ON LEARNING ABOUT WILD FOODS
[Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way, and the author of Guide to Wild Foods, How to Survive Anywhere, and other books. He has conducted wild food seminars and field trips since 1974. For information on his books and classes, contact Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com]
Back in high school, my friend Rocky and I ran together on our school’s cross country team. Often, when doing a longer practice run, we’d run back to our school in the Arroyo Seco wash just north of the famous Rose Bowl. Though the wash was once a wild stream bed where the local Native Americans lived, it was now a paved irrigation channel. But in spite of the cement, there were still spots where you could find cattails, watercress, and other water plants. Rocky and I learned about watercress during our running days.
Watercress was by far the most prolific low-growing plant in the wash. We both shared an interest in edible wild foods, but there were not as many resources 35 years ago for identifying plants as there are today. When we first began wondering about the plant we thought could be watercress, we each took a sample home and compared it to the pictures in the various books that we each had. We also showed samples to the school’s botany teacher, who confirmed it was watercress.
After that, we would pinch a little of the watercress plant each time we ran through the channel, and take it home to cook. We never ate that watercress raw in salads because the purity of the water was very questionable.
Learning about wild foods was an adventure, and it required a bit of a Sherlock Holmes persistence. There simply weren’t very many people around who could answer our questions about wild plants, and there were just a handful of books that we could use. Today, there are books, videos, on-line sources, and many more people who are able to answer questions about wild food identification.
Back then, I worked after school at the Altadena Public Library and would always check out every book they had on wild foods and botany. I regularly used Euell Gibbons’ "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" and Bradford Angier’s "Free for the Eating."
After I thought I’d identified the wild mustard plant, a friend in my math class, John Ball, showed me a line drawing of the wild mustard from one of Bradford Angier’s books. It looked nothing like the plant that I had assumed was wild mustard. It took us a few weeks to learn that we were both correct. I was looking at the young lyrate mustard leaves, and John was showing me a picture of the older mustard plant that had grown tall and gone to seed.
But it took us several weeks to ask other people, and go collect plants, and to all the footwork required to learn one plant! And this is why you can never wholly depend on books and videos alone in order to positively identify wild foods. You must see the actual plant in the field and you must have an expert point it out to you.
This means you must seek out classes and field trips wherever they may be offered, and be the best student.
During high school, I went on an all-day desert field trip to learn about desert plants. I was told that I was privileged to be in the presence of the botanist, since he knew more than anyone about the desert plants. OK, good, I was hyped up. So Mr. Botanist shows a plant and tells us about it. He goes to the next plant, shows it to us and talks about it. I break his stride and ask him to tell me again the name of a plant, and I try to test myself by asking about similar plants I saw along the trail. I was apparently upsetting Mr. Botanist’s program, and it was made clear to me very quickly that I should listen and take notes, but to not ask him to repeat things. Wow! What a non-education! I came away from that desert outing learning nothing. So, yes, you to find real teachers-in-the-flesh, but keep in mind that some may be less dynamic and engaging than others.
Some very distinctive plants can actually be positively identified by a picture in a book alone. John Ball and I studied pictures of miner’s lettuce during a break in our math class, and we both felt that it would be an easy matter to identify such a very distinctive looking plant. The miner’s lettuce has a round saucer or cup-shaped leaf with a flower stalk that grows right through the middle.
On a following weekend, John had been hiking up in the local mountains and he told me discovered a patch of the miner’s lettuce, and he ate some. He told me about the patch the following Monday. After school, I bicycled over to the base of the mountains and hiked up a steep incline about a half-mile in the chaparral-covered hillside. Sure enough, near the top, I found the delicate miner'’ lettuce plants, looking just like it does in the pictures. I carefully studied it, pinched some leaves, and slowly savored the delicate flavor. I pinched off enough leaves to fill a small bag, and headed back down the hillside and bicycled home.
That night, I had my first watercress salad and cooked watercress greens. To me, it was the culmination of a long adventure and mystery, all mixed up with the tales of the California 49ers, and California Indians. I let my brother and father taste a little, and I expected them to share my excitement. "It’s OK," was all they blandly responded after their cautious taste.
Oh, well, I was still thrilled to have learned and tried a new wild plant. I experimented with different miner’s lettuce recipes for the next two weeks before going on to learn another new plant.
SOME GOOD WILD FOOD REFERENCES:
"Wild Edible Plants" by Donald Kirk, Naturegraph Publishers [Box 1047, 3543 Indian Creek Road, Happy Camp, CA 96039], 1975. Though largely focused on western plants, this includes more plants than most books. The pictures are generally not sufficient for positive identification.
"The Forager’s Harvest" by Sam Thayer [W5066 Hwy 86, Ogema, WI 54459]. Clearly, this books leads the pack of the many wild food books available. Though focused on eastern plants, there are clear photos of the sequences required for identifying, harvesting, and processing wild foods. A must!
"Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants" by Christopher Nyerges [Chicago Review Press]. Though written in the west, most of the plants can be found throughout the U.S. Each plant is described in detail, along with edible, medicinal, and other uses. Photos are too small. Excellent appendix on edible plant families. [available from www.ChristopherNyerges.com]
"Stalking the Wild Asparagus" by Euell Gibbons. A classic read, though you may need another source to positively identify the plants. Commonly available new or used.