Foraging 101: Four Edible Plants In Your Backyard
I love to step off the sidewalk and into the woods. Paths sneak all over the place around here. You can find me sneakin’ around, too. Once spring gets rockin’ and green takes over the brown, I just have to know: what tastes good?
To a lot of people, foraging is a foreign concept. If it isn’t on a grocery store shelf, it isn’t food. Take meat, for example: chicken, pork, cow, some kinds of fish. If you can find a goose in a freezer, you’re a lucky duck. If you offer someone rabbit or venison at a casual cookout, odds are they will cringe. It is the same with plants. When it comes to leafy greens, Americans are exposed to lettuce, spinach, various packaged herbs, and sometimes chard or kale (for those dangerous hardcore “foodies”).
“I eat dandelion greens. The flowers, too,” I told someone recently.
“That’s crazy!” they replied, while eating a banana imported from some South American country via diesel engine. If you want to really blow their mind, you can whip out your copy of Wild Edible Plants and show them the hundreds of other types of free calories and nutrition nature spits out, hoping some smart creature tiptoes by and helps itself.
Before agriculture and cultivation, humans foraged for food. They hunted and they gathered. Agriculture is a great advance — don’t misread me — but as much as picking a few fresh leaves off your spinach plant, picking fresh greens straight from nature is satisfying and rewarding, both for body and spirit.
Today foraging has taken a back seat to convenience and — let’s face it — a lack of knowledge. I’m learning as I go. I’m no doomsdayer, but I think it’s important to possess some “survival” skills. Some of my friends were laughing about my odd hobby of foraging, but they readily admitted: if there is ever an apocalypse, I’m the guy they want to know.
Right in my own backyard, I can haul in enough food to serve multiple people in less than ten minutes. Below I will show you the four edible plants everyone should know. They are some of the most common and the easiest to identify. But first, there are a few things every forager should know and recognize:
1st thing. Take caution picking anything on a roadside, in town, in other people’s yards, or on private property. Pesticides, car exhaust, and property rights all come into play. If you spy good pickin’ on a rural property, ask the owner for permission!
I also reccommend you wash anything you forage. For all you know a dog just took a leak on it. Also, unexpected animal protein (insects) may lurk in cracks and crevices and petals of your haul. Yum – but not for everyone.
2nd thing. Never pick every plant in sight. There are various opinions of how much to pick and how much to leave. My limit is “Take what I need.” You don’t want to decimate the population. The nice thing about wild plants is that they are resilient; they will grow back fairly quickly. But don’t risk wiping out an ecosystem unless you are pretty desperate. “Good things come to those who wait.”
3rd thing. Once you recognize a plant, you will always see it everywhere. You won’t worry about double-checking its identity. When learning any new plant, always identify it before eating. For example, I didn’t know much about red clover until I took it home and looked it up in the guide. Turns out, it’s not very digestible raw. If I ate it in the field, perhaps I’d get a little bellysore. I also suggest you introduce any new plant in small amounts until you are comfortable eating it more regularly.
Bonus things. Always check for ticks if you’re stepping off the beaten path or into any bush at all. A tick can take up to a day to find prime real estate on your body, so checking immediately is a good habit to keep. Also. don't eat ticks!
[Note: this article is a simple, brief introduction. Invest in a guide and do your own research before putting anything you pluck from the ground into your mouth! I'm not liable for your bad decisions.]
Now, for some edible plants that ruin your lawn, but enhance your meal. Bon mange!
Dandelions are the easiest edible plant to identify. Dens leonis, or lion’s tooth, has jagged-edged leaves that bunch around its long stem and proud yet lazy yellow sun-shaped flower. Every part of the dandelion is edible raw: it’s a miracle weed.
The greens are best when young, before the flower arrives. Then they turn bitter. I still eat them when they turn bitter, but one man's bitter is another's candy bar. You can blanch them once or twice and change out the water to get rid of some bitterness. I like to sauté the greens in bacon grease.
The flowers pop up all summer. You can fry 'em or just toss 'em in salads. They can also be fermented into a white wine.
Don’t wait, though, if you see them — the next day, they could be white puffballs. In that case, all you can do is have a little fun and act like a kid, blowing them into the wind. Bonus points if you can catch the puffs in your mouth. But I'm sure they don't taste good. The roots can be lifted up in the fall, ground and roasted for a earthy tea.
D-greens are high in Vitamins A and B6, calcium, and iron…pretty cool if you don’t eat meat or offal and need a good source of these micronutrients.
Go pick a dandelion right now and eat the flower. Sweet little burst of free deliciousness. You are now a forager.
My dad's known for occasionally finding a patch of wild strawberries, so when he took me out to his yard and picked a bunch of tiny clovers and popped them into his mouth, all I could think was, "Dude's legit."
I had never considered that clovers were edible. They’re everywhere! On clover and the next plant, plantain, says my dad, a hobo could live quite well.
It depends on how big the clovers get. I suspect they are not worth the caloric expenditure to pick. Clover seems more beneficial as a tea. The flowerheads can be ground into a flour as well.
Clovers are rich in protein, however, so if you can find enough, they’re worth picking for a side dish. Just remember to boil the leaves and flowers for 5-10 minutes so as to make them more digestible.
This plant is probably the scourge of your perfect lawn. When I found a patch of plantain right near my house, I started dancing! Plus, they sort of look like Pokémon.
And they're tasty! The young leaves are sweet and chewy. I’ll take plantain over baby spinach anyday. As the leaves get bigger, they turn more bitter, but still retain some of that subtle leafy sweetness. The veins in the leaf become stringier and the plant is a little more difficult to work with. If presentation isn’t your concern, then no problem. I prefer plantain raw, but they are delightful sautéed or boiled with some butter.
The leaves of plantain lie low, but a flower will spire later in summer. The seeds are also edible after roasting.
Plantain possesses natural healing properties, and can be prepared and applied to cuts, bug bites, and rashes. Neat!
I discovered yarrow on a sad day and ever since it has lifted my spirits and filled me with joy. When I discovered a field of this white simple flower, reaching hard for the path, I picked a bouquet for myself. When I got home, I ripped my book open. What is this odd plant?
Five white petals? Wooly leaves? One to three feet tall? Yarrow! To say it aloud is beauty.
Yarrow’s finely-cut, fernlike leaves are usually employed as an herbal medicine, reportedly curing such diverse ailments as cuts, colds, baldness, and an unhappy love life. Some people, however, just like them brewed into tea.
Which is just what I made. I plucked a few dozen of the piney, aromatic leaves and tossed them into some water. I brought it to a boil and steeped it for 15 minutes. What a tasty, refreshing drink! I wish I had just a dab of raw honey, but I enjoyed it immensely. The piney, sprucey, woodsy flavors and aromas are wonderful. Light yet intense! Perfect cool, rainy summer evening beverage.
Thanks for stretching for the sun, wonderful yarrow. I'm not sure if you can actually cure baldness or lovesickness, but you're a wonderful addition to the pantry.
So now you know: your backyard is a bountiful garden. If the world ends, and the food supply runs out, you can live off of wild greens until you get things sorted out. Or you can eat them now. They’re free for the taking.
[Note: all illustrations from Wild Edible Plants by Peterson Field Guides.]