A Walk On The Wild Side

Ready for a Walk on the Wild Side?
Foragers have a talent for summer. First sign of warm weather and it’s into the woods they go, to hunt, to gather every wild thing good enough to eat. And much of it is good enough to eat. It’s called wildcrafting and it’s the latest rage.

Stand in a pasture and inhale the fragrance — that’s what chickweed tastes like. Put some bite into summer by adding lemony purslane to fresh tomatoes and cucumbers; instead of radishes, toss a handful of peppery nasturtiums into a raw mix of chickweed, sorrel, dandelion, nettle and mustard.

Sound radical? Part of the trend to voluntary simplicity, foraging or wildcrafting, the informed stalking of native plants, offers “wonderful flavors from the wild that can’t be bought,” says herbalist and folklorist, Ila Hatter, author of the cookbook, Roadside Rambles (published by Ironweed Productions). “You gain just by being out of doors walking, even if you don’t find ripe blackberries.”

Wildcrafting’s a way for families to enjoy the natural world while developing survival skills. Sure there’s a learning curve, but it’s all part of the fun. Whether sifting through a marsh for fiddleheads, peering among spruce in search of morel mushrooms or just harvesting yarrow from the driveway, the thrill of the hunt is a big part of this novel experience in flavor and nutrition. Intense and unsubtle, wild edibles generally have a higher vitamin and mineral content than cultivated plants. And a diet based on plant foods appears to provide long-term health benefits.

For most of us, used to lattes-to-go, the idea of collecting acorns for bread and drinking dandelion-root coffee is mildly disorienting, maybe even a bit frightening. Remember what your mother said about picking mushrooms? Well, she was right, but she was wrong, too. Outfitted with good information, sturdy hiking boots and an inquiring palate, you too will soon know how to stuff a wild zucchini.

Here’s what you’ll need to know to get started

Hatter, who teaches classes at the University of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain Field School, says there are some basic rules to observe.“

  • Anything that smells like mint, onions or mustard is safe to eat.” Most poisonous plants have a nasty odor and are bitter tasting.
  • Learn the few plants that can be deadly if eaten.
  • Avoid mildewed or diseased plants. Don’t collect in sprayed or polluted areas.
  • Don’t rely on common names. Learn Latin names, for positive identification.
  • Follow the Indian rule of four — pass the first three plants and pick the fourth, leaving enough for next year’s harvest.”
  • To get started, she suggests, “Learn three plants really well, either with field books or by taking a class. The next time you go out concentrate on three more. In 20 years, you’ll be teaching.”

Wildcrafting is a leisurely pursuit, so take it slow. Treat it as a quest for buried treasure, enhancing your children’s pleasure. Avoid protected species and never take more than you’ll use. Venture away from the beaten track—you’ll be amazed what you find off-trail. Still think foraging is the exclusive domain of tree-huggers? Imagine this scene. Warm night, cool breeze off the lake, boat hulls bumping against a wooden dock. You and someone you like sipping lavender-infused cocktails, over an open-air supper of violet and avocado salad, along with medallions of lamb simmering in a wine and morel mushroom sauce garnished with wild leeks.
Now, get up and go to where the wild things are.