In our previous post on wild foods, we mentioned some of the reasons that people don’t go out foraging. In this post, we review some of foraging’s benefits.
Benefits of wild food
What characteristics does wild food have over agricultural food? Well, first, it’s impractical to think we could live entirely off wild food for any length of time. A large population planning to survive off food in the wild would deplete this resource pretty fast. There just isn’t enough of it. We’ve already seen this in the over-harvesting of our wild medicinal plants for lucrative foreign markets. Things like American Ginseng have been depleted beyond the ability of the wild population to regrow. It’s really impossible for a large percentage of the population to ever solely exist on food from the wild. We just have too many people now for wild foods to support us entirely.
But we’re not talking about living off wild fare for the entirety of our diet. We’re talking about supplementation, about addition. In supplementing with wild foods, there are far more advantages than disadvantages. Following are some of them:
You’ve probably heard the saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch? While this might be figuratively true, taken literally, it’s really not. Such a thing as a free lunch exists and it grows all around you. As we mentioned in the last post, wild foods are everywhere. For the most part the earth grows plants. Sure there are places such as food deserts in urban centers where there is very little that is not concrete, places where human planning negates basic things like trees, dirt, and plants (and grocery stores). And there are also lands that undergo famine and real deserts where food is more scarce. But for the most part, the Earth’s current default state is toward wild growth and some of this wild growth is food.
When you have knowledge of this food that grows around you, this knowledge is freeing, because you recognize that food is hardly the complex system of seed company – farmer-distributor- grocery store-consumer that it is sometimes made to be. By harvesting wild food, we cut out all the middle men, all the dependencies and we declare our independence to do one of the most basic, rewarding things in our human lives; that is, to eat.
Foraging gives adventure and so it gives you stories to tell. While I’ve never been in a situation where I have wrestled black bears for blackberries or carried a fair maiden through the fireswamp, some of my best times have been out in the woods looking for wild food. My two oldest children used to ride on my back at a local park while we hiked through the forest and into a particularly nice location where we harvested wild leeks, wild garlic, garlic mustard, spring beauties, spice bush, hawthorns and paw paws. Besides just giving my children a practical education in the lesser known plants that we humans could eat, the place left an imprint on the kids.
My oldest, then five, dubbed the place “flower world”, as it seemed to her that it was always in bloom. And it seemed that, as we descended the high ground down to the valley filled with rivers and wetlands, she was right. This place did seem a world separate from the world above and so it deserved a separate name. Her renaming of the place I think was important because it signified that this was a place of adventure, a place where magic could happen if you let it, a place separate from the drudgery of the day to day.
When I was kid, I was proud to have eaten the cattail with my brother when we were camping in our backyard. We lived on ten acres in the country that was divided in half by a large swamp. Frequently we would take our tent around the swamp and camp on the other side. I remember my brother putting the roots of the cattail into a pan and boiling them. I don’t even know if he washed them first, but we were young and inexperienced enough that it didn’t matter. What mattered to us is we knew that the cattail could be eaten, and we just ate it. That was good enough.
Over time I discovered that my parent’s land also had sassafrass, juneberries, blueberries, dewberries, sorrel, wild horsemint, autumn olives, wintergreen,and all kinds of wild mustards among other edibles. To this day I look forward to going back and searching for all the edible plants. My kids sometimes even have a greater plant knowledge than I do. Their eyes are sharper too. For them this grocery store in the woods, as we mentioned in the last Wild Food Matters post, is a reality. They can rattle off all the plants they see around them and know if they are ready to be picked according to the season. If they are, they don’t waste any time eating them.
Eating wild, roots you in your locale. Wild eating is seasonal and local eating at its finest. When you’re looking for wild foods, you begin to note relationships between plants and their environments, where they grow in relation to the sun, and even their relation to other plants. This not only gives you an insight into how the ecosystem works in your local area but also gives you an advantage the next time you decide to go out foraging. A seasoned forager will use all senses to rapidly determine whether or not an area will have a particular food. Noted mycologist, Paul Stamets, for example, claims he can go into an area and recognize a certain mycelium lives there just by smell. Now that’s a heightened sense of awareness!
Just by getting you outside, foraging benefits your health. There are many studies that show the health benefits of getting outside in nature and exploring. These studies show you can reduce stress and inflammation in your body and improve concentration, memory and creativity. The Japanese call this Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing and have for many years in their culture prescribed retreats into the forest for well-being.
Usually, the most nutritious fare is that which we harvest directly from the soil. That’s why seasonal eating makes sense. That’s why local eating making sense. When something is picked unripe and is shipped for miles, upon miles, so we can taste that fruit or vegetable out of season, then we are not getting that fruit or veggie at peak nutritional content. It is best to source local, if you can. And, as mentioned above, wild food is about as local as you can get. That’s not to discount the exotics that are sold in the grocery store. That’s another great way to build diversity in your diet for sure, but you would be much better off harvesting that tropical fruit or veggie directly off the tree when its at peak freshness.
6. Solves Agricultural and Environmental Problems:
If we all supplemented with wild foods, using sustainable harvest and monitoring practices to ensure the stability of these food’s populations over the long haul, what would happen? For one, farmers would actually have to plant and harvest less, because we are partly using the stuff that just naturally grows. This could conceivably open more lands up to be wild and hence give more people the advantages of wild food consumption. Many weeds would also become a commodity, instead of a bane that we need to wipe out of existence. Because in reality, they’re not weeds at all. They’re just food that has fallen out of favor.
When we weed our gardens, we find purslane, plantain, dandelion, amaranth, sorrel, and lambs-quarters just to name a few. All of these are good-for-you, delicious plants that need no complex preparation to eat. Researching this further, when I just glance at this list of all the common agricultural weeds in our area, I can see 45 or more plants that are edible. And I’m sure I’d find more, if I got my ID books out and looked them all up. These are plants that farmers desperately try to destroy to ensure their staple crops are protected. Why are we not eating these plants?
Another example of this is invasives. Many of the invasives in our area have edible and other uses. If we were just to eat the plants, we could eat them into extinction in no time. One of my favorites in our area is the autumn olive. This plant yields an incredible amount of berries in the fall months, and we pick them heavy in most years. The berries are excellent.
The other neat thing about the autumn olive is that they are nitrogen fixers. That is, they pull nitrogen in from the atmosphere and inject it into the soil which benefits the plants that grow nearby. In order to control our autumn olives, we plan on pulling out the grove that has sprouted on the side of our house and planting them near our fruit trees in our orchard. We plan on trimming them hard most years and using the branches to feed our goats or to mulch around our trees. By doing this, we are not only controlling the spread of this species, but also enjoying its bounty.
Wild food will benefit the diversity in your diet in so many ways. The number of wild edibles, especially in warmer areas of the world seem inestimable. In addition, many of the invasives that have plagued the south like air potato and kudzu are in fact edibles. Being a Northerner, southern and tropical locations sometimes make me jealous with all the wild food that they have.
But even in the northern climes, there is still food to harvest in the winter as a supplement. We can harvest plants like cattails in areas where there is moving water. There’s also wintergreen, sumac, evergreens (pines and hemlock) and during a winter thaw, even wild mushrooms (enokis and turkey tail) . But when it’s warmer, we have more edibles up here too. During the spring, after we harvest maple syrup and spring ephemerals (wild leeks, spring beauties, wild garlic), then many mushrooms like morels and oysters flood the forest, followed by greens and tons of fruit bearing food plants. This all happens until late autumn when we’re left to pick apples and autumn olives again.
There is this great cycle of scarcity and abundance up here. We anticipate it every year.
Of course wild foods won’t feed the world as many have pointed out, including experts like Tom Elpel and Jo Robinson. If we all ate wild foods for every meal, they would get used up pretty fast. There is a reason that these plants were not cultivated by farmers and aren’t found in the grocery store. Many of them are just a lot harder to cultivate for mass production. But they are also a great reminder of how much food actually exists in the world. We’re actually swimming in it. And at any given time of the year, if we look in most places, we can harvest food that is really great and interesting. Many times, it’s food that we didn’t even know existed.