There has been a lot of space devoted in the homesteading literature to the things that you can produce from the land. That’s okay, because the back bone of any homestead is the food that you can produce with your time and labor. It is important to remember, however, that there is a lot of food out there just growing wild and waiting for a savvy homesteader to come along and pick it, clip it, or dig it up. A good knowledge of the natural world is important in all your homesteading endeavors, but when it comes to foraging, it is indispensable.
I like foraging a lot. Nature has done most of the work for me, and all I have to do is know what to look for and where and when to look for it. Foraging is also a great excuse to go for a walk, and a great way to get kids engaged in the outdoors. Foraging times are great family times. A lot of what we forage for ends up in desserts, and there is no greater incentive for kids and grown-ups alike than a fresh baked pie at the end of the day.
How do you get started with foraging? The first step, as with most things, is to arm yourself with knowledge. There are a lot of great resources out there to get you going. A good place to start is an edible plants guide specific to your region. An even better resource is to meet local folks that are already engaged in the fine art of foraging. Specific local knowledge is the best kind of knowledge. I have met a lot of extremely knowledgeable people in one venue or another who have moved me down the path of becoming an informed forager. These people have been gardeners, farmers, ranchers, and even herbalists, and each has given me a piece of the puzzle. So, step one, read some books and meet some people!
Step two is the fun part. Once you know what to look for, start taking walks to see what is out there. You will have to do this frequently, as the available produce changes with the seasons. I know it’s tough, but you’re going to have to make the sacrifice and go for a lot of long walks in nature.
What can nature’s produce market provide for you once you have unlocked the mysteries of foraging? The possibilities are endless. You can learn to find a fresh salad, herbs for cooking, roots and tubers, and even medicines and remedies.
What you will be able to find will vary by region, but whatever your region there is plenty out there. In my area of the Missouri Ozarks, there is a seemingly endless bounty. This bounty flows from early spring on into the fall, and adds rich variety to our diet.
In the spring, wild onions appear in great abundance. We harvest these as they appear and use them in cooking and in salads. Dandelions and chicory also show up at this time, and we add their greens to salads, and to soups and stews. These greens are full of vitamins, and to my taste are much preferable to spinach! Queen Ann’s lace, a relative of the carrot, gives us greens as well.
Chicory is one of my favorite foraging targets. It grows in great abundance across much of the United States, and is very common in my area. I have already mentioned the greens as a source of salads, but the roots are the true bonanza where chicory is concerned. The roots can be cooked like any other root vegetable, but they can also be used to stretch your coffee supply. Chicory gained popularity as a coffee substitute in the United states during the Great Depression and continues to be popular in some areas, most notably New Orleans.
I like to harvest chicory root after a good rain. The rain softens the soil and loosens the root. If things go well, I can pull the root with no digging. I harvest from mid-summer to late fall. After the roots have been gathered, I cut them away from the rest of the plant. I then soak them in water overnight and give them a good scrubbing, then let them dry overnight. The next step is to chop them up and roast them. I place them on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven, until they are dark enough to meet my taste. After roasting, I grind the pieces in a regular coffee grinder. I mix my chicory with the cheap coffee I get at Aldi’s, two to one, one to one, or whatever meets my fancy, turning it into a gourmet French Quarter blend.
Chicory also has many medicinal uses, including treatment of internal parasites, a liver tonic, treating gall stones, treating sinus problems, and treating cuts and bruises, just to name a few! A great cup of coffee and all this too! That’s why I love chicory!
Chamomile is another favorite in my house. We harvest chamomile in late spring and early summer. It pops up in great profusion in the gravel along our driveway. Chamomile is harvested by clipping the plant. Clippings are then dried in our Excalibur food dehydrator. After this, you are a pot of boiling water away from the best cup of chamomile tea you ever had. Chamomile also has medicinal properties, including cancer fighting and anti-inflammatory properties, and is helpful in fighting anxiety and insomnia. Chamomile has been known to induce uterine contractions, and so should be avoided by pregnant women.
As we move through the summer, we forage for a variety of fruits and berries. We have several mulberry trees on the property. Mulberries ripen earlier than the other wild berries and produce a steady supply for a couple of months. Black berries, raspberries, and goose berries also abound in the shady areas along forest edges.
Wild plums come in at mid-summer and wild grapes ripen later in the summer. Wild plums are quite tart, so they generally end up in sauces which are used to glaze meats, fish, and poultry that we grill. The grapes are small, but make great juice or jelly.
As we move towards late fall, nuts begin to come in. The primary nut trees on our land are black walnuts. Black walnuts are a lot of work, but incredibly tasty once you get to the meat, and the hulls can provide a dye which can be used on your traps as well as on fabrics. We also have a couple of varieties of hickory on the place, which also provide nuts. Native hazel nuts are found in the area, but we haven’t located any trees on our property yet (so we cheated and planted a couple this year).
I haven’t addressed medicinal herbs to a great degree, or mushrooms at all. These things can get you in trouble if you haven’t done your homework, and a proper field guide with good illustrations, along with an herbal remedies text book are indispensable in acquiring the specialized knowledge required to safely use these resources.
Foraging is an essential skill to develop. Should your homesteading lifestyle ever move from choice to necessity, foraging will add valuable resources to your stores and produce. In the meantime, foraging is a great family activity that can save you a little grocery money and put some interesting fare on the table. Do your homework first, and then get out there and forage.