Foraging in the Yard, Again

April 22, 2012

Broad leaf plantain
courtesy of publicphoto.org

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

Portulaca (purslane)
courtesy of flickr

Hairy spurge

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
Photo by Glenn Hardebeck

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

Crow poison
Lee Davis @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

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

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15 Responses to Foraging in the Yard, Again

  1. witsendnj says:

    I have always loved collecting free wild food! Especially black raspberries, chanterelles and morels, also baby cattails are delicious. I’m glad to know I can eat portulaca and plantain – those damn weeds! Fitting revenge. Here is a link to a book (Wild Food) written by a dear friend of mine for over 30 years, you can get used copies (don’t tell him I said that!) very inexpensively. It has great photographs and recipes: http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Food-Roger-Phillips/dp/0316706116

    • theozarker says:

      Hey gal, I love wild berries, too. I have mulberries growing along the fence here and my ex and I had gooseberries and huge blackberry brakes on our ex-acreage. I’m probably the only Ozarker that doesn’t like morels; not sure I’ve ever seen chanterelles. Do like baby cattails. And yes, it is “gratifying” (hehe) to eat those weeds.
      Thanks for the link to your friend’s book. I’ll check it out.

  2. pamela says:

    OMG Linda, what a great article! Well worth the wait and so glad you got your tech stuff figured out.
    this one made me hungry! LOL
    hey, ever eat poke salet? that’s some good eatin’ Linda. hehehe

    • theozarker says:

      Hey Pam, so glad you’re feeling better. Not sure I got the tech stuff “figured out”, but finally managed to find a way to work around it.
      Oooh, I love poke salat. Back when we first moved to the acreage, we went shopping in the small town nearby and stopped at a local restaurant. They had it on the menu – first timed I’d ever eaten it. You have to get the greens early though, and I’m usually too late by the time I find where the birds planted the latest poke bush in my yard. But I do love that poke salat! 😀

  3. graveday says:

    I can stand under a mulberry and eat for an hour like a giraffe. I like them dried too. I read that the native dark red ones are disappearing due to being hybridized by the white mulberry, which was brought in for silkworms. The good news is they still taste good. The white ones are a little too sweet for some tastes.
    The Persian mulberry is not wild here, but it is good too, and makes crops all summer as opposed to just spring. I planted one over a chicken coop at another place once.
    Of all the greens you mentioned, I like purslane the best. Out here we also have miner’s lettuce, which is especially delicious.
    Does sheperd’s purse grow where you are? It’s peppery. I also like wild mustard and even a little dock now and then, but you have to be careful of too much oxalic acid with dock.
    I have never eaten cattail, but have heard you can. And I have poke in the yard, but haven’t tried it yet.
    Anybody want to take a bite of this nice stalk of red celery, eh?

    • theozarker says:

      Our mulberries are red-purple and bush size right now. I’d find sheperd’s purse once in a while on the acreage or along the back roads, but haven’t seen any in my yard. My ex’s mother used either sour dock or the sorrel to make a mock lemon pie back in the Depression when he was a kid. Never did get that recipe. The little cattail heads, when they’re new and just filled out are good boiled and buttered. Taste a little like corn on the cob. If you’re going to eat poke salat, you have to get the new green leaves in early spring, before the stems start turning purple. The birds around here love the berries in early fall and they spread it all along the north side of the house. It was so thick with poke back there I had to have my son cut it back to the ground. So I have to really look to find the new plants in the (very) early spring.

      I’ve read about miner’s lettuce, but am not sure enough of what it looks like to know if there’s any around the yard. Nature sure can be bountiful though, can’t it?

      • theozarker says:

        Oops, the mulberries aren’t out here yet. The way I wrote that, it sounded like I meant the berries were red-purple right how. When they are out, they’re red-purple. The trees are bush sized right now.

  4. graveday says:

    Neighbor to the south of me has a tree that towers as tall as the oaks and sycamores. Mulberry is the largest fruiting tree outside of the tropics if you can find one left to its own devices. I always wondered why the ditty said ’round and round the mulberry bush’.
    Neighbor’s tree is one with the in between color, kind of reddish, but not purple. Chico, a town to the north has the most mulberry trees I’ve ever seen. They have a Mulberry St. lined with them. That’s where I ate my first mulberry and always look forward to eating more. They have them from dark purplish through various shades to white. Around here I can’t find any of the dark purple, just the white and reddish. The white seems dominant when they cross, and the purple gets aced out and never comes back, but white must be able to, I’m not sure.
    I’ll try to find a photo of miner’s lettuce.
    We forgot chickweed, Stellaria media.

    • theozarker says:

      Our neighbors had a big, old mulberry tree when I was a kid. And another neighbor had mulberries bushes along one side of his yard that he kept cut back into a mulberry “hedge”. Only time I ever saw that. I’ll have to look up miner’s lettuce. If chickweed is the plant with the small leaves and tiny white flower that spreads all over everything, that may be what’s growing in my yard right now. It’s everywhere! Haven’t tried eating it, because I’m not sure what it is – LOL.

  5. graveday says:

    http://www.almaden.ibm.com/almaden/environs/wildflowers/miner.html

    This might help. As you can see, miner’s lettuce is very pretty. Chickweed is more like a hairnet.
    More, nothing else looks like miner’s lettuce, but other stuff can look like chickweed. I think the chickweed mostly around here is the mouse ear kind.

    • theozarker says:

      Thanks grave. I don’t recall ever seeing miner’s lettuce and it is very distinctive. What size are the plant, leaves, etc? Hard to tell from a picture. I’ll see if I can load the video at youtube. It takes forever to download an eight minute video on this old computer, but I’d like to see it and see if I can tell what chickweed is. Thanks again. Big help.

  6. graveday says:

    Linda, the leaves of miner’s lettuce are about half dollar to silver dollar in size, but worth a lot more, heh. Mouse ear chickweed speaks for itself in size and shape.
    I should look up the natural range of miner’s lettuce, but there must be a reason they didn’t call it ozark lettuce. Maybe it is unique to California. I uses to have it show up out front, but that was a long time ago.
    Interestingly, I just learned that porcupines seem to have mostly vanished from these parts. The rangers who would know and have been asked just don’t see them any more. I used to have a dog that might appreciate this news, but I don’t. Also, even rabbits and jackrabbits seem greatly diminished in number.

    • theozarker says:

      Wow, those are pretty large leaves. I was thinking maybe the size of the portulaca leaves (of which family miner’s lettuce is apparently a member.) My ex, who lived in California when we met, talked about it, so maybe it is a native there. I know chickweed grows here, I’ve heard people talk about it. Just don’t know if that’s what’s growing in the yard right now or not. Will keep researching – heheh.

      That’s a shame about the porcupines. Every species has its place and it’s a loss to the earth when one gets crowded out or disappears like that. We had at least one old porcupine on our place, but that was twenty-plus years ago. Haven’t been back since the divorce so I don’t know what is still around there now. I haven’t seen “our” rabbit here since we had the brush pile hauled away. I’m sure it’s still around nibbling on someone’s lettuce. I can still smell the skunk as he trails across at night sometimes. 😀

  7. graveday says:

    Yep, still seem to be plenty of skunks, heh.

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