Sustainability | Ecotrope

Five Wild Foods That Are Hiding In Plain Sight

Ecotrope | Nov. 9, 2012 12:10 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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John Kallas is the Director of Wild Food Adventures, Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables.

John Kallas is the Director of Wild Food Adventures, Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables.

A lot of us know how to find some kind of wild food: fish, mushrooms, berries…I even figured out how to gather wild chestnuts in Portland.

That’s why I specifically asked John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures in Portland, for a list of wild foods that are often overlooked. I mean, I love chanterelles and blackberries, but I’d also like to branch out a little.

Kallas is the author of Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate. It’s the first volume in a series of wild food books he plans to publish. He’s spent decades studying wild foods and applying his Ph.D in nutrition to them. Now he teaches at wild food workshops and events.

And he had no shortage of suggestions for under-appreciated wild foods I should try. However, I was surprised to find that, well, they’re all weeds: Dandelions, goosefoot, garlic mustard, chickweed, and broad-leaf dock. They’re super nutritious, he said, and you can find them anywhere you find people.

“Other people might call them weeds,” he said. “I call these plants native to humans. They grow where we are. Weeds is a diminutive term, and a lot of these plants are better nutritionally than some of the domesticated ones. They’re right under our noses. They’re everywhere, and most people don’t even know about them. They grow in your garden. You’re probably weeding them out.”

Let’s take them one at a time:

You can eat dandelion greens, and the flowers, too. Kallas suggests adding them to a tuna fish sandwich. Pretty!

You can eat dandelion greens, and the flowers, too. Kallas suggests adding them to a tuna fish sandwich. Pretty!

Dandelions: People have a wide range of experiences with eating dandelions, Kallas says, because there are a lot of lookalikes and their taste depends on how you prepare them.

“If you treat it right, it’s a delicious food. Not only the leaves, but where all the leaves and flowers arise from – the dandelion heart – and the flowers. Dandelion flowers are an amazing wild food. You can add the flowers to a sandwich.”

Dandelion greens are also one of the most nutritious leafy greens, he says. It has more vitamin E, riboflavin and iron than any domesticated green.

A young wild spinach plant.

A young wild spinach plant.

Goosefoot:Kallas offered several names for this plant, including wild spinach and lamb’s quarters. The plant got the name “goosefoot” because its leaves look like the webbing on a goose’s foot.

You can cook it exactly they way you’d cook spinach. Break out any cookbook on your shelf, he said, and substitute goosefoot in any recipe that calls for spinach. Check out this spread:

You can eat wild spinach on a cheese-melt fish sandwich, shown here, and as cooked greens.

You can eat wild spinach on a cheese-melt fish sandwich, shown here, and as cooked greens.

Fresh spring garlic mustard plants

Fresh spring garlic mustard plants

Garlic mustard: There are actually widespread efforts to eradicate garlic mustard because it’s considered a noxious weed. It grows in Europe, Kallas said, “but no one’s trying to kill it there because so many people eat it.”

In the forest, the plant is a problem because it disturbs the ecosystem, he said. “But if it’s growing in a neighborhood, in your yard, it’s a great food.” You can also find garlic mustard around the margins of the woods, he said.

“Garlic mustard has some bitterness to it,” said Kallas. “It has the pungency of a mustard and characteristics that can spark up food. It would be hard to eat a salad of just garlic mustard, but it has flavors that can accentuate a lot of meals.”

Kallas says chickweed plants are tastier when they're growing quickly with large, lush leaves like the plant on the left. Chickweed growing in stressed conditions – excessive sun or heat or dry soil – have tiny leaves, stringy stems and lots of seeds like the plant on the right.

Kallas says chickweed plants are tastier when they're growing quickly with large, lush leaves like the plant on the left. Chickweed growing in stressed conditions – excessive sun or heat or dry soil – have tiny leaves, stringy stems and lots of seeds like the plant on the right.

Chickweed: Another leafy green Kallas recommends is best harvested in the springtime. It likes cool air and moisture. To harvest it, he said, you want to take the tips of the leaves. If you try to eat the whole plant, it will be “like chewing on straw.”

“One of my favorites is chickweed,” Kallas said. “It’s another wonderful plant that can be eaten raw, and it’s sweet-tasting. It almost tastes like a mild version of corn. You can use it as a replacement for lettuce or sprouts.”

Chickweed is also non-native, he said, and it grows in disturbed soil – possibly around the edges of a forest.

The best time to harvest any of these greens, Kallas said, is when they’re growing really fast. For some, prime time is in the spring, for others it’s summer or fall. So, if you want a weed you can pick and eat now, he said, you could look for sheep or wood sorrel, evening primrose, or …

Broad-leaved dock is ripe for the picking before it develops its stalk, as shown here.

Broad-leaved dock is ripe for the picking before it develops its stalk, as shown here.

Broad-leaf dock: “It’s in the same family as rhubarb and buckwheat,” Kallas said. “When they’re young, they’re actually quite delicious and have a lemony flavor to them. Right now, they’re producing new young plants from seed. When they’re young, the leaves are delicious. When they get older, the leaves get tough, bitter, astringent and papery. But if you chop them up and boil them they become creamy and lemony and delicious. A lot of people assume the raw flavor defines the plant. Again, it’s how you use it or how you prepare it that makes it a delicious plant.”

If you're going to harvest dandelion leaves, take them from the center of the rosette, Kallas says. Those leaves are the most tender.

If you're going to harvest dandelion leaves, take them from the center of the rosette, Kallas says. Those leaves are the most tender.

When eating wild foods, Kallas said, the devil is in the details.

“Imagine you tell a person who had never seen an artichoke that it’s edible,” he said. “Imagine what that experience would be like. To get the delicious, wonderful experience of eating the heart, you need to know what you’re eating. You need to have a guide to get you to that wonderful aspect of these plants.”

Options for finding more wild foods to eat? Find a plant identification expert, get several books on wild foods: books that focus on wild food edibility, books that focus on plant identification in your area and a book on poisonous plants.

“Use them like a set of encyclopedias,” he said. “If you’re studying a particular plant, look it up in every book.”

But don’t expect to forage for all your food, he said.

“You could, but you would be doing nothing else,” said Kallas. “It’s a huge amount of work. It’s a tedious life, and the food you eat is very monotonous. You eat the same food over and over. The only thing that made it reasonably and efficient for Native American tribes was when they all worked together. You had to have teamwork.”

Kallas said he sees a connection between foraging for wild foods and environmental protection.

“One thing that foraging does is it brings people closer to the earth,” he said. “It connects them with that primal need. By getting closer to the earth, you’ll start to make more connection between yourself and your impact on the earth. If every piece of land is viewed as a potential garden, people will do more to protect it.”

Have you eaten any of the plants he mentioned? How do you prepare them? I’d love some recipes…

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