More than a listing of plant types and general facts, Guild to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition (Chicago Review Press, 2014) is full of fascinating folklore, personal anecdotes, and tasty recipes perfect for anyone who is interested in living closer to the earth. Christopher Nyerges — co-director of the School of Self-Reliance — offers hikers, campers and foragers an array of tips for harvesting and consuming wild edibles. This excerpt from the second appendix presents the argument for wild edibles, and why they may be superior to typical grocery store produce.
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“Live light upon the land if you would not be earthbound.” —Shining Bear
For years I thought, “Wild food would get me through an emergency, so I’m glad I’m familiar with the local wild plants.” Though I used wild food somewhat frequently, this context lurked, unacknowledged, as one of my major motivations for using wild food. It was only after marketing Wild Salad (a mix of wild greens) through the local certified farmers’ markets that I began to appreciate the broader opportunity that my knowledge affords. I was listening to our sales pitch:
These greens are fresh picked every morning. Many of them are more nutritious than regular produce. They have never been fertilized, waxed, or treated with pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. They’ve not been genetically engineered. We wash our hands before we pick them and then use tongs or gloves for any subsequent handling. And your dollars don’t support greedy “agribiz.”
As I considered the deeper meaning and ramifications of these words, I saw my knowledge of wild edibles in quite a different way and realized that there were several very good reasons to use wild food on a daily basis.
Studies have shown that fruits and vegetables tend to lose both vitamins and minerals as they age. When one knows and uses local wild foods, genuine freshness is assured. By harvesting your own food, you can also know for certain that the plants are at their peak of readiness.
It’s hard to tell how fresh grocery store produce is. We know that most produce comes from far away and thus must be at least a few days old. Irradiation, refrigeration, fungicide, and wax prolong the appearance of freshness long after an item would have normally begun showing signs of deterioration.
In agribusiness, salability takes priority over real freshness. Produce is hybridized specifically to make it more marketing hardy (such as more durable in transport, longer shelf life), and many fruits and vegetables are picked before they are ready in order to minimize spoilage and bruising during the trip from farm to store. Many farmers pick the whole crop at once and then preserve it for the selling season. Apples, stone fruit, and grapes may be weeks or months old due to cold storage. Many objectionable things are done to produce to make it appear fresh.
Until I actually worked in the certified farmers’ markets, I had generally assumed that the produce available there was fresh and that asking the merchants was a reliable way to get information about the produce for sale (such as whether it was sprayed). I hasten to interject that I’ve concluded that the certified farmers’ markets are the best commercial source of produce available to people fortunate enough to have access to them, but even at these stores, shoppers need to buy with discretion. Always ask each farmer/merchant about his or her produce and know that not everyone sees the value of honesty. (A fruit merchant lied to me for a couple of seasons, saying his fruit was unsprayed. Discovering this was a lie shocked me and woke me up to the need to be careful.)
Hybridization and Genetically Engineered Food
Wild edibles have the opportunity to be naturally strong, healthy, and adaptable. Survival of the fittest is the unspoken motto of wild food. Without the unwise intervention of Mammon-focused humans, the unfit plants simply don’t survive. But, we don’t advocate just letting all the plants grow wild.
The nurturing of flora is a crucial part of humanity’s spiritual development. Such nurturing might properly include Luther Burbank’s work. Some of Burbank’s creations—testimonials to his loving efforts toward the exercise of dominion in the world of flora—live on today. Both agriculture and horticulture must have begun this way, but gradually fell to ignorance, pragmatism, and greed.
In agribusiness, plants destined for the table are hybridized—to look better and last longer—with salability as the main goal. Nutritional value, flavor, and other important qualities are given less consideration.
Hybridization is a controversial subject, and some research suggests that agribusiness hybridization is an unsound practice. Many hybrids couldn’t survive without the intense agribusiness farming processes. Consider, for example, the seedless grape and watermelon—how would they propagate in the wild?
Genetic engineering, another practice in agribusiness, is yet another way to achieve the goal of maximum salability. Avoiding such creations will probably be challenging in the foreseeable future, even if laws require that such products be identified on the grocers’ shelves. Produce created through genetic engineering techniques end up in many food products (such as on a frozen pizza). The manufacturer of these food products, in turn, may not know about the origin of the produce they purchase and, therefore, neither do we unless manufacturers are required by law to disclose such information.
Our ability to choose what we eat is seriously threatened. If, for example, one opts for a vegetarian diet on moral grounds, it is becoming more and more difficult not to eat something objectionable (such as animal fat used to make produce shiny and attractive).
Wild flora grow where conditions favor them, and such flora will continue to survive, even thrive, without applications of commercial fertilizer. Nature fertilizes flora in many ways—with animal droppings, earthworm castings, and decaying organic matter, such as fallen leaves. This natural plant food is delivered in balanced, appropriate amounts. There isn’t a need for the commercial fertilizers of agribusiness, which today are nearly always from petrochemical sources and have the effect of creating flora addicts whereby such plants become unable to live naturally.
There are many other recognized objections to the use of commercial fertilizers. One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka is an excellent source for more information on this topic.
Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides
By now, most of us are aware that food, including produce, is treated to a wide range of potentially hazardous chemicals—pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides—all to enhance salability.
Soil, seeds, seedlings, both growing and mature plants, fruits, and even packaging and storage facilities may receive doses of poison for one reason or another.
Wild plants are, for the most part, free of chemical treatments of any kind. Those of us who choose to avoid chemical additions to our food have a great resource in the wild flora. There are, of course, ways that wild flora can be contaminated. Some cities and counties use pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in areas under their jurisdiction. Select your wild food picking areas carefully. Call your state’s department of agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, state extension service, or a local conservation group to get information on chemicals sprayed in your area.
An acquaintance of mine who operated a nonorganic garden service became severely ill and spent weeks in the hospital with a perplexing disease of the immune system. He told me one day that he felt certain his problems were the result of years of handling the pesticides and herbicides he routinely used in his garden service. And I was convinced he was right.
There are many articles and books that detail the myriad chemical applications used on and in commercially produced food and the many detrimental health effects that such use can cause. We highly recommend that you read the books listed in our bibliography for further study.
Wax Treatment for Grocery Store Produce
It’s fairly common knowledge that many items of grocery produce are coated with a so-called food-grade wax in order to retard spoilage and enhance appearance. What many people don’t know is how widespread this practice is. Would you believe chili peppers? Eggplant? Did you know that grocers are not required to list the pesticides and fungicides that are added to the wax, nor must they explain to you that lac resin (a standard wax ingredient) is excreta from the insect Laccifer lacca, the source of shellac. Wild flora is not coated with any such possibly toxic and unappetizing substance. Any bug poop or other organic matter can be washed off easily.
I believe that spices are the main food item that gets irradiated at this time. We can be certain that no wild foods have been irradiated. And there are many wonderful spices growing indigenously about. Near our home, we are fortunate to have many spices growing wild, including bay leaf, fennel, California pepper, and several types of sage.
Purity of Wild Edibles
In recent years we’ve heard more and more about food-borne disease. E. coli and salmonella are bacteria that can cause illness and death if consumed. Human hands transmit the bacteria to food. We associate these illnesses with undercooked meat or chicken, but E. coli in particular can be easily spread via any food (like salad) that has been handled and not subsequently well cooked or at least washed in very hot water.
Many types of produce can easily deliver dozens of socially transmissible diseases directly to our plates, simply because much produce is used raw and is too delicate for washing in water hot enough to kill any bacteria or viruses that may be present.
The fact is that hands pass on not only E. coli, but also many cold and flu types of illnesses. Tuberculosis is passed fairly easily by various social interactions.
The next time you visit your grocery store, ask the management who picks the produce you buy and if these people can (and do) frequently wash their hands with hot water and soap throughout the workday. Is the produce shielded from sneezes and coughs? How? And, then, what about the employees at the central market where the produce goes between farm and grocery store? Next, think about everyone who might handle produce in the grocery store, including perhaps dozens of customers each day. As you consider all the hands that touch the produce you buy, you might decide to turn to wild foods. Chances are only you and/or your family will handle the wild foods you pick and consume.
Some Moral and Spiritual Considerations
One needs to exercise choice for the better at every opportunity. Learning about and harvesting those wild foods available to us is one way to remove dollar support from, at least, the agribusiness part of the food industry. We all bear the responsibility for what we have supported with our dollars. It’s neither possible nor wise to utterly isolate oneself from the “evil world,” but the food industry, particularly that of North America, is fraught with unconscionable practices that we ought not to support. Learning to identify and use the wild flora around us will help us replace as much purchased produce as possible.
To put it plainly, many commercial produce items are killed plants. The head of lettuce, the bunch of spinach, the root crops like carrots, the celery—all plants destroyed in the picking. Wise stewardship involves gentle nurturing of the flora that sustain us. Killing for food (either floral or faunal) is not necessary in order to live.
Wherever possible, it is best to leave at least 1/7 of the plant so that it may continue to live. A great teacher of ours, Shining Bear, pinched the little tips, buds, and flowers and collected the seeds of his wild food sources. He never, to my knowledge, destroyed these floral friends.
Other Health Benefits of Wild Edibles
We have all heard of the damaging health effects of worry and stress. Preparedness and the ability to be self-reliant can contribute to a general sense of well being. The fresh air and exercise available through active food foraging can also be beneficial. Simply being in a meadow of wild flora can promote joy.
Try this experiment: find a commercial field of produce and just stand in it. Note what you feel and what thoughts you have.
Then spend some time in a field of wild flora. Take note of how you feel here. (I feel quite uplifted in the midst of a golden expanse of flowering wild mustard.)
We’ve considered a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to be able to identify and use wild plants for food. Wild food often has superior nutritional qualities, whether eaten cooked or raw. Such foraging is a great way to avoid the drawbacks of agribusiness produce, such as hybridization, genetic engineering, commercial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, lack of freshness, fungicides, wax, and socially transmissible diseases. Foraging also allows us to withdraw our dollar support for agribusiness. It’s also good for us to get out in the fresh air, get some exercise, spend time with truly happy flora, and to nurture and harvest the useful ones in a loving manner.
More from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants
• Guide to Edible Seaweed
• Guide to Wild Manzanita
• The Health Benefits of Ribwort
• Using and Eating Piñon Pine
• Using and Eating Prickly Pear
Reprinted with permission from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants: Second Edition by Christopher Nyerges and published by Chicago Review Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition