A few trips into the wilderness will net edible wild plants, great flavors for your family's larder.
An unmistakable movement is sweeping across the United States today, a dramatic shift from merely eating what’s affordable to eating local. Often forgotten in the locavore movement, though, is the purest, oldest means of consuming local goods – eating wild.
While we toil diligently in our greenhouses and gardens all spring and summer, an abundance of wild food is growing in the woods and fields around us, most of it ignored or long forgotten by those who planted it. It’s all free for the taking, and, in most
cases, more than enough is available to feed your family year-round.
The price of commercially grown apples has gone through the treetops, but there is a wild alternative that’s essentially untouched – and all you have to do is the picking. There are long-abandoned apple orchards in just about every county in every state in the United States, remnants of heroic attempts of long-ago homesteaders who wanted the joys of eating fresh fruit without traveling long miles to town to buy it. Some of these orchards are still used today by folks whose new homes have been built on land settlers tried to tame 100 or more years ago.
How do you find “wild” apples? The easiest way to discover old apple orchards is to visit the local town or county tax office and ask to see the plat maps from the early 1900s. These will reveal the locations of homesteads that were thriving at the time. It will take some scouting to find and investigate these old farms, but it’s a sure bet that somewhere out there is an orchard that, generations later, is still producing fruit you can use for cooking and canning. Other options include going for a Sunday drive to scout around,
and talking to local farmers at the nearest agriculture co-op or country store. In all cases, be sure to find the property’s current owner and seek permission for the picking.
Finding wild berries is as easy as taking a walk. Raspberries and blackberries grow wild just about everywhere in the United States and may be found along the edges of walking trails, in city parks, along rural roadsides and even in overgrown backyards. These tasty fruits are fun to pick and are delicious additions to any recipe, fresh or frozen. Rinse well and toss a handful into your morning cereal or pancake batter, add them to bread or muffin recipes, or just fill a bowl and eat them with a spoon.
Domesticated raspberry varieties often sell for several dollars per pint in grocery stores, but ambitious families can pick all they can use in just a few hours on a warm summer morning or evening. Wear long pants and sleeves when picking berries – the canes are loaded with tiny thorns.
To keep your berries fresh and plump until you get home, use a one-gallon bucket half full of ice water while picking. The cold water keeps the fruit fresh until you’re ready to head for the kitchen.
In addition to raspberries, mulberries, cherries, plums and many other easy-to-pick small fruits grow “out there” that anyone can have for the picking. Most of these fruits grow in wild places that are thick and brushy, so dress accordingly. Bring two or three buckets with you and leave the filled buckets where you can find them on the way back to the road.
A common fruit in the North and East, blueberries grow on low bushes (hard on the back and knees, but fun to pick) and high bushes (easy to pick for humans, birds and other lovers of blue fruit). Blueberries begin to ripen in late summer and continue to produce for several weeks.
Be prepared to discover that wild blueberries are not your grocery store-sized berries. Most naturally grown blueberries are very small, extremely sweet and tasty. You’ll have to pick more to fill a cup, but the flavor and texture far surpass that of cultivated varieties.
Low-bush blueberries may be harvested using a version of the commercial blueberry rake, which looks something like a fine comb with a long handle. An experienced blueberry raker can fill a pint box with every stroke of the rake, but that takes years of practice. For most of us, it is hands-and-knees picking at its best. Or, you can just sit down in a sea of blueberries and pick until you are (literally) blue in the face.
Blueberries are great dried, fresh or frozen. There’s hardly a bad way to treat them. And they are a welcome addition to breads, pancakes, pies, muffins, cookies and just about anything else that has to spend time in the oven.
Most folks don’t even know that their yards and roadsides are loaded with wild strawberries. These hardy little plants produce fruit throughout early and late summer. They grow without cultivation, fertilizer or any other human assistance, but do best when the grass isn’t mowed for a few weeks. When you do see a patch of wild strawberries developing in your yard or neighborhood, try to avoid cutting the grass until after the berries develop, and don’t be afraid to offer them a little fertilizer so you’ll have bigger, plumper fruit when it’s time to start picking.
Probably one of the most ignored wild foods are the nuts produced by oak, beech, walnut, hickory and other naturally growing trees throughout the country. Most wild nuts fall in September and October, and just one nut-laden oak or walnut tree will produce enough fruit to fulfill your cooking and eating needs for the entire year. White oak acorns may be roasted, made into flour, or dried and used as acorn coffee after you leach the tannins from the nuts. The best white oak acorns have a flavor similar to cashews. Get them soon after they drop because your wild neighbors (deer, turkeys, bears, raccoons, opossums and even skunks) enjoy them as well.
Check with your local conservation service agent for the types and uses of nuts produced by trees in your area.
One of the most common wild or semi-wild plants available for human consumption is the dandelion. Though you can eat the leaves of this cosmopolitan backyard weed year-round, they are tender and delicious when cut, blanched, and frozen or canned in spring. Once the yellow flowers develop, bitterness in the leaves increases, but two or three sessions of cooking and draining will take care of that. And the dandelion flower is the main ingredient in dandelion wine – a great topic for another day.
Purslane is a common succulent plant that is also edible.
Nettles are common in the wild, and contain more minerals than wheat grass. Nettles may be juiced or cooked, but wear gloves when handling the fresh plants to avoid the stinging sensation that results. The stinging factor disappears once the plants are cooked or juiced.
Lamb’s-quarter is a common nuisance plant (to farmers, anyway) that is similar to spinach. The seeds and leaves are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. Any farmer will be more than happy to allow you to dig up all the lamb’s-quarter you find growing in the rows or end lands of cultivated fields.
When it comes to finding, harvesting, preparing and eating wild foods, it’s important to know what you are looking for and how to get the most out of it. Some wild mushrooms, for example, are delicious and good for you, but many varieties are deadly poisonous. Some of the most common edible mushrooms (morels and chanterelles) are abundant and easy to identify, but others take more skill to identify. Do not pick and eat wild mushrooms unless you know what you are doing. Some deadly varieties look a lot like the edible types, and the differences are often subtle. To make the most of mushroom hunting in your area, purchase a mushroom identification guide and accompany a local mushroom expert who can explain in detail which varieties are safe to pick.
For more information on edible wild foods in your region, contact your local conservation service agent or find a copy of any of Euell Gibbons’ Stalking The Wild … books, available at Amazon.com or at most major bookstores. Gibbons was the guru of eating wild foods during the 1960s and was featured in a now-famous television advertisement for Post’s Grape Nuts cereal where he declared that Grape Nuts’ “…naturally sweet taste reminds me of wild hickory nuts.”
Steve Carpenteri lived in Maine for 12 years without running water or electricity and made full use of the wild fruits and plants that grew in the woods and fields around him. His freezer is still filled with apples, berries and other natural foods he gleans from the wild each season.