When I was a youth, my kitchen creations of steamed stinging nettles and butter-sautéed shaggy mane mushrooms invoked a few raised eyebrows and hesitancy in my mom. But I still recall the excitement and pride I felt at having conjured a meal out of things I'd found growing wild in our forest. The idea of living off the land, eating foods you collect and prepare yourself, can be a romantic one. In this age of mass-produced everything, I've read increasing accounts by people who feel disconnected from nature, who wish to be closer to the land and water we dwell on, as well as better stewards of its riches. Not without good reason, either. With concerns about survival haunting our current mindset and issues cropping up daily about the hazards of corporate manufactured foods, there is a real practicality to cultivating a harmonious partnership with our native landscape. Not only rewarding and nourishing to body and spirit—such a relationship may solve a few of our modern troubles.
Besides eating organic, what if you're hungry on a hike? Instead of an invisible stranger, a plant by the path can becomplant for salvation. Other incredibly nutritious plants are as close as your backyard or readily available in meadows and woods: chickweed, purslane, and of course, dandelion. The roots of dandelion, burdock, and Queen Anne's lace—the ancestor of a store-bought carrot—can be stewed into a hearty soup. As spring ripens into early summer and beyond, fruits and berries pop up by the bushel, such as huckleberry, thimbleberry, and salal.
e a familiar personality, a helping spirit, and maybe even a part of your body. This time of year, you'll find some of our finest food plants disguised as irksome weeds. Stinging nettles, for instance, are tasty steamed like kale, but can be eaten fresh! Let the leaves wilt, rub them with a spoon, and they lose their sting. Nettle, which is high in iron, silicon, and potassium, can help those pesky allergies and arthritis, by cleaning your blood and lungs of toxins. Miner's lettuce is another example, easily spotted by the round, succulent leaves that encircle its stems. California gold miners, desperate for fresh fruits and vegetables, turned to this
I met John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, at the Belmont Street Fair last summer. This wickedly humorous fellow presided over a beautiful display of native foods, from clams and berries to flour made from acorns. Kallas, whose 35 years of experience teaching about wild foods make my kenning of local plants seem a bit like child's play, presented a slideshow at the Mazama Mountaineering Center on March 8, where he signed copies of his new book, Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. From June 23 to 26, he'll be leading the GingerRoot Rendezvous intensive course in Silverton, Oregon. Participants will learn to identify and prepare edible wild plants from all over North America. However, Kallas, a trained botanist, isn't just an expert on plants. He also leads courses on edible coastal animals, such as razor clams, and ocean vegetables (seaweeds). Besides the intensives, Wild Food Adventures offers a range of affordable day classes throughout the year, which I look forward to exploring. Find out more at: wildfoodadventures.com.
As in any outdoor pursuit, harvesting wild foods comes with its own ethics. Herbalism has taught me that a group of wild plants is a family, part of a larger community. Wild communities can be irreparably damaged by someone who takes too much, as in the tragic case I read about a with patch of wild ginger—the razing or raping of a whole patch is definitely not a responsible approach. A good rule is to gather only one of every four plants in a particular species group, at most. This ensures a few always remain to produce future generations, resulting in more sustainable ecosystems. Remember you're consuming life forms, and they deserve respect.
Additionally, safety is a consideration. Some plants have serious attitude! The notorious poison hemlock is not, gram for gram, the nation's most noxious plant, but it is our top poisoner because it looks like a lot of other tasty herbs. It's no coincidence. Poison hemlock is in fact related to its look-alikes, including celery, parsley, dill, cilantro, and carrot. Again, an experienced teacher such as Kallas can help you make these critical distinctions. (For example, to distinguish poison hemlock from its Umbelliferae cousins, look for small maroon spots on its stems, and a musty smell.)
Mushrooms are a different matter. I mentioned shaggy mane mushrooms, a member of the Coprinus or "inky cap" family, and a good edible. But inky caps are only edible up to a point, and a similar species has a toxin that only activates when you drink alcohol! You'd need to stay dry for five days after this dinner. Many mushrooms, like chantrelles, are wonderful foods, while others have the wildest poisons in the woods. Fortunately, courses in Oregon mushroom identification are offered several times a year by Bark and other organizations.
I've found that learning about wild foods can be intensely fulfilling, bringing you more in tune with the outdoors as well as your own spirit. As participants in outdoor recreation, our responsibility as caretakers and advocates of wild places need not be a chore. Rather, it can be an excellent adventure, an ongoing and ever-deepening love affair with the earth that sustains us and with all the living things we meet along the way, through one of the most intimate connections we have—our next meal.
Wendy Marshall has been an amateur herbalist for seven years. In addition to mountain climbing and hiking, she is a perpetual student of life and periodically takes courses in curious things, such as how to make stone tools.