Edible wild plants, virtually free and nutritious

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By Deanna Godman

In this time of economic uncertainty, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to find an inexpensive source of food that is highly nutritious? It’s possible by foraging for wild edible plants. Most people cringe when they see weeds like dandelions, clover and plantain growing in their yards, and yet these weeds provide an alternative to the expensive lettuce mixes available at the store. It is possible to find free food growing in your back yard – you just have to alter your perception of what a weed really is.

Perhaps the best way to get started on eating wild food is by using wild greens in salad. According to Sara Fazio, who co-taught an SOS class on kitchen and medicinal herbs, including wild edibles, with her mother Karen Patterson, “I like to incorporate them into my salads. Right before your lettuce starts coming on, you can actually be eating those greens.”

Fazio says she got started in eating wild plants because “I guess what got me started on that. . . I garden and I see the ways that God takes care of birds and animals and wondered why he didn’t do the same for us. I wondered if maybe he was” and humans just weren’t paying attention to the bounty surrounding them. She says that what’s important is how you categorize something as a weed. Plants such as dandelions, plantains, lambsquarters, and clover are all edible and nutritious but are seen as weeds because they grow without being cultivated – often where you would rather have grass or tomato plants.

You do have to be cautious when choosing wild edible plants. According to Bryce Roberts, Spencer County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources, “You have to be cautious with ‘weeds’ such as dandelions to make sure that they haven’t been sprayed with an herbicide. Also, be on the lookout for poison ivy if you are searching in a wooded area.” It’s important not to harvest near roads, too, because toxins and salts may be present, according to the website About.com’s Landscaping page.

Plantain can be eaten when it is really young in salads. As it gets older, it gets tough and bitter. Fazio says, “When it’s small, it’s more tasty.” Fazio says, “When it comes to greens and wild edibles . . . add it to your salad. Clover can give it color; dandelion can add texture. It really jazzes up your salad.” Dandelion and lambsquarter greens can also be substituted for kale or collard greens, and braised or boiled. Chickweed is flavorful when it is young.

According to magazine Mother Earth News, the entire dandelion plant is edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. The flowers can be made into dandelion wine or battered and fried. The root can be eaten raw or steamed. According to a tip sheet on edible flowers from the University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service, dandelion flowers are bitter. They can be used as an ingredient in syrups or cookies, however.

Fazio says that one important reason that she collects and eats wild plants is “it’s to give me more confidence, that I can take care of my kids” in an emergency. “It gives you a certain amount of security to know these things; that if you were in a situation, you could take care of yourself.”

Wild edible plants are an excellent source of nutrition. According to the website About.com’s Nutrition page, a cup of dandelion greens contains 103 mg of calcium, 1.71 mg of iron, 2712 IU of Vitamin A, 150.5 mg of Vitamin K, and the antioxidant lutein. In comparison, spinach has 30 mg of calcium, 0.81 mg of iron, 2813 IU of Vitamin A, and 144.9 mg of Vitamin K.

If you have experiences with wild edibles or recipes that you would like to share, please email Deanna at ideas@funmama.net. You can find Deanna’s experiences with wild edibles, along with suggested resources at Deanna’s blog: http://blog.funmama.net.