Conducting a Wild Edibles Land Inventory
The land is greening; flowers are blooming. Beauty is bursting quietly everywhere – a rainbow of colors decorating the landscape. As you cast your gaze, what flora can you readily identify? Who are your old friends emerging from winter’s sleep? Who are the neighbors you haven’t quite gotten to know yet? Anyone cropping up that you don’t recognize?
When conducting a land inventory for edible and medicinal flora and fungi, first take stock of who you do know. You recognize the dandelions and notice that bumblebees are gathering their pollen. You have heard that you can eat the flowers and the leaves so you nibble on a leaf and you find it quite bitter and you wonder why anyone would want eat the leaves. Next you nibble on the flower and consider it bland but pretty good. Well had you nibbled on the leaf before the flower came up, the leaf, though still bitter, might surprise you in being tastier. All edibles have their season. And as you get to know what parts of a plant are edible, you need to also learn what part is edible when, and if there are any specific preparation instructions prior to consuming a particular edible. As a rule, if both leaf and flower are edible, you eat the leaves before the flowers emerge and then switch to eating the flowers when they start to bloom, because leaves tend to get tougher as the season progresses.
Weeds have been defined as plants considered undesirable in particular situations and growing where they are not wanted. Well, what if one considered grass a weed instead of violets and dandelions? There are so many edibles hidden amongst the grass. In fact, you could make a whole lawn salad with what you have. What you thought were just weeds are nutritious edibles, from clover to dandelions to plantain to sorrel to violets.
What is this obsession with grass? Humans don’t eat grass. I have written before that grass is fine for mowed paths – grass is great for barefoot walking. But I have a hard time understanding the purpose of huge stretches of grass that one mows when grass could be replaced with wild edible and medicinal flora. I have been encouraging all matters of edible flora to take over. For example, both white and red clover are edible and medicinal. And bees appreciate the clover flowers. And come to find out porcupines do too. I come home at night to sometimes catching this neighbor munching on them in the darkness.
As you get to know the flora you have in your yard, what you may have once considered weeds, you may now decide to encourage them to thrive. It is quite possible that you have both a grocery store and medicine cabinet right where you live.
Make some assessments:
- What habitat type(s) do you live in? Forest. Field. Swamp. Lawn. Meadow. Rocky outcrop.
- Note flora and fungi’s growing season: it’s good to take notes and keep a photo record of the variety of species and their activities each week.
So how to identify what you have? There are several guidebooks. And you don’t even have to purchase them. You can borrow them from the library. There are also phone apps, but I would be careful with these because they are not always entirely accurate. And you need to give them your location. Before I did, I had Seek telling me I found a tree that grows in Australia, which I knew was not the tree I was standing in front of. There are also social media groups with whom you can share photos and you will get all matter of people chiming in. Again, like the apps, proceed with caution. Best to start with books and/or an experienced naturalist who specializes in edible flora and fungi.
As you learn to identify the flora and fungi on your land, next you will need to learn how to prepare them for consumption. Some flora are trailside nibbles that you can just snack on. Other flora and all fungi need to be prepared to draw the most health benefits from them. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Start with maybe five new flora that you’re going to learn over the course of a year and watch their growing season.
Take your time and don’t rush your education. Though not all wild edibles have toxic look-alikes, some do, so it is very important to correctly identify the flora and fungi you want to eat.
In early May you may notice a yellow starburst blooming in the wetlands. Observe the shape of the leaf and the number of petals. You count five bright yellow round-tipped petals with many stamens and pistils. The leaves look like little lily pads. In a guidebook such as Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, you’re able to rule out several flowers and you conclude that it’s marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, in Ranunculaceae (the buttercup family). Cross-check with two guides on wild edibles such as The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer and online reference ediblewildfood.com. If you deem all three guides match what you are looking at, then you can be pretty sure you’ve got it right.
Marsh marigold is a plant that you must cook to eat. Leaves and flower buds can be sautéed in a fat. When harvesting any flora and fungi, please do so with respect to the future of this neighbor and only take 20% of what you see to ensure there will be some for other foragers, wildlife, future harvesting, and for this being’s sustained existence. Rinse the plant and cook it up. The first time you sample a new food I always recommend trying it plain so you can see if you like the taste. And with each new food you sample, eat just a little bit to be sure your body agrees with the food.
Revel in May’s kaleidoscope of colors and happy foraging!
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
This article appears in the May 2023 edition of The Ashfield News.
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This is a beautifully written article, and it really made me think about the plants in my own backyard. I would love to start identifying some of the edible flora and fungi around me – do you have any recommendations for a good guidebook or resource to get me started?
Dear BestBeekeeping, For authors, I really appreciate Arthur Haines, Leda Meredith, and Samuel Thayer. An online guide I really appreciate is https://www.ediblewildfood.com/ . YouTube channels I recommend include: Alexis Nikole Nelson https://www.youtube.com/@BlackForager , Blanche Cybele Derby https://www.youtube.com/@thederb720/videos , Adam Haritan https://www.youtube.com/@LearnYourLand