photo by Durgan
Food is something you might take for granted. As a country, we're fortunate. But if you've ever gone through a weather emergency or financial hardship, you know you aren't as immune to a food shortage as you'd like to think. If you've ever participated in Scouts, you might have learned a bit about wild foods and edible plants. While it seems insignificant because of the abundance of food available in our daily lives, identifying food sources in nature is an important frugal skill to have -- not just for emergency survival but for their frugal, organic, nutritional and medicinal value, too.
If you're looking for a fun activity this summer, you can learn about wild-food foraging. Involve the whole family during a nature hike, camping trip or neighborhood stroll. You don't have to gear up like Survivorman and trap and roast a desert critter. But it's good to know plants that are free, edible and available in nature and which are poisonous or protected. You can bring a camera, journal, specimen jars, binoculars or a flower press, too.
Here are a few small ways to get started.
LEARNING RESOURCES: Go to your library, and look for books on wild-food foraging and edible plants. I recommend "The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants" by Samuel Thayer. It includes excellent pictures and his experiences, which makes it a practical field guide for beginners. Call your local cooperative extension or nature center, and see whether they have any classes on the topic or plant experts or naturalists who will share their knowledge. Visit naturalist Steve Brill's Web site (www.wildmanstevebrill.com) for informational articles, recipes and additional resources, too.
NEIGHBORHOOD BOUNTY: Foraging doesn't have to be out on forest trails. It can encompass simply asking around your community. You can contact farmers, grocery stores, u-pick farms or your neighbor and ask whether you can glean their excess. Maybe you have driven by a home that seldom picks their fruit or nut trees or have a neighbor who has wild berries. Just ask. Fallen fruit and unharvested vegetables rot and can be a chore to clean up, so they might be more than happy to give it away. If needed, you can offer to volunteer some time to help them in exchange for food. You can place an ad in your local newspaper or on craigslist.org or freecycle.org, too. On the flip side, please, if you have an abundance of food that you would otherwise throw away, donate it to a local shelter or food bank.
BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS: Normally, we think about wild foods such as blueberries, blackberries, grapes or walnuts. But there are many additional edible flowers or plants available, such as crab apples, wild asparagus, onions, leeks, roots, dandelions, rhubarb, milkweed, herbs, cattails, seeds or sumac, to name a few. You can make delicious dishes such as salads, sides, jams and beverages.
Here's a recipe for sumac lemonade.
Gather about half a dozen clusters of ripe sumac berries.
Place them into a bowl or pitcher and pour cold water over them. (Use more water for a milder drink and less water for a stronger lemonade.) Take a spoon or fork and crush the berries thoroughly. Place the bowl in a cool place and let it sit for a while to let the berries infuse into the water. Let it sit longer for a stronger taste.
When the taste is to your liking, cover the container with cheesecloth and drain the liquid into another container. You can then throw away the remnants of the berries that have been trapped in the cheesecloth. If you want to sweeten your lemonade, you can add sugar until it is to your liking. --Durgan, Ontario
Even if you don't plan to supplement your meals with wild food or if the kids only collect pine cones and leaves, it's the perfect opportunity to teach kids more about nature.