April 22, 2012
Sunday is earth day. The economy seems to be wavering a little, some say headed for a spring slowdown similar to what we had the past two springs. Every time I go to the grocery store, which is one or two times a month, prices have increased again on at least some of the things I need. In an old house like mine, something always needs fixing. And I’m not sure what might happen at the end of the year when the Bush tax cuts and several other economic measures are set to expire or start based on the whims of whoever might be in Congress by then.
So, while I’m waiting for the early garden to mature and the time to arrive for planting the summer garden, I’ve decided to practice foraging my yard. This past week, I started by picking some common weeds to augment the lettuce, beet and carrot thinnings and a couple of straggling asparagus spears I found while weeding the early garden.
Right now, I have dandelions, wide-leaf plantain, portulaca and wild onions growing in the yard. All are edible, though because of the warm March, some of the dandelions and plantain are a little tough or bitter by now unless you pick newer, smaller leaves.
Once I’d picked or pulled a small amount of each, (after all, I was only making salad for one) I took them inside and dumped them into a colander, rinsed them well, put them onto a couple of layers of paper towels to drain while I picked through them to remove any grass and grit. Then, I pulled the larger leaves off the portulaca – along with the clusters of tinier leaves – pinched off the stems and bottom portions of the dandelions and plantain leaves before tearing them into smaller pieces and peeling and dicing the bulbs from the green onions. (A word to the wise, wild onions are stronger in flavor than commercial onions and a few go a long way.) When I had them all prepared, I tossed them in with the clean garden thinnings (which I like roots and all) and the asparagus slices, gave them another good rinse and set them in the cooler to drain while I fixed supper. Tossed with a teaspoon of oil, a dash of vinegar, salt, pepper and garlic powder, they made a tasty, filling salad to go with my cheesy noodles and ham.
So, now that supper is out of the way and the dishes cleaned, lets talk a little about foraging the yard:
First rule – be sure you know what you’re eating. In the four plants mentioned above, two of them have toxic look-alikes that are similar enough to give a careless or unknowledgeable forager a good bellyache and possibly worse. Know what they look like from root to flower and at all stages of growth. And be sure you are picking plants that have not been treated with lawn chemicals.
Second rule – know which parts of the plant are edible, when they are edible, how to prepare those parts and whether the various parts are edible raw or need to be cooked, steeped, steamed or otherwise rendered useable. Also, be sure you know whether they are edible for all members of your family. Most edible plants should not be given to very young children and you should know whether you, family members or anyone that might eat at your table are allergic to any of them.
Third rule – moderation in all things. As with wild onions, for most wild plants, a little goes a long way unless you are into purging, especially if you are not accustomed to eating them. Some plants are especially hard for young children to digest, so make sure you know which can safely be given and at what age. And moderation is a good rule for taking only what you need in nature. That way, you will have what you need the next time.
Forth rule – to make sure you are following the first three rules, read, read, read; observe, observe, observe; check, check, check and, if you still have any doubt, ASK, ASK, ASK.
The same weed will vary a little in looks from area to area. Most state horticulture or conservation offices have or can tell you where to buy books on local, edible weeds. (And I have found that local staff are often delighted – when they have time – to help you with a plant’s identification. Show them the courtesy of calling ahead and take a healthy, live plant in for them to look at if at all possible.)
The four plants I have mentioned are common weeds in many parts of the country. If you are not familiar with them, but would like to learn more, here is a little about them, along with pictures and in the case of the two with toxic look-alikes, picture of them for comparison. This is not sufficient information for you to go out and grab a few for dinner! Please, please, if you aren’t an experienced forager, but are interested in learning to forage your yard, take the time to study and make sure of what you are doing. I have spent twenty-plus years reading, observing, checking (and, yes, re-checking) and asking; with the exception of about twenty plants that I know well enough to eat, I still consider myself a rank beginner whenever I run into a plant I am not completely familiar with.
Having said that, here are some facts about three of the four plants and their toxic look-alikes.
Broad-leaf plantain (the weed, not the banana-like fruit) grows in my yard. The new, more tender leaves can go into salads raw. The bigger leaves can be cooked in various ways in soups, as part of a pot of greens, or boiled, then stuffed with meat and rice and baked like stuffed cabbage. You will need to remove the “strings”. The leaves grow in a basal rosette, with the flower stalks rising from it. The dried seeds can also be used, but I have never tried them. The leaves have parallel veins that run vertically along the leaf, rather than radiating out toward the sides of the leaf from a central vein. (This is one important identifying characteristic.) Plantain is nutritious and has been used by many cultures medicinally. This is a good plant to become familiar with.
I love portulaca(also called purslane in some areas). The kind that grows in my yard this time of year has succulent little leaves that grow along smooth, reddish brown stems that spreads out from the ground in a circular pattern, sort of like a big, brown spider. I
like to snack on the leaves or put them in salads. The leaves are fleshy and moist and have a lovely taste. They grow in and around my garden, especially where the soil has been disturbed. But portulaca does have a toxic look-alike, spurge. Spurge has hairy stems which, if you break them in two, will ooze a white sap. There is also a spurge without hairy stems, but if broken, it also exudes a white sap. Be sure you check that these characteristics are not present if you think you have portulaca.
There are some wild plants that smell like onions, but do not look like onions and some wild plants that look like onions, but don’t smell like them. Wild onionsboth look and smell like onions. Those are some defining characteristics of wild onions. The wild onions, too, grow in and around my garden. This time of year, they grow in large clumps, their long, thin green leaves looking like a clump of tall grass. And I can smell them every time someone mows my backyard. But underneath that “grass,” the onions range in size from my little fingernail to my thumbnail and, with the tougher outer layer pulled off, minced into a salad or diced into a hamburger, the bulbs are delicious.
Wild onions, too, have a toxic look alike – crow poison. Fortunately, crow poison has a musty odor or no odor. It does not smell like an onion (or a garlic, for that matter). So if it looks like an onion, but doesn’t smell like one, or it smells like an onion, but
doesn’t look like one, leave it alone.
Dandelions are so ubiquitous to the American lawnscape that virtually everyone recognizes them, so I won’t talk about them here except to say they are useful for one purpose or another from flower to root. It would pay you to read up on and become acquainted with the uses of this plant that is so maligned by those who prefer perfectly manicured lawns to nature’s variety.
Well, if the economy is wilting again, I might have to get out and scout the yard for more edibles to supplement my social security check. And if Congress stays as cranky and mean as they’re sounding during this election time, we may all be foraging by the end of the year. Honestly, even if you’re as rich as Croesus, right now, either the Congress or the economy might turn that around before you know it. So, it might pay you to take the time to find out what free edibles lurk in your yard. But, be careful. Though the earth can be bountiful, she can be as ornery as Congress if you get careless with her.
Hmm, I wonder how some stuffed plantain leaves would taste with a fried potato and a nice little salad. If I can find some plantain leaves that are big enough to stuff, I’ll let you know after next week’s foraging in the yard.
Two books from the Missouri Department of Conservation that I’ve found useful:
Wild Edibles of Missouri by Jan Phillips
Missouri Wildflowers by Edgar Denison
And two books that I’ve found generally useful, though they don’t deal specifically with Missouri:
The Forager’s Harves:A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest by Delena Tull