Foraging for wild edibles is among one of my very favorite outdoor activities.
While you anticipate the farm fresh bounty, delve into the beautiful art of wild harvesting! It is fun to search for wild edibles in areas that are not sprayed with pesticides. (Another reason not to use chemical pesticides or herbicides.) Take a look around your own backyard. Get creative and find recipes online or create your own. There are plenty of books at our local library on wild edibles.
My dear friend and mentor, Herbalist Colleen Smith, once described medicinal weeds as “plants growing in our backyards often times so close to our back door that they seem as though they are just begging to get inside and alleviate what ails us.” Herbalists across the globe are all aware of the powerful medicinal qualities of what most people refer to as “weeds.”
So many people go to great lengths to achieve perfectly manicured lawns. I do not. My motto is that if it’s growing, it has a purpose. Invasive or not, every plant has a purpose, whether it be for pollination, erosion prevention, food for animals, insects, and people, or just for the sake of photosynthesis. In today’s fast-paced world, it is hard not to lose our connection with nature and the understanding that we have an innate symbiotic relationship with plants and animals. We are inevitably responsible for the future of our planet.
We are so busy with the fast-paced reality and rituals of everyday life that we hardly notice the beauty beneath our feet and even worse, we see what could ultimately heal us as something that is a nuisance. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”.
Weeds around the world have been used medicinally for centuries to treat a number of ailments from headaches, nausea, menstrual cramps, labor and birth, cold and flu symptoms, and many more. Your local library should have a plethora of books on native plants and wild edibles specific to your region.
If you don’t use chemicals on your lawn, you can harvest young, tender edible weeds from your own backyard. Here are a few of my favorite edible weeds that grow in the Midwest and some throughout the United States:
Chickweed is a wonderful plant packed with nutrients. It is a common weed found in most backyards. It grows in both sunny and shady areas. If you wild harvest chickweed, make sure the area you harvest from is not sprayed with chemicals. Chickweed is high in Vitamins C, A, and B. Chickweed is packed with phytonutrients, magnesium, potassium, selenium, manganese, and zinc.
I enjoy taking nature walks with my children. They love to help me harvest chickweed because it is easy to pull! We bring it home, wash it, and make a salad with it. I make a first aid salve that works well for cuts and scrapes which combines beeswax and an oil infused with chickweed, plantain, comfrey and dandelion.
Dandelion has a plethora of medicinal uses. The roots are a powerful antioxidant and are a friend to the digestive system. Dandelion roots can even be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.
The greens make an excellent pesto or salad and are high in vitamins and minerals. The flowers are high in iron, beta carotene and vitamin C. Dandelion is a powerful detox herb. Aesthetically, the flowers make a nice garnish for any dish and are absolutely gorgeous in a refreshing herbal lemonade. Dandelion fritters are one of my favorite wild food dishes to make.
The Black Locust tree is native to the Appalachian region of the U.S. and is thought to be invasive in other parts of the U.S. The rest of the tree is thought to be toxic but the flowers are edible. They have a high flavonoid content.
The flowers have a very pleasant fragrance. You can smell the black locust flowers in the spring in the Midwest from a few hundred feet away in May and early June. The flowers are sweet and have a lovely floral flavor. Most people make them into sweet dishes such as pastries or fritters.
The white flowers are the ones that are typically eaten but the pink ones can be eaten as well. The flowers can also be made into tea or wine.
Plantain has been used throughout history as a panacea, meaning a medicine that is used to treat everything. Plantain has antibacterial, astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Young plantain leaves can be eaten raw and are loaded with Vitamin C and Calcium.
Plantain is one of the main ingredients in first aid salve. Plantain may be used to treat insect stings quickly. Simply pluck a leaf of plantain, tear it apart and use a little saliva to make an instant plantain paste. Hold it on the sting for at least a minute.
The Eastern Red Bud tree is native to the Eastern U.S. and is one of the first trees to bloom in the early spring. They bloom from late march to early May. Red bud flowers can be collected and eaten raw. I like to add them to a foraged salad of dandelion greens, young plantain, sassafras leaves, and wild onion. Red bud flowers are a gorgeous purple color and are rich in Vitamin C. The flowers can be dried and preserved to make a lovely floral tea. The flowers can also be added to water in ice cube trays and frozen into pretty ice cubes.
Identifying plants can be a very complex endeavor. There are many plants that strongly resemble one another, making them difficult to distinguish. Plants like dandelion and plantain are easy to identify because they are everywhere. Plants look slightly different when growing in different conditions or throughout various stages of their growing cycle.
I have been an herbalist for over ten years and it’s still difficult for me to identify some plants. Also, it is best to do your own research and always keep a native plant identification book in your car. That way, you can accurately identify plants using a trusted source. Taking someone’s word on plant identification may not be the best idea, especially if they are not a trained herbalist. For more gardening & foraging tips visit Grow Create Inspire.
Crystal Stevens is the assistant head farmer at La Vista CSA Farm in Godfrey, Ill., where she manages the greenhouse, designs and updates the website, writes for the newsletter and handles communication between shareholders and the farm. She cofounded the Missouri Forest Alliance with her friend and long-time environmental activist, Jim Scheff. Read all of Crystal's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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