Header photo: Burdock by Shastared
The day might have made a magnificent postcard. Spring was staining trees with subtle hints of summer. A stream was carrying on an animated conversation with raindrops. Rocks were locked in a shining dual with water. Some humans, armed with buckets, boots, and plastic suits, stumbled toward the stream. They worked in silence, selecting tender sections of watercress. Then one of them spoke: "This is beautiful. It looks like a rain forest." I shot a surprised glance at the speaker. Blood sucking insects and relentless rain had clouded my beauty sensors. But the world in which we waded was indeed exquisite.
Some years later, something resembling an over-sized squirrel crawled across a forest floor. I was seeking acorns. A symphony of mosquitoes accompanied my labor. Their music might have been beautiful had I not known that they were after my blood. I ignored them for a time. Then I began to writhe and some unprintable utterances escaped my lips. Suddenly I remembered that long-ago morning spent gathering watercress. I smiled. "This is beautiful," I said. "It looks just like an oak forest."
Before we follow the tracks of this story further, let me assure you that foragers (people who hunt for food or provisions) need not be stoics. In fact foragers squander sweet summer days munching on mulberries while pretending to be industrious. If you have never eaten a mulberry, seek me in the summertime and we will sample some. You may come to understand why many mulberries end up in mouths rather than pails.
It is an oft-repeated myth that wild foods are disgusting. In fact wild foods are succulent, sweet, sour, and astonishingly alive. Gourmet chefs pay top-dollar for forgotten foods of field and forest. An added benefit of these foods is that they are absolutely free to be had by the forager. Many wild foods also confer health benefits. Take rose hips, for example. These tasty treats contain 426 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit. Oranges contain 53.2 mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of fruit. If you are interested in additional information related to nutrition, you can visit the USDA Nutrient Data Library.
Does foraging require much time and expertise? The answer to this and all good questions is: yes...and no...and everything in between. I am sorry to break this news to you but you may already be a forager. If you have eaten wild strawberries or raspberries, then you are a forager. If you have helped a friend harvest maple syrup, then you are forager. If you once popped some purslane in your mouth because someone told you that it tasted great and contained omega three fatty acids, then you are a forager.
Of course, if you intend to live off of the land, you will need to embark on an ambitious course of study which will take much time. On the other hand, if you would like to add a few fabulous flavors to your favorite foods, you will not necessarily need to spend all your odd hours pouring over plant books. And, if you are simply curious and would like to try the recipes in this article, you can purchase all of the necessary wild foods at the Wedge Coop in Minneapolis, MN or at another well-stocked natural foods store. So let us explore some wild fall foods.
Its Autumn, the time when plants shrivel up and die. So why would one try to find food at this time of year? Well some plants store energy and sweetness in roots, rhizomes, and tubers. Other plants offer fruits that linger long into winter. And a few strange plants produce leaves that may be eaten in the fall. We will learn how to harvest and prepare a root, a berry, and a leaf. But there are many more foods to be sampled. If you are intrigued, you can explore the websites and books listed at the end of this article.
We have touched upon the why of wild foods: taste, nutrition, cost, communion with mosquitoes--I mean beauty. (Lest the last item deter you, remember that there are no mosquitoes out at this time of year.) Let us turn now to the how. How does one harvest wild foods? Very, very carefully and with much enthusiasm. There are two options in front of you. One would be to study all plants that you intend to harvest. You should ideally refer to multiple plant identification books and wild food books. It is beneficial to observe a plant throughout an entire season of growth in order to insure that your identification is accurate. Another option is to consult wild plant aficionados and experts. This is the route that I usually follow. Whether you learn from humans, books, or both you will need to sit with each plant in order to memorize its characteristics. I find drawing to be a beneficial practice because it embeds details in my memory. By now you may be saying: "I thought that this pastime was accessible to beginners without bundles of time to kill." Let me assure you that I too am a beginner. I am writing this article to spark your interest in wild plants and to encourage you to check out some excellent books and websites created by expert foragers who frequently teach classes.
I have chosen three plants which are quite common in Minnesota. Therefore it is likely that you will already know one or more of these plants. However, if you are uncertain of a plant's identity, please do utilize multiple guide books or consult with a knowledgeable person. The cursory plant descriptions provided in this article are not enough to ensure accurate identification. IF YOU INTEND TO EAT A PLANT, YOU WILL NEED TO BE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN OF ITS IDENTITY.
We have established that care must be taken in the identification of plants. It is also important to exercise care in the harvesting of plants. This means that one must harvest with the health of the resource in mind. Teresa Marrone recommends passing by small patches of plants and harvesting only ten percent of larger patches. While this is a great rule of thumb, the amount of material that can be safely harvested depends upon the type of plant that you are harvesting. If you are harvesting a root or another underground storage organ, you will probably be killing the plant and so you should limit your harvest. However, if you are harvesting the root of a non-native plant which spreads rapidly and is regarded as a nuisance, you can probably harvest much material. The harvesting of berries and nuts never harms plants so you need not exercise great restraint when gathering these gifts. Still, it is good to remember that many wild animals rely on nuts and berries. Therefore, if you harvest large amounts of these foods, you might consider scattering alternate food sources for wildlife. Rosemary Gladstar, an herbalist who writes of wild medicinal plants, proposes that: “If we choose to use plants as our medicines, we then become accountable for the wild gardens, for their health and upkeep. We undertake a partnership with the plants, giving back what we receive—health, nourishment, beauty, and protection” (Gladstar, 2001, p. 11).
I agree with the premise that it is important to give back. But I also believe that there are many ways to give. You must find the way that fills you. When you act with the energy of joy, the world will be blessed by your efforts. Perhaps your way of giving is not environmental restoration. Perhaps it is playing with children, playing music, playing with food that nourishes those around you....Receiving too is important. Great gifts grow from the confluence of giving and receiving.
For more foraging tips and guidelines you may refer to the recommended sources at the end of this article. We will now explore three wild foods: wild rosehips, burdock roots, and watercress. A recipe will accompany each food. Because I seldom measure anything and because you are the best judge of the quantities that might please you, I have not included measurements. If you plan to purchase your wild edible, you can ignore plant descriptions and focus on recipes.
Wild Roses are easily recognized. They are generally small shrubs. Their appearance is similar to that of cultivated roses. Branches are reddish brown (green when young) and covered in thorns. Here is some additional information from Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest:
Leaves are toothed and pinnately compound, similar to sumac or walnuts; each compound branchlet has 3 or more pairs of opposite leaves and a terminal leaf at the end of the branchlet. [Author’s note: I have also seen branchlets with only two pairs of leaves and a terminal leaf.] The branchlets grow alternately on the main braches of the plant. Flowers grow at the end of separate stemlets; there may be several flowers on each stemlet. (Marrone, 2004, p. 240)
Roses come in many colors: red, pink, yellow, white. Wild roses have five petals surrounding many pistils and stamens. Fruits called rose hips follow the flowers. Rose hips are usually red or orange. They can range from the size of a bean to the size of a large cherry. Look for the remains of the flowers on the bottom of rose hips. Inside these fruits you will find bitter white seeds. As noted by Teresa Marrone (2004), “all wild roses produce edible petals and hips, although the flavor varies quite a bit between the species and even from plant to plant” (p. 240). Teresa Marrone cautions against eating cultivated roses because chemicals applied by nurseries may linger in the system of rose plants for many years. However, according to individuals associated with the Garden Web forum, some species of cultivated roses produce edible and delicious hips.
Rose hips should be harvested after a frost. I recommend cutting them with scissors. Only the surfaces of rose hip fruits are eaten. Seeds are discarded by pressing the pulp of cooked fruit through a strainer (or by spitting if you are munching on raw rose hips while wandering outside). Fresh rose hips can be used immediately or dried for future use. See Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest for information related to drying rose hips. See the recipe below for some preparation tips.
Rose Hip Yogurt-Cheese
Rose Hips (Fresh or Dried)
Line a bowl with a clean, white dishtowel. Pour the yogurt into the towel. Gather the ends of the fabric and tie them together. Hang the bundle from a nail or a hook. Place the bowl beneath the yogurt bundle to catch the liquid (whey). Let the bundle drain until dripping stops. Remove the yogurt which has now become yogurt-cheese. The whey is not needed for this recipe.
While the yogurt is draining, simmer rose hips, juice, syrup, and spices in a covered pan. The simmering time and the amount of liquid needed will vary depending upon the condition of your rose hips (dried, fresh, or somewhere in between). Dried rose hips will require more liquid and a longer cooking period. Start with a small amount of liquid and add more as it evaporates. Stir frequently. Let sit in a covered pan for a number of hours. Strain rose hip mixture with a foley mill. If you do not have a foley mill, you can try pressing the rose hips through a strainer with a spoon. Combine all ingredients. Spread on crackers, pancakes, waffles, or ginger bread.
Burdock is similar to rhubarb in appearance. First-year plants produce a rosette with 2-5 leaves. Here is some additional information from The Foragers Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants:
[Leaves are] large ovate or wedge-shaped…with heart-like lobes at the base; they are dark green above but whitish and densely covered with fine wool beneath. Borne on a long, grooved petiole that is often tinted purple, these ruffled leaves grow as much as 28 inches…long and more than 14…inches wide. They have a prominent, light-colored midrib and main veins, which are depressed on the upper surface and form raised ridges on the lower surface. The margins of the leaves are rough and irregularly wavy but not toothed. (Thayer, 2006, p. 326.)
Burdock produces a flower stalk, generally in its second year. The stalk is grooved. Alternate leaves, which are smaller and less heart-shaped than the basal leaves, grow along the stalk. Composite clusters of flower heads occur at the top of the plant. Flowers are purple and contain many tubular florets. Burrs (balls composed of many small, barbed hooks) form after the plant has finished flowering. These burrs provided the original inspiration for velcro. If you spend time wandering in the woods, it is likely that you are already familiar with these vexing burrs. So identifying this plant may be relatively easy. Simply find some burdock burrs (or let them find you) and look for telltale leaf rosettes on the ground. Burdock roots are harvested before the plant produces a flower stalk. They can be dug in fall or early spring. They are long and difficult to extract in one piece. For digging tips, refer to The Foragers Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. You will be happy to learn that these non-native plants are considered invasive and can be harvested in abundance. Look for them at the edges of (organic) farm fields and gardens. Obtain permission prior to harvesting on land owned by other people. For some excellent burdock recipes, see Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest.
Roasted Burdock with Winter Root Vegetables
Optional Walnuts or Cashews
Steam burdock roots, parsnips, and rutabagas until just tender. Sauté onions in olive oil. Mix all ingredients with the exception of the nuts. Place the vegetables on a baking tray. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes or so. If using walnuts, add them during the last ten minutes.
Watercress is an aquatic perennial with hollow, grooved, succulent stems. Watercress plants generally grow in tangled, floating mats. They may also sprawl along muddy stream surfaces. Small white roots protrude from plant stems. Compound leaves, comprised of 3 to 11 leaflets, grow alternately along stems. Leaflets are generally small and relatively round. The terminal leaf is larger than the other leaves. “Clusters of tiny white 4-petalled flowers appear later in the season, followed by slender seed capsules along the stems that contains several tiny reddish brown seeds” (Marrone, 2004, p. 333).
Look for watercress in moving water. It is frequently harvested in the spring but it produces tender new growth which can be harvested in the fall. CAUTION: Before harvesting watercress and other aquatic plants, it is important to assess the quality of the environment. (Incidentally, this is also true of plants that grow on land but aquatic plants generally pose more of a risk than terrestrial plants.) Ideally you should harvest watercress near the source of a spring-fed stream in order to minimize the possibility of chemical pollutants. Biological contaminants, including the Cryptosporidium and Giardia protozoa which can cause intestinal illnesses may be present even in unpolluted waters. Teresa Marrone recommends soaking watercress in water with camper’s water-purifying tablets. I have never employed this practice. However I have soaked watercress in water with grapefruit seed extract, a broad-spectrum herbal antibiotic which has been shown to be effective against Giardia (though not, as far as I know, against Cryptosporidium). You can cook watercress as a precautionary measure. If you are sure that the watercress you have found is safe or you have purified it as recommended by Teresa Marrone, you might try eating it raw and it is excellent on sandwiches.
Squash or Yams
Cream, Milk, or Your Favorite Non-Dairy Milk
Sauté onions in olive oil until translucent. Add squash or yams along with a small amount of water. Simmer, covered, until the vegetables are just tender. Wash the watercress (see above for safety recommendations). Add watercress and spices to stew and cook for five minutes. Remove a small amount of liquid from the stew and blend it with the miso. Pour this mixture into the pot along with milk or cream. Blend if desired. Serve with sourdough rye bread.
Fallon, Sally (1999). Nourishing traditions: The cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats. Warsaw, IN: New Trends Publishing.
This is not a book about wild plants. I have included it as a reference because it contains many delightful recipes which incorporate whey, a byproduct of the rosehip yogurt-cheese recipe in this article. It is also filled with thought-provoking and disturbing information related to dietary trends in the western world. In addition it provides brief summaries of some common characteristics of indigenous and traditional diets. It does not include much information related to herbs and exercise regimes utilized by indigenous and traditional cultures. In my view this is an unfortunate omission. Some people may adopt the high-fat diet explored in this book without also adopting exercise and herbal protocols that might support such a diet. However, this book is one of the best cookbooks that I have read. It is entertaining and informative and the recipes are excellent.
Gladstar, R. (2001). Rosemary Gladstar's family herbal: A guide to living with energy, health, and vitality. North Adams, MA: Storey Books.
This is a book about herbal medicine. It is one of the most engaging and accessible books on the subject that I have encountered. After reading it, I was inspired to try making tinctures from plants in my garden. Some of the plants discussed in the book can be used as food and medicine.
Kallas, John (2010). Edible wild plants: Wild foods from dirt to plate. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith.
Marrone, Teresa (2004). Abundantly wild: Collecting and cooking wild edibles in the upper Midwest. Cambridge, MA: Adventure Publications, Inc.
This is the best cookbook about wild plants that I have encountered! It contains interesting recipes and detailed discussions of ways in which plants may be used. Notes related to plant characteristics and habitats are excellent though not exhaustive. Photographs are not adequate for the purposes of identification.
Newcomb, Lawrence (1989). Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
This book utilizes a system of identification based on common plant features.
Peterson, Lee Allen (1977). A field guide to edible wild plants: Eastern/ central North America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
This book covers countless plants in a cursory manner. One thing that I appreciate about the book is the inclusion of sections with plants that may be found in particular habitats at specific times of year.
Thayer, Samuel (2010). Nature’s garden: A guide to identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible wild plants. Ogema, WI: Forager’s Harvest, and The forager’s harvest: A guide to identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible wild plants. (2006) Ogema, WI: Forager’s Harvest.
Samuel Thayer’s books are the best all-around books about wild edibles that I have found. Each plant featured in The Forager's Harvest is discussed in exhaustive detail. Beautiful photographs are provided. All pertinent portions of plants are shown and pictures of plants at different stages of growth are provided. Extremely detailed discussions related to the harvesting and preparation of plants form the backbone of the book. There are also thoughtful facts and recommendations related to foraging practices.
Recommended Web Sites:
Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project: Info on wild roses
Bernadette Miller is a student of silences, wild places, and children. Those sages teach that savoring the substance of existence is a serious frivolity. So she aspires to spend more time mucking about in gardens and streams, sunsets and impossible dreams. She has a masters degree in Health Arts and Sciences. She loves gardening, cooking, playing music, playing with children, playing with words, and watching sunsets. She hopes, some day, to find the foreign land where opinions lose themselves in the original passions and stories that birthed them.