Nature Speaks : Blog
Wild Foods: Enjoying Nature One Bite at a Time
This post is written by Mi Ae Lipe, a friend of Nature Speaks to Us and a lifelong plant lover who has foraging for wild foods since childhood.
One of the most fun ways to discover nature is to enjoy wild foods in the form of edible leaves, fruits, flowers, berries, and nuts. These can be unexpected trail nibbles on a hike, a camping trip, or even just an evening stroll, or, with some preparation, you can do more extensive foraging.
Lush Greens, Abundant Fruits
Most people are completely unaware of how much yummy, nutritious wild food they pass by in just about any forest, meadow, beach, or even an empty, abandoned lot. Many plants that we think of as common or even invasive weeds are edible and delicious, like dandelions, plantains, nettles (yes, really), wild fennel, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, fiddleheads (the curled shoots of young ferns), purslane, and even cattails. With a little practice, curiosity, and a great field guide or knowledgeable friend, these plants are very easy to spot and gather.
In Washington State, Oregon, and southern British Columbia, berries are king, starting in mid-June and reaching their peak in August—in fact, right now. Salmonberries, cloudberries, thimbleberries, Oregon grapes, currants, raspberries, gooseberries, salal, wild strawberries, and on and on. Of all of them, huckleberries are perhaps the most prized wild food by people and wildlife alike (see below).
And then there are the large, juicy Himalayan blackberries, a nonnative species that dominates the Pacific Northwest with its large bushes and aggressive growth. Literally, thousands of tons of berries go to waste every late summer for the lack of people to pick their generous bunches; you can smell the winey perfume of rotting fruit along almost any PNW roadside in the hot air of August and September.
The Wild Foods of Beaches and Forests
The waters and beaches of the Salish Sea are legendary for their luscious shellfish, but they also yield seaweeds like laver and sea lettuce. While it may look unappetizing, seaweed is packed with vitamins and often hard-to-find minerals from the ocean. It can be stir-fried, dried to make a chewy, slightly salty snack, or ground into a green powder that can be added to soups and smoothies for extra nutrients.
You may also find on some beaches and inlets a delectably crunchy, salty plant called salicornia, pictured below (you may have seen it on upscale restaurant menus or in markets as “sea beans”). There are also fat, succulent rose hips, the fleshy leaves of orach, and tart sorrel.
Look up and you may see abundance lurking above you as well: Wild hazelnuts, walnuts, acorns from black and white oaks, chokecherries, mulberries, sumac, crabapples, wild plums, and hawthorns. Even the young, light-green, citrusy tips of Douglas firs and some spruces can be delicious in tea or infused in dessert syrups in early spring.
Incredibly flavorful wild mushrooms are also not to be overlooked. They adore the moist, cool forests of the Pacific Northwest, where you can find them in abundance in the fall, late winter, and early spring. Because mushrooms come in so many different varieties and some are toxic or at least can cause stomach upset, it’s essential to properly identify them before eating. It’s best to join your local mycological society, which can hook you up with resources, identification guides, and like-minded members (here is a list of Pacific Northwest mushroom organizations).
Why Seek Out Wild Foods?
With all the variety available to us in our supermarkets and farmers markets, why are wild foods worth pursuing anyway?
- It gets you out into nature. The physical, psychological, and health benefits to being out in the natural world are powerful, well-documented, and undeniable. It slows you down mentally and helps you get exercise and fresh air. And finding tasty things to eat only enhances this well-being!
- It’s a pastime that you can do by yourself, with friends, or with family. With their acute observation and curiosity, children especially adore identifying wild leaves, flowers, and berries; encouraging them to explore and connect with nature this way gives them gifts they’ll enjoy for a lifetime. And you can learn and discover with them!
- Wild foods are more nutritious than their cultivated cousins. As part of both their defenses against insects and other threats and the fertility of the soils in which they grow, wild plants can pack an astounding density of protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients in their leaves, nuts, and fruits—usually far more so than the domestic plants we eat.
- You learn a sense of place. In our modern, technology-laced age where we sometimes feel disconnected and isolated, getting outdoors and learning about the plants and wildlife—even if it’s just in your neighborhood park or an abandoned lot—can help you discover your environment (and literally look at it) in a whole new way that Google Maps never could.
- As well as a sense of seasons! Wild food foraging is all about what’s happening in a plant’s life cycle throughout the year. From seeking cattail shoots in early spring to hunting for morels in late spring and enjoying berries and rose hips in late summer, there is always something to look forward to!
A Few Things to Know Before You Nibble Wild Foods
Before you sample, gather, or forage wild foods, it’s very important to be safe. Here are a few details to know:
- Never eat a plant if you don’t know exactly what it is. While many wild edibles are easy to identify, there are some very poisonous lookalikes that be quite unpleasant indeed if ingested. Always use a reliable, trusted field guide (Northwest Foraging is a good one, as is Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon). Even better, study a field guide and go out with someone knowledgeable and experienced in wild plant identification and gathering who can point out nuances. It’s also good to study what common plants are poisonous as well as those that are edible.
- Not all parts of a plant are edible. Many plants have certain parts that are perfectly safe to eat while others are poisonous (our own domestic rhubarb is a good example—we eat its juicy stems, but its leaves are highly toxic). So, just because one part of the plant is edible doesn’t mean the whole thing is. Toxicity can also vary at different times of the year. Always consult a reliable field guide, never assume, and double-check or don’t eat if you aren’t sure.
- Along these lines, don’t let your children pop something into their mouths without your permission. Also, don’t assume that just because you saw an animal eat something that it’s edible for you, too. Many animals can tolerate things that would make us sick.
- Keep in mind that many wild plants need to be cooked rather than eaten raw. This is especially true of ferns and mushrooms. Again, always consult a reputable field guide.
- Be careful where you gather your wild food plants from. Plants absorb toxins from their environment, so think twice before gathering and consuming wild edibles from places that might be exposed to runoff, pesticides, excessive air pollutants, stagnant sewage, industrial chemicals, or water with potentially high bacterial counts (i.e., watercress near livestock farms or berries from busy roadsides). Young children are especially vulnerable to these toxins, more so than adults. Thoroughly wash or rinse berries or leaves that have been gathered from near busy roadsides with clean water (soap is not necessary).
- There is a difference between nibbling a few bits and foraging for larger quantities. If you do the latter, know that there are often restrictions as to how much can be gathered, depending on the location, amount, and whether the land is on city, state, or federal park lands (permits are often required). Know before you go!
- Be respectful and leave some for others. It’s not just us humans who enjoy wild foods; wildlife like birds, deer, bears, and other creatures depend on these nuts, fruits, and berries too. Plants also need enough to reproduce themselves next year, so always leave at least 30 to 40 percent of whatever you find.