Foraging for free organic food in my backyard started innocently enough with a mystery plant: a creeping groundcover with tiny delicate white flowers.
With a little Internet research, I realized it was chickweed, an edible plant chock full of vitamins and minerals. It tasted a lot like sweet corn and was delicious in salads along with a few florets of wild onions growing near our creek.
Wanting guidance about other edible and tasty plants, I talked to an expert at our local chapter of the Idaho Native Plant Society in Pocatello. Marijana Dolsen understandably adores wild plants. They kept her family alive during World War II when food shortages rocked her native Croatia.
“I was born during the war, so my family ate all kinds of plants,” Dolsen said. “You just have to know what to look for. We used them for medicine, too. Since then, plants have become my life.”
Strolling around her yard, Dolsen gathered nearly two dozen edible plants, many considered weeds.
“This took only about 20 minutes to pick,” she said, rummaging through a bowl brimming with greens and flowers. “These are delicious and filled with vitamins and minerals. The leaves of many plants can be used as salad greens. Or they’re perfect stewed with a little olive oil, garlic and salt.”
Underfoot, yet often overlooked, common wild plants, or those considered weeds, are becoming more popular to forage as tasty, nutrient-rich ingredients to supplement a meal. Through books and classes, expert foragers are helping people who want to return to their gathering roots.
Dolsen, a longtime member of the local Sawabi Chapter of the Idaho Native Plant Society, advises those who want to learn about wild edible plants to come to monthly meetings, which wrapped up in September but will begin again next May on Saturday mornings or Monday evenings.
Ask An Expert
“You can read guidebooks, but it’s best to ask questions from someone who can point out the slight differences between plants,” she said. “Some plants are similar and grow beside each other, but one is edible and the other is not.”
For example, poisonous white death camas often grows near the edible blue camas. Poisonous hemlock plants have been mistaken for edible watercress.
She also said to not pick plants growing near roads, where exhaust fumes from vehicles contaminate them, or herbicides are often sprayed.
Ideally, plants should be gathered when they are beginning to grow and are tender. From her bowl, she pulls a few of her favorites that are easy to identify.
“Here is lambsquarters,” she said. “Use it as a substitute for spinach. It’s filled with vitamin A.”
Another plant, ground mallow, is prolific.
“The whole plant is edible. Chop it up and put it in stews and soups as a thickener. It soothes a sore throat, too.”
To make Greek dolmathes, broad plantain leaves can be used instead of grape leaves.
“The plant veins can be tough, so you can cook the leaves and scrape away part of the veins.”
Weeds with Benefits
Two weeds that are maligned in the U.S., the dandelion and salsify, are appreciated in European cuisine.
“The dandelion is a wonderful plant,” she said. “The flowers can be made into wine or sautéed in butter. The leaves can be used in salad or stewed. During the war, people roasted the roots for a coffee substitute. Chicory was another coffee substitute.”
The salsify, a tall slender plant with a yellow flower, is prized for its roots.
“I couldn’t believe it. A few years ago, I bought some pickled salsify root at T.J. Maxx. It was made in France and was delicious.”
Other common plants include nettles, wild lettuce, and goldenrod leaves. The petals of columbine, wild hollyhock, and wild roses are also edible.
The oxeye daisy brightens local hillsides. “For this one, the leaves are the best to eat. Wild plants should be harvested conservatively. Always leave the healthiest plants, so they can reproduce.”
In the desert, the moisture-laden fruit of prickly pear cactus can be eaten. “Roast it first and scrape off the needles.”
According to Dolsen, one can find food outdoors even in winter.
“When you scrape away the bark of an aspen tree, you find the spongy white pith underneath and can survive on that.”
She especially enjoys the fall, when berries ripen.
“Wait to pick them until after the first frost, when the starches in the berries have turned to sugar. We have so many berries: elder, thimble, Saskatoon, hawthorn, chokecherries and currants,” she said. “In nature or your yard, there are so many wild plants and fruits to eat almost every season.”
To satisfy my hunger for wild edible plants, she suggested a few resources. Her favorite guidebooks are Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West by Gregory Tilford and Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Terry Willard.
To learn about nutrients in wild edible plants, www.nutritiondata.com is great. If you don’t want to pick wild edibles such as nettles, fiddlehead ferns, and mushrooms, they are available from Whole Earth Harvest based in Yamhill, Ore.
Green Deane Jordan describes common edible weeds, their identification, and preparation at www.eattheweeds.com. Although based in Florida, many plants on his website are common nationwide. ISI