Gathering Wild Food and Knowledge
Perhaps you might be interested in taking a fall foraging walk! Foraging is simply the act of gathering wild foods in nature. Think wild blackberries, nuts, and nettles. While our ancestors relied on foraging, today it's more about a way to outdoors, get exercise and get to know the natural world.
I do most of my wild food foraging during the spring/summer growing season, in and around the vegetable gardens, fields, and forest edges surrounding them: dandelion greens, lamb’s quarters, amaranth leaves, purslane, wild mustard, blueberries, blackberries, Concord grapes.
My editor, who used to live in England, had shared an interesting article from a British magazine on tips on October Foraging. A wonderful online resource! It got me wondering about fall foraging here in my little patch of northern New England. Come join me and get inspired by what's in nature. Your part of the world may bring different discoveries!
I set out on a gorgeous October morning—bright sunshine, maples and other hardwood trees resplendent in fall foliage, windy, cool enough for a fleece jacket—to see what edibles I could find. I wasn’t looking for lunch, just challenging myself to see what nature’s pantry might have to offer at this time of year.
- I usually collect enough wild apples and crabapples from trees along the roadside and property boundaries to make a couple of batches of deep pink applesauce. Alas, the severe drought that’s been with us since spring prevented the trees from setting much fruit. What few fruits did appear were assaulted by thirsty or merely opportunistic insects (including honeybees). The few that matured and fell were quickly consumed or taken away by birds and native wildlife. All our native wildlife eat wild apples, including white-tailed deer, bears, moose—even the carnivorous coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and fishers.
See the Almanac's recipe for crab apple jelly.
Image: Crab apples and fall berries. Credit: Steven Silver Smith.
- Tramping around, I discovered several beverage possibilities: Wild mint growing along the edge of our small pond, a few stands of staghorn sumac bearing deep-crimson fruits clusters (long used to make a sour brew) that can stand in for lemonade, and to my horror, a broad swath of invasive multiflora roses that have taken up residence in a large area behind my raspberry patch. Ferocious thorns drew blood as I waded through the rosebushes collecting some of the thousands of tiny, vitamin-C-rich rose hips.
Brewed together and lightly sweetened, mint leaves, sumac drupes, and rose hip fruits will make a superior drink, hot or cold.
See the Almanac's recipe for rose hip jam.
Image: Wild rose hips. During World War 2, this was an important way to supplement vitamin C intake since citrus wasn't widely available.
- Native Americans and early settlers feasted on the black walnuts native to this area, generally ripening and falling off the trees this time of year. I rummaged around a bit on the ground under our three black walnut trees. The walnuts have been sparse this year, and I assume dozens of gray squirrels and chipmunks running around the grounds made off with most of them. No doubt in a year or two, I’ll see black walnut shoots coming up in my gardens and raised beds, where the industrious rodents buried the nuts and forgot about them.
Even in the years when we’ve been able to collect a bumper crop of walnuts in five-gallon pails, getting at the nutmeats is a considerable challenge. Then you dry the nutmeats in or out of the shell in a warm place, oven, or food dehydrator. It can take a chisel and hammer to remove the nut from its thick green, aromatic hull—and a vise or a hammer and cement block (a small indentation in the block helps to hold the nut in place). You’ll need safety glasses to avoid flying debris and pliers or a nut pick to remove the nutmeat. To learn more, watch this and weep.
See the Almanac's article on black walnuts, including how to harvest and eat the nuts.
Image: Bam! Watch out for the falling black walnuts this time of year. They're edible but it's a project to crack them!
- Native to Eurasia and introduced into North America in the 1700s for its medicinal properties, wild burdock prevails as a primary invader in my raspberry patch, where I noticed dozens of first-year rosettes alongside the second year plant bearing dry, prickly fruits called burrs. October is just the right time for digging the long tapered roots. Rich in vitamins and minerals. Scrubbed well, peeled, and chopped, these can be added to salads for a crunch, or cooked like carrots or parsnips.
Image: Wild burdock "burrs." Credit: Margaret Boyles
- Two species of wild burdock grow profusely as weeds in my raspberry patch, so I set about digging some burdock roots. Using a garden fork and a long spade I dug and dug and dug, pulling out rocks wedged against the slender roots. Forty-five minutes of digging netted me four small, broken roots. Maybe a small contribution to my next soup.
Image: Wild burdock roots. Roots can be eaten and also have medicinal value. Credit: 13smile.
- I noticed dandelion greens all over the lawn and more than a few wild violets, just the right size for eating. I’ve never eaten them in fall, since I usually still have many cultivated greens in my garden, but I’ll give these lovely dandelions and violets a try—in soup, or stir-fried with onions. The dandelion greens become bitter after flowering in spring, but this new flush of leaves may be sweet and flavorful since it's already experienced a few frosts.
Image: Dandelion greens in October. Credit: Margaret Boyles.
Credit: Wild violet greens. Credit: Margaret Boyles.
- On my way back to the house, I spotted two small puffball mushrooms, the first I’ve seen this season. I don’t forage for or eat wild mushrooms because a mistaken identity can be deadly. If I’d found a larger cluster of pure white puffballs, I’d check with an expert before eating them. Given the pandemic, my experts aren’t available.
Image: Puffball mushrooms, wild rose hips, and walnut. Credit: Margaret Boyle.
- Best find of the day: a big handful of ripe raspberries that had matured on our summer raspberries’ primocanes (first-season canes that generally bear the following year). Not wild, but surely foraged—and delicious! We added them to some blackberries from the freezer for lunch.
Back at the house, I discovered dozens of burrs stuck to my hat and shirt, remembering that some folks soak the burrs in water, remove the seeds, and sprout them to eat in salads. I could easily have harvested a gallon of burrs to sprout, but not today (probably never).
I’d characterize this fall foraging exercise as a lot of fun, but ummm . . . more about the exercise than the food.
Eager to learn more about your natural foodscape? Check out Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus. First published in 1968, it’s still in print, and still a great read. Gibbons spent much of his life exploring the fields, forests, and wetlands in search of edible wild plants, and concocting an astonishing array of recipes for foods and drinks that used them. Edible Wild Food is also an excellent resource.