Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pondering Edible Wild Plants Again

This year we began a new organic vegetable and herb garden on this property. I had a wonderful garden at our last home. The deer here are so thick it deterred me from veggie and flower gardening for eight years.

Without making this a report on how the first year with this vegetable garden went, I'll share that May and June were terrible months. It was cold and wet. Near the end of June I checked Weather Underground when I had time on my hands and compared 2009 temperatures to 2008's and they were 12-14 degrees colder in both day and night! Also we had a ridiculous amount of clouds and rain. I wore fleece and long pants until the first of July.

What happened was that the carefully planted seedlings barely grew in those months. Yet all around the wild plants in the woods, on the edges of the woods, on roadsides and even in my garden paths thrived.

I was reminded again that the human cultivation of crops is not an easy thing to do. It seems crazy to me how powerful Mother Nature is and how strong the native (and invasive) plants are in comparison to cultivated edible crops that we desire to grow in a spot. Even a spot with perfect soil composition, good drainage and everything "done right".

My children have been learning for a few years about edible wild plants at the homeschool wilderness school they attend. They tell me things that I didn't know.

My maternal grandmother passed away in this last year. With the spring and summer season I was reminded of how she would wildcraft red raspberries, black raspberries, high bush cranberries and fiddlehead (ferns). She was a canner and a preserver, a maker of both sweet and savory preserves. She supplied our family with homemade preserved foods both from her garden patch and from the wilds of northern Maine. In the last few years of her life she relied on a paid caregiver to do the work of the canning, while she supervised, and she relied on the wildcrafted bounty given to her by her friends. Red raspberries would appear by the gallon full. But this year we would be without her canned preserves. I started thinking about learning to can.

July was brutally hot and humid as was August. It was so oppressive that I didn't want to be in the garden. Additionally I broke out in a rash, worse than any poison ivy I'd ever had, after weeding the garden pathways. For five weeks I itched and suffered and I was scared to venture into the garden.

The heat and humidity was perfect for a late blight to hit my garden. They say this variety came from Mexico in the 1990s and is a more severe strain of what affected the potato crop in Ireland in the 1800s. So my crops suffered. I lost over 50 tomato plants.

As my cultivated garden suffered, the wild plants thrived.

I began thinking about wild edible plants. I saw some wild edibles at farmer's markets for ridiculous prices! Purslane at $3.50 per HALF pound! It is a garden weed! Why would people pay that high price at a farmer's market if they could pick it from their own yards?

I began reading about wild edible plants. There is so much common sense there that I'm starting to wonder if Americans have gone plum crazy.

We Americans have gotten so used to grocery store shopping with its factory foods and fresh produce shipped in from all over the world that we not only rely on it but feel it is our only option. You know as well as I do that sometimes we pay too high a price for fresh produce that is not so fresh and maybe not so tasty either. The tomatoes that hold up well in the shipping process are inferior in taste to old variety tomatoes that bruise easily. I get the necessity of the situation but this is food and I want my food to taste good!

I recall reading that soil depleted of magnesium due to over-farming results in produce that is low in magnesium (even though traditionally that food used to be higher in magnesium). As a result many Americans are thought by medical doctors to be low in magnesium. This can cause many health problems ranging from insomnia or poor sleep to heart attacks. Yet Americans are not encouraged to even take (cheap) Magnesium supplements because they are not a brand name Big Pharma product that is being advertised and marketed to Americans! Only some medical doctors or alternative medical providers are suggesting that patients take magnesium supplements. Or people educate themselves then take it on their own.

Some worry of the health dangers of eating fresh produce with chemicals used in its propagation. So what of the wild edible foods growing all around us that never touch a chemical? Why not eat them?

I was reading a book about wild edible plants last night and was surprised to learn that wild parsnip is actually cultivated parsnip whose seed escaped from gardens and is growing in the wild. Yet people would recoil at the idea of digging a parsnip from a meadow but would buy it from the grocery store. Is that not odd?

Another thought I had about wild edible plants is that most of these I have never eaten in my life. I have been raised mostly on store bought food and have even become accustomed to eating things that don't even grow in the USA, ever. I have been conditioned to want to eat bananas and mangoes and all kinds of things that definitely don't grow here in New England where I've lived all of my life. And strangely, the wild plants that are native to New England, I have never eaten. There is not much of a sense of regional cuisine within the USA having to do with eating native wild plants. My maternal grandmother did that, but she was also poor and lived more off the land than my paternal grandmother (so I don't even think this is a generational thing).

I could gather wild edible foods and eat them. I was wondering what my friends would think. They would probably think I was crazy. "Why would you eat a wild plant when you can afford to buy food from the grocery store?" My answers are pretty much the same as when I buy store bought food. I want to spend the least amount of money possible. I want fresh wholesome foods. I prefer foods raised without chemicals. I want foods that taste good. I want foods with good nutritional value.

I am willing to try some wild edibles and see if I can get my palate accustomed to them. Instead of letting the thousands of acorns in my yard rot away or be eaten by squirrels I think I'll harvest them for eating roasted and may even grind myself some acorn flour.

It hit me the other day that some people I know live on diets of highly processed foods and they don't even cook. They buy prepared foods frozen or fresh and reheat them (or eat them cold). They eat foods that are empty calories or have little nutritional value. Then to get the nutrients they need they take a factory manufactured vitamin and mineral supplement. Do you not find it creepy that we are supposed to eat for sustenance and nutrition but many are eating garbage with little nutrition then supplement to get the good they should have received from the food? I find the whole idea crazy-making.

Does it make any sense for edible foods to be naturally created all around us using no man made energy or labor and to let the food drop to the ground and rot to nothing? Just ponder that for a moment.

Why is a family willing to spend $6 at the grocery store for a half pint of black raspberries when the same berries on the wild bush in their neighborhood are eaten by birds or rot and fall to the ground? Not only is that not frugal living but it is plain stupid.

Americans who are concerned with conserving energy and carbon emissions from food manufacturing, transport and food sales, ask yourselves why are you not eating the free food all around you in nature?

Organic home gardeners who toil over cultivated crops, ask yourself why not share in nature's bounty and eat what is growing wild all around you?

The more I think about eating wild edible foods the more sense it makes. Yes it takes some self-education or maybe taking a class or working with a mentor, but it seems worth it to me.

What do you think?

Is there a place in modern society for eating wild edible foods? Why or why not?

I think I'll start eating more wild edible foods. If that is one more thing that makes you think I'm weird, then so be it.

1 comment:

richmomma said...

Great post! The "wildest" thing I've ever done is to spend about an hour harvesting dandelions out of my yard! It was okay. Not great. Didn't finish all I'd picked. I think I'd have a learning curve to understand when to pick wild things at their peak. However, I will say that I constantly look for unused (going to waste) food in the neighborhood. This year we picked wild blackberries, excess plums from a neighbor, and grapes growing wildly over our back fence.

Great stuff to contemplate!