Many people rely on their summer gardens to help sustain them during the growing season and then preserve their harvest for the coming months. Some may even go so far as to use that food to prepare for extended emergency situations. These are all good things. But what if you find yourself in a situation where you are not near your garden or for some reason do not have a substantial stash to live on? What if you use up your stored food with little to no food available in the foreseeable future?
It is wise to acquaint yourself with plants that grow in your region. You may find that many are edible and widely available, some require special care to remove toxins but still offer sustenance, and others are best left alone altogether.
Here are ten foods you may find in your area that have a relatively safe reputation. Read up on these and be sure of what you are eating. Don’t let this article be your only source of information on wild edibles. I highly recommend purchasing a book with color photographs to aid you in positively identifying these and other plants.
With any wild edible, it is wise to take only a little for your first and second introduction, preferably on different days, to make sure it agrees with you.
Ramps have long been considered a spring tonic plant, being one of the first plants to emerge from the ground as the weather warms. They were one of the first edible plants available to native people and early settlers after the long winter, and one can imagine they were a welcome addition to a diet of preserved or dried foods all winter.
Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a part of the onion family. They can be harvested year round, though spring is the best time for harvest. They generally grow in moist, open hardwood forests, alongside water sources, and on shaded hills. Basically, places where the soil is rich and moist and does not receive too much sun.
Ramps generally have two to three broad, smooth, faintly ribbed leaves that grow directly from the ground with no stem. They are a bright green and have an unmistakable onion- or garlic-like scent when crushed. Where the leaves enter the ground, they turn into a maroon colored neck and at the end of this is the white “bulb,” which is not a true bulb, but a swelling of the root that resembles a green onion.
If you find a plant that seems to fit the description above but does not have the onion- or garlic-like scent to it, it is probably a lily or a death camass. These are poisonous plants—do NOT eat them! Make sure your ramps are really ramps—they MUST have the onion- or garlic-like to them!
When you find a patch of ramps, do not harvest them all. Leave some so that they can multiply and provide a harvest in the future. You can choose to harvest only ramp leaves, cutting only one leaf from each plant and leaving the remaining leaves to help the bulb to grow. Alternatively, you can choose to only harvest one bulb per cluster of ramps. A dandelion digger is helpful for harvesting the bulbs.
Though some people choose to eat ramps raw, most people find they are best cooked. Try some raw in a salad and see which camp you find yourself in. If you would like to cook them, chop them up and add to any dish that you would want to add some onion or garlic flavor. The leaves freeze well after being blanched for a minute in boiling water, cooled, and packaged in plastic freezer bags or freezer containers.
Morels are the one mushroom that I am not afraid to hunt for. They are easily recognizable by their sponge-like appearance, are always completely hollow (unlike false morels that are poisonous), and when vertically cut in half, the cap flows smoothly into the stem.
Hunting morels is an art, and many who are good at it hold the mysteries close to their hearts. It’s not unheard of for people to lead you astray or to be very vague as to where they look for these mushrooms, but if you are fortunate to have a close, generous friend with this knowledge, go out with them to learn how to find this delectable food.
Morels have a short season: only a few weeks in the spring. Opinions vary on optimal conditions. Generally, daytime temperatures should be in the 60s, nighttime temperatures should be above 40 degrees, and having some rain the day prior to harvesting sure doesn’t hurt. By the time there have been a few days of temperatures in the 80s, you can probably forget finding any more morels.
Morels can grow in a vast array of conditions. Some say they grow well under dead elm trees or around white ash trees, as well as cottonwoods, aspens, old orchards, or dead oak trees. It is said that they flourish in previously forested areas that have experienced fire in the last year or two. The few morels that I have been able to find have been under evergreen trees and under berry bushes. It is my belief that morels grow wherever they might choose to grow; they don’t follow all the rules.
Morels must be cooked before being eaten. Rinse them well, cut them in half (to make sure they are true morels and to be sure there are no visitors living inside), pat dry, and cut as desired for cooking. I like to fry them in a bit of butter.
I will not forget my first encounter with stinging nettles. I was reaching for some bean poles that we had laid along a fence a previous fall after cleaning up the garden, and brushed up against a plant that was rather prickly. It left a stinging, burning sensation at the point of contact on my arm that lasted for some time.
Stinging nettles and wood nettles share the characteristic of inflicting painful stinging sensations when their fine hairs come into contact with skin. The leaves are toothed and somewhat coarsely textured. Where they differ is that wood nettles have alternating leaves on a rounded stem, while stinging nettles have leaves directly opposite each other on a hollow, squared stem.
Stinging nettles and wood nettles offer nutrition and sustenance to those willing to brave the stings. Nettles are best harvested in spring; later in the season, you can harvest only the more tender top parts of the plants. Wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting.
Always cook nettles before consuming. Cooking will get rid of the stinging trait, so no worries about them stinging when you eat them. Wash the stalks thoroughly, using a few changes of water, pick the leaves off of the stem, and boil as you would spinach. Use the liquid in soups and stews.
Stinging nettles are also often dried and used in a tea preparation to alleviate hay fever symptoms.
Jerusalem artichoke is a plant native to the Great Plains area, and is found in fields, along roadsides and ditches, and in prairies. It prefers full sun and relatively moist soil. The part that is harvested is the knobby tuber or root, and harvest time is in the fall.
Above ground, Jerusalem artichoke resembles a bushy sunflower, though the flowers are generally smaller and have yellowish-brown centers as opposed to the sunflower’s reddish-brown centers. The flower petals are yellow. Look for these flowers in the summertime and make note of them, as by the time harvest time comes around, the plants will be dead and dry.
When harvesting, take a trowel with you to aid in digging up the roots. Be sure that no irises are growing in the same area, as iris tubers are poisonous. Iris tends to prefer wet areas, so the likelihood of this confusion is not great. Another way to make sure that what you have is Jerusalem artichoke is to cut the tuber in half. If it is layered, like an onion bulb, it is not Jerusalem artichoke. Throw it out! If it is a solid tuber, like a potato, you’ve got Jerusalem artichoke.
To prepare Jerusalem artichoke, scrub it well and cut away any of the ropey rhizomes. Larger tubers can be peeled like potatoes. Once prepared, slices can be eaten raw, like jicama, or it can be chopped and added to soups and stews, much like potatoes. You can even try making refrigerator pickles out of them!
Nuts are one of the more common foods for people to harvest from nature, as most are easily identifiable and readily available in the fall. Most nuts are non-toxic, with the exception of the acorn, which can still be eaten if treated appropriately. Nuts are a source of protein and are easily stored for later use.
Some common nuts to harvest are: black walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, and hazelnuts. The main problems one will find once they locate the appropriate trees is the competition with wildlife and the challenge of getting to the nut meats, ie. shelling the nuts. Once you find some nuts and do the work of shelling them, these wild nuts can be used in most any recipe that calls for domesticated nut varieties. And, of course, you can eat them out of hand or roast them, if desired.
Check out what nuts are indigenous to your area and see what you can find this fall!
In my Midwest garden, the following plants have been found in my garden, often in huge quantity if I don’t spend as much time as I should weeding. Identify the unwanted plants you pull from your garden—you may have more food growing there than you think!
Most people are quite familiar with the common dandelion, since it is often an unwanted guest in most gardens and lawns. Dandelion greens are an easily identifiable food source, full of vitamins, and the flowers and roots can be eaten as well.
Always be sure that you harvest dandelions away from roads (due to the pollution there) and that the plants have not been sprayed with herbicide or pesticide.
Dandelion leaves are best picked early in the spring, while flowers can be picked and roots dug at any time. Discard the stems, as the sap they exude is very bitter.
Dandelion leaves can be eaten raw as a salad green or cooked like spinach. Flowers can be floured and made into fritters, added to soups and stews, or dried and the yellow petals then removed to be used later in baked goods such as pancakes and muffins. Dandelion roots can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable. They may also be roasted and ground and used as a coffee substitute.
Purslane grows close to the ground, forming mats if allowed to grow that long. It is a succulent that loves sandy soil. The leaves and stems are smooth and due to their succulent nature, they can retain moisture, allowing the plant to survive dry conditions. It is often seen in sidewalk cracks and I find it often in my garden. If it has flowers, they are small, yellow, and inconspicuous. Avoid any plant you think might be purslane if it has hairy leaves. All purslane is smooth-leaved.
Purslane leaves and stems are most commonly used in stews, and as it is cooked it helps to thicken the broth, having a similar effect as okra. The flavor has been described as “lemony green.” It may also be boiled for about ten minutes and then served with butter and any desired seasonings. Additionally, it can be used uncooked in salads; if you are picking it anytime after mid-summer, use only the tender tips of the plant, as older parts of the plant will be tougher as the season progresses.
Lamb’s quarters were brought to the United States by early settlers and have flourished ever since. Sometimes called wild spinach, it is a common “weed” in modern times and a familiar one in my garden from year to year. It is often found in vacant lots and abandoned fields, but I am willing to bet you might have access to some in your own backyard.
The leaves of lamb’s quarters are triangular in nature, and have earned the common name of “goosefoot,” as they somewhat resemble the foot of a goose. The underside of the leaves have a powdery white or silver cast to them, and they are covered with very fine hairs. Larger plants (and sometimes even the smaller plants) can have a reddish tinge to them. I have found that sometimes small sprouts tend to have purple-red undersides in my area. The plants do not have much of a smell to them at all, so if you find a plant you think might be lamb’s quarters but it has a strong smell, it is likely not lamb’s quarters and is best left alone.
A close relative to lamb’s quarters is quinoa, the grain-like, high-protein seed that has been touted as a health food in the United States in recent years. This gives you a glimpse into what nutritional value this family of plants brings to the table.
Tender plants can be picked whole; later in the season, when the plants get tougher, the leaves can be picked off of the main plant.
Lamb’s quarters has a flavor comparable to spinach. It also cooks down to a fraction of its original size, just like spinach. Unlike spinach plants, however, it does not bolt and go to seed. This makes it available for a much longer period of time than spinach.
Use young, tender leaves for a salad, as the older the leaves get, the more fine hairs they will develop. If you are looking to cook lamb’s quarters, you need to gather about a quart of leaves per person you are planning to serve. The seeds may be gathered in the fall, shaken into a paper bag, ground, and added to breads and baked goods to raise the nutritional content.
Lamb’s quarters has the ability to absorb more toxins that many other plants. Make sure you are harvesting in a low-toxin area. Harvest well away from roadsides or construction sites where debris from the construction might be laying about.
Lamb’s quarters is generally a hardy, vigorous growing plant. There is little worry about over-harvesting this plant due to its nature. Pick away and enjoy!
Amaranth plants are a relative of the above-noted lamb’s quarters, and there are a variety of types of amaranth used for food, all falling into the family of Chenopods. One main type is commonly called pigweed. It is important to note that there are other weeds that are referred to as “pigweed” that are not amaranth (and may be toxic); I am referring to the edible group of plants that are in the amaranth family.
The varieties of amaranth that go by the name of pigweed are common weeds in today’s gardens. They do not have the gorgeous red seed tendrils of their relative, red amaranth, that fed the Incas, yet they offer just as much sustenance to those willing to try them out. Many amaranths are still used in today’s cooking, especially Indian cooking.
Red root pigweed has opposite, oval leaves, often tinged with red. Roots are red, as are stems. Green pigweed has green stems and roots, while spiny amaranth has spines at the bases of the leaves. Some plants can get to eight feet tall by the end of the season, and they sport flowers and seeds in a green spike, sometimes turning red (depending on the species).
Pigweed amaranth leaves have a flavor somewhere between spinach and beet greens. Leaves of pigweed can be picked and treated just like spinach. In ancient times, the seeds of amaranth were harvested and used to make a seed mush or used to top baked goods, much like poppy seeds. The seeds are a good source of protein, and when combined with rice, make a complete protein. This makes them a potential protein source when other options are not available. Seeds can also be roasted/popped in a hot frying pan without using oil.
Amaranths tend to hold onto nitrates from the soil and contain oxalic acid, which, in high regular doses, can be bad for one’s health. This is especially true if harvested right before the plant goes to seed and if the plant is ingested raw on a regular basis. The same can be said of spinach and other greens, so this should not be reason enough to completely avoid the amaranths, unless you have a health condition prohibiting you from ingesting these things. If you have concerns, be doubly sure you are harvesting well away from large agricultural fields and runoffs where nitrogen fertilizers have been present, reducing the nitrates available to the plants, and boil your greens and drain the liquid off of them to get rid of a substantial amount of the problem ingredients before proceeding with your recipes.
Another lemony-flavored plant that I find in my garden and on our property is curly dock, another plant that was brought across the Atlantic by early settlers. Dock grows all over, but it seems to thrive in moist, sunny areas. There are many varieties of dock; all are edible, but curly dock seems to be the favored type for eating. The leaves are about five to ten inches long and the edges have a rippled effect reminding one of lasagna noodles. Each leaf has a deep main rib down the center of each leaf, with smaller veins branching out to the edge of the leaf. The base of each leaf holds onto the stem with a paper-like sheath, and the leaves form a rosette on the ground.
Dock is a biennial, meaning that it flowers in the second year of growth. During that year, the top of the plant, which can grow to six feet, will form long clusters of tightly packed seed husks, which turn brown as they mature and last through the following spring, making it easier to identify a patch of dock early in the season.
Young dock leaves picked in early spring, before the middle rib of each leaf turns red, are a good choice for making a salad. After the ribs of the leaves turn red, they are still good to eat, but are better cooked, as they tend to be sour in their raw state. Dock can be boiled, sauteed, and steamed as you would spinach. Interestingly, dock does not cook down as much as many other greens do, so keep that in mind as you fill your pot. If you find you have picked more than you can eat, you can parboil the leaves and then pack into freezer bags and freeze for later use.
There is no worry about over-harvesting dock, as it throws seeds all over to help it propagate, and it also spreads by means of the roots. Since you are only picking the leaves, it should be fine to pick all that you need without causing harm to the plant population.
As always, wash your greens well before consuming.
There are many foods that grow naturally in the land around you. This list is just a sampling. Learn about your local plants. Experiment with them. Familiarize yourself and your family with them. They may become your best friends in the days to come.
Don’t forget—always consult a field guide or someone experienced in gathering wild plants before eating anything you pick. As noted in the article, many plants have poisonous look-alikes, and it is always better to be safe rather than sorry.
©2012 Off the Grid News