Even slightly bitter plants can be a very pleasant part of a May-salad if I pick them early in the morning before it gets too warm, dunk them in cold water, chop, mix them with some salt and let them sit for a few hours. To balance the flavor, I've taken to adding shredded raw beets and perhaps some apple to the salad.
Curled Dock and Broad-Leafed Aster
Both these plants grow in abundance along the roadsides here on Deer Isle and are easy to spot. The Asters grow in dense colonies and have a slightly pointed leaf with a smooth, hairy texture. It's curled as it comes up and flattens out as it grows bigger. The still curled leaves are tender and milder tasting, making the prime harvesting season pretty short. There are many varieties of Dock growing across the whole country. The Curled Dock is easily identified by its oblong leaves with jagged edges and a pointy tip. This plant also has a short prime season in early spring while the leaves are still flat to the ground.
Either of these plants or a combo of the two makes for a superb cooked green.
This tall, bamboo like plant grows in dense thickets and I often find it where it has escaped peoples yards, growing out onto the roadside. Please do not plant this, since it's listed as one of the world's most invasive plants, disrupting ecosystems and growing roots strong enough to cause damage on house foundations and water ways. With that being said, I do consider it a choice edible. The young shoots or tender tips of taller stalks has a very unique rhubarb flavor and it's fun to bring as a contributions to dinners and potlucks even in circles of hard core forages, since it is less known than many other spring greens. To prepare, I pinch off the leaves and fry the shoots in a pan the way I would asparagus, with some salt and olive oil.
Wild Plants of Maine – Tom Seymour
Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook – Billy Joe Tatum
Willow Bark and Rosehips – Fritz Springmeyer
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