Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wild Edibles; Foraging for Real Food

A sunny spring day in New Jersey always makes me itchy to get outside and play around.  The Hubinator and Pups seemed to have the same idea so we donned our hiking boots, strapped the harness onto the dog and headed over to Willingboro Lakes Park for a hike.  With the breeze blowing and the sun shining we crossed what appears to be an overgrown parking lot, we walked towards the sandy trails surrounding Olympia Lakes.  The site used to be host to American Bandstand dances and the remnants of those days are apparent, over grown concrete structures and the rusted out leavings of bulb lit signage.  As we traversed the weed cracked concrete I noticed the first signs of wild edibles.
Poking up through the scrub there were the un-mistakable round heads left after an onion flowers and goes to seed.  Onions pop up first in Spring, all you have to do is walk out to the yard and pull 'em up.  Rinse them off and there you go, fresh onion!
There is a plethora of "weeds" we can eat. Used medicinally or nutritionally, we are able to forage a good amount of nutritional plants. A weed is simply a plant that grows where we don't want it however, it has a place in the environment, edible or ornamental.  You can find so many wild edibles while on a walk, you just have to know what to keep your eyes open for.

We quickly came across a thatch of Wild Blackberries.  I know they grow all over this area but I didn't think I would find them in such mass (hopefully no one else knows to look for them).  I will be back with bushels! 

If you are looking for edible berries in the wild, all green, red, or black conglomerate berries are edible.  When green, they need to ripen so check back.  When red, they may be ripe so taste and check back if bitter. When black, they are ripe.  Conglomerate berries are when a large number of seed heads appear on one "berry" (like raspberries or blackberries).

The first year in our house we began to see conglomerate berries on a few trees in the back yard.  As summer wore on the Hubinator exclaimed, I know those berries!  I had no knowledge at the time so ignored him.  When his mother visited that summer she immediately said they were
mulberries.  Well, gosh be gone we had a new food source in our back yard!  We instantly began taking care of the trees in a way that would produce more berries, now we have enough to eat fresh and make jam every summer!  Mulberry trees can be identified by their serrated, shiny, heart shaped leaves.  The leaves alternate (not opposite) as they grow down the branch and they have a rough, almost hairy underside.

After crossing the expanse of the old parking lot we entered the wooded area.  As the pooch meandered along, sniffing all the new smells, and my eyes open to more wild edibles I spotted the distinct leaf shape of nettles.

Nettles are delicious and nutritious.  They are high in calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium.  When dried and made into tea they can help alleviate allergies and hay fever.  They can also help with high blood pressure and headaches.  Look for an egg shaped leaf that is highly serrated on the edges.  The leaves will be opposite from each other and the plant looks similar to mint.  They will have a hollow stem and little furry spines (ouch, don't touch).  There are no poisonous plants that mimic nettle so don't be worried if you mis-identify.
Nettles can be gathered and used in a pesto, they can also be sauteed and used in risotto or stirred into pasta like spinach.  They are delicious enough on their own to be made into nettle soup or nettle tea. 
*Be very careful when harvesting nettles as they do sting and can cause a rash.  Wear gloves when handling until you have steamed them.

We rounded the lake, remarking at the sheer amount of nettles and blackberries and vowing to come back soon.  The woods broke and we were back in the bright sunshine of the parking lot.  Happily already writing this post in my head, I spied one more wild edible out of the corner of my eye.  Amaranth, one single, lonely stalk.  A single stalk is really nothing of note except that I can harvest the seeds and plant a patch in my garden for next year. Both the leaves and seeds of the amaranth plant are edible.  If you are lucky enough to come across a large patch you can harvest the leaves throughout the summer and steam or saute them the way you would a light green.  In fall however, grab a few friends and a few new, clean frisbees and head out to your found or cultivated patch.  Tipping the flowering end over the upside down frisbee, rub vigorously between your hands to release the chaff and seeds.  Harvest as much as you can, spread on a tray and leave to dry overnight.  The next day lightly blow across the tray and the chaff will blow away, leaving the edible seeds.  Pick out any bugs and keep in an airtight jar.  To cook: using a 1-2 ratio of amaranth to water, boil for about 20-25 minutes.  Use where you would use rice or other grains.  Delicious.

What a delightful way to spend a warm Spring day.  Next time we will bring some bushels and scissors with us and collect everything we can carry.

A few more wild edibles you may find in your backyard or a nearby hiking trail:
Sassafras is the main ingredient in File powder which is used for thickening and adds that unique flavor to gumbo.  You simply need to pick a few leaves, wash, and lay flat to dry then run them through your food processor.  Sift the powder and store in an airtight container.  You may also make a tea out the dried leaves or cleaned roots.  The tree can be identified by it's distinct tri-lobed and bi-lobed, mitten shaped leaves.  When crushed, the leaf emits a bright lemony, slightly fruity scent.

Purslane is abundant in the hot summer months.  My backyard is overrun by it.  I love purslane season.  It has a grassy flavor similar to watercress or slightly spicy like arugula.  It is delicious mixed into potato salad or cucumber salad.  It is also delicious on it's own, sauteed with some popped mustard seeds and cumin.  Purslane is high in beta-carotene as well as magnesium and potassium.  You can identify it by it's fleshy succulent leaves and resembles a mini jade plant.  The new growth on the ends of the stems is edible as well as the leaves.

Last but not least, we can't forget our friend, the Dandelion.  There are so many wonderful uses for this little plant.  I don't think I could capture their uses better than Health Extremest, but I can tell you, the newly grown leaves are delicious in soups or a salad.

So get out there and harvest some wild edibles, fill your salad bowl with some of these wild greens and feel the satisfaction of sustainably and deliciously feeding yourself.  Enjoy!

*Make sure you harvest from an area where pesticides are not used. 
*My identification information is 100% true to my knowledge and research however, please use your best judgement when harvesting for yourself.  If you are unsure of the plant species, go home, do a little more research for yourself, and then decide whether or not to eat it.  There are some great field guides available for wild edibles in your area. 


  1. On my recent trip to Turkey, I had yogurt with the class in the cafeteria one day and tasted something familiar. One of my Turkish students told me what it was in her language, then looked it up to translate it. It was purslane. I had read about it last year when I was pulling it up out of my garden on Martha's Vineyard and wanted to identify it. When I learned that it was edible, I put it on a salad. It is wonderful in plain yogurt! And so much fun to see that it was used as a common ingredient abroad.

    1. Kate, I was delighted to be served a dish in India consisting of purslane with spices and coconut. Every one thought I was crazy when I got so excited, and even crazier when I told them I harvested it in my backyard! It is prevalent in hot areas and is highly nutritious, I think that is why we see it more on menus in those areas. I will have to try mixing it into my next tzatziki or raita!