Surviving the Way It Is, with Wild Edibles
B. J. Rucker
Surviving the way it is.
That phrase always comes to my mind when I ponder the abundance of edible wild foods out there. You have to learn to survive the way it is in whatever environment you are in. And right now with the high cost of groceries, learning about a few wild foods is a good way to help your wallet survive.
I won’t tell you that all wild foods are delicious. The truth is, many are not very tasty, and some are downright nasty—unless you enjoy lip-curling bitterness. But if in a pinch, you found yourself needing food, you would welcome those edible plants regardless of taste. There are, however, certain wild treats that are a delight to eat.
Many of the plants some people call troublesome weeds, I call salad. Dandelions, lambs quarters, plantain, clovers, goldenrod, wild carrot, burdock, chicory, garlic, and mustard, to name a few, all qualify. Since I was young, God’s creation has fascinated me, and although my parents taught me a few things about wild edibles, most of what I have learned stems (so to speak) from many hours of research and experimentation. Much of my motivation is simply that I want to use and respect the plants God made for us.
If you are fortunate enough to have great-grandparents who are still living—or perhaps grandparents—try asking them if they ever ate things we now call weeds, such as dandelion greens. We have lost the knowledge of which wild foods are safe to eat since our survival no longer depends on foraging for food like many of our ancestors did. I have often wondered how it has come to be this way, and my theory is that many of those wild edibles grow easily on their own, which means cultivating them would not be cost effective. If people could simply step outside and pick their own, they would not need to spend money on them.
Once you get to know outdoor edibles, you may be surprised to find out how many “weeds” are actually safe to eat. But before you go out and start grazing, please do your own research and become familiar with the plants. To jumpstart your study, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
(1) I tend to lean on the side of caution and will research a plant over and over from a variety of published sources and knowledgeable people and compare notes. Never trust just one source.
(2) Take a digital picture of the plant from several angles. Photograph its root, leaves, stems, seeds, and flowers–any different part your specimen offers. And then find a forum or other place online to post the pictures, and ask for help in identifying it.
(3) Do a Google search of your plant, starting with a description of what you see. For example, if you wanted to research wild carrot, a.k.a., Queens Ann’s Lace, and you did not know its name, you could type in something like “late summer tall white flower” to start your inquiry. In your search results, look for both descriptions and pictures of the plant.
(4) Eat only one new plant at a time. Once you are positive the plant is safe to eat, testing is still in order. By eating just the one species at a time, if you get any bad side effects, you will know it is likely from the new plant you just tried.
(5) Look in the library for books on wild edibles and herbs as well, although doing your research this way will take a lot longer.
(6) There are dangerous look-a-likes among some wild edibles. As part of your online search, it is a good idea to type in something like “[plant name] look alikes.”
Be Bold but Not Too Bold
I must admit it is scary to eat a plant I have been taught was poisonous all of my life, but there are myths about edibles that are worth busting. I was always told, for instance, that burdock was deadly, so it took huge amounts of research before I was confident enough to try it myself. Now I love burdock root fried in olive oil.
To make the wild edible adventure work, you have to step out of your comfort zone a little bit. As you begin to enjoy Creation in a new way, you can also pray for the Maker’s direction in guiding your research of His plants. Use every means you can to identify the good from the bad. Smell the plants. Examine them from the top to the root. Feel their texture, and examine leaf shape. Keep an eye on the plant throughout the growing season if possible to notice its many phases. Some wild edibles are safe to eat only during certain parts of their growing season, and some have both safe and unsafe parts, so you must learn which plant pieces are safe to eat before trying them.
You will likely encounter conflicting information that at times will confuse and worry you. Some “experts” will claim a plant is most certainly unsafe while other sources will say it is most certainly safe. When you run into this situation (and you will!), don’t give up. Keep researching until you find an answer that satisfies you.
Because I am cautious, my personal data base of wild edibles is still small, but each year brings a new growing season and more of God’s plants to research and try. I am a stay-at-home housewife and mother, and my kids and I love going out to find wild edibles every summer. But this sort of education can have amusing—and occasionally a bit awkward—results. Several years ago, when my daughter was seven, she participated at our church in a special kids outing at which she began picking plantain and clovers to eat. This freaked out her Sunday school teacher who hurried to tell me that my daughter was eating the church yard! The teacher knew something of our reputation for eating forage, so she wasn’t too worried about it, but I remind my children from time to time not to make a show of eating wild edibles around other children. There’s always the danger that others may try eating wild edibles on their own and, if untrained, end
up consuming something unsafe.
Wild edibles make a great study for your children. Take them outside to examine plants, and teach them which ones are safe (and don’t forget your camera). As a result of our times outdoors, my six- and nine-year-old daughters, Miracle-Grace and Faith, have even come up with their own “Yard-Grazing Salad”:
• Clover flowers and leaves
• Wild carrot flowers
• Dandelion leaves and flowers
• Plantain leaves and seeds
• Lambs quarters leaves
• Garlic mustard leaves and flowers
• And some lettuce from the fridge.
To make it “just right,” toss it and serve with your favorite salad dressing. Throwing in a few nuts, seeds, and pieces of fruit adds a fun extra touch.
The sidebars accompanying this article will help you identify several of the most common outdoor edibles. With some “due diligence,” perhaps someday you’ll be that grandmother or grandfather the kids come to for advice about what to eat in the wild. Meanwhile, you and your family can supplement your groceries and have a great time surviving the way it is.
WILD CARROT (also known as Queen Ann’s Lace)
This plant seems to grow everywhere on its own with virtually no help at all. (I must be clear and say that there is a deadly plant called poison hemlock that resembles the wild carrot, but once you research “Queen Ann’s Lace,” you can feel comfortable in positively identifying and safely using wild carrot. Although even my six- and nine-year-old children can properly identify wild carrot, I always have them show me the plant before they eat it, just to be sure.)
Ways to identify wild carrot:
• It is a tall plant with white flowers. A purplish dark spot, often—though not always—sits in the center of the white. The dark spot could be considered a tiny flower within the big white, wide flower.
• Oftentimes, more than one flower branches off of each stem. Every once in a while a wild carrot flower will have a pinkish hue in the tiny flowers that appear to make up the giant white flower.
• The leaves resemble those of a regular garden carrot and of the parsley plant.
• The carrot-like smell of the root is a good way to determine if it is wild carrot. However, it is not bright orange like a cultivated carrot. The root has an off-white color.
• The stem has tiny hairs here and there up and down its length. By contrast, the deadly poison hemlock plant does not have hairs on the stem.
• Wild carrot often grows in large groups along roadsides, in fields, in grassy areas, and most anywhere else.
• Leaves. Some sources say wild carrot leaves are safe to eat only when the plant is young, before the flowers appear, but I have eaten my share of leaves from mature, late summer plants and have been fine.
• Flowers. Eating them raw is okay but not the best taste in the world. I like dipping them in batter and frying!
• Roots. I have a hard time finding the root before it has become too hard and woody to eat, but if you come across an older root, you can still use it to flavor other foods such as stew. To harvest root before it turns woody, you must find the wild carrot plant when it is a baby. This makes it harder to identify because the flower has not yet appeared. A good indicator of whether or not it is a wild carrot plant in any stage of its life is to smell the root. The carrot scent is always noticeable.
People have found wild carrot to be good to use as:
• A diuretic;
• A cleanser for the liver and kidneys;
• A help to sooth and comfort the digestive tract.
• Encourages the flow of urine and removal of waste by the kidneys which helps with certain health problems in the urinary system including, decreasing the chance of kidney stones forming.
• Is said to contain a compound called porphyrin that encourages the pituitary gland to increase the amount of sex hormones it releases.
• Helps with a diabetic’s blood sugars. My own experience as a diabetic suggests the reports of its benefits are true. Due to the nature of my diabetes, no herb works full time for long, but for a time, wild carrot helped keep my blood sugars down which meant I took less insulin.
• Stimulates the uterus and is said to help start delayed menstruation. Which is why wild carrot is NOT safe to eat during pregnancy or if you want to get pregnant. This plant was used in the old days as a form of birth control. From what I have learned, it will allow conception but can possibly kill a newly fertilized egg by not allowing the baby to attach to the lining of the uterus.
(1) There is a very dangerous plant that resembles wild carrot. Poison hemlock can be mistaken for wild carrot by those not familiar enough with the carrot. Ingesting even trace amounts of poison hemlock can be deadly. (2) Wild carrot should not be eaten by pregnant women or women who want to become pregnant. It has birth-control-like properties and was used in the times past to cause miscarriages.
If you have ever been roaming in the woods or along unmowed grassy areas, you have most likely come across the burdock plant. You may have even wished you could banish all burdock if it were in your power to. Burdock burs entangle themselves into your hair, clothing,
shoes, and into the fur of your pets—and they are not easy to remove. Rumor has it that burdock burs are what spawned the idea for Velcro, and I can believe it.
Ways to identify burdock:
• Its large leaves resemble rhubarb leaves. People often mistake burdock for rhubarb in the earlier stages of its growth, before the burs appear.
• In late summer, it sports those large burs that seem to jump out and stick like super glue to your clothing.
• The stems are not juicy, tart, and sweet like rhubarb and have hair on them, unlike the rhubarb stem.
• The root is whitish in coloring and very hard to dig up.
• All parts of the burdock, except the burs, are edible, but I must warn you that just because it is said to be safe to eat does not mean it is tasty. Burdock stems and leaves are horribly bitter. I would have to be absolutely starving to death with no hope of finding anything else to eat before I would eat the above-ground portions of a burdock plant! But this often-hated plant makes up for its infamous above ground portions by providing a delicious and healthy root.
• The root contains most of this plant’s helpful nutrients, but digging it up is not easy. With my husband’s help I have dug up 2-3 feet of root that always seem to break off and appear to have a large portion still under the ground. I have never been able (or patient enough) to dig up an entire root of this plant. I would like to try getting soft dirt from the store and planting some burdock in it to see how well the digging goes when it comes to harvesting the roots.
• The root is tasty. You can eat it raw, or cook it any way you like. The flavor reminds me of a carrot. I prefer slicing it up and frying it in olive oil. If you happen to get hold of a woody root, simply peel off the outer layer.
• If you have ever eaten in an Asian restaurant, it is very possible you have already eaten burdock root. It is known as gobo in Asian markets and dishes and is a common food in certain parts of the world.
People have found the burdock plant to be good for:
• Helping to sooth burns. I crinkled up a burdock leaf and let it sit in hot water for a few minutes before I put it on my great-niece’s sunburn. She said it helped relieve the pain and fell asleep soon after I applied the leaf. That confirmed to me that it did help because she had not been able to sleep due to the sunburn beforehand.
• Helping to lower fevers.
• Use as a prebiotic. A prebiotic is a food that has some non-digestible parts that pass though the digestive system and help the good bacteria (probiotics) do their job better.
• Improving digestion.
• Use as a diuretic
• Use as a blood purifier.
• Fighting off infections.
• Cleansing the liver.
• Combatting cancer. Some information suggests the burdock plant, mainly the root, contains a compound that helps fight off cancer. I repeatedly found sources saying that it has been used for many years to fight cancer.
There isn’t much to warn about regarding burdock other than to not mistake burdock leaves for rhubarb leaves, which are said to be poisonous.