Foraging for Wild Edible Food

Foraging for wild edible food, includes a guide on gathering available food in the outdoors and recipes for alfalfa, clover, thistles, violets, ferns and sorrel.
By James E. Churchill
May/June 1971
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Foraging for wild edible food is easy using these helpful tips.
Photo by Fotolia/taiftin


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Learn about foraging for wild edible food and how you can use these free foods in nutritious, delicious recipes.

Foraged Food Recipes

Wilted Alfalfa Greens Recipe
Alfalfa and Whole Wheat Bread Recipe
Alfalfa and Clover Salad Recipe
Clover Soup Recipe
Red Clover Blossom Vinegar Recipe
Red Clover Cough Medicine Recipe
Boiled Thistle Recipe
Thistle Soup Recipe
Creamed Thistle Greens Recipe
Sorrel Salad Recipe
Cream of Sorrel Soup Recipe
Sorrel and Mint Tea Recipe
Sorrel Sauce Recipe
Boiled Fern Stems Recipe
Steamed Fern Stems Recipe
Violet, Honey and Sumac Drink Recipe
Violet Pudding Recipe
Violet Salad Recipe

Tips on Foraging for Wild Edible Food

May is a time of abundance here in Wisconsin. The bitter cold and snows of winter are gone and all but forgotten. April rains have soaked the earth and awakened wild plants that — warmed by the gentle May sun — are absorbing minerals and manufacturing vitamins that will keep a food forager clear-eyed and strong.

Some of this fare that we find and make much use of are alfalfa, clover, thistles, violets and sorrel. Occasionally we even go into the forest to pick a basket of fern shoots.

Alfalfa and clover, of course, are hay plants raised by commercial farmers for animal food. This makes finding them easy since they grow almost everywhere. Alfalfa has been raised since long before recorded history and it probably was originally gown for human food. Well it might be too since — in addition to protein — alfalfa is a very good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur, sodium, potassium chlorine and silicon. These are called trace elements and are often lacking in shallow rooted plants but alfalfa — which can send its tap roots to a depth of fifty feet — is unusually rich in these nutrients. The plant is also one of the best sources of vitamin K and contains enzymes that help the body to absorb other foods. Nursing mothers can increase their flow of milk by eating raw alfalfa or food containing the powdered plant.

Unlike alfalfa, clover can often be found growing in wilderness areas . . . especially along logging roads and in small clearings. Once, when I was fairly inexperienced in finding edible wild plants, I went on a solo three day "travel light and live off the land" backpack trip into the Nicolet National Forest in Northern Wisconsin. On my second day with little food I crossed a huge marsh, ciimbed the hill on the other side and happened onto a patch of white clover and sorrel growing side by side. I dropped my pack right there and — pulling handsful of clover with one hand and sorrel with the other — chewed as fast as I could until the hollow in my stomach was filled. I've never since passed a patch of white clover in the wilderness without the warm feeling of seeing an old friend.

When we're gathering clover in our area we inevitably back into or set down on a plant that is well protected by nature: the thistle. Most grazing animals and people take whatever steps are necessary to avoid thistles but we don't because we know that the Canadian Thistle (cirsium arvense) and the Bull Thistle (cirsium lanceolatum) make good food. Even the sharp thorns are edible after they boil awhile.

If you're still not convinced that clover is a valuable wild plant consider that Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, would wander into the fields and eat handfuls of clover when the pressures of ruling got too great. After a few days he would return, much refreshed, and make some of his most brilliant decisions. Might help at tax time.

Bull and Canadian Thistles spring up here in amazing profusion. I've heard that the county has one pseudo-bureaucrat who's sole duty in the summer is to see that people cut their thistles before the plants go to seed. I wish him well because — to find all the young tender thistles I want for greens — all I have to do is watch for his signs posted along the highways. Somewhere very near there's certain to be a good patch of young thistles just waiting to be made into boiled or creamed greens.

When we gather thistles we try not to forget to pick a good supply of sheep sorrel. Sheep sorrel is another wild plant that was introduced to this country from Europe where it has been raised as a pot herb for centuries.

Sorrel, sheep sorrel, sour grass or red sorrel (Rumex Acetosella) is a low bunch-like plant that grows in acid soil. It has arrow-shaped leaves and shallow, yellowish root stalks. Sorrel can be spotted from long distances by the reddish tinge its seed pods give to the fields in which it grows. The leaves of this perennial plant have a decidedly sour taste and we use only the green leaves as they lose almost everything when dry.

The two species of ferns that I depend on for food are the common bracken fern (Pteridium Aquilinum) and cinnamon fern (Osmunda Cinnamona). Cinnamon fern, of course, is the common "fiddlehead" that is sold commercially along the Atlantic coast. Wherever you live, however, there should be at least one species of this plant that will provide you with tasty "asparagus" in the early spring.

The bracken fern matures into a tall, thick-stalked plant with great triangular leaves. It grows — usually on high, well-drained and poorer soil — in huge patches that cover the ground in both fields and forests. Here in Wisconsin, the bracken is often found in cutover areas that have reseeded themselves to poplar trees.

Cinnamon ferns usually grow in rich soil at the edge of or in swamps and wet areas. They're generally later than the brackens due, no doubt, to the longer time it takes for spring to come to the marshlands. The shoots, when they first come up, are reddish and exceedingly hairy with tightly rolled heads. These heads gradually form into upright seed or spore pods and, later, the leaves of the plants come up.

About the middle of May, in the cool forests of Wisconsin, ferns send up their green succulent stems. I know exactly where the fern plantations will be because I spotted them last summer when they were two feet high and so thick that the forest floor wasn't visible.

I first became interested in ferns for food when I read Louise Dickenson Rich's book, We Took to the Woods, many, many years ago. However, I don't think she gave the fern true credit when she said it tasted like a cross between asparagus and swamp water.

I pick ferns when they're about six to ten inches high. They're best before they've unfolded and while their heads are still hanging down in a prayer position. I break the plants off just above the ground and use heads, stems and all. I've heard that the fern leaf, when mature, contains a poison so I don't attempt to use the plants for food after the leaves develop.

Some people let the ferns develop a little longer and pick them just as the tiny leaves start to emerge. These folks don't use the immature leaves, however. They cut the stalks off just under them and slightly above where the stems are starting to get tough. This makes a finished product that looks like asparagus.

Almost everyone knows the delightful purple or blue flower of the violet. This flower grows in almost every moist, cool woods in the country and many ladies raise violets in their flower gardens for the delightful color and fragrance of the blossom.

The violet is a very good food plant and has been used since the beginning of records for food and medicine. The whole plant can be eaten: the blossoms in violet jam, the leaves and stalks in salads and the roots — if you care to go to the trouble — roasted for a vegetable.

Don't presume to eat a year's supply of violets in one day, however, as — like most fresh greens — violets are a mild laxative.

Good luck. See you next issue.

See the foraged food recipes at the top of this article.


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