When I was a child, late summer and fall meant two things: harvesting and canning the food in our family’s garden and scouring the hills around our country home for other good things to eat. In particular, we were fond of chokecherries, although huckleberries ranked a close second. My mother often loaded all six of us children into the station wagon early in the morning for a day of hunting. We packed a picnic and spent hours walking through the brush. We counted it as a high adventure. At the end of the day, we came home sticky, sun-kissed, and satisfied.
Of course, foraging isn’t without its risks. My sister stumbled into a patch of stinging nettle one time, and my brother learned the hard way to leave a wasp’s nest alone. Mosquitoes were a constant plague. However, these early experiences were very educational, and we quickly corrected our mistakes. We learned early on the rules of foraging, which are:
- Wear good shoes and long pants and don’t forget the bug spray.
- Bring a few large buckets and some smaller ones too for easier picking. Tie the smaller buckets to your belt while you pick the berries and then transfer the berries to the large buckets.
- Don’t ever eat anything you don’t recognize. Berries that contain many parts like raspberries and blackberries are always safe, but round berries carry no such guarantee. Take an experienced forager with you, or at the very least, a good guidebook.
Now as an adult, I live on the edge of a large city, in suburbia. For a long time, I assumed my foraging days were over because I don’t live on a farm or near a woodland. And then one day, as I was walking through the field behind my house, I stumbled on a small thicket of chokecherries growing next to a stream. Surprised and delighted, I ran home for buckets and spent the next week feverishly picking and canning the precious fruits.
I started paying more attention as I was out walking and recently discovered some wild raspberries growing not far from the chokecherries. In fact, I’ve learned that edible plants can grow almost anywhere—from a country setting to an urban park. Anywhere land has been left undisturbed for a few years is fair game to native plants. If you’ve never foraged before, but you’d like to give it a try, read on for a few helpful tips.
How To Forage
- First, you need to know what you’re looking for. Check with your county extension office to learn about native edible plants growing in your area. Pick up a local plant guidebook with good illustrations or photos too.
- Learn to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Berry picking will probably be your first venture into foraging, and it’s absolutely critical that you learn to distinguish between toxic and edible berries. Huckleberries, for example, grow throughout the Pacific Northwest and are a favorite of foragers. Pokeberries grow abundantly in the same area. Both are deep purple to black, but pokeberries have a sickly sheen and lack the characteristic X-shaped blossom end. Huckleberries taste a lot like blueberries and make delicious jams and jellies. Pokeberries taste nothing of the sort, but can make you really sick. The same goes for greens and edible plants. Poison hemlock looks a lot like wild carrot, and it’s easy to confuse the two. Poison hemlock is extremely toxic though, and even a little bit could prove fatal. Consider the leaves, roots, and stems of the plant, not just the fruit, when identifying it.
- Take safety seriously. The woodland areas where blackberries, fiddleheads, and other edible delicacies grow are also home to poison oak and ivy. Know how to identify poisonous plants and watch your step. If you’re hunting for brambleberries, wear work gloves and a long sleeved shirt. Don’t forage within fifty yards of highways or along railroad tracks and paths. The plants here have likely been sprayed with pesticides.
- Be a good steward of the land. Don’t leave trash or debris and take only what you need. Avoid foraging in areas that have already been picked over so plants have a chance to re-grow.
- Don’t overlook the weeds right by your house. Many plants that we consider weeds are actually very tasty and full of vitamins and minerals.
What To Forage
Below you’ll find information on just a few of the edible plants you might find in your journeys. Many of these plants live throughout North America. Some grow in certain regions only.
- American elderberry
- High bush cranberry
- Wild grape
- Wild plum
- Burdock Root
- Japanese Knotweed
- Lamb’s Quarters
- Sheep’s Sorrel
Using Edible Wild Plants
Use fruit just as you would cultivated versions. Make berries into pancake syrup, jam, jelly, or pie filling. Use grapes and elderberries for wine, jellies, and juice. Greens can be eaten raw in salads, although a light cooking increases their nutritional value. Many greens have a bitter flavor, so cooking can help their flavor as well. Steam or sauté them lightly and toss with a bit of bacon, onion, vinegar or salt to reduce the bitterness.
A Few Favorite Recipes
Wash and pick over chokecherries and place them in a large stockpot. Fill the pot with water to almost cover the cherries. Simmer for thirty minutes. Cool and strain through cheesecloth. Do not crush the seeds, which are toxic.
- 4 cups chokecherry juice
- 4 cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- ½ package powdered pectin
Heat all ingredients in a saucepan and boil for two minutes. Refrigerate or process in a water bath canner.
Wild Greens With Bacon And Onion
- 2 strips bacon
- 1 small onion, diced
- 4 cups washed wild greens
Heat the bacon in a skillet until crisp. Drain, cool, and dice. Add the onion to the bacon drippings and sauté for five minutes, or until tender. Toss in the greens and cook an additional one minute, just until the greens begin to wilt. Do not overcook them or they will become tough and stringy. Add the diced bacon and salt and pepper generously.
Roasted Wild Greens
- 4 cups wild greens, washed and chopped
- Non-stick cooking spray or canola oil
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the greens on a cookie sheet with non-stick cooking spray or canola oil. Roast the greens in the oven for two to five minutes or until slightly crisp. Salt and pepper and serve.
©2012 Off the Grid News