In late March, three weeks after knee-replacement surgery (which explains my lengthy absence from this space), northern New England experienced a record-breaking heat wave.
Daytime temperatures soared into the 80s. The buds on the maple trees burst and the sugarers took down their sap lines. The lilacs and forsythia leafed out, and some forsythias bloomed.
The ice on our backyard pond melted, and we had visits from migrating waterfowl: Canada geese, mallards, and wood ducks. A blue heron flew in to fish in the shallows.
Gradually recovering my ability to walk—albeit it slowly and awkwardly and with trekking poles at first—I ventured into the fields and gardens looking for signs of the first wild foods of spring that typically don’t emerge until mid-April.
Sure enough! Spritely dandelion rosettes poked through the thatch of dead grass in the back yard. The devilish (but delicious--cooked of course) stinging nettles had emerged from the mulch in the raspberry patch. Wood sorrel appeared along the edges of one vegetable plot, and a few wild violet leaves announced themselves in the lawn beside the pond.
Bowls of wild salad and cooking greens (“weeds”) span the weeks until our cultivated lettuce, lamb’s quarters, amaranth, purslane and others—not only wild leafy greens, but also roots, flowers, berries, and stems.
Why bother eating weeds?
We live in a nation of extraordinary food abundance. Foraging wild foods requires knowledge, skill, and a lot of work (and time). Plus, it takes most people a while to acquire a taste for the often-stronger flavors of wild foods and to learn to prepare them creatively.
- Unlike our cultivated food crops, which we pamper with selective breeding, fertilizers, and chemicals that protect them from disease-causing microbes, wild plants have evolved sophisticated strategies for foraging everything they need in an intensely competitive, often-hostile environment. They often contain higher nutrient levels than those found in cultivated food plants, especially trace minerals.
- Wild plants also must manufacture all the compounds that protect them from excess solar radiation and from the attack by fungi, viruses, and bacteria, as well as larger predators. The same compounds plants manufacture for protection from environmental assaults may serve humans as anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, pain relievers, and in many other ways. These health-promoting compounds, which generations of selective breeding have all but eliminated from our cultivated crops, are responsible for the stronger flavors of wild foods. You’ll need to experiment to find tasty ways to serve them.
- Finally, for me anyway, foraging a little of my food from the wild satisfies some deep, primal need, connecting me to the natural world around me and to my hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Before you start foraging: Important rules of thumb
- Never use any plant for food, beverage, or medicine, unless you can identify it with certainty. How do you learn? Read books on wild-food foraging. Check to see if your local Cooperative Extension office, Master Gardener program, or community education center offers wild-food foraging workshops. Seek old-timers who know their weeds and ask if you can accompany them on their foraging trips.
- Never forage weeds from lawns or agricultural fields that have been heavily fertilized or sprayed with pesticides. Know the history of the land you forage on.
Don’t harvest wild greens and roots from lawns or other areas frequented by domestic pets whose droppings may contaminate your harvest. This is especially important if you plan to eat your wild foods raw.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.