With the prices of most commercially available foods (which are, in many cases, of questionable nutritional value) skyrocketing, a multitude of Americans not only have turned to organic gardening as an alternative source of many wholesome edibles, but also supplement their homegrown diets with free-for-the-finding wild foods.
And, although most foragers have assumed right along that wild food—free of additives and genetically untampered with—is naturally wholesome, the increased public interest in wild food plants has created a demand for some hard facts on the nutritional quality of such edibles.
How Good Are They?
Having taught courses in foraging for some years, I've been challenged many times with the query, "How do you know this plant is nutritious?" In most cases, I could only quote the author of a book on wild foods as my source, who—often as not—referred to an earlier writer, who may well have based his statements on folklore.
This lack of solid data led me to work up a systematic collection of all available scientific research on the subject. I then compared each particular wild edible with the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) established by the National Academy of Sciences' Food and Nutrition Board, which represents the absolute minimum requirement for nutrients in normal, healthy people.
A typical male adult, for example, needs 5,000 I.U. (International Units) of vitamin A per day, and he can get much more than that in a scant half-cup of cooked dandelion greens! Or take that bane-of-the-farmer, amaranth: Just 10 ounces of the leaves or tips of this prolific plant can provide an adult's daily calcium needs, plus almost all the iron requirement for men and half that for women. A mere 3.5 ounces of the greens will meet the daily needs for vitamin A, thiamine, and ascorbic acid.
You see, then, that you can assure yourself of a well-balanced diet by combining produce from your garden with wild edibles in season. Beyond that you can freeze, dry, can, or pickle many of your surplus wildlings for out-of-season-use.
The blank spaces in the accompanying chart—"The Nutritional Composition of Wild Food Plants" —indicate that an edible has not yet been analyzed for those particular food elements. Some nutritional variation from the figures given can be expected with differences in climate, soil conditions, and time of harvest. Similarly, where "spp." is noted, it's an indication that more than one species in the genus is edible, so some differences can be expected among species. Usually, however, such variations are comparatively small and don't affect the food's overall nutritional quality. You'll also find a number of fruits, berries, and field crops included in the table which are actually cultivated varieties that can often be found in the wild.
CAUTION: The listing of a plant in this article doesn't necessarily mean that it Is edible under all circumstances. Readers should inform themselves fully (by cross-referencing with a good field guide) as to any wild food's safety before consuming it, since frequently a plant may be poisonous at one stage in its development and edible at another ... or—as with domestic rhubarb and potatoes—one part of the plant may be edible while other sections are poisonous.
In order to get some overview of the various nutrients covered in the list, I'd like to "spotlight" a sampling of plants and nutritional categories. Let's begin by discussing the foods that provide the most calories. Most folks have no trouble consuming enough starches, sugars, and fats for their energy needs (on the contrary, such elements are in oversupply in the average North American's diet), but—among the wild edibles—only nuts, seeds, tubers, and a few fruits provide such "energy to burn" in significant amounts. Most wild foods have less than a gram of fat per 100 grams and they're often low in carbohydrates as well, usually containing only several grams—which means you can fill up on many wildlings without putting on weight.
Most of us also get enough protein in our diets from meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products. However, if you're a vegetarian or want to supply part of your minimum daily need (50 grams of protein) from vegetable sources, the following plants will provide five or more grams of protein for each 100 grams (about 3 1/4 ounces) consumed:
Sunflower seed 24.0
Black walnut 20.5
Wild rice 14.1
Hickory nut 13.2
Wild foods can also play an important role in satisfying your body's daily vitamin and mineral requirements. For example, the average man or woman needs a minimum of 800 to 1,200 milligrams (mg.) of calcium—the body's most abundant mineral—every day. Here's how a few wild plants stack up in comparison with milk (the most commonly mentioned calcium source) in milligrams per 100 grams of food:
Lamb's quarters 309
Mexican tea 304
Soybean (dry) 226
Shepherd's purse 208
Water primrose 144
Iron is usually obtained from meats, shellfish, and whole grains. Adult men need 10 mg. of this mineral daily, women 18 mg., and children 15 mg. Here's a sampling of wild foods and the amounts of iron they offer per 100 grams as compared to beef liver, one of the best "supermarket" sources:
Water primrose 8.0
Sunflower seed 7.1
Black walnut 6.0
Curled dock 5.6
Mexican tea 5.2
Sheep sorrel 5.0
Shepherd's purse 4.8
Fame flower 4.8
Beef liver 8.8
Liver and kidney are among the best "conventional" sources of vitamin A. Deep yellow and dark green vegetables supply carotene, which the body can convert into this important nutrient. Adult males, as we said above, need 5,000 I.U. of "A" daily, while females require 4,000 units. The following wildlings contain more than either of those I.U. requirements in a 100-gram serving:
Lamb's quarters 11,600
Violet leaves 8,200
Mustard greens 5,800
Three of the B vitamins—thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin—are (in the "usual" diet) obtained from meat, milk, whole grains, and especially from the organ meats. But since adults require a daily minimum of only 1.25 mg. of thiamine, a "standard" serving of many wild foods can satisfy (or help fill) the need for this nutrient.
Sunflower seed 2.00
Wild rice 0.45
Beef liver 8.80
Better Health ... For Free!
In the past, some people (and I was one of them) were justifiably skeptical of unsupported allegations regarding the healthfulness of many well-publicized wild foods. But now that the scientific evidence for more than 80 plants is in (and included in the Wild Food Plants chart), there's no reason we shouldn't forage a large proportion of our meals. We'll eat better, stay healthier (just getting outdoors to find the plants is a good start!), and—best of all—we can watch our food budget shrink for a change!