Imagine walking outside your door where an abundance of wild, vibrant plants that are edible, tasty and super-healthful surround you. They grow happily without care: no digging, watering, fertilizing or weeding. This food arrives miraculously straight from the earth without any industrial input. No need for herbicides, pesticides or packaging—zero carbon footprint.
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You grab your basket and meander through your backyard or neighborhood, gathering salad or the greens for soup. Perhaps you grind a wild pesto with some of the leaves you collect or steep the aromatic ones into a fragrant tonic tea. Your basket fills with wild food that no one has planted or tended. It costs you nothing, yet it is superior in nutrient content to the food you typically buy.
The scenario just described is called foraging. Gathering one’s own food or medicine from the wild has been practiced by humans since their appearance on earth. This life-affirming activity is still available to us; we just need to rediscover it. And while learning it is quite easy, it does take time and practice, like grasping a new language. Yet, once we become fluent, a whole new world emerges. Before, the landscape looked like undifferentiated green, but now we see it is filled with various useful species of plants, many of them consumable, nutrient-dense and flavorful.
Unlocking the door that leads into this wildcrafter’s realm is quite simple. The key to successful foraging is proper plant identification—to know with 100 percent accuracy that we have the desired plant. We accomplish this by regularly observing the plants, ideally alongside an experienced forager and with field guides in hand. This involves using our senses of sight, touch, smell and taste (when appropriate) to match a plant’s physical characteristics with the chosen specimen. Likewise, it is important to learn a plant’s habitats, so we can look for it where it typically grows.
Once we have confirmed the identity of the edible plant, we then need to know what part is edible, at what stage of growth and how to prepare it. For example, if we pick chickweed (Stellaria media) after it seeds, it is stringy and straw-like, rather than succulent and juicy. If we dig burdock root (Arctium lappa) after it sends up a flower stalk, we end up with a dry, withered root. While raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus) are edible and refreshing as a mineral-rich beverage, they taste unpleasant in salad, leaving the mouth in a disagreeable pucker.
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Additionally, as foragers we want to respect our local environments. Learning which plant species are abundant—even invasive—and which ones are endangered directs our harvesting: Do eat the invasives; don’t touch the endangered. A note of caution: Harvest from uncontaminated areas. Look for land that has not been treated with chemicals. Be a land steward and protect our backyards and beyond from harmful inputs. Also, if the land is owned by someone else, make sure to get permission to harvest from it.
Below is information about five commonly found wild edible plants; take note of their biographical information and habitat, along with when to harvest and how to consume them. Keep in mind that a visual field guide along with an experienced forager is still needed for proper plant identification. Abundant in many of the temperate zones of the world, these plants are plentiful and therefore easy to find. Overharvesting them is rarely an issue. With a little foraging practice, they can become part of our food supply, adding nourishment, fun and flair to our meals. Happy foraging!
Commonly Harvested Wild Plants
Chickweed, a hardy annual, grows in full sun to part shade, preferring moist, rich soil. It is often found in gardens, lawns and woodland edges. Usually available from fall through early summer, chickweed dies back during the warmer part of the year. The leaf, tender stem and flower are edible raw or cooked. An excellent salad green with a mild yet rich earthy flavor, it can also be added to soups and stews at the end of the cooking process, or puréed into pesto with more pungent herbs. Make a tea with it for its cooling, nourishing and toning qualities. Chickweed contains high amounts of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and manganese.
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Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a biennial native to Europe. Look for it in woodland edges, disturbed soil and open fields. It prefers moist, rich soil but tolerates most soil types. The whole plant is edible and acts as a digestive stimulant. The leaf, tender stalk and flower are eaten raw or cooked, and pack a pungent, garlic-like flavor. The leaf, rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene, produces a superior pesto when combined with milder-tasting plants. It also works well in grilled cheese sandwiches. The raw root, dug before the plant flowers, makes an excellent horseradish substitute.
Violet (Viola sororia), a low-growing native of the U.S., grows in moist, rich soils of woods, gardens and meadows. The edible, violet-colored flowers have a mild and slightly acidic flavor and are loaded with vitamin C. They grace us for just a couple of weeks in early spring. Eat them raw by adding them to everything from salad to dessert. The mild-tasting, nutritious leaf, high in vitamin C and beta-carotene, is available most of the growing season. Eat it raw in salad or blended into a salad dressing. Cook it in soup. Drink it as tea for its soothing and cooling qualities.
Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album), a tender annual, grows in most soil types but prefers well-drained, fertile earth. It is found in gardens, cultivated fields and disturbed land. The tender new leaf, available from late spring through early fall, can be eaten raw, while the tender stem, flower head and seed are typically cooked. The nutritious leaf, high in calcium, iron, beta-carotene and vitamin C, has a spinach-like flavor that works well in soups, and in quiches and casseroles. It contains oxalic acid, which may be of concern for certain individuals.
Nettle (Urtica dioica), a perennial native to Eurasia and the U.S., grows in full sun to part shade where the soil is moist and well-drained. Look for it in meadows, gardens and marshes. Full of stinging hairs, it is best to gather with long sleeves and gloves. A powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, it is considered an overall health tonic with benefits specific to the circulatory system. In early through late spring, nettle shoots 18 inches or shorter make an excellent cooked green. The intense flavor of the leaf and tender stem yields excellent soups, omelets, frittatas and sautés. During mid-spring through early summer, the leaf and stem are harvested and dried for tea. Add the powder to popcorn, salad, pasta, etc. The flowering tops are harvested in summer through early fall and made into therapeutic preparations for allergies and for toning the immune system and adrenals.
About the Author: Dina Falconi is a clinical herbalist with a strong focus on food activism and nutritional healing. She has been teaching classes about the use of herbs for food, medicine and pleasure for more than 20 years. She is the author of Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair and Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook. botanicalartspress.com
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This article was originally published in the HERBAL REMEDIES™ #90 issue. To subscribe, click here.