A Health Bonanza! Your Local Wild Edible Plants

In a previous post I mentioned health problems as one major culprit that can undermine people’s efforts to reduce their footprint and lead a simpler life. Of course, it’s just about inevitable that some health problems will require trips to the hospital or doctor’s office, and that costs a lot of money as well as consuming time, fossil fuel, and your own precious personal energy. It is what it is; there’s no use beating yourself up when your eco footprint increases for personal health reasons. 

That said, many health problems don’t require costly medical intervention. Rather, they can be cured, greatly eased, or even prevented altogether simply by improving one’s nutrition. And one of the best ways to improve nutrition is by tapping into a source that’s available free and close at hand: wild edible plants. 

In the United States, a lot of our “health” advice revolves around avoiding or resisting things. Stay away from carbs! Sugar is bad for you! Cut those calories! You absolutely must stay away from {fill in the blank}. Such a razor-edge approach can be exhausting and anxiety-inducing, as well as leading to backsliding. Besides which, the constant monitoring of one’s fork takes a lot of the joy out of living. (In the area of diet, we have certainly taken “taking the joy out of living” to a virtuoso level here in the United States, haven’t we! If you ask me, our rigid puritanical mentality is at least as damaging to our health as anything we are physically putting into our bodies. Maybe more!) Obviously if we find out that some food or substance is harming our health, we need to reduce or eliminate it from our diet. For example, diabetics have to limit their intake of simple carbohydrates even if they are on medication.

But, that basic bit of common sense aside, I always like to let people know how they can boost their health by adding beneficial ingredients to their diet. Many of us find it much easier to add something to our routine, than to subtract or cut something out entirely. 

One of the best things you can add to your diet is wild edible plants. If you want to boost your health while also putting money in your pocket, I strongly encourage you to learn your local wild edible plants. Many wild edibles (which our manicured-lawn culture tends to dismiss as “weeds”) have both culinary and medicinal uses. So by learning them, you’re augmenting your medicine cabinet as well as your pantry. 

It can be argued that you are performing a public service as well, since wild plants perform an array of free services for property owners and communities. As just a couple of examples, a carpet of wild vegetation provides food and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife; and reduces soil erosion, water runoff, and the leaching of excess nutrients into our waterways. 

The idea of foraging for food in the wild may seem intimidating if you’ve never tried it, but it’s actually quite easy to learn a few of your main local edibles in very short order. Some tips for getting started:

• Look up your local native plant society. I attended my local chapter meeting of Florida Native Plant Society and they were offering for sale a great little book on our local wild weeds. I bought it and got up to speed very quickly on some of the most common, and tasty, wild edibles in my area. 

• Do a search on “weed walks” — there is probably an expert in your area

• Take a walk around your neighborhood or a local park, notice different weeds growing in the verges, right of way, edges of woods, sprouting up out of yards or between sidewalk cracks. You’ll start noticing certain plants repeatedly, and you’ll come to see them as friends (even the ones that aren’t edible to humans are often staple foods for bees, butterflies, or birds). Weeds tend to be edge-dwellers and denizens of the marginal. Tap into the wisdom of elderly neighbors and other long-term residents to find out which plants are edible.

• Buy or check out a general book on edible weeds, even if you can’t find a book for your specific region. Many weeds grow throughout a large part of North America (and I imagine the same is true of other continents as well), so there are some books that will be useful across a wide geographic area. 

• Be sure to research cooking instructions and other preparation tips. Some very delicious and nutritious wild edibles are not edible, are actually dangerous to eat, unless cooked.

• Check your local historic museum or historic society; they often have information on which plants were foraged by early settlers or indigenous populations in your area.  

Note, as part of my process of learning wild edibles, I have always used face-to-face, in-person information, and not just relied on books, the internet, etc. Safety first! Never try a plant unless you get the straight scoop from a person who knows their stuff. 

Besides the safety aspect, a great advantage of connecting with wild-plant experts in person is that you tap into a community of people who can form a “power bloc” to influence local policy toward sustainable practices. For example, a group of wild-plant foragers can show up at local government meetings to speak out against herbicide-spraying, excessive mowing and pruning, and other harmful landscaping practices.

Today out in my yard I was delighted to find what looks like wild plantain! It’s a delicious vegetable and also has medicinal properties: It aids digestion. I had long spotted it around the neighborhood, and harvested the broad leaves from empty lots, but this is the first time seeing a possible specimen in my own yard. I’m keeping an eye on the small plant to see if that’s really what it is. 

Wild plantain is one example of a wild edible that grows in a wide area of North America. Other widespread edibles on my continent include dandelion, miner’s lettuce, bastard cabbage, lamb’s quarters, wood sorrel, chickweed.

While cultivating tomatoes or other “supermarket” vegetables in a garden can be very rewarding for both the health and the pocketbook, not all of us have green thumbs. My cultivation successes have been relatively modest and hard-won. Far better I am at spotting the lush wild edible, the broad-leafed green, the piquant flower, the spicy stalk, that has sprouted up for free, obtaining its own water and nutrients and growing without coddling. Sometimes I refer to wild edible plants as “my favorite fast food” because it’s so easy to grab a handful from my yard and pop them in my mouth as I head out on my errands. Another name I have for wild edibles is “trail snacks”.

According to many sources, wild plants are not only more robust but are actually nutritionally richer than the cultivated varieties. What a win-win! The lazy among us shall inherit the earth, or at least a nice serving of free wild vegetables. 

Sustainability starts in our own backyards (and kitchens) and ripples out. Being healthy and happy is a great way to influence people. Everyone likes to imitate success!

As more of us come to appreciate the value of wild edibles, and allow them to flourish in our yards or in the spaces between the flowers in the pots on our apartment balconies (they have a way of finding their way in there!), the effect will ideally ripple out to our approach to managing parks and other public spaces, and we’ll become less heavy-handed with the mowers, the poisons, the weed-whackers, and those noisy and ultimately pointless leaf-blowers. Our reward will be not only food, but a more physically and emotionally restful landscape: softer and greener road edges, creek-sides, and median strips.

Deepening our relationship with nature by observing and harvesting local wild plants not only can improve our physical health; it’s also an excellent way to enhance our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Being outdoors, hearing the songs of birds, savoring the seasonal perfumes of flowers and grasses, feeling the temperature and humidity variations that fluctuate not only throughout the year but within the span of a day. Many of us believe that emotional and spiritual wellbeing is a cornerstone of physical health, so you’re getting a triple return by knowing your wild edibles. 

I’m not a plant expert, which is why I deliberately refrain from showing photos or mentioning specifics. For details, consult your local experts. I’ve also gathered some resources for you to use as a starting point in your learning process. Note, these are offered for your exploration only, and I’m not in any way claiming to provide the definitive word on plants. Do your research, and then enjoy the abundance of delicious wild edibles growing for free all around you. Bon appetit!  And here’s to your health.

Further Reading:

62 Edible Wild Plants You Didn’t Know You Can Eat

Survival Skills: 14 Wild Medicinal Plants

• Many experts assert that wild edibles are more nutritious than supermarket veggies. Here’s an article on 10 wild foods that are more nutritious than store-bought produce.