Foraging – A Lost Art We Did for 97% of our Existence as Homo Sapiens

By 5 m read
Foraging (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
(Photo by Erich Boenzli)

In the 150,000 years since Homo Sapiens was recognized as a species, we were hunters and gatherers for most of the time. The agricultural revolution only started about 12,000 years ago, when farming and animal husbandry became our primary form of food production. It’s only in the last 200 years that we have not been able to find or grow our own food, at least in the so-called industrial world. Our food now comes from the supermarket.

We’re not only unable to tell what types of edible wild plants grow all around us, we actually use chemicals to get rid of them!

Let’s learn about a few edible plants that grow in our backyards and how to identify and use them. In this article I’d like to introduce you to the incredibly versatile dandelion, crunchy fiddleheads, and tasty wild chives. Let’s connect a little bit with nature again and discover the bounty that grows all around us!

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Foraging (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
(Photo by Erich Boenzli)

I was on the phone the other day with my mother, who lives in Switzerland, and she told me how beautiful it was when my sister took her out for a drive and all the fields were a sea of yellow, full of blooming dandelions. Then I thought about a recent visit to a big home improvement box store and what I saw at the checkout in the garden center. There were eight different products for killing insects in your garden (including pollinators), killing weeds in your lawn (including dandelion), spraying your fruit trees with chemicals (including the food that grows on them), and on and on. I understand that with today’s competition, a professional farmer has little choice but to do some of these things to survive…but come on, at home? Really?

Anyway, the mighty dandelion! Every part of it is edible, but the tastiest part is the small, younger leaves. Gather them as soon as the plant emerges, as they’ll turn bitter in later stages. The easiest way to harvest them is by grabbing the leaves and cutting the root right at the surface. If you’d like to collect the flowers too, choose young, bright ones. Don’t forget to remove the sepals (the little green leaves that protect the flower before bloom), as they tend to be bitter. And all you have to do at home is rinse them off, pat dry, and serve raw in a salad. I also like to add some wild onions or wild chives, and sprinkle some extra-virgin olive oil on top. Hey, if you have some of these bacon bits in the fridge, add them too!

Fiddleheads from Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

Foraging (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
(Photo by Erich Boenzli)

These are a little trickier to find and harvest. If you like spinach or asparagus, you’ll love fiddleheads! In recent years, more and more chefs are using fiddleheads in their spring dishes, as a special treat in their farm-(field)-to-table approach. A fiddlehead is the unfurling leaf of an Ostrich fern. Ostrich ferns grow along streams and swampy areas, but can also be planted in a moist, shady spot in your garden. We planted some Ostrich fern in our yard years ago and they’re doing just fabulous! 

When you harvest fiddleheads, make sure to break off no more than half the fiddleheads per trunk. This will keep the plant healthy and strong enough to grow back the following year. The tricky part about harvesting fiddleheads is the timing. In our area, they start appearing around mid-April, and before you know it they’ve already unfurled and you just missed it. DON’T collect unrolled (opened) ferns, they’re poisonous!  

Fiddleheads should not be eaten raw. They can be steamed, boiled, or sauteed. My favorite method is to first boil them for 5 minutes and then sauté them in extra-virgin olive oil for 7 minutes over medium heat. Sprinkle with some sea salt and a spritz of lemon juice, and serve by itself or toss over some spinach and cheese tortellini.

Wild Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Foraging (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
(Photo by Erich Boenzli)

This is probably my favorite one! It’s everywhere in early spring. I literally stop my car on the way home from shopping to pick up some fresh wild chives from an unsprayed field. It’s easy to recognize and super tasty. Even the purple flowers are edible, in addition to looking beautiful as a garnish on your dish.

How can you make sure it’s wild chives you’re picking? Easy: If it looks like chives, smells like chives, and tastes like chives…it’s chives.

Disclaimer

This is not a field guide but a primer to get you out of the house and trying new foods. Before eating any foraged food, please check with a field guide, like Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate (The Wild Food Adventure Series, Book 1), or an expert in-person. I am not an expert but have eaten “wild” food all my life and never got sick. Use common sense (don’t forage along golf courses and other places that use chemicals, or along paths favored by dog walkers, etc.), eat in moderation, and enjoy the feeling of having found nutritious food right outside your house, without going to the store.

What’s your favorite wild food? If you know where to find morels in Eastern PA or Central NJ,  please let me know 🙂

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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2 Comments
  • Kathi Harrington Varvel
    April 6, 2020

    Great article! I have been enjoying dandelion for a few weeks now. I discovered a new wild delicacy just recently. It’s called chickweed and has a peppery taste like watercress. All parts of the plant are edible and make a lovely addition to a salad. As a bonus, when I pick them, I am also weeding my patio.