Foraging — searching the wild for natural, nutritional food — has lately become a trend, but it is far from recent. As the current issue of the Post shows, the idea was popular back in 1962, when naturalist Euell Gibbons published his field guide to edible wild plants, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. But foraging was a hot topic back in 1942. Americans, expecting shortages and rationing during the war, were willing to experiment with new food sources. Rackham Holt told readers where to find them in “How to Have Fun with Weeds,” reproduced below.
And it’s true that many of the plants Holt identifies as edible are called weeds. But weed is a relative term that shouldn’t discourage anyone. After all, Holt says, a weed is only a plant that’s growing in the wrong place.
It’s not surprising that foraging has become popular. It offers all the benefits of natural foods with the thrill of the hunt. Foragers dine on wild plants that reach their table without additives, preservatives, or even cultivation. Plants don’t get any more natural than those grown by chance.
Free, fun, and nutritious, foraging is more than just assembling a meal. It’s an adventure.
How to Have Fun with Weeds
By Rackham Holt
Originally published on June 20, 1942
“Have you weeded yet, dear?”
“And did you get a good salad?”
“Some lovely fresh dandelions and that wild lettuce I put the berry box over last week is blanched now, and some peppergrass and plantain and rabbit tobacco, and I got some chickweed to garnish the meat, and some lamb’s-quarters for a hot vegetable and, mother, may I make a pie?”
“What sort of pie?”
“I found a large patch of sour grass, and father said he thinks sour-grass pie is swell.”
This sort of conversation could happen here if Americans would learn that weeds are tasty food.
Dr. George Washington Carver, scientist and nutritionist, was walking along the road of the campus farm of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama when a tramp, miserable and forlorn, edged up. “Could you give me a dime for something to eat?”
Doctor Carver fished out the ten cents and watched the man elongate his legs in the direction of the shops, less than a quarter of a mile away. Sadly he shook his head, which was graying over the shortsightedness of his brothers and sisters who would not see what their eyes beheld.
“It’s pitiful, pitiful,” he said to his companion. “Between here and town there’s enough food to feed a town.” He pointed to the weeds growing beside the road and to the wild plums overhead. “And a balanced diet too.”
This was back in 1917, when there was a war on and food had to be conserved. Doctor Carver had exhibited about a dozen plants classed as noxious weeds, demonstrated them, and explained how they could be utilized in the human diet. Many, in Southern states, grew all the year round; most were abundant nearly everywhere in the early spring and late fall, when the garden supply was low, one group coming right after another.
One definition of a weed is any plant growing in ground that is or has been cultivated, usually to the detriment of the crop; it is economically useless and possesses exuberant growth. Well, all weeds are plants, all plants can be weeds, but no plant need be a weed. Not if you reduce the definition to its essentials — a weed is a plant out of place. Okra in a cornfield is a weed because it is out of place. So is the cocklebur in a wheatfield, but in its proper place it becomes an important medicinal crop. The oxeye daisy, famed in song and story, is an abomination on the farm, and laws have been passed against planting it. But just shred the leaves of this Chrysanthemum leucanthemum with some dandelion leaves — Taraxacum officinale — and you’ll have a highly edible dish.
If you like lettuce, there are several wild varieties, probably growing right on your lawn. They have a milky juice and some have prickles, but you can cut these off with scissors. The smooth kinds you can blanch simply by turning a cover of some sort over them for a week or so, depending on the weather, and it will do no harm to peek occasionally to see how they are coming on. When blanched, they become crisp and richer in flavor than the cultivated sorts. Many other salad plants respond to this treatment also — rabbit tobacco — Antennaria plantaginifolia — and chicory — Cichorium intybus.
If you like chicory in your coffee — some people do — you can peel the chicory roots, dry them in the sun, roast, and brew. And, for a slight change in taste, you can do the same with dandelion roots.
As for the exuberant growth of weeds, Nature scatters billions of seeds. Only a few survive. The weaker perish; it is the law of life. Some we cultivate carefully, guarding them from fungus diseases and insect enemies. But often the wild plants are more palatable than the cultivated ones, which have been robbed of vitality by coddling. The lowly ones outside the fence have strength of character; they will dare to come up earlier than the tenderly nurtured within the enclosure, and will still be flourishing when the short growing span of the latter is finished. You don’t have to hoe around them or pick bugs off or spray; they’re there because they have already mastered the rules for survival.
As I say, Doctor Carver mentioned this matter in 1917, but, being a man of infinite patience, he is very happy to mention the matter again. No one need go hungry if he will but stoop and pluck a weed.
One of the choicest of vegetables is lamb’s-quarters — Chenopodium album. To the laity it is variously known as lamb’s-lettuce, corn salad, wild spinach. Like cultivated spinach and beetroot, it belongs to the goosefoot family, is distinguished by its spoon-shaped leaves, is scattered over the temperate and subtropical sections of the country, and is available from early until late summer. It grows freely, makes an immense amount of green stuff, is tender, crisp, and cooks easily, and its slightly bitter taste blends well with other greens. The whole plant can be picked when it is six inches high.
Doctor Carver had said this was of high food and medicinal value before Dr. Elmer McCollum tested it on his rats and announced it contained the fat-soluble A — one of the much-needed properties called vitamins.
In the bad old days when the word makers had no science to guide them and had to depend solely on empiricism, they devised the name vegetable from vegetus, which means “active” or “lively.” One of the most enlivening ways to procure these is to pluck them from the abounding breast of Mother Nature. Having discovered, by the empiric method, that vegetables were good for you, they said these plants had medicinal properties. Some of the generic medicinal properties have now been nailed down to vitamins and essential mineral salts.
These last are found only in minute quantities in the human body — 20 to 30 grams total of about 17 minerals — but their lack is distinctly detrimental to health. The deficiency is evidenced by subnormal growth in a child, lessened resistance to infection, loss of weight, and anemia. And if you get anemia you know what you have to do — swallow liver pills. The iron, manganese, calcium, copper, phosphorus, and so on, are constantly being lost and must as constantly be replaced, which a diet containing an abundance of green fodder automatically takes care of.
The Green Road to Health
No other food contributes to the table so many varieties and savors as the leafy vegetable — sour, sweet, pungent, bitter, bland, aromatic. The greener they are, the more A they contain, and that, with calcium, is most likely to be missing from the diet. What makes French beans and English peas turn brown if cooked too long? The acid in the vegetables when heat is applied destroys the pretty green chlorophyll.
If you must cook them, use only a small amount of rapidly boiling water for the shortest possible time. Take at least some raw. The C is lost in cooking and the minerals are dissolved in the water and simply go down the drain unless the water finds its way into the soup pot.
Leafy vegetables are credited with having a beneficial effect on the alimentary tract and the liver; they are the least fattening of foods, unless served up with a rich dressing, but are rightly named “protective.” Something will get you if you don’t eat them.
Feel sluggish? Many of the so-called “Nature’s remedies” for this deplorable condition contain psyllium seeds. How about just picking the whole plant, the dooryard plantain — Plantago major? The exercise might even do the same amount of good.
Clover tops, alfalfa, thistles — snip off the prickles — bedstraw, peppergrass, wild geranium, purslane, hawkweed, Flora’s-paintbrush, field sorrel, water cress, shepherd’s-purse, and the dainty chickweed, which is pretty as to appearance and delicate as to taste, can be happily combined in salads or stews, cold or hot, with benefit to all.
Another nice thing. If you don’t like the popular names, you can make up some to suit yourself. If an attractive-looking plant crinkles at the edges, you can call it “curly” something or other. If you notice sheep smacking or drooling over it, you can call it sheep weed. Botanists will regard this sort of fun coldly, and they have, after all, made it possible for you to tell the difference between the edible and the nonedible. Some weeds are poisonous, and, though the danger of eating them in sufficient quantity to be dangerous is slight, it would be well to confine yourself to those which have been tested for edibility according to their botanical — not their local — names.
The soulless little boy who tends the swine would call one delicious plant which I have in mind a pigweed, but to Wordsworth and to me it is the evening primrose, and to Doctor Carver it is Enothera biennis. He would even call the amaranth a careless weed, and does — the same amaranth which grows wild here and has long been eaten in India. England and France carried out some research on it during the last war — apparently it takes a war to bring certain hidden virtues to light and put restraints on certain types of waste. Amaranth, too, is delectable in a salad.
You can’t make an acceptable salad without garlic or onions, or both; of course not. But you don’t have to walk far to find these members of the lily family growing wild also.
If it’s amusement you’re after, try this: Sometime in the early spring when onion tops are tender, cut a few pieces of fat bacon into a pan, and as they begin to crisp, stir in the finely cut tops of an onion or so, which have vitamins A, B, C, and D, and all the minerals, and are just as oniony as the bulbs, only slightly more ladylike. When these are done, add beaten and seasoned eggs, and see if you don’t want to eat the dish piping hot.
From Soup to Dessert
There’s no reason, by the way, why you should not eat the tops of carrots as well as of beets. They’re brimming with vitamin G.
A new type of creamed soup with a fillip is one made from sour grass, or old-fashioned sheep sorrel — Oxalis. It requires quite a number of the thin pretty leaves, because they shrink when cooked. Put them through a sieve and add stock and thickening and butter, and you’ll have a Gallic delight. The same bright sharp flavor can be called the epicure’s dream at the end of a meal also. Cook, strain, and from there on treat as you would the filling for an apple pie.
Curled dock — Rumex crispus — a member of the buckwheat family, of which there are about 21 varieties, and all edible, makes as good a pie as its cousin, the cultivated rhubarb, and one with which you can fool your own mother. It is rich in C, if you eat it raw, and all the minerals, is supposed to be a laxative and astringent, a tonic, and good for the digestion. It grows almost throughout the land and is almost universally relished.
Somewhere between the soup and the sweet comes the luxury vegetable. A little earlier than asparagus in most localities, the tender shoots of the pokeweed — Phytolacca decandra — poke up through the soil. Time was when they were considered poisonous. But so was the tomato in grandmother’s day. When the shoots are about six inches high, and before the leaves start to uncurl, cut enough for the family, boil two or three minutes in slightly salted water and throw the water away. From then on, you can regard them as asparagus tips.
Or take the swamp milkweed — Asclepias incarnata — or common silk weed — Asclepias syriaca. Cut just before the leaves are half grown, they also serve as delicious substitutes for asparagus, creamed on toast or with hollandaise sauce.
When sumac berries are still whitish, or, to put it another way, before they turn red in the autumn, you can shake them up in water to make a cooling and refreshing pseudo lemonade.
Being robust in flavor, weeds keep well. You can pack them in cans or jars, or dehydrate them and have shelves full of winter succulence. Many of these plants, such as wild ginger, you can rub to a powder and keep that way. You don’t know the true meaning of pot herbs until you have sprinkled wild-bergamot powder into bean soup.
It cannot be said that the American front has been explored until every native weed has been probed for its values. You can combine the fun of exploration with pleasures of the palate. If you have no room for a patriotic garden of your own, there is nothing whatever to prevent you from taking a walk out into the country or the suburbs with a basket. Or offering to weed your neighbor’s garden.
Alan Muskat raises a mason jar into the air. “I’ve made you birch tea,” he says. Inside the glass is a faintly golden liquid. Also, a generous number of sticks and twigs, the kind that scream “not edible!” at least to a city girl like me. Muskat pours the beverage into small cups so we can taste something wild. With his slight build, soft voice, and curly hair, he reminds me of a young Joel Grey. He’s grinning. Not for the first time that day, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
It took a drive on a twisty mountain road to reach this spot on Laughing Frog Lane in Walnut, North Carolina, about half an hour from Asheville. I’m here for a guided tour with Muskat, proprietor of Wild Food Adventures, which specializes in teaching the lost art of foraging. It’s late October, but there’s still plenty to find in this rolling landscape, Muskat assures the dozen of us on the tour.
We start by learning the four critical questions to ask about any foraged item: Can you eat it? When is it in season? Do you eat it raw or must it be cooked? Where did you find it? Avoid heavily traveled roads, Muskat cautions, because the plants may be contaminated from car emissions. That’s not a problem on this private land where Muskat has permission to forage.
In the next several hours, we encounter wild foods at every turn. Common chickweed, with its small, teardrop leaves, looks like half the stray plants in my neighborhood but tastes like zippy lettuce. We see dandelions (leaf, flower, and root are all edible) and wild daisies. Mullen, whose soft leaves make a fine tea or, in a pinch, a fine toilet paper. Onion grass. Sheep sorrel, with its citrusy tang and fun shape like fish crackers.
Muskat gathers us around a cluster of shrubs with small red fruits. I’m pleased I’m the first to recognize it as sumac, often part of the Middle Eastern spice mix called za’atar. We head toward a glen to hunt for mushrooms. Muskat examines our finds and tosses the inedible and unusable. Later, at the landowner’s home, he chops and slowly sautés what we foraged — hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with wild onion, burdock roots, and sumac powder — with butter, salt, and pepper. The flavor is dark, earthy, and herby all at once, with the richness of a juicy steak.
to be suspicious if our food doesn’t come packaged and sanitized in the grocery store.”
There are practical benefits to foraging, from saving a bit on food costs to helping the environment by eating plants that don’t require pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation. But the fundamental reason to forage is the connection it helps us create with the natural world. Foraging is a back-to-basics way to immerse yourself in a beautiful setting, focus on the present moment, and deeply satisfy your soul.
When we learn about plants by foraging, we become more self-reliant, and nature becomes understandable, almost intimate. “As a forager, I’ve learned to sense and anticipate the subtle changes in the seasons, almost like a sixth sense,” says Lisa M. Rose, author of Midwest Foraging: 115 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Burdock to Wild Peach. “On sunny February days that are cold but bright, I can actually hear the sap in the maple trees begin to run. And April rainstorms with warmer weather means it’s time to go mushroom hunting.” Such seasonal changes are easier to miss when we are busy with office jobs and other indoor pursuits. We forget the natural world is part of wherever we live.
Foraging can’t be rushed. It teaches you to linger, to pay attention, to see what’s really there. Those weeds in a nearby park may actually be wild grapes or spicebush berries once your knowledge builds and your perceptions change. The heightened awareness from a foraging adventure can extend to other parts of your life, from noticing the vivid colors on a city street when you travel, to truly hearing the layered harmonies in a great piece of music. It’s no wonder foraging can be akin to a spiritual practice for some people.
At the same time, foraging imparts a useful lesson about acceptance. You can set out to collect a specific edible, but there’s no guarantee you will find it. A tree with figs last September may have none this September. Conditions change quickly, which means a forager learns to be flexible and to appreciate the opportunities that arise. “It’s easy to find what you’re not looking for when you’re foraging,” Muskat says.
Wild-food experts like to point out that wild foods are healthier because they can contain substantially more phytonutrients, vitamins, and fiber than store-bought produce. Phytonutrients are part of a plant’s defense against disease and predators. When we eat phytonutrients, these compounds may help guard against cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses, according to studies in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and elsewhere. But we’ve bred phytonutrients out of farmed foods in part because they frequently taste astringent or bitter, says Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist and author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. Just one example: Dandelion leaves have more calcium, vitamins A, E, and K, and antioxidants than spinach.
Some foragers take the healthy properties of wild plants a step further and forage for medicinal ingredients for making teas and other remedies. “Whenever a bee stings me, I immediately start looking for plantain,” says Sergei Boutenko, author of Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging. “Plantain has soothing properties that help reduce swelling and relieve pain. I chew up a few leaves and apply the green mush to the affected area for instant relief.”
Reishi mushrooms have been a hallmark of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and are believed to boost the immune system, among other uses. “They’re really good if you feel you have a cold coming on,” says Ava Chin, former Urban Forager columnist for The New York Times and author of Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, who boils them to create a (bitter, it must be said) tea. And some studies demonstrate the value of feverfew for preventing and treating migraines.
Foraging isn’t new, of course. While farming began anywhere from 12,000 to 23,000 years ago, foraging has been a given as long as people have inhabited the planet. That includes past generations of Americans, who were, by necessity, well-informed about wild plants. Foraging became less necessary during the industrial revolution, and practically disappeared by the 1950s, as packaged foods took hold. It took writer Euell Gibbons to reintroduce Americans to the notion that the wild held good things to eat with the publication in 1962 of his bestseller Stalking the Wild Asparagus. [See “Would You Like Weeds with That?”]
Though Americans cook with far more ingredients now than 50 years ago, some still regard uncultivated foods with unease. “As Americans, we tend to be suspicious if our food doesn’t come packaged and sanitized in the grocery store,” says Chin. But that attitude is changing. Restaurant chefs and craft breweries are using foraged ingredients to add a chic and unexpected element to their offerings. Hotels and inns are starting to offer foraging adventures among their activities. There are foraging and wild foods festivals from Big Sur, California, to Reidsville, North Carolina. “We mean to teach people about what’s edible in their local landscape, and in doing so, help them look at the area where they live in a different way,” says Iso Rabins, founder of forageSF in San Francisco.
My foraging experience changed my outlook, too. Out in the woods, foraging with friends, the world is a safe and abundant place. And all the references I’ve heard over the years to nature’s gifts and bounty? I understand them anew when I see the evidence on wild soil.
Interested in learning more? Find how-to’s, classes, and tours across the U.S. at saturdayeveningpost.com/foraging.