When he was director of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland in Dublin, Peter Wyse Jackson—now president of the Missouri Botanical Garden—spent years doing ethnobotanical research on foraging in his native country. “There’s a long tradition in Ireland of using wild plants,” he says. But in the 20th century, it developed a stigma. “It was considered poor people’s food,” he says. As a result, hundreds of years of collective botanical knowledge started to ebb away, as food became more processed and industrial. Of Ireland’s 900 native plants, Mr. Wyse Jackson says, 150 were specifically used for food or medicine, including fruits, nuts, seaweeds, leafy vegetables, and potherbs. Now only about 10 are.
When local food became trendy a few years ago, so did foraging; even Martha Stewart went feral, praising the culinary virtues of wild leeks and other backyard greens. While Mr. Wyse Jackson, a born plant lover, worries about the impact that widespread foraging might have on vulnerable ecosystems, he also clearly delights in sharing knowledge about wild foods. After a year in Missouri, he says he feels as if he’s just barely scratched the surface in learning about American flora—though many of the edibles he picked and studied in Ireland, like acorns and dandelions, are plentiful here, too. Acorns, he says, can be boiled or left in running water, such as a brook, to rinse the tannins out, before being mashed or made into flour. He’s cooked elderflowers into porridge, and fried them as fritters. He’s eaten fried dandelions, too. (That may sound exotic, but really, it’s no more so than fried beer from the county fair midway.) The Irish, he says, unlike Americans, have never included many wild mushrooms in their diet. Perhaps they didn’t enjoy them—or it was just safer to stay away.
In fact, for both environmental and health reasons, Mr. Wyse Jackson advises new foragers to stick to “lawn plants” like chickweed (specifically Stellaria media), violets, nettles, plantain, purslane, and yes, dandelions. And even when you know what you are picking, use common sense.
“Don’t collect dandelions in dead zones” along busy highways, he advises, where auto exhaust can mean high lead levels. And if you’re not sure whether they have been sprayed, better leave them be. Also, obviously don’t gather in parks frequented by dogs.
But he’s all for foraging, he says, so long as people stay conscious of their surrounding environment, for both their sake and the plants’. “Anything that inspires people to make that connection with nature,” he says, “is a good thing.”
Web Exclusive: Foraging for Edible Missouri Plants
Information courtesy of Catrina Adams, Shaw Nature Reserve
From Ms. Adams’ notes for the class she teaches at Shaw Nature Reserve on foraging for wild plants:
Why Eat Wild Plants?
• They are free—no labor, no weeding, no watering.
• They are nutritious—many wild plants contain more vitamins than domestic veggies.
• It is fun to collect!
Ethics and Conservation
• Do not collect large amounts of plants not common to the area, and don’t collect threatened and endangered species at all.
• Dig roots sparingly unless they reproduce more abundantly when dug. Replant bits of rhizomes and roots.
• Respect property rights.
• Check regulations on public lands. Some state parks and conservation areas allow collection of nuts, berries, and greens, but only for your own consumption (definitely not to sell).
• Try growing your own if they are natives. Don’t propagate exotics. Many of the edible plants grow in disturbed soil like that of backyard gardens…so you can weed your garden and gather wild edibles at the same times.
Know your plant! Be SURE it is the right one. If you aren’t absolutely, positively, 100 percent sure it is the right plant, DON’T EAT IT! Be aware of look-alikes, and double-check identity with more than one source. Don’t assume all plants form the same family are edible. Sometimes the best stage of growth for identification is not the same as the best stage for eating. You can always mark a plant in one season and return in another to eat it.
• Know which part of the plant to use.
• Use plants at the right stage of maturity. For example, pokeweed becomes poisonous as it gets older.
• Never sample a plant for edibility.
• Eat in moderation. Sample one thing at a time in small amounts. Individuals have different food sensitivities, and it is hard to tell how your body will react to a new food.
• Do not collect from areas near roads. Toxins picked up from exhaust can persist in the plants.
• Don’t collect from areas that have been sprayed with pesticides.
• Don’t collect plants that have been touched by poison ivy.
• Don’t collect plants that may have been soiled by dogs or other animals.
• Prepare foods properly.
Common Wild Edibles of Eastern Missouri
Black Walnuts: The exterior skin is filled with tannin (which will stain your skin) and the nutshells are quite tough—but they are ubiquitous, and tasty.
Cattails: Eat the green shoots—not the fuzzy tops!
Chickweed: Can be eaten both raw and cooked.
Elderberry: Flowers are edible; green berries are toxic. Ripe berries are less toxic, but must be cooked before being eaten.
Fiddlehead fern: Only available for a short time in the spring, this is the curled-up portion of a fern frond before it unfolds. Do not harvest more than three tops per plant, for the fern’s sake.
Garlic Mustard: “It’s invasive…so if you go out with a group that’s getting rid of garlic mustard, you’ll have all you can use.”
Gooseberry: Similar to currants.
Jerusalem artichoke: “It’s related to sunflowers. I haven’t been able to figure out the difference between the native sunflowers and the sunchokes, other than one has tubers, and the other doesn’t.”
Mexican Plum: a beautiful, flowering, ornamental tree that also produces tasty little fruits.
Paw Paw: Best gathered when they are very ripe—after they’ve fallen from the tree.
Persimmons: “You don’t want to eat them before September. They’re the best after the first freeze. Unripe ones are very astringent.”
Prickly Pear: “You have to be careful with the spines, obviously…they grow in glades in Missouri. I’d suggest sticking with the red fruit. I’ve done the pads, but they’re slimy, and you get the spines in your hands.”
Redbud flowers and buds: “They’re actually in the bean family. When they’re green, you can eat them, but you can also eat the flowers, which is great, because they look so pretty in a salad. You can really brighten up the potluck!” Spicebush: Boiling the twigs makes a tasty tea; the berries are edible, too.
Violets: Can be sugared, or used in salads.
Watercress: A nice green for salads.
Missouri Field Guides
Wild Edibles of Missouri, by Jan Phillips. The Conservation Commission of Missouri, Jefferson City. Also available free online.
Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America, Lee Allen Peterson.
Classic Foraging Texts