A couple of years ago I decided to dig a little deeper into finding wild edible plants that are around me. I had a very limited knowledge from a farming childhood, and from working in an outdoor career. I had picked wild onions from the yard, and my grandmother (Mamaw) had shown me Poke-weed, but I was extremely limited to say the least. I didn’t remember how to prepare Poke, I just knew how to identify it, and the fact that it wasn’t safe to just pick and eat.
Finding information on wild edibles
Now, we live in an amazing age, where you can click on a few buttons and get a tidal wave of information pouring in. This can seem like a real positive until you start trying to sift through the mass of general information and conflicting opinions, and find real practical information for you to apply and use. So I was able to find enough information on Poke-weed to add that to my diet, but I wasn’t sure just where else to go. Should I just go pick stuff, or take photos? How do I prioritize?
Some survival experts focus their programs on plants that are most common and easily identified. This is because many plants are regional, and might only help specific people, and there are a lot of dangerous even deadly plants that are dead ringers for their edible counterparts. So for television their goals are to reach the largest possible audience, and to avoid issues with mistakes in identification. But as a local forager, my idea was to find as many edible plants as possible outside my back door. (Now, I am also interested in natural medicinals, but I will focus here on edibles.)
In the beginning, identification is really difficult. You walk into the woods, and are bombarded with all the diversity and choices. I do recommend you get a field guide, (Peterson’s are good.) But it’s almost like there is so much visual noise, you can’t focus on a single plant.
And when you do, you still have to get past the fear of the unknown. After all, getting it wrong can be deadly. You have read general rules like “all thistles are edible.” But when you actually go to the woods, you stand there and wonder….. is this a thistle or are there look-a-likes? Edible how? These spines seem like a lot of work…. Hmmmmm what else is there?
And it seems overwhelming.
So I started by looking online, and finding an expert who was giving an edible weed-walk near me. My premise was that whatever he would show in his class would likely be near my house too. I was fortunate enough to find that one of the most known and respected guys in this field lives in my state, and gives walks at a park about 25 miles from me. Now for plant species, that is fairly close. The only thing I had to consider was that the park he teaches at is by the ocean, and I am inland, so there will be some plants that aren’t at both locations.
At this point some of you might be thinking, “Wow, you took four hundred words to tell me to get a teacher.” But give me a minute to explain further. He has a website (www.eattheweeds.com) And on it, I found the information about his program, and I looked up his list of what plants he usually finds in this park. So before I even spent a dime on classes, I had a list of plants that were pretty likely to be near me. I printed pictures of each of these plants, and made a notebook with room for notes, and went for a walk.
I found Elderberry, Caesar Weed, Poke-weed, Amaranth and several others, but only because I had narrowed down what I was looking for to plants that I was fairly sure were in my area.
I also found a couple that I thought I had right, but just wasn’t sure. So I just marked them on my notes with plans to check them again later.
I went back inside and started looking up as much as I could on the exact plants that I had found out back. I found a lot of information including recipes. But I didn’t just start chowing down, just in case I had blown the identification.
NOW, I booked a class with the expert. He was due in my area in a couple weeks. Just before I left for his class, I gloved up, and picked a couple stems of the plants I was unsure of. These I took with me.
I arrived at the class, and it was awesome. He was showing so many plants that I had already found. And one of the plants I was unsure of, he pointed out and we all picked a leaf and tasted it. (This is now my favorite wild edible Purslane.)
He also showed us a cousin of that plant, usually found on beaches, Sea Purslane. On a whim, I broke off a stem and put it in my backpack. Now I have several Sea Purslane plants growing in planters around my yard.
And this started my final step in this project, propagating wild plants around me. Because they are wild, these plants are still aggressive and hardy. They are easy to break and plant. So it has become a project to plant as many of these secretly edible plants as possible around me.
I am still a young student in terms of gathering wild edibles, but by approaching it in the way I did, I have several plants around my home that I don’t have to worry about sharing with the neighbors. They just think they’re weeds!
Plant identification sources:
Book: Peterson’s Field Guide (Find the one for your area at your bookstore.)