Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Learning About Eating Foraged Wild Edible Foods

I've been teaching myself about foraging edible food from wild plants growing naturally in my area. I'm getting flack from almost everyone that I share this with. The concept is so bizarre to some people, even my husband. Too many people think the same exact food grown commercially and sold in a store is superior to one growing wild. What is bizarre is not the fact that I'm doing this but that they think that way.

Here is a great quote from Wildman Steve Brill that sums up my thoughts completely:

"You go to the supermarket and buy raspberries and you know the ones in the bottom of the carton are going to be moldy and rotten and the others will be big and beautiful looking but have almost no flavor,” Brill said. “They're grown on depleted soil and sprayed with insecticides, and the only reason they grow at all is because of all the artificial fertilizers that are used. Pick raspberries in the park and you're getting exercise, sunshine, contact with nature and much better-tasting fruit, and by picking the berries, you're stimulating the bush to grow. It's very bad for the bush to have the fruit just sitting there rotting on the branch. Mushrooms you buy in the store are grown on manure and sprayed with more chemicals to kill flies than all the other vegetables in the supermarket, and they taste like it.”

This tells a little about his own diet:

“Half my food comes from the wild,” Brill said. “It takes years to learn this on your own and there are only a handful of people in the whole country who have this kind of knowledge. It's just about only me for this area. It's not easy making a living at this, but it's getting better and better every year. People are becoming more ecologically aware. I get by between writing articles, selling sculptures and giving lectures and nutritional and herbal consultations.”

(The above quotes are from an article on Wildman Steve Brill's website that does not have a direct URL. The article is "Wild Man" from Chicago Tribune September 23, 1985 By Kenneth Clark linked from the 'my arrest' sidebar link of Steve Brill's website.)

The root of my interest in this was my maternal grandmother. Into her 90s she was still foraging wild edibles from the woods around her home in northern Maine. She kept the location of her fiddlehead source and her high bush cranberries a secret. In the last year of her life, at age 98, she passed this secret on to my mother who was going to miss her annual gift of canned fiddleheads. My grandmother's canned preserves and foods, some from her garden and others purchased from local farmers, were a staple in every family member's kitchen. She loved to supply us with her canned foods and preserves so when she became too frail to do all the work herself she paid her caregiver to do the canning while she watched and directed her every move.

My grandmother's High Bush Cranberry jelly (above)

I knew I had wild raspberries (wineberries) and wild blackberries right in my own yard and have been eating them for years, just fresh off the plant. I knew those were superior in taste to any that I'd ever purchased in a store.

The second impetus was that the homeschool group class that my sons take about nature and wilderness survival was teaching them to eat or use foraged (wildcrafted) materials. My boys began teaching me things they learned in class and I grew interested. Last fall my boys begged to make a dye out of pokeberries, a weed growing on the edge of our woods. We did make it and we dyed wool roving to use in felting craft projects. I felt a gateway was being opened.

You can't learn this quickly. It takes time because the plants have seasons and sometimes what I'm learning is out of sync with the Earth's cycle. Reading about a plant with a certain leaf does no good in November when the plant has lost its leaves and I have only bark or bare vines to observe. I'm learning about plants and trees then I look around for them, making mental notes about where they are so when they are in season next year I can forage them. Other times I'll see something that seems to be in season now and I go and research it immediately.

I'm finding this really fun to learn about. I really should be keeping a journal and possibly also making maps or detailed notes about where these plants and trees are located. My main focus is to forage from my own yard and woods and then my neighborhood.

One thing about this though is this is seasonal. Just like cultivated gardens, sometimes the harvest must be done in a short window, such as after one or two hard frosts but not too much later lest the berries spoil. Other things are in high demand by birds and squirrels. One source stated if one does not get to the hickory nuts quickly an entire tree's crop can be taken by the squirrels in one day! Timing is very important in some cases.

A fair amount of my information is from books. I am finding the Internet very helpful also. Sometimes a book will have good information about finding and using the food but the Internet can give more and better photos of what to look for. Other times a book will mention a plant's use but generous people on the Internet share numerous recipes. By reading blogs, I'm hearing detailed stories about foraging, tips, tricks and what to avoid that goes beyond the information in published books, such as the week that a certain berry is at its peak in coastal Massachusetts.

At this time my main focus is edible wild plants, eating for either pleasure (a jam that tastes good) or eating the food because it is superior in nutrition to similar store bought foods (i.e. a wild plant that is eaten in place of lettuce in a salad). I also love the frugal nature of getting food for free. Store bought nuts are very expensive, so why not eat the nuts from my own yard that are either rotting or are being consumed by the squirrels or deer? Hickory nuts are delicious, as are black walnuts, and the only reason they are not sold in stores more is that their harvest is more labor intensive than other nut varieties. So we have people who have never in their life tasted a black walnut or a hickory nut even though they are native to the very area we live in. Now that seems odd to me!

Above: Hickory nut found laying on the side of the road.

Maybe if more people foraged (responsibly, not over-consuming), there would be positive repercussion on the environment. Perhaps limiting the deer's food source will help reduce their numbers. Humans choice to avoid foraging from wild plants and trees may have upset the food chain, allowing in part for the overpopulation of deer in my area! The deer here are harming the forests that then affect the reservoir’s water quality. It's true that development took some of the deer's woodlands away but by us not competing for the food they eat we are unwittingly helping them prosper. Another benefit is to forage from wild plants, shrubs and trees that have been labeled invasive in my state helps prevent their further spread. That is taking something negative and making something positive from it. It's a win/win situation!

above and below: Native to Asia, the Autumn Olive was brought to America as an ornamental shrub. It is now considered an invasive species in my state of Connecticut. It's berry has 15% higher lycopene than a tomato. Lycopene has been shown in studies to help prevent Prostate Cancer. It is rich in vitamin C.

If you think the best foods come from grocery stores or factories, think about this topic for a minute, maybe you'll have a paradigm shift. I hope you do!

In future posts I plan to share photos of wild edible plants, tell stories of my foraging and review some of the books I’ve been reading. If you are curious to learn more, start by reading the website of Steve Brill, or google the key words “forage wild plants” and “wildcrafting”.

1 comment:

Kristi Nommensen Dorson said...

Thank you for this post! I have always found the idea of being able to forage for my own food fascinating, but have not yet motivated myself to learn more about it because it seems like such a lost art. Somewhere deep in the heart of this overstuffed suburban mom's body lies a bit of a survivalist though, and I have just enough of an overactive imagination (and have seen just enough movies / read enough books) to believe that one day the Zombie Apocalypse (or Insert Other Crazy World-Ending Disaster Of Your Choice) will be upon us and we'll be forced to live without supermarkets and restaurants and readily available foods. So now that I've come and spread a little bit of my own crazy onto your blog, I'll take these resources you've shared and start learning a little bit more about it :)

Thanks again!