Food Foraging: Find and Enjoy Wild Edible Plants

Think you might be interested in finding wild edible plants? Here’s some basic information for beginner food foragers.

| Aug. 11, 2009

We owe a lasting debt of gratitude to the desperate soul who “discovered” the oyster or stewed that first possum. In the early, hit-or-miss days of foraging, our ancestors learned the hard way about the laxative properties of the senna plant, and to eat only the stems of rhubarb and not the poisonous leaves. Through trial and the occasional fatal error, we sorted the edible from the inedible, the useful from the harmful.

After World War II, when American agriculture was fully conquered by industry and supermarkets full of frozen foods popped up across the land — yes, like weeds — foraging came to be regarded as uncouth, probably unhealthy and certainly out of step with modern times.

Why then, a half-century later, do we find purslane — a vigorous, succulent “weed” once routinely cursed by gardeners — on the menu of nearly every fine dining restaurant in the country? Why, in our big cities, are we seeing groups of people excitedly prying clumps of chickweed from cracks in the sidewalks and prowling like herons through overgrown vacant lots?

Kerri Conan blogs for The New York Times, and keeps a sharp eye on food trends. “When you see ramps (Allium tricoccum; also known as wild leeks) featured in Bon Appetit, and miner’s lettuce on the menu at Chez Panisse, you know wild foods are moving into the mainstream,” Conan says. She thinks the renewed interest in the humble act of foraging is due (ironically) to the increasing sophistication of the American palate.

“Ultimately, people want what tastes best,” she says. “Food that’s fresh, picked at peak flavor and grown without toxins. And wild foods are unusual and interesting. That’s what turns the foodies on nowadays, and that’s why wild foods are becoming popular again.”

Learning the Art of Food Foraging

Whether an aspect of sophistication or a gut reaction to grim economics, foraging has indeed captured the public’s attention. On television, the Survivorman teaches armchair survivalists how to make a meal of plantain leaves and incautious lizards, while in alleyways across the country, groups of radical urban foragers known as “freegans” protest our wasteful, consumerist culture by dumpster-diving for their dinners. Foraging is the new green — and in these tough times, knowing how to find a salad in a parking lot could be a useful trick.

4/29/2013 10:44:46 AM

I have co-authored 7 books about plants of the Sonoran Desert (two of which are children's books) and I'm here to tell you there is LOTS of good eating out there!

Tanya Tyler
5/13/2011 7:35:46 PM

This was very interesting. I'll have to explore this topic a lot more.

6/14/2010 7:04:42 AM

I let some edible weeds live in my garden, like purslane and miner's lettuce. I grew up eating foraged food. So did everyone around us. Then I grew up and moved to town. My neighbors think I'm quaint when they see me cutting dandilion greens or flowers, which I let grow in my yard much to the distress of my neighbors. I pick red and white clover to make honey. I'm not as good as the bees but it's passable and my grandkids like it. Wild violets are great on salads and so are daylillies. But we must remember, harvest to sustain. Respect our resourses

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