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The gathering of edible wild plants was once a common family practice. But as our society became more "sophisticated," we gradually shed those practices that seemed to be equated with poverty. Thus, today, even the "poor" and homeless do not want to "stoop" to pick wild plants - they may even go hungry when food abounds.
Yet, times change. Many folks are realizing that they're not attuned to the "magic" subtle energies of the universe. We're so accustomed to supermarket food, usually processed, sprayed, and packaged, that we don't know what "real" food tastes like.
Many folks "turn to picking wild plants as a worthwhile family activity, which helps to develop self-confidence and self-sufficiency in our mechanized age. Others, realizing the nutritional superiority of wild plants, use them to increase the quality of their meals economically.
Those of us who are ever aware of the fragile food production, distribution, and storage system in the world today know that the regular practice of identifying and including wild plants in the diet is an invaluable survival skill.
You could collect a delicious, satisfying meal when others are lined up for their official food rations or worse yet, looting the local market.
One need not become a botanist to begin taking advantage of these free-for-the-picking edibles. The best way to learn is to have an expert point out the plants so you can learn directly. You'll find such experts at local colleges, nurseries, arboreta, hiking clubs, and plant societies. Often these organizations conduct outings to identify wild plants.
There are many books on this topic, but it is always best to learn directly in the field. You shouldn't have any problems if you never consume any plants that you haven't positively identified (or had identified by an expert), as edible.
There are several key plants that are worth knowing, since they can be found not only throughout the United States, but throughout most of the world. Knowing these cosmopolitan plants is an extremely valuable survival skill that can improve the quality of your life, and can one day save your life.
The acorn - the fruit of the oak tree - is one of the easiest wild foods for the beginner to identify. There is no need to identify the species of oak, since they are all edible. Acorns ripen and fall from the trees most heavily in September and October. They generally cannot be eaten raw due to the presence of bitter tannic acid.
Pick an acorn, remove the cap and peel the rind, then taste the acorn meat. Is it bitter? It probably will be, with varying degrees of bitterness depending on the species.
The quickest way to render the peeled acorns palatable is to boil them in water. As the water becomes dark brown, pour it off and add fresh water. Although there are a few acorn species that can be eaten raw, the majority will require anywhere from 15 to 45minutes of boiling to remove the bitterness. Just keep changing the water as it becomes dark brown.
Periodically taste a bit of the acorns. When you no longer detect bitterness, the leaching process is done. You can now eat the acorns as they are, served with butter and seasoning.
I usually dry the leached acorns to make flour. To produce flour, place the leached acorn, usually just split in two, on a pan to dry either in the sun or in the oven at pilot light temperature. When completely dry, grind to flour in a hand mill. Then use this flour in any of your bread as pastry recipes. Acorn meal is about 60% carbohydrate, 6% protein, and 18% fat.
Cattails (Typha sps.) are another common roadside and marsh weed with a world-wide distribution. Every part of the plant has a use. The familiar brown spike, resembling a hot dog on a stick, is edible if gathered in the spring when it is still young and green.
Cut the spikes and boil in water for 10 minutes. Serve buttered and eat like corn-on-the-cob. The flavor is remarkably similar to corn.
The top of these green spikes are usually full of yellow pollen that can be shaken out into a bag, sifted, and mixed with your regular baking flour.
The white baby shoots, emerging from the horizontal rhizome, are tender and tasty in salads. The young, grass-like shoots, before the plant has flowered, have a tender inside that resembles the flavor of cucumber.
Pull up the shoot and cut off the bottom foot or so. Peel away the fibrous outer green layers of leaves from this bottom section until you have only the tender insides left. They are great raw, cooked, steamed, or added to soups and stews.
Also, the extreme base of each shoot contains a starchy core that can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked like a potato.
Besides all the food uses, the mature brown spikes can be broken open and the fluffy "down" used as a superior fire-starting tinder.
This cattail "down" is also a top-quality insulating material (like goose down) for stuffing coats, sleeping bags, shoes, etc. Additionally, the long, slender leaves are ideal for weaving emergency blankets, sandals, and other craft items. I once slept in a "sleeping bag" made from the woven cattail leaves. Even the slender stalks of the lower spikes are ideal wilderness chopsticks.
Lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and chickweed (Stellaria media) all have wide distribution. They're mild-flavored and pleasant to most palates. Once accurately identified, they can be eaten raw in salads or steamed for greens. Purslane is also good gently fried or added to soups.
The dandelion and the similar-looking sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) are commonly recognized over much of the world by their familiar yellow flowers. The main readily observable difference between the two is that sow thistle, unlike dandelion, grows much taller and has leaves on its stalk and many flowers per stalk. Dandelion, that common inhabitor of lawns and fields, has only basal leaves and leafless stalks with only one flower per stalk.
Both are used similarly. The very young leaves are eaten raw in salad. Older leaves are bitter and need to be steamed or boiled. Although dandelion is more commonly known, I find that sow thistle is a more agreeable food, being less bitter and tenderer.
The roots of both can be used as a non-caffeine beverage, with dandelion roots being superior in this regard. Collect the taproots with a digging tool, then wash and dry the roots. When fully dry, grind the roots to a powder in a hand mill; then roast them until they are brown, being careful not to burn them. Once roasted, use the coffee-like grounds in a drip coffee maker. The flavor is hearty and satisfying, especially with a dab of honey and raw cream.
Onions are readily identified wherever they grow, whether in the high mountains, deserts, abandoned farm land, marshes, vacant lots, or sandy soil along streams and rivers. They appear like regular green onions, sometimes smaller, and the positive identifying feature is the unmistakable onion aroma of the crushed leaves.
If you find a plant that looks similar to onion, but lacks the aroma, don't eat it, unless, you have positively identified it as an edible species. There are several poisonous members of the lily family that resemble onions.
Onions will add spice to salads and virtually all your meals. They are a welcome and delicious wild food that contains many health-maintaining vitamins and minerals.
WATERCRESS AND MUSTARDS
Watercress, a member of the Mustard Family, is found throughout the United States and much of the world. These spicy aquatic greens are found along sluggish streams and lakes. Add chopped watercress to salads and sandwiches, or fry the leaves with onions and serve with soy sauce. An excellent soup can be made with watercress, using a milk base.
There are no poisonous members of the Mustard Family, and —as long as they are palatable and non-woody — they can all be consumed. It is worth your time to get to know as many members of this group as possible, as well as learning how to recognize any member of the Mustard Family.
BERRIES AND NUTS
Berry and nut hunting has long been a popular family activity. All varieties of edible berries, such as elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, and currants, are collected, rinsed, and used in pies, preserves, jellies, juices, or just eaten fresh. The country abounds with wild hickories, walnuts, pecans, pinyons, and other edible nuts, which mature in the fall.
All seaweeds are edible, so it is certainly worth your while to become familiar with such plant life, especially if you live near the coast. Certain seaweeds are more highly prized than others because of their greater palatability. These include laver, dulse, Irish moss, and sea lettuce; among others.
Seaweeds are used in a broad diversity of recipes -- there are entire cookbooks devoted to seaweeds. Seaweeds can be dried, eaten raw, pickled, sautéed, boiled in soups and broths, and mixed with many other foods.
Make sure that all seaweed you collect is fresh, and has not been decaying on the beach. Also observe the seaweed. Don't use any that appears to have any foreign growth on it. Additionally, never collect near the effluent of water-treatment plants, such as near Santa Monica beach in Southern California. This is unfortunate, but a reality that must be addressed.
Foraging for wild plants is an American tradition that should be revitalized. Plants should be treated kindly. Never uproot them if you are only gathering leaves to eat. By showing concern for the plant-beings, and treating them properly; they will provide sustenance.
As a basic survival skill, identifying and foraging for wild edibles is one of the most important and one of the most enjoyable skills to learn, since it imparts a deep satisfaction and a sincere feeling of self-sufficiency.
Here's my favorite acorn bread recipe:
1 cup acorn flour3 tsp. baking powder1 tsp. salt3 tbsp. honey
1 cup whole wheat flour (can be ¾ cup wheat and ¼ cup carob flour, or just use a total of 2 cups acorn flour),
1 egg1 cup raw milk3 tbsp. oil
Mix well and bake in a greased loaf pan for 30 to 45 minutes at 300 °F. A variation of this recipe is to add enough milk (or water) until it is the consistency of pancake batter, and then make pancakes. They are excellent when served with gooseberry topping.
Heat (don't boil) 3 cups of milk with 1 ½ tsp. powdered seaweed (or salt, if you insist). Blend or mince 1 cup of watercress and add it to the warm milk; steep for 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of cold milk or cream and heat again for 5 minutes, but don't boil. Ladle into bowls and season with paprika and a watercress sprig.
1 Tbsp. butter
2 cups peeled and diced cactus pads
1 onion, diced (preferably red)
4 eggs, beaten
Heat butter in skillet. Sauté the diced cactus pads and onions in butter until the juices of the cactus are released. Continue cooking until the juices evaporate and the cactus has turned from a bright green to a light brown. Add eggs and scramble. When the eggs are done, serve over hot tortillas. Note: Always protect your hands when collecting the cactus pads. To remove the tiny spines (called glochidia), either peel the skin or carefully scorch the pads over an open flame.
GREEN ALGAE SOUP
2 Tbsp. butter or oil
1 onion, chopped
1 potato, cut into small cubes
1 cup green algae
2 cups water seasoning to taste
Heat butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Sauté onions and potato in butter until onion is translucent. Add algae and stir. Add water and simmer until the potato is fully cooked; season to taste; makes two to four servings. Note: Green algae's are highly nutritious. They can be gathered from fresh-water streams anywhere in the U.S.
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