In Genesis 1:29–30, God gave to every living animal, including humans, all the green things of the earth to eat (notice that the original intent was vegetarian diet). God set the first humans in a “garden” where they could eat from any plant or tree, except the two God forbade. This garden was not a cultivated orchard but a wild place. But in wild places, food grows.
This theological vision can teach us some real world lessons for coming closer to nature. Knowing the types of plants that are edible and inedible is a great way to get to know the landscape around you. The earth brings forth food naturally, without cultivation. In your backyard, there are probably dozens of edible plants (dandelions, garlic mustard, chicory, plantain, purslane, etc) for foraging. In your neighborhood, there may be dozens of wild edibles growing on trees: wild apples, pears, grapes; hawthorns, crab apples, even cherry trees might be around. In your local park there are most likely hickory, walnut, or other nut trees from which you could gather food.
In addition to helping people get closer to nature and appreciate it, there is nothing more environmentally friendly than foraging for your own food. Most of our food bought in grocery stores, even the “organic” stuff, has traveled thousands of miles, using oil for every step of the process, and further damaging the environment. Yet most of us could get a considerable amount of our own food by simply looking for it in our local wild and overgrown areas.
Below is a guideline for beginning to find wild edible food. You may want to start with just a few wild edibles, perhaps the ones with which you are already familiar but not as food (dandelions for example).
Learn about the plants that grow wild in your area and are edible. There are many field guides for wild edibles that you can purchase. Additionally, your local library may also have some field guides, but you will want to own at least one field guide.
- Find foraging areas
Find areas with natural plant life that can be foraged, such as parks. (Tip: roadway shoulders, railroads and power line ways often have pesticides sprayed, so avoid these areas.)
- Bring a book
Bring an illustrated field guide with you to help you identify the plant. Never eat any plant unless you have identified it.
- Know the edible parts
Your field guide will have details on which part of a plant is edible. Sometimes the root is edible but not the leaves, or vice versa. Other times the entire plant is edible. At other times, there are details on preparation, etc.
- Know what to avoid
Generally, you should not eat a plant that secrets a milky sap, or a black sap. There are no general rules, however, for avoiding the small number of poisonous look-a-likes. This must be done with a field guide and experience. You should try to identify a few species each season. Follow this rule when foraging for mushrooms: “If it ain’t hollow, don’t swallow; if it’s wavy, don’t make gravy; if it’s reddish, you could be deadish.” (Note: mushroom foraging is the most dangerous type of foraging).
- Use an edibility test
Your field guide should have guidelines for a graduated test of edibility. In an edibility test, you test the plant little by little, step by step. Between each step you wait and watch for any unpleasant reaction. The procedure can take a whole day. The last step is to swallow a small amount and wait half a day to see if you get sick.
- Wash food
Wash foraged food before eating it, especially anything picked lower than waist high.
- Do not overharvest
Take only what you can use. Do not completely denude an area of berries, nuts or other wild edibles. Overharvesting can lead to eradication of the wild edible.