On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, on the grounds of an ex-horse stable, Nate Chetelat presents a wild plant identification tour for a local gardening group. The focus of the tour is foraging and common wild plants that are useful for humans.
Proper wild plant identification is paramount if you are going to forage. Do not eat anything you are unsure about eating. Foraging books and guides will aid you in correct identification as well as vocational learning with an experienced guide. Drying mushrooms is another activity you can happily and safely complete once you know how to properly identify wild organisms around your homestead.
Many of the edible weeds that Chetelat discussed are cosmopolitan and you may be able to find them or a close relative in your own backyard. Being able to properly identify and benefit from wild plants should be an accentuated item on your survival skills list. As I joined the tour, I questioned if I was prepared for the foraging ahead. I was wearing shorts and flip-flops since it was spring after all. Nate was wearing long heavy pants and boots.
“This is foraging and it is very safe,” Chetelat says as he is waist high in brush. “Last time I did this I got bitten up by fire ants and found snake eggs.”
Ground Nut, Apios americana
Chetelat was pulling out his favorite wild edible plant. Ground nuts, who are members of the pea family, fix the nitrogen in the soil. They have a two-year cycle which is one reason why they are not a popular main stream food. Ground nuts prefer moist sandy soil near riverbanks. They thrive across the United States and spread rapidly. The greens resemble wisteria. Henry David Thoreau praised their virtues in his book Walden. Ground nut leaves are pinnate and have five to seven leaflets which have smooth edges and are hairless. The flowers give off a sweet musk. A soybean relative in the pea family, ground nuts produce an edible tuber that contains at least 20 percent protein which is three times more than potatoes. Tubers are sweeter in the fall, but can be harvested year round. By tracing the fragile looking stem to the ground, dig down two inches and pull gently to uncover the tubers. Since the skins are thin, there is no need to peel them. Do not eat them raw, however, since they can cause gas and have a sticky substance. Cut them into small manageable pieces and stem for 15 to 20 minutes. Pierce with a knife like a potato to check if they are properly cooked. The stock can be saved for soups.
Wood Sorrel, Oxalis spp.
Oxalis was one of the first plants Chetelat showed the group. Many were are familiar with it as it is a true cosmopolitan weed – they can be found everywhere on Earth, except for the poles. There are more than 800 species. This perennial can grow six to eight inches high and has three leaves per stem; similar to the unrelated clover. Chetelat enjoys making a Christmas salad with oxalis, radicchio, and fried pig’s ears. The oxalis’ tart flavor balances out the radicchio’s bitter flavor. The crunchiness of the fried pig’s ears makes this salad one of Chetelat’s favorites.
Poor Man’s Pepper, Lepidium virginicum
Poor Man’s Pepper is an annual or biennial plant in the Brassicacease or mustard family. It is native to much of the United States and Mexico and some southern regions of Canada. It can easily be identified by its raceme which first contains small white flowers that later turn into greenish fruits. Chetelat describes their taste as a fresh radish flavor. It prefers sunny locations with dry soil. The seed pods can be used as a substitute for black pepper and the greens can be used as a potherb, sautéed or used raw.
Spanish Needle, Bidens alba
The leaves and flowers of this plant are edible. Unfortunately, Chetelat says, there is a war being waged on them by lawn companies. This is a shame since in Florida this ‘weed’ is the third most common nectar producer for honey bees. The second being saw palmettos and the first being the non-native citrus. Chetelat urges the crowd, “Let’s make them number one again.” Seeds can be crushed up into a topical pain killer. The flowers in Hawaii are dried and used as a flavoring for a simple tea, much like that of the lemonade made from staghorn sumac.
Bacopa, Bacopa monnieri
Bacopa monnieri can be found in semi-wet conditions throughout the world. Chetelat teaches the group that Bacopa is a common health food supplement as it directly affects neural regeneration and development, which in turn helps with memory retention. The small thick succulent-type leaves creep along the wet ground at three to six inches high. The leaves which are rough to the touch have the smell of lime or lemon. By adding these leaves to hot water you can make a refreshing tea.
False Hawksbeard, Youngia japonica or Crepis japonica
This edible weed has veiny, crinkly, edged leaves that are curled slightly. The plant comes up early in the spring and in Florida grows in shade in the hotter months. It resembles a dandelion since its leaves grow in a rosette and the flowers are yellow. Hawksbeard differ from dandelions since their stem contains multiple stalks with multiple blossoms. The younger leaves can be eaten fresh, while older leaves can be used as a potherb. Can be found from Pennsylvania to Florida and west to Texas.
Dollar Weed, Hydrocotyle spp.
A common unwanted plant in the yard is not only edible but tastes fresh like a mix of a carrot and celery and can be added to flavor stock. Chetelat says it is a member of the carrot family and the leaves are the part you consume, as the stem and roots are hard. It can grow in Zones three to 11 and is said to be difficult to control. How cool would it be if we controlled weeds organically with our appetite?
Pony Foot, Dichondra carolinensis
Pony foot resembles a pony’s foot (so it’s at least easy to identify) and grows in similar environments as dollar weed, which is wet, swamp-like areas. Both species can also be easily found in most, hypothetical monocultured, manicured lawns. So we have a swamp-like plant living in most homeowner’s front lawns. “You can do with that information as you will,” says Chetelat. He urges to the group to question our water usage. Pony foot does not have a strong flavor and is great to add to a bitter greens salad to create balance.
Although lots of plants are edible, not all are palatable and of course, some are toxic. For example, Chetelat says that while you can eat the young leaves of a willow, historically people have said that they would rather eat their own shoes. When foraging, remember that it is against the law to take plants from public land. Harvest, forage and propagate these edible wild plants from private land that you have been granted permission.
Books to further your education on edible wild plant identification include:
- Southwest Foraging: 117 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Barrel Cactus to Wild Oregano by John Slattery
- Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook by Dina Falconi
- Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest: A Practical Guide by Delena Tull
- Florida’s Edible Wild Plants: A Guide to Collecting and Cooking by Peggy Sias Lantz
- Countryside Network also carries a number of great titles on foraging
As the tour was ending Chetelat exclaimed, “Ooh! The elephant ear is flowering.” A member of the group says that they are invasive, trying to dismiss the beauty of the invasive flower. Nate replies, “Lots of things are invasive – like Europeans.”
The group dissipates after ten or so minutes and a few of us remain. Chetelat shares with the remainders, “I don’t know if anyone is excited as I am, but I saw some dandelions over there so if you want follow me.”
So what wild plants have you foraged for? Let us know in the comments below.