Using What the Land Naturally Provides Can Be Nutritious Fun
By Anita B. Stone
If you want to meet a true forager, it is imperative to visit one who lives solely off five acres of land. I was fortunate to meet Logan Parker, a native North Carolinian, who over the past few years has become a forager in the true, sense of the word. Parker has built his own straw bale home with solar panels, underground pipes for water usage, and a holding tank and pump tank that run into a 5,000-gallon cistern.
“Rainwater is definitely the way to go,” he offered. Parker created a biological sand filter and survives off the land, gathering seeds, weeds and leaves for sustenance every day.
A woody aroma captured my senses when I entered this home. Parker stood in front of a wood stove, focused on stirring a liquid mixture of boiling hickory nuts in a cast iron pot.
“Would you like to taste hickory milk?” He smiled and continued stirring. “This tastes just like almond milk, the kind you purchase at the market, only this is fat free and filled with protein.”
He tasted the recipe. “I think of wild food as the most nutritious option available since it grows only where it can flourish,” Parker offers. “Wild food is abundant and very nutritionally dense. You see, we’re not trying to manipulate the soil. The plants are living to their highest potential. So we let them do their own thing.”
He points to the hickory nuts in the mixture. “It chose the spot it sprouted in and out-competed everything else trying to grow there. So the wild nuts are bound to be more nutrient dense than anything we might transplant in the same soil.”
“How does a person recognize an edible weed, seed or nut?” I asked.
Parker lowered the flame under the cast iron pot, pointed to a collection of books piled on a small cabinet and pulled out a small identification book. “There are many plants we call ‘weeds’ that are actually edible and even medicinal,” he explained. “A plant might resemble, but not be, the plant you think it is. It isn’t an easy thing to know what to eat, so you have to become familiar with the plants.” He paused. “And make sure you know the plants that are on the endangered species list where you are foraging because it is illegal to pick endangered plant species. … It’s time we stop spraying chemicals to kill these ‘weeds’ and open up to the possibility of adding them to our diet and improving our overall health.”
Parker spoke assertively: “An abundance of free food is growing around us in the wild. All we have to do is learn to identify it, how to use it and permit it to grow in its’ own habitat.”
When asked why he forages, Parker said, “It adds nutrition to anyone’s diet. Wild plants have recently been used to treat certain medical conditions. And, with the cost of food rising, foraging may be the solution.”
The family strives to eat one wild plant every day. “And, in that journey, we cultivate a sense of freedom, confidence and infinite possibility within ourselves.”
I was curious whether Parker purchased meat at the food market. “We raise chickens for meat and eggs,” was the answer. “We eat mostly organic foods that we either raise ourselves or buy from friends and local shops. That way we know we aren’t getting anything injected with growth hormones or antibiotics.”
A Long History
Foraging is an old method of spotting, collecting and preparing food from natural soils. And if you want to incorporate weeds into your food bank, you can double or triple the yield of your garden.
Gathering wild food by hunting, fishing or gathering plant material has been used for hundreds of years as a way to sustain life. Cavemen existed on weeds, seeds and nuts including wild fruits. History tells us that anyone can forage, find and enjoy wild edible plants at our feet. Urban foraging is becoming meaningful. Weeds have survived centuries of adversity and often last better than cultivated plants. Many weeds grow without irrigation and are abundant in the landscape.
If you decide to be a forager, it is important to become familiar with the weeds, herbs, bushes and trees in your neighborhood and try to learn all you can about the ecosystem of the area you are foraging. It is important that you learn to identify any poisonous plants in the fields and not to eat anything you can’t identify and be sure it is safe for ingestion.
Edible flowers and weeds are abundant. Chickweed, often called “starwort,” lives in fertile soil. It is high in vitamin C. The leaves, flowers and stems can be used in salads, soups and stir-fry. You can refrigerate chickweed for about two weeks. You can use the tops for tea, and medicinally it aids ulcers, soothes bladders, bronchial conditions, skin conditions like diaper rash, and is put in salves.
Another healthy weed is the popular dandelion. Nearly every part of this plant is edible: the leaves and the flowers taste like mushrooms. The blossoms are high in iron, beta-carotene and potassium. Dandelions can also be used to make fritters and wine. Some people sauté the roots. Dandelion is also known to aid liver function, acne and eczema.
Lamb’s quarters have soft, smooth leaves that have been used as food and taste like spinach, but is more nutritious. This weed can be eaten raw or cooked and is rich in calcium, vitamin C and iron. Some foragers ground the seeds into flour. You can make a tea by pouring boiling water over two teaspoons of fresh leaves. Cold tea is sometimes used to relieve sunburn, with its moisturizing qualities.
Chickory is a member of the daisy family and is included in salads or cooked as a potherb. Flowers provide color to salads and may be used fresh. The root can be sautéed as a veggie. Chicory can be dried, roasted and brewed like a coffee beverage or ground to add to coffee. “Louisiana-style” coffee is made from chicory. Many used the leaves in a poultice for skin inflammation or as a mouthwash to strengthen the gums. Other edibles include sunflowers, colts foot, wild asters, wild cress and wild onions.
Queen Anne’s lace, also known as the wild carrot, is high in sugar. (Ed. note: Make sure it is Queen Anne’s lace. Several pretenders, including Water Hemlock, look very similar but are highly poisonous.) You can collect the seeds and toss them into food. The leaves are used in a green salad or tossed into soups as an additional tasty spice. Wild violets are a winter perennial used in salads for color and as seasoning. Violet flavored wine was said to have been prepared by the Romans. Summer brings fruits, flowers and leaves that pop up in the spring.
“Only pick as much as you need in a specific area. After you harvest an area of plants, give the land time to recover before you return to the same place. Be careful about harvesting roots. Because if you harvest roots you will kill the plant, so prior to digging check out the space and make sure it is plentiful. If you are unsure, leave the plant. And if you wish to save a particular plant, simply sow their seeds in the wild.”
It is a rule of thumb to never pick plants that are near an area of pollution, near the road, industry or farm chemicals, which include pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, even fertilizers.
Collecting wild food from the soil that is brought from another place may not be the best choice, because you do not know where the soil came from. It is advised to keep away from nature reserves because they are specifically set up to protect wild species.
“Let things grow where they are, because they’ve already picked their own place.”
— Logan Parker, North Carolina homesteader
Once you have collected your sack filled with new food, make sure they are healthy and clean. “Be cautious when you eat wild plants. Rinse or wash parts of the plant that you intend to use,” Parker suggests. “Test one plant at a time and when new, just try out a small portion. You can test the plant by rubbing it on your skin. If there is no reaction, then rub part of the plant on your lips. Thirdly, cut and eat a small portion of the plant” to make sure you aren’t allergic to it.
When collecting edible weeds for their foliage they should be harvested before they flower, because once they flower they are still good for you and they still contain vitamins, minerals and nutrients, just not as plentiful.
Optimal time for collecting flowers such as chamomile should be done just prior to reaching its maximum size.
“It is best to harvest in the morning once the dew dries, but before the heat of the day.” Most flowers have their most intense oil concentration and flavor when harvested after flower buds appear but before they open. They add a splash of color and are tasty to boot. Some edibles are considered companions to each other. For example, chamomile, which tastes like sweet apple, grows well when near wild onions. “Not knowing the credibility of wild onions, I used to pull them from my yard and toss them into the trash,” Parker said. “That’s why it’s always better to have the information before you forage.
“We need to take care of our needs,” Parker emphasized. “Let things grow where they are, because they’ve already picked their own place.”
Food appears plentiful on the farm. Spring and summer brings fruits and flowers, including some of the more popular plants. “Wild persimmon is a delicious wild edible fruit. Passion fruit grows in abundance. We have a lot of honeysuckle and blackberries.” Parker pointed out several blackberry shrubs. “Dandelions, thistle, wild mustards, lettuce grow freely.
“Once the foliage fades, fall harvest includes chicory, goldenseal or burdock along with nuts, seeds and roots. January harvest includes chickweed, hickory nuts, black walnuts and sassafras root. Creasy greens such as winter cress and wild lettuce are abundant. Oaks, pines, tulip poplar and red bud offer food as well.”
“There is so much free food,” Parker repeated. “Homesteaders can save money, save the environment and we can all become self-sufficient sustainable people if we give it a good try. It is an amazing lifestyle. You just have to try it and it will take care of you.”