Jan 5, 2013

Harvest it yourself, but be careful! 

By Lawanda Jungwirth 

Hunters, fishermen and gardeners know the deep satisfaction that is found in providing food for the table that wasn’t purchased at the grocery store.  Food that you’ve harvested yourself is in most cases better tasting and more nutritious than food that’s traveled thousands of miles wrapped in plastic in the back of a refrigerated truck before arriving at your grocery store, only to sit there a few more days before it lands on your dinner table.  

Hunting, fishing and gardening each take some financial investment to provide that good food when you consider the cost of licenses, equipment, tools, soil amendments, etc.  In contrast, foraging edible wild foods affords the same satisfaction with little or no cost (unless you bought 40 acres just so you could harvest the wild asparagus from it). 

Whether you have access to hundreds of acres of undeveloped land or you never get out of the city, there are edible wild plants you can forage.  But you can’t just go chowing down on every root, berry or leaf in sight.   It is extremely important to accurately identify plants before you eat them because there are many that are poisonous - they will make you sick or kill you.  And some of them will trick you by looking very similar to their edible cousins. 

There are many good books that will help you identify wild edible plants and some of them are pictured here.  It’s always best to look at least two photos of an unfamiliar plant you are considering eating to properly identify it.  Then, read the description to make sure every part matches up to what you are seeing.  

 Do not mentally force the plant you’ve found to fit the description!  And do not identify a plant by a single characteristic.  Say the leaves look exactly like the photo you’ve found and the written description says the stem is smooth.  If your plant has a hairy stem, it is not the same plant!  Do not eat it!     

It takes a long time to learn a new plant and be able to positively identify it every time you see it.  True, some plants are so unusual that one time is all it takes, but you will need to see most plants 10, 20 or even 100 times before you can be absolutely sure you can correctly identify it.  If you still need a book to make an identification, you are not ready to eat that plant.  You must be sure enough in your identification of a plant you are about to eat that you are willing to bet your life on it – because that’s exactly what you are doing. 

You may have a buddy who is an expert at plant identification who recommends an edible plant to you.  No matter how strong your friendship, if you have any doubt at all about a plant’s edibility, don’t eat it.  You are putting your life in someone else’s hands when you put something in your mouth that you haven’t identified yourself. 

Some plants are edible when young but toxic later or vice versa.   Sometimes one part of a plant may be edible but another part of the same plant may be poisonous.  An example of this is elderberry.  The flowers and ripe fruits are edible but all other parts of the plant and the unripe fruits are poisonous. 

Some plants are poisonous when eaten raw but are fine when cooked.  Young milkweed shoots are mildly toxic, but can be eaten like asparagus when boiled.  The rattlebox is a small, hairy plant whose seeds form in pods like peas.  The raw seeds are poisonous, but some wild food foragers use them as a coffee substitute when roasted.   

After you’ve positively identified an unfamiliar plant, sample it sparingly at first, no matter how good it tastes.  Just like some people are allergic to peanuts or shellfish while others are not, some individuals may have an allergic reaction when consuming a plant that most others find completely edible. 



The first time I met with Art Dumke to talk about writing the Plant Matters column, we began tossing ideas around and he suggested I write about edible mushrooms.  I absolutely refused!  The function of UW-Extension Master Gardeners is to answer all manner of horticultural questions but we are forbidden to answer questions regarding the identification or edibility of mushrooms.  There is just too much chance for mis-identification and a mistake could be fatal.  If you are collecting wild mushrooms, you’d better be 100% certain you have correctly identified them before you take the first bite.  Because just one bite from the wrong mushroom can do you in.  Permanently. 



When collecting edible plants, be careful not to trample or break nearby plants that may be rare or endangered.  Never harvest more than you will use and never take more than half of the plants in any one area.  If there are only a few plants, find another spot where the population is larger to gather your harvest.  Unless you are harvesting the roots to eat, be careful to leave the root in place and intact.  When harvesting leaves from a perennial plant, do not denude the plant entirely of leaves.  It needs some leaves to photosynthesize and make food to get itself through the winter.  Nuts, berries, seeds and flowers are meant to be harvested, so take as many as you will eat.  Remember, though, that these are important food sources for wildlife. 



Never eat plants collected from roadsides, areas that have been treated with pesticides, or that are growing in dirty water.