Monday, July 31, 2017

Edible Plants in Your Backyard

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The other night I went to a lecture by Tim MacWelsh at Meadowside Nature Center. I've always been curious about plants you can eat in the wild (besides the obvious berries like blackberries and such), so when I saw a Meet-Up about an event about edible plants, I signed up immediately.

MacWelsh has written several books about wilderness survival, from hunting and foraging to living off the grid or in the wilderness in the winter. He also recommended other books like Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, which lists more than 400 species! He grew up in Virginia, and teaches advanced survival training courses (and does talks like the one I went to). He mentioned the quote, "In the school of the woods, there is no graduation day," meaning we are always learning from nature. And of course he puts a big focus on safety, and always cautions that you should only eat the plants that you know are safe.

Here are the species he talked about:

White Clover (Trifolium repens)

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You can eat both the leaves and the flowers, which is true of other varieties of clover, too. You can cook them with oil, or just eat them raw. The genus "Trifolium" means "three leaves," so that's an easy way to identify these plants (unless of course you find the rare four-leaf clover!).

Plantain (Plantago major)
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I believe we saw a subspecies of this, but I think you can eat many types of plantain. A helpful way to identify them is that the veins in the leaves run parallel to one another, and if you were to rip a rip, the texture is a bit stringy. There may even be some purple color at the bottom of the stems. The seed stalk (like in the picture) is also edible; you can rub the seeds off and mix them with grains like cous cous and quinoa.

Not only can you eat this plant, but you can also use it medicinally! If you chew or rip up the leaves, mush it up, and put it on a burn, bee sting, cut, or rash, it will help stop the pain or burning sensation.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

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We didn't actually see this plant, but since the previous plant had medicinal purposes, MacWelsh mentioned this one as well. Stinging nettle can, well, sting, but it actually can act as its own antodote, too! And you can eat it, but only if it's cooked, and it's best in the early spring.

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)

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The berries were gone when we looked at the plant, but I've seen (and eaten) these before! They are very yummy, and related to blackberries and raspberries. You can eat pretty much anything in the Rubus genus. Other animals eat these berries, too. But MacWelsh did point out that you should NOT watch what other animals eat and assume that the food is safe for humans, too. Birds eat a lot of berries that are poisonous to people, so only eat what you know for sure is safe!

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

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I already knew how to identify a sassafra tree with its three different shaped leaves (The tree also has crooked, winding branches, which can help with IDing, too), and I had heard of sassafras tea. If you dry the leaves, you can add them to a gumbo or jambalaya for a citrus taste; it also acts like corn starch in that it thickens soups. You can use the twigs and/or roots to make tea, and you only need a piece about the size of a pencil. You steep it in water, and then you've got tea; you can even use the same twig/root four times! Some people say that sassafras is carcinogenic, but MacWelsh says you would need to drink 40 gallons of tea a day in order for it to be really dangerous, so you're safe!

And don't feel bad about cutting the roots of the tree. Sassafras grown clonally, meaning that another plant will start growing from where you cut that root. So you're actually helping the species by doing that!

Oaks (Genus Quercus; specifically talking about acorns)

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Acorns are a good source of protein, and each pound of them can give you 2,000 calories! But you can't eat acorns raw. They need to be processed to get rid of the tanic acids (which can cause dry mouth and nausea). You do that by cracking the outer shell off (which is waterproof) and then soaking the nut pieces in water for several hours or even days (tossing out the water and refreshing it regularly) until the bitterness in the nuts is gone.

Of course you can eat them as nuts, but you can also grind them into flour and use that to make cookies, porridge, crackers, and things like that (but not fluffy things like cake or bread; more crumbly things). MacWelsh even suggested putting sassafras tea in a recipe like this instead of water to add even more flavor; what a good idea!

He recommends the acorns of the White Oak (Quercus alba) best, but says those of the Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) are good, too. He says late September is a good time to gather acorns. You can simply lay a tarp under an Oak tree and wait for the acorns to fall. You can also easily freeze them, which helps kill any bugs that might be in/on the nuts. Sounds pretty easy!

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)

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This is what we call it in North America, but this plant is more commonly known as Wild Carrot. And it's called that because the roots look like small, white carrots, and that's the part you can eat. To ID this plant, the stem should have little hairs on it, and the brachs underneath (like in the second picture) should have three toes on each of them. If you don't see both of those clues, don't eat it! You might confuse this plant with Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) or Fool's Parsley (Aethusa cynapium), so you want to be really sure it's Wild Carrot before you eat it. The seeds of the Wild Carrot are slightly toxic, and historically were used like a "morning after" pill. But MacWelsh doesn't recommend this as an effective birth control method, so don't gather up a bunch of seeds for that!

The root is better to eat on the first year of this biennial plant (raw or cooked), since the meat is more tender, but the plant can be harder to ID in its first year because it hasn't flowered yet. In the second year, the root is good for flavor, like for putting in a soup, but it's too fibrous to actually eat. This plant is where our own regular carrots came from, so there is a relationship there.

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

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I've definitely seen these fall from a tree before, but I've never eaten them. You want to take the green outside off, let the nuts dry, and then you can crack them open to get to the nut meat, which you can eat raw. These nuts have 180 calories per ounce, so definitely good foraging food.

Dandelions (Taraxacum)
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You can eat every part of this plant, from the flowers to the stems to the leaves, raw or cooked. MacWelsh says he likes to make dandelion fritters; he coats the flowers in cornmeal batter and then fries them in oil. The leaves are a little bitter, but if you chop them up, sauté them in oil, and mix them with grains like rice or something like that, they're pretty good. Even the root can be roasted like a vegetable, or can be used to make a coffee-like drink (NOT for serious coffee snobs, though!).

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

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I already knew the flowers were edible, but he recommended putting them raw into a white cake mix to add some color. What a fun idea! I mainly asked him about this plant because I was curious about their seed pods, which look a lot like pea pods. He recommends only eating them when they are no longer than two inches (one inch is best), and boiling them in water to cook them.

Milkweed (Asclepias)
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Image found here (along with how to cook them)
You can only eat the immature pods. But I personally would say don't eat them: save them for the endangered monarch butterfly!

Notice that I didn't list any mushrooms. Someone in the group asked about foraging for mushrooms, but he believes doing that isn't worth the risk (since so many are poisonous), and the amount of work for positively IDing a mushroom to be safe for eating isn't worth the few calories you get out of it. He says that the Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) and morel mushrooms (Morchella) are the only ones he feels safe eating.

He also talked about jewelweed, not because it's edible, but because the juice from the stem can be used to counteract the toxins in poison ivy. But you have to be fast for it to work!

Here are some final tips:
-To find a good place to forage, try to go where a truck can't get to; that means it's unlikely that the area has been sprayed with pesticides. You should also forage uphill, since that means less pollution runoff. Also stay away from power lines and train tracks; those also get a lot of traffic.
-For washing plants, usually water is fine. But if you want to be more thorough, you can mix lemon juice with salt in water to make a cleaning mixture. A little bit of iodine can help, too. But, if you're cooking what you've foraged, you're probably okay, because the heat will kill any of those bad, dirty things you don't want to eat.

MacWelsh is so knowledgeable, and really funny! I greatly enjoyed this talk, so if you're in the DC/MD/VA area, I recommend trying to make it to one of his classes/talks!

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