Edible Wild Plants for Backyard Foragers
05 Jun, 2014
By Joyce Newman, Environmental Reporter
In her new book titled Northeast Foraging, food expert and author Leda Meredith reveals how, when, and where to find dozens of delicious plants growing wild in our very own locale. With her field guide in hand (from Timber Press $24.95 Paperback), just about anyone can venture out safely to enjoy the best wild foods.
For novices, as well as more experienced wild food gatherers, Meredith’s book is like having a very wise and trusted companion along on your favorite outdoor adventure. Her introductory chapters help with basics like what to wear and what equipment to bring. She emphasizes crucial safety first practices.
Meredith devotes most of the book –262 pages– to detailed plant profiles, with vivid 4-color, close-up photographs and pointed advice on how to cook, and preserve 120 different plants. Did you know that daylilies can be harvested and prepared in 3 different seasons; wild mint, it turns out, also has a great variety of culinary uses; trendy ramps can be found for free, as are wild strawberries, perhaps the best wild fruit of all.
The book provides invaluable plant lists organized by season and by type of location; for example, there are lists for plants to be found in the open meadow, the woodland, seashore, and wetland. So if you’d like to look for edible plants at the seashore or coastal areas, say, in the summer, the list includes beach plum, glasswort, juniper, northern bayberry and saltbush. Never heard of them? Not to worry. Profiles for each of these plants tell you how to identify the plant, whether early or late summer is the best time for gathering; how to gather, how to eat them, and, if necessary, how to preserve them.
There’s also expert advice about pollution and clean harvesting grounds– especially in the suburbs —as well as important guidelines to ensure sustainable harvesting. For each plant, Meredith lets you know its sustainability category: whether it is in the “invasive, harvest-at-will category, or the don’t-harvest- unless- abundant group.”
Meredith recently described her goals for the book and her own experiences as a lifelong forager.
Q. What appeals to you the most about foraging? Is it when you can identify an edible plant in the field, or your first time tasting/cooking it? Or perhaps the seasonality?
A. All of the above! There are so many reasons to forage. There’s basic survival knowledge, getting outside, and being physically active in a natural setting. There are the superbly delicious ingredients, many of which are not available for purchase in any store. There’s the treasure hunt fun of finding an especially choice food right at its peak season: ripe beach plums that are only there for a week or two, fiddlehead ferns full size but still tightly coiled and tender, for example. There is the fact that when it is done correctly, foraging can actually improve the ecosystem by removing some invasive non-native plants and encouraging slower growing native plants. Last but not least, it’s free food.
Q. When you find a new plant, how do you go about actually ‘testing’ it to see if it is tasty, or checking for safety concerns?
A. First of all, I take care of all safety concerns BEFORE testing a plant to see if it is tasty. A 100% certain, correct plant identification is the first step. It is also important to be sure I am not harvesting in a polluted area.
Q. In the Preface to your book you mention foraging for dandelion greens as a child with your great-grandmother. How important is that childhood experience?
A. It’s important for many reasons. Teaching a child foraging skills not only gives them true food security – in a survival sense – but it also gives them firsthand knowledge of where food really comes from: not the supermarket, not even the farm, but nature itself. It also gets kids outdoors being physically active in a natural setting, something that is increasingly rare.
Q. What is your main goal for the book?
A. Because this is a field guide to the northeastern region, its primary purpose is to enable people to safely identify and sustainably harvest edible wild plants of that region, with all the information anyone needs to know in order to safely, healthfully, sustainably harvest and deliciously prepare each plant that I cover.
Q. How do you define sustainable foraging? Many environmentalists/naturalists believe one should never remove plants – leave no trace — from their habitats.
A. The basic environmental fact is that invasive weeds–introduced to the landscape by humans – if left unchecked, can out-compete native plants. Such invasive plants are now growing wild throughout the country; they include plants such as burdock, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, and many, many others. Fortunately for foragers, many of those invasive species are delicious edibles. In fact, some of them, such as the dandelion, were brought over by people as a domesticated crop and then jumped the fence and became “weeds.”
Sustainable foraging means that you gather edible wild plants in such a way that the plant species in that location are not endangered and will reappear year after year (which is good for the forager, as well as the ecosystem). It also means that there is plenty of food for wildlife as well as for the forager.
Photographs courtesy Timber Press and the author Leda Meredith.