In this field guide to foraging wild edible plants, explore the health benefits of wild-harvested food and how to safely identify plants. Wild Edibles (North Atlantic Books, 2013) outlines the basic rules for gathering etiquette, and author Sergei Boutenko offers more than 60 recipes to put your foraged food to use. This excerpt was taken from the introduction.
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It was a cold morning in mid-April when we ran out of food. We sat on tree stumps at four thousand feet above sea level and watched as Mom rummaged through our shabby backpacks in search of something edible. After several minutes, she managed to round up a half-empty bottle of olive oil, several handfuls of rolled oats, a few cloves of garlic, and a small container of sea salt. We were four days into our journey and had to hike another fifty miles to collect our next food parcel in the closest middle-of-nowhere town in Southern California.
Earlier that year, in January of 1998, my parents decided that as part of our adventurous lifestyle and home-schooling experience, we would hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada along the West Coast. Our team consisted of my mom, dad, sister, cousin (who was visiting from Russia for a year to get a well-rounded American experience), and me. None of us had hiked much, but what we lacked in practice we made up for in drive. My mother spearheaded the idea of a six-month, 2,650-mile walk after she read a book about the adventures one thru-hiker had on the Appalachian Trail. She decided on the Pacific Crest Trail because it was more wild and had less traffic than its East Coast sibling. At first my father was not too keen on such a long trek, but my mom’s determination quickly appealed to his adventurous side and he fell in line. There is a saying in Russia, “The man is the head of the family, while the woman is the neck, and the head cannot turn without the neck.” As the neck, my mother steered our Chevy Astro van into a parking lot in front of a Play It Again Sports store in Escondido, California. There we equipped ourselves with top-of-the-line used backpacking gear in preparation for the journey ahead.
Once each of us had a rucksack and sleeping bag, my mother initialized phase two — food planning and management. Since we could not carry six months’ worth of food on our backs, we had to plan how and what to eat in advance. According to the Pacific Crest Trail guidebook, the trail intersects with a small town every sixty to one hundred miles. A backpacker could visit a small grocery store or pick up a general-delivery package full of grub in town. Our finite vagabond budget made it clear that shopping for food along the way was out of the question. My parents invested all the money they had in bulk food, which we repackaged into twenty-six resupply parcels. Because we had little overnight backpacking expertise, we made an educated guess as to how much food five hungry hikers could consume. Our average resupply parcel contained roughly five pounds of rolled oats, six dates per person per day, assorted dried fruit, mixed nuts, sea vegetables, an eight-ounce bottle of oil, random seasonings, and a few other essentials. Once I had wrapped each parcel with a thick layer of tape, my parents shipped them off. Then we packed our rucksacks and had a friend drop us off at the trailhead on the Mexican border.
Within a week of our April 3 departure, we realized that our calculations were off. Each food parcel we collected lasted four to five days instead of the intended week. Hiking hungry was not only more difficult, but less enjoyable. At the rate we were running out of food, we would almost certainly not make it to Canada. So there we were, at the top of the world without food. No one said much as my father rationed out the last few spoonfuls of oats and olive oil. Group morale was low, and quitting our adventure seemed inevitable. Our stomachs grumbled; we understood that if we were to succeed, we needed to acquire more food. Before we took off from our campsite that day, my mother ventured down to the nearby creek to wash her face. As she knelt on the sandy bank, she noticed a plant that looked a lot like celery. She picked it and brought it back to camp for further investigation. Though the stalks of the wild plant were thinner than store-bought celery, they looked and smelled the same. We knew better than to eat unknown things, but hunger and curiosity got the best of us. My father decided to take the first nibble to see if it caused any negative reactions. After several minutes of chewing, the verdict was that it was indeed edible. We picked all of the remaining stalks near the river and stashed them in our packs for dinner.
When we made it into town, my parents bought a used copy of Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson at a local bookstore. It noted wild celery, as well as many other wild foods, as being edible and readily available. Flipping through its pages, we got the impression that nature was full of food. We had a family meeting that night to discuss how to proceed. My parents asked each hiker to share his or her concerns in order to determine whether we should continue hiking the trail. The unanimous decision was to attempt the next section of the path while foraging for wild edibles. If this did not work, we would abandon the Pacific Crest Trail.
Like all new things, venturing into the world of foraging was intimidating and awkward. During our downtime, we surveyed our surroundings and tried to identify the flora around us. When we found a potential match, someone from our expedition would eat a small quantity while the others observed. If the eater experienced no negative side effects after fifteen minutes, we deemed the vegetation fair game. We familiarized ourselves with plants such as miner’s lettuce, wild mustard, wild onion, mallow, sorrel, chervil, watercress, and clover. Adding these edibles to our meals allowed us to conserve our prepackaged food. Our food shortages stopped. And not worrying about going hungry allowed us to relax and enjoy our time in nature.
Furthermore, because wild food grew in such abundance along the trail, it soon became our staple. By trail’s end, 60 to 80 percent of our diet was composed of wild edibles. All of the new plants we used in our meals were fresh and extremely nutritious. Our diets grew in diversity and led to improved health. We were astonished how much we enjoyed the flavor of our food and always looked forward to the next meal. In short, discovering wild food enabled us to successfully finish our hike.
Upon completion of the Pacific Crest Trail in September of 1998, we all marveled at how wonderful we felt. Our endurance and energy levels were incredible. Our complexions were clear and our spirits soared. My cousin, sister, and I each gained eleven pounds of pure muscle, while my mother and father burned through the extra fat they had carried prior to the hike. All of these positive changes were indicators that we had been living a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle on the path.
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was the beginning of my exploration of wild edibles. Since the age of thirteen, I have continued learning how advantageous eating free weeds can be and have maintained a vigorous curiosity for foraging. Through my book, Wild Edibles, I would like to pass on to you my excitement about edible weeds. I hope that this book will plant a seed in you that will grow into a deep appreciation for plants. If I accomplish what I set out to do, you will gain from my stories and experiences and go on to safely forage and enjoy wild food on a regular basis.
My primary motivation for putting words on paper is to inspire people to live more sustainably and healthfully by integrating wild edibles into their lives. Nature’s fare gives us the incredible ability to save thousands of dollars on groceries and instead eat what nature offers for free. Moreover, this food is unbelievably nutritious and rivals the best, most expensive nutritional supplements on the market today. Over the last fifteen years, my travels have introduced me to tens of thousands of people suffering from a variety of health problems. Many of them experienced tremendous relief by regularly including foraged foods into their diet. Perhaps, after reading this book, you too will be able to tap into the benefits and healing powers of wild plants.
As a secondary motivation for writing this book, I aim to dispel the fear that prevents the vast majority of people from foraging. I would like to deconstruct the notion that foraging is dangerous and illustrate how pleasant it can be when done properly. Today’s media is full of movies and news reports about people who suffered ill fates when they mistook poisonous plants for edible ones. Many of these accounts are inaccurately portrayed and/or dramatized by Hollywood producers to induce emotion. Such scary stories have duped us into believing that we put our lives at risk each time we eat something that’s not FDA approved. Yet what I learned in practice is completely opposite — eating wild food can be as safe as visiting the produce section of a grocery store. Plant poisonings are rare and can be avoided with common sense and proper know- how.
I am not a botanist, and I don’t claim to hold any accredited certifications in the study of plants. I am a regular guy who recognized the value of wild edibles at an early age. I have been eating foraged food for over half my life and continue to thrive on what I collect. In the pages that follow, I aim to challenge you to forage. I will do my best to balance my own experiences with the latest research on wild edibles. My hope is that this will give you well-rounded, safe guidelines to edible plants. May you find value in my words and joy in the practice of collecting nature’s free food. I am excited to embark on this journey with you!
From Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging, with Easy Identification of 60 Edible Plants and 67 Recipes by Sergei Boutenko, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2013 by Sergei Boutenko. Reprinted by permission of publisher. Buy this book from our store: Wild Edibles.