Edible Wild Food is Good for Your Health

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I grew up in the woods of New England in the 1950s and ’60s. Some plant-wise person showed me what I could safely eat. I thought it was magical that we could eat wild plants. I remember the awe and wonder I felt when I ate sweet, fresh, green leaves that I had just picked near the brook.

A few years ago, I wanted to grow some different greens for salads, and I planted some sorrel. When it was of edible size, I picked a couple of leaves and ate them right there. Immediately, I was six years old again when I had unknowingly eaten sorrel in the woods.

Green diets and  our hunter-gatherers roots

Before there was agriculture and row cropping, native people were hunter-gatherers. They spent their days hunting animals for meat and gathering plant material for food and medicine. They roamed in search of food and water, which could be found in lush river valleys. Wild food was their only diet.

Wild foods are still eaten today. Some people are experimenting with foraging full time, and some add wild foods to their diet on a regular basis. There are many benefits of eating wild food. The first is obvious – it’s not possibly genetically modified or spray with pesticides! Because these plants have not been hybridized or cultivated, they are in their purest form and nutritionally superior to supermarket foods. They are local, hence acclimated to the area and drought tolerant. Wild foods add different flavors, textures, colors and nutrients to your diet. They add excitement!

Edible plants in your own backyard – literally

There are edible weeds right in your yard, though. We are all familiar with the dandelion. You’ve probably spent umpteen hours digging it out of your lawn, but you can eat the whole plant. It is full of vitamin A, protein, calcium and iron. The early spring greens are good in salads. They can also be used in a stir-fry the way you would use any other greens. The flowers can be used as a garnish and in salads. Once the plant flowers, the leaves get bitter until they have been hit by a late frost in fall. The root can be dried and ground to drink like coffee.

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Purslane grows in my garden. Its low-lying quality makes the perfect groundcover to protect the soil until I’m ready to plant. Then I weed it and eat it! Purslane is a succulent, holding water in its leaves and stems, which makes it drought tolerant. I have seen it flourish here in the high desert during severe drought when herbaceous weeds (including dandelions) were shriveling up and dying. The succulence makes purslane crispy, which adds texture to a salad. Purslane is the best green source of Omega-3 fatty acids, and it contains generous amounts of vitamins A and C, magnesium and calcium.

The triangular leaves of sorrel are high in iron and vitamins A and C. When young, they can be eaten raw in salads, and older, tougher leaves can be steamed or added to a stir-fry. Where you’d use spinach, use sorrel instead. One caution is that it’s high in oxalic acid, which can cause or aggravate kidney problems, so it may be best to use sorrel sparingly.

A few other wild edibles in my area are chicory, chokecherry, calite (wild spinach), wild roses and watercress. I remember forests of wild blackberries back in New England! With a little homework, you can harvest nutrient dense, organic, GMO- and chemical-free foods in the wild for free! What grows near you?

Safety and wild foods

The most important thing about foraging wild foods is to make sure you have correctly identified the plant! If your ID is wrong, it could be deadly. Go on field trips with experts and get experience before ingesting anything on your own. I didn’t go into the woods on my own and start eating plants. Someone showed me what was safe.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.