Wild Plants I Have Known…. And Eaten

Russ Cohen is one of the foremost wild edibles experts in New England. His depth of knowledge and passion for foraging make it a topic accessible to everyone.

Here in this excerpt from his newly released guidebook of the same title, Russ provides us with just a taste of how rich is the bounty of Mother Earth's wild edibles not only for our diets, but for our connection to nature as well.

How's this for a menu: begin with a steaming bowl of Cream of Stinging Nettle soup or Cattail Chowder, accompanied by crisp Groundnut Chips, moist Juneberry Muffins or fragrant Black Locust Fritters; follow with Jerusalem Artichokes au Gratin, Pokeweed Frittata or Milkweed Egg Puff; and top off with a slice of Strawberry-Knotweed Pie, Autumn Olive Fruit Leather or several Barberry-Hickory Nut Thumbprint Cookies. Wash it all down with a cold glass of Sumacade or a spicy mug of Sassafras Tea. If this bill of fare hasn't stimulated your appetite, I hope it has at least aroused your curiosity. In case you hadn't noticed, the factor these dishes share in common is that they are made primarily from wild ingredients.

While some may hold the notion that wild plants are repugnant to the palate and only worth resorting to in an emergency, many wild plants match or even exceed in flavor the best a supermarket has to offer. In addition, many edible wild plants contain considerably higher levels of vitamins and minerals than do their cultivated counterparts.

Why is it then that more people don't know about and partake of the over 150 species of edible wild plants growing in New England? The most obvious explanation is that in modern American society's high-tech rush toward affluence and convenience, we have left behind some of the simpler pleasures of earlier eras. Not so long ago (before the Second World War), most people utilized many edible wild plants, and perhaps spent pleasant Sunday afternoons nutting or berry-picking. Some industrious rural children earned pocket money through foraging, as the fruits of their labor occasionally made an appearance in the Boston produce markets.

Today's kids and their parents are more likely to spend Sunday afternoons at the mall or playing video games, and are thus becoming increasingly alienated from nature. There are, however, a few folks who choose to swim against this current and reconnect to the great outdoors through their taste buds. It is to current or potential members of this latter group that I offer a "taste" of the wild botanical delights waiting to be discovered.

Why Forage?

Developing your foraging skills can enrich and enliven all the time you spend outdoors, whether it be in a vacant lot in downtown Boston, the beautiful rural countryside of Essex County, the seacoast, the mountains, the suburbs, or just about anywhere. As is true for birding, it is wise to obtain accurate guides to the flora of the particular place you are visiting. Unlike birding, however, foraging will not necessarily compel you to get up at the crack of dawn, nor will it give you a crick in your neck from staring up into the canopy.

wild-plants-i-have-known-small-2Eating wild plants can be a potent means of expressing and nourishing your strong spiritual connection to nature. Speaking personally, I spent much of my childhood happily playing around by myself in the woods and streams near my home in Weston, Massachusetts. The woods became my welcoming sanctuary from the stresses of school where, not being an athlete nor a particularly good student, I felt I did not fit in. The woods also provided me with the solace and comfort I was unable to find in conventional religion. Nature itself became my "church," and it is there that I learned to celebrate communion. Instead of wine and wafers, however, I gathered and ate wild berries, roots, nuts and the like.

Foraging can also be a very sensual endeavor. You will experience the outdoors through your taste buds, eyes and ears. Many wild plants and mushrooms have exotic flavors and/or textures that are difficult if not impossible to replicate in their cultivated counterparts.

Simply put, foraging is fun. The chance to be al fresco in natural surroundings and get a little exercise while helping yourself (in moderation) to nature's larder makes an outing all the more satisfying. You may also find some enjoyment in processing wild edibles once home, as the rhythm of shelling nuts and peeling stalks has a relaxing, almost meditative quality to it (like knitting). And, it is wonderfully rewarding to share with others what you have gathered and cooked into pies, preserves, casseroles and other delectable dishes.

Foraging will also enable you to come up with a greater variety and complexity of dishes than if you relied on supermarket produce alone. Drying and/or freezing your raw materials and finished products will make your dishes interesting year-round. For example, my wife Ellen and I keep a freezer stocked with wild edibles including: steamed Stinging Nettle greens, several varieties of wild mushrooms duxelles (a mixture of finely chopped mushrooms and onions, slowly cooked in butter until it forms a thick paste); White Oak Acorn flour; Cattail pollen; shelled Hickory Nuts and Black Walnuts; frozen raw Sulphur Shelf and Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms; frozen raw Black Locust Flowers; blanched and frozen Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads, Milkweed buds and pods and Pokeweed shoots, along with a frozen raw Strawberry-Knotweed and several wild fruit pies. Our pantry is filled a variety of wild jams and jellies, dried mushrooms, herbs, flowers, seaweed, dried and stewed fruit, and syrups as well as a large supply of Autumn Olive Fruit Leather.

Foraging will greatly sharpen your observation skills as you begin to take note of factors that influence when and where the wild edibles can be found. You will learn to keep closer track of the seasons of the year, weather forecasts and patterns, and plants that share similar habitats. After a while, you may develop a sort of "sixth sense" for foraging. One day, while walking a trail, you will pick up clues that an edible plant you are looking for is likely to be nearby. You'll go around a bend in the trail and, sure enough, there it is. Or, you will amaze friends and family members by being able to spot an edible wild plant or mushroom while speeding by at 55 mph.

Is It Safe To Eat Wild Foods?

With very few exceptions, most poisonous wild plants found in New England taste bad, so it is a strongly suggested to refrain from eating plants that taste bad. This does not mean that every edible wild plant is delicious in its raw state; many plants need to be cooked before they taste good. It does mean, however, that if you prepare an edible wild plant properly, the finished product should taste good.

Note, however, that this "bad taste" rule does not apply to wild mushrooms. Many of the most lethal mushroom varieties have an agreeable flavor. Like wild plants, the best way to learn wild mushrooms is with the help of other people, in the wild.

If you identify a plant you believe to be edible, it's okay to place a small morsel in your mouth momentarily, then spit it out. The worst that could happen is that you might feel a little queasy for a while (which might be psychological). If, however, you have cooked the plant according to instructions and it still tastes horrible, don't override the danger signal your taste buds are giving you; you may have made a mistake in identification.

Edible wild plants can be arranged on a line, with the easy-to-recognize plants at one end and the hard-to-identify plants with highly poisonous look-alikes at the other end. Many of the easy-to-recognize edible wild plants (such as Dandelion) are ones you probably already know. Stay at this safe end until you gain the necessary skills and confidence to explore plants at the more adventurous end.

I have noticed that folks interested in nature tend to fall into two camps: "lumpers" and "splitters." Birders tend to be splitters: they like to know the exact species or subspecies of each bird they observe, and part of the fun of birding is to engage in petty arguments with other birders about exactly what bird it was you all just spotted. On the other hand, forgers tend to be "lumpers." We basically want to know one thing: can we eat it or not? If the answer is yes, we tend not to be that concerned about the exact species or subspecies of what we choose to pick and eat.

One of the best ways to sharpen your botanical observation skills is to learn about plant families. Plants are grouped into botanical families by similarities in flower structure. Sometimes just knowing what family a plant is in will tell you whether it is edible. For example, all wild members of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae, formally known as Cruciferae) and Mint Family (Lamiaceae, formally known as Labiatae) that grow in New England are edible (but not all equally yummy). Whether or not and how you eat them depends on the flavor of the particular Mint or Mustard you have found. However, each family contains at least several members that are considered rare and protected in New England, so avoid picking the rare Mints and Mustards by confining your foraging for them to disturbed habitats like farm fields and streams.

Foraging By And/Or With Children

Children's smaller bodies are more susceptible than adults' to being adversely affected by eating poisonous plants or mushrooms, so one needs to use particular care when foraging and eating wild foods with children. That being said, foraging is a wonderful way for children to build a loving relationship and lifelong fascination with the natural world. Once they know what to look for, kids often make highly skilled foragers (it may help that they are closer to the ground). I have also heard from parents of ordinarily finicky eaters that their children will consume with great relish any wild food they were involved in picking and/or preparing.

It wasn't that long ago that kids spent most of their free time unsupervised playing outdoors, looking for and eating wild nuts, berries and other wild edibles. In fact, many of the older foraging books begin describing a wild plant with the phrase, "every boy is familiar with eating this plant." Nowadays, most kids would be hard-pressed to identify many wild plants at all, never mind wild edibles. It has not helped that the continuing conversion of open space to development has put nature (and foraging opportunities) increasingly out of reach of many youngsters. Foraging is a fun activity that can help "turn up the volume" on walks, hikes, and other outdoor excursions, thereby successfully competing against shopping and web surfing for kids' limited attention spans.

How young is too young to get kids involved in foraging? It depends somewhat on the individual child. Some eight-year-olds know more about edible wild plants or mushrooms than most adults. It also depends on how thoroughly versed you are as parents, teachers, or scoutmasters about edibles. It isn't necessary to have a Ph.D in botany to teach foraging; just stick to the species you know well. Likewise, until you are sure your kids know what they are doing and are fully cognizant of the risks involved, carefully instruct them to bring whatever it is they would like to eat to you first and get your go-ahead before they chow down.

Conservation Ethics

wild-plants-i-have-known-small-1Wherever you go to forage for wild plants, it is very important to practice good conservation ethics. In addition to being considerate of a plant species' potential rarity and/or value to wildlife, it is important to make sure you are picking from a good-sized patch of plants, and make sure that you leave more than enough to ensure the plant's continued survival. If the patch is too small to harvest without potentially threatening its sustainability at that location, simply keep looking until you find a larger one. Native Americans had a ritualistic way of following this advice. Rather than harvesting the first patch they encountered, they placed an offering of tobacco or some other valuable token there and continued to hunt until they found another patch.

Your influence on a plant's ability to survive largely depends on the part(s) of the plant you pick. For example, berry picking and nut gathering (as well as mushroom hunting) are generally considered to be relatively benign forms of foraging because these fruiting bodies merely serve as an organism's seed or spore dispersal device. Plants and mushrooms typically lose many of these fruiting bodies in reproduction. Indeed, many plants evolved to produce large quantities of fleshy, good-tasting fruits and nuts so that animals would eat them and then disperse at least some of the seeds to new growing locations. As long as you leave the main body of the organism intact (e.g., you do not pull off the whole branches of trees while gathering fruits or nuts), that plant's ability to produce a good crop of fruit or nuts the following season should not be adversely affected.

You must be more circumspect when conducting more intrusive foraging methods, such as gathering entire plants, stripping off their foliage and/or digging them up to harvest the roots. Doing so could kill the plants and potentially extirpate (make locally extinct) that species.

Many erstwhile foragers are afraid that harvesting wild edibles may deprive wildlife of needed sustenance. If you make sure there is plenty of what you want before you start picking and plenty left over when you are done, then you are more than likely leaving enough food for the wild animals. You can take additional solace in knowing that not all the plants people eat are ones that wild animals eat because our digestive systems and taste buds differ. Much of the most important food for wildlife either doesn't taste good or is harmful for humans to eat. Poison Ivy buds and berries, for example, are some of the most important sources of winter food for many bird and mammal species.

Excerpted with permission from Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten by Russ Cohen (eatwild@rcn.com). ©2004. Published by the Essex County Greenbelt Association. For over four decades, the Essex County Greenbelt Association, a nonprofit land trust, has been conserving land of ecological, agricultural and scenic significance throughout Essex County, and has protected nearly 12,000 acres of land. To learn more about Greenbelt or purchase copies of the book, please go to their website at http://www.ecga.org or call 978-768-7241. All proceeds from the sale of this book benefit the work of Greenbelt.