Family Foraging for Wild Edible Plants

1 / 10
Wild Strawberries
2 / 10
Wild Strawberry / Fragaria Species
3 / 10
Wild grape leaves
4 / 10
Dandelion/ Taraxacum species
5 / 10
Queen Anne's Lace
6 / 10
Blackberries / Rubus species
7 / 10
Blue Violets
8 / 10
Sheep Sorrel / Rumex acetosella 
9 / 10
May Apple
10 / 10
May Apple

I learned at an early age that our home in the country was
surrounded by groceries “free for the picking”. Wild
edible plants of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, dewberries,
elderberries and wild grapes contributed to my summer fare.
The aroma of fresh berry pie and canned wild fruits remains
quite vivid in my memory of those days. I especially recall
the nearby field of wild asparagus so abundant that most of
the spears grew into seed stalks before they could be cut.

Still, although I’ve stalked the wild asparagus since age
four, I’ve just begun to really appreciate the value of
foraged food such as wild edible plants. Over the years, except for an occasional trip
into the country to hunt walnuts, I’d almost forgotten
about the wild foods of my childhood. A recent job
transfer, however, enabled me to purchase a home near an
abandoned vineyard overgrown with several varieties of wild
berries. Furthermore, our new house is within a few miles
of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS. This fortunate coincidence has
opened a new experience of foraging wild edible foods for my
entire family.

Most folks view wild vegetation with contempt and as an
enemy of the lawn and garden. That which is not a planned
part of the suburban development is viewed as being
worthless; as an eyesore which detracts from a
well-manicured environment. A wide variety of dangerous
chemicals has been developed to eliminate such “worthless
weeds”. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many a fine wild
strawberry patch succumb to chemicals and the lawn mower.
Countless vacant lots, once lushly overgrown with a live
supply of wild foods, have been transformed into wastelands
of barren stubble.

I’d like to suggest with this article that our so-called
“weeds” may serve some fundamental purpose — not only to a
balanced ecology — but also to human nutrition.
Additionally, although the experience of foraging for wild
food may not be a panacea for our times, it may yield some
positive alternatives to our present system of control.

Wild Strawberries

Few people will dispute the fact that wild strawberries are
superior to cultivated varieties. They’re a valued prize
for the wild food forager. I’ve located a number of fine
patches of this luscious fruit within a few hundred yards
of my suburban home. One patch is nearly an acre in size
and its berries are exceptionally good.

Although the wild strawberry is small and filling a pail
with clean berries is a painstaking task, my family and I
usually have been able to pick enough for several dessert
treats in a half hour. Our children enjoy harvesting wild
fruit and always look forward to an excursion to the
strawberry patch. Sometimes our two-year-old Betsy picks
more than six-year-old John. Betsy, however, is usually
unwilling to share her treasure and prefers to have it
served with milk as soon as she returns home.

Not many folks realize that wild strawberry leaves are one
of the richest natural sources of vitamin C. The leaves can
be eaten raw, in a salad, or as a garnish for camp stew.
Since their taste and texture may not be totally pleasing
to everyone’s palate, a mild-tasting extract can be made by
placing the leaves in a blender with a little water. This
mixture can then be used to dilute frozen juice
concentrates. It can also be boiled and served with a
little honey as a nutritious tea.

Blackberries

The blackberry and related dewberry grow in abundance
throughout nearly all the United States. Blackberries are
probably the most valued and used wild fruit in the
country. A hedge of them, mixed with wild grape vines,
grows at the rear of our lot. More blackberries surround
the nearby strawberry patches, grow wild in the vineyard,
along fence rows and in the edge of the closest woods. When
the strawberry crop is gone, our children eagerly await
blackberry picking time.

In the past two summers, we’ve made use of this wild crop
in pies, cobblers, jams, jellies, juices and wines. We’ve
added blackberries to other foods and canned them. For some
reason, we’ve never tired of this abundant crop and we
never seem to have enough of the highly nutritious fruit.

Blackberries contain a good amount of protein, calcium,
phosphorus, iron and vitamins A and C. Their overall
nutritional value is higher than orchard fruits.

As a child, I looked forward to blackberry picking each
summer. In the late afternoon of a picking day, I carried
my harvest to the nearby highway and set up a little stand.
Within an hour, all my berries would be sold. Sometimes
sales were so fast that I had to disappoint my regular
customers.

Violets

On our first family forage for wild foods, we were
introduced to eating blue violets. At first, the thought of
eating flowers seemed rather strange, but after a few tries
it became quite natural.

Both the flowers and the leaves of the common blue violet
are edible. A half-cup of violet greens provides more than
the daily adult requirement of vitamins A and C. Although
the taste of the greens is rather bland, they’re not at all
bad and the experience of eating wild violets was an
enjoyable one for our two children. My wife and I, however,
experienced some momentary anxiety when we thought that
Betsy had eaten some of the poison ivy growing alongside a
cluster of violets (although we know some people who claim
that eating poison ivy produces an immunity — and I’ve seen
it done — we do not recommend this practice). Fortunately,
our little daughter had learned to identify the wild foods
we’ve eaten and, apparently, has not experimented on her
own.

Our new interest in blue violets encouraged us to attempt
transplanting some from the nearby woods to our flower
garden. The operation was successful and we should have an
abundant crop next year. One of the best things about the
violet, by the way, is that it’s not harmed by picking the
blossoms. The more you pick, the more the plant produces.

For those who enjoy experimenting with alternative methods
of preparing wild foods, the violet — in addition to the
standard wild salad — can be used to make jam, jelly, syrup
and confections. When one considers the numerous alleged
conditions cured by violet syrup (according to the old time
herbalists), who knows what may be discovered!

Dandelion

The dandelion is a favorite of many people throughout the
world and is one of the easiest plants to identify: Just
ask anyone with a lawn.

I prefer to pick dandelions as soon as they begin to grow,
when the leaves are young and tender. Others wait until the
plants are more substantial but still pick the leaves
before blossoms develop. The mature dandelion leaves have a
strong, characteristically bitter taste that can be reduced
by boiling the plant in lightly salted water for about five
minutes.

The dandelion bud has been found to contain a fair amount
of vitamins A and C and a rather high quantity of protein.
Dandelions should be considered an essential part of any
survival diet because of the plant’s nutritional value, its
abundance and variety of uses. Even the roots — diced and
roasted for about four hours — make a good coffee
substitute. Dandelion blossoms, of course, are famous for their use in
making wine.

I prefer to pick dandelions as soon as they begin to grow,
when the leaves are young and tender. Others wait until the
plants are more substantial but still pick the leaves
before blossoms develop.

The mature dandelion leaves have a strong,
characteristically bitter taste that can be reduced by
boiling the plant in lightly salted water for about five
minutes. After the plant blooms it is usually considered
too bitter to eat. I think the younger leaves are a fine
addition to a salad; the more mature greens can be eaten
cooked like spinach and seasoned with butter.

The developing yellow blossoms, which form as crowns,
provide another vegetable for the table. Cover them with
boiling water and cook for about three minutes. Drain and
season with salt and butter. The crowns are edible until
they mature into blossoms, although — as they approach this
change — they must be cooked longer and the water changed
once before eating.

Euell Gibbons reminds us that the botanical name for the
dandelion, Taraxacum officinale , suggests that it
is the “official remedy for disorders”. An ancient name for
dandelion was “scurvey plant”, derived from its use in
curing or preventing that disease.

Wild Carrot

While clearing some “unwanted weeds” from my garden this
spring, I discovered that most of the plants were wild
carrot (Queen Anne’s lace). Many had sizeable roots and,
within a short time, I gathered a full pail. The plant is
easily identified by its delicate feathery leaves, tall
slender stalks topped by white flowering umbels some of
which are flattened like saucers and a characteristic
carrot odor. The edible roots are white, rather than
yellow-orange.

Wild carrots should be washed, scraped and boiled for about
twenty minutes. Before serving, season with butter and
salt. The tough pulpy cores can be removed quite easily
before eating. Wild carrots can also be used to flavor camp
stew or soup.

It is said that the best part of the plant is the seeds.
They can be used to make tea (mixed with a little spearmint
or peppermint), as a spice for cooking and as an herbal
medicine (for flatulence, coughs and hiccups).

Plantain

The lowly lawn and garden pest known as plantain ranks near
the top of the list of nutritional greens. Plantain is said
to outrank garden greens in nutrients because it grows more
slowly and, thus, has more time to store vitamins and
minerals. The early pioneers used plantain extensively in
their diets and the plant is still an important food in
certain sections of the U.S.

Plantain is available almost everywhere and its appearance
is readily discernible: Ribbed, long, broad oval leaves and
slender seed stalks growing out of the center of the leaf
cluster.

Its bland taste makes plantain a palatable addition to any
salad. I much prefer it to dandelion greens. It isn’t as
tender as head lettuce but plantain can be chopped and made
tender enough to suit any taste. As a general rule the
young, smaller, rather shiny broad-oval leaves are best.
These small plantain leaves are available all summer
because new leaves continue to form throughout the season.

Clover

The reddish-purple blossom heads of the ordinary wild
clover are rated high on the list of survival foods. They
are a tasty addition to any salad and they can be eaten
alone. The heads can be gathered throughout June and July
and dried indoors at room temperature for later use as tea.
A small amount of dried spearmint and peppermint leaves
added to the clover is said to make a healthful brew. The
blossoms should be gathered from undisturbed fields rather
than from the lawn. The large blossoms from the fields are
distinctly tastier than the small yard-variety clover
blooms. I find myself nibbling clover blossoms every time I
take a hike.

May Apple

After the first few warm days of spring, our closest woods
seems to be filled with umbrella-like plants growing in
dense clusters. Each of these May apple plants, with a stem
that forks into two of the characteristic umbrellas, will
develop a waxy-white blossom at the “V” of the stem. The
blossom is soon followed by a single, smooth, yellow fruit
about the size and shape of an egg. When the May apples are
ripe, in late summer, they may be picked and eaten.

The taste of the musky May apple is difficult to describe:
It has been likened to the guava and the passion fruit.
Those who may not appreciate the flavor can liquefy May
apples in a blender and add the juice to lemonade or mix it
half and half with a table wine. The wild food gourmet
should also consider making May apple Marmalade. It’s
reputed to be the finest product of this fruit.

Sorrel

Another tasty green that grows abundantly in our nearby
fields is sorrel. The spearhead-shaped leaf, one-half to
two inches in length, grows in clumps and sometimes
virtually covers the ground in overgrown and unused
pastures. Of all the wild greens I’ve eaten, I prefer
sorrel. It’s very tender and has a slightly sour taste that
some describe as lemony (which suggests using the blender
to make sorrelade).

There is an old axiom that “the better the taste, the
higher the nutritive value”. I’ve found this true when
comparing wild foods and, although I haven’t seen an
analysis of sorrel, I believe the plant has sufficient
value to justify my preference for this salad green.

There are more than enough vitamins and minerals in wild
foods to sustain health. Indeed, many uncultivated plants
contain more food value than the best garden vegetables and
fruits. Freshness is one rather obvious reason why wild
foods outscore grocery store produce but, beyond that,
analysis has shown many wild plants to be vastly superior
to the garden variety.

Unfortunately, our palates have become accustomed to
certain foods for reasons other than nutrition. Few people
will ever become ecstatic over a strict diet of wild foods
but, thanks to my recent relatively short but intense
exposure to foraging, I am no longer impressed by shelves
of processed garbage in the supermarket. I am sure that we
could, with benefit to our health and well-being, forget
the grocery store altogether, in preference to that which
grows wild in the fields.

I’m amazed at how eagerly our children have responded to
our foraging experiments. They have been quite willing to
try every new wild food we’ve selected and they have not
rejected any of these unfamiliar taste sensations. They’ve
also come to know our Mother Earth to be a provider of
abundant resources which may suggest to them that some of
the finest things of life are still free.

Although this article does not exhaust my own experience
with wild eats, my knowledge is vastly limited compared to
what I have yet to learn. Some of the more experienced
foragers could find hundreds of valuable crops in the
territory I’ve walked. A few even suggest that practically
every plant can be eaten and contains some food value.

As a general rule, for those who attempt survival living,
any plant that tastes good is edible. If you want to
experiment, then, don’t swallow anything that is
particularly bitter. And, when you do swallow, always first
try just a tiny bite of the new plant. If you don’t
experience any nausea or upset within eight to ten hours,
chances are that your potential food source is edible.

I would further recommend that the neophyte forager carry
the field guide edition of Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the
Wild Asparagus.
It is also well to be accompanied by
an experienced guide but almost anyone can easily identify
the foods recommended in this article and those suggested
by James Churchill in the last issue of the MOTHER EARTH
NEWS.    


Mama Karhu’s Recipes

Blackberry Jam
Strawberry Jam
4 cups prepared fruit
7 cups sugar
1/2 bottle Certo Fruit Pectin

Wash about 2 quarts fully ripe fruit. Crush completely,
one layer at a time. (If desired, sieve half the pulp to
remove some of the seeds.) Measure 4 cups into a very
large pan.

Scald about 10 medium sized jelly glasses in soapy water.
Rinse, scald again, then drain. Keep the jars warm by
placing on a cookie sheet in a warm oven.

To the fruit in the pan, add exactly the amount of sugar
stated in recipe. Mix well.

Place over high heat, bring to a full rolling boil, and
boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from
heat; at once stir in Certo. Skim off foam with metal
spoon. Then stir and skim for 5 minutes to cool and to
prevent floating fruit.

Pour jam into half of the glasses. Place lid on one jar
at a time, screw on band tightly, invert jar. Fill the
remaining jars in the same manner. When finished, turn
jars upright. Jars should seal within a few minutes. If
they don’t, press down with the thumb on the center of
the lid until you hear it buckle. Don’t worry if they
take about 15 or 20 minutes to seal. Keep working with
them. The jam won’t spoil that quickly.

Grape Jam
5 cups prepared fruit
7 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 bottle Certo Fruit Pectin

Follow the instructions for the above recipe. Makes about
12 medium jelly glasses.

Homemade Shortcake
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/4 cups milk
1 egg, beaten

Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Cut in
shortening until it is well blended with the flour. Add
beaten egg to the milk; then add all at once to the
flour. Mix lightly until flour is thoroughly moistened,
then pat into 10×15 baking pan and sprinkle with the
sugar. Bake 12-15 minutes at 400 degrees F. Serve in soup
plates, surrounded with plenty of crushed, sweetened
berries. Top with cream.

I make cream by chilling a can of evaporated milk in the
freezer until it is the consistency of soft sherbet. Then
very quickly beat the milk and add vanilla extract and
sugar to suit your own taste. The leftover cream does not
keep.