Foraging: The World of Wild Edible Food

Elderberry, Sassafrass, and Dandelion; not your usual line-up for a summer salad, but all strong choices in the world of wild edible plants. Foraging for food is no longer a part of day-to-day living for most of us; most of us count on stores, or perhaps farm-fresh produce, to get our daily fare. However, the skills involved in hunting, fishing, and discovering edible wild plants date back thousands of years. On your next camping or hiking trip, see if you have what it takes to learn about your environment, and seek out the following ideas and suggestions to forage for edible wild plants. You will be surprised at what is available, and you just may strike up the courage to cook a meal!

Self-reliance activities can take many forms, and provide a wonderful opportunity to hone in our skills, use our common sense, and pick up some key skills and independent-thinking skills to solve problems. Some of us may turn to camping, hiking, or fishing to reconnect with nature; others may turn to growing food, cultivating plants, or cooking to enhance our natural abilities. Whatever your choice may be, learning about your environment has been one of man’s natural purposes from the dawn of time. It has helped to draw from inner resources and test mental skill, agility, and flexibility. Finding wild but edible food is a skill, and many of our ancestors shared their knowledge and experience of foraging for the purpose of finding the key nutrients needed for survival. When survival of the fittest truly is about staying one step ahead, knowing what plants and wild flowers are edible does not always need to be trial and error!

The art of foraging is an age-old tradition, and plant experts from around the world have identified some key plants and guides that offer nutrition, health benefits, and various cooking and preservation requirements. Do remember that hunting for plants is similar to hunting for wild game; you will need permission from the landowner to pick and forage. Also, as a beginner, it’s essential that you have enough guides and tools to sample varieties first, before plundering into the woods alone! You can start by checking for classes and groups in your area that offer group foragingand special trips to designated areas. Many local colleges, universities, and environmental groups offer leader-sponsored trips for a nominal fee.

Whatever your approach may be to get started, here is some background information on just some of the discoveries in the world of wild edible foods. Most of these wild edible plants, flowers, and ‘foods’, can be found in the upper-Midwest region, but you can find your state’s most popular wild edible food lists from local farmers, environmental/ecological groups, nature preserves, and books:

Elderberry
Elderberry is reminiscient of classic fairy tales, but still exists today as a sweet fruit berry; it has been used as a native sweetener, and makes a great sweet sauce or jam.

Blackberry
This is probably the most popular and most recognized of all collectors, and is available in blackberry and raspberry varieties. When ripe, these fruits are robust and shiny; when unripe, this fruit is usually bright red and hard. Blackberries can be canned for preserving, and cooked into a delicious jam. Cobbler, pie, and jams are the most popular uses of this fruit.

Dandelion
Some consider the dandelion a pesky weed, but others know dandelion for its high concentrations of vitamins A and C. Originally from Europe, this plant has made its way onto American soil, and offers an excellent coffee for drinking on cold days. Dandelion greens and tender leaves can also be cooked, or served raw in salads.

Sassafrass
Sassafrass tea is possibly the best known use of this plant, and was used primarily along the areas of Appalachia. Medicinal use includes using the oil in soap and as a calming agent, while the tea aids in relaxation. The tea is made from boiling sassafrass root with water and sugar.

Common Cattail
This plant is a favorite of the muskrat and was first discovered by
Native Americans. The green shoots can be used as fresh greens, while the flowers can be boiled and served like corn on the cob.

Stahorn Sumac
This wild plant/tree offers red berries and some areas will have white berries that are poisonous. Exercise caution with this plant, but know tha the berries can be used to produce a throat-relieving tea, or used to make a refreshing lemonade-style drink.

Day Lily
The far East is familiar with using the day lily as a food, as it can be eaten as a fresh green. The flowers also make excellent soup thickeners, and the root tubers are similar to potatoes in consistency. These can be boiled, or fried.

Paw Paw
These delicious fruits are similar but sweeter in taste to bananas; when picked at the prime of the season, they are an excellent fruit and tasty treat. The pod-like casing is easy to spot, but must be picked at the right time as they do not ripen easily. They can be used in puddings, pies, or eaten on their own.

Jerusalem Artichoke
Various spcies are native plants to North Aerica, and look like smaller versions of sunflowers. The roots and tubers can be cooked similar to potatoes, while the greens can be added to salads.

Shagbark Hickory
This tree offers a tough wood that can be used for artisnal crafts and barrels. The nuts of the shagbarck are the famous hickory nuts, and can be ground into a flour to make a pulp, or toasted. Hickory nut cake can be made with chopped nuts incorporated into the cake batter.

Spicebush
The berries from this plant can e dried and ground to be used as a spice. They have a sweet and mild flavor that can make a distinctive-tasting tea, and sweetened with honey or sugar.

Persimmon
This medicinal plant has a mellow and stringent taste. It can be used in cakes, pies, and pudding to add an almost bitter, but likeable, flavor. The strong tannic-acid level will ensure you remember the taste of persimmon, but it provides a great addition to a variety of dishes.

Enjoy everything that nature has to offer, by discovering the world of wild edible food and plants. You’ll be surprised at what is out there, and can create some very unique and memorable recipes from your gathering. Keep a notebook or journal on file with details of each trip, and you’ll have a valuable resource to seek out different wild edible foods on your next excursion!

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