The Other Use of Wild Edible Food, by Linda Runyon

I am a wild food author who lived it for years while homesteading in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, and I lived on wild food for many years after that during my teaching days. I still eat wild food today in retirement.

YES.  Wild food is abundant, nutritious, healthy, easy-to-use and, best of all, free! This is important to know, and it’s an important cognition to have early on the way to becoming proficient with it. Having your eyes opened to the fact that it is everywhere must, of course, come before starting the journey that ends with being starvation-proofed.

BUT . . .
I understand that many peppers and survivalists tend to think of my materials as something they can keep on the shelf right up until they need them, then take them down and use them like a road map to instantly trot off to the wilds and subsist because the world went to hell and the supermarkets are fresh out of everything. That is feasible, but that’s not what I would call practical.  Even though you could do this, it is, by far, not the best way to learn the use of wild food.  I feel the need to warn against this grab-the-book approach. True skills are only acquired over time, and your progress can be greatly accelerated by guidance, building on the experience of others as laid out in their materials.

Surely the goal of a complete educational suite about wild food would be to starvation-proof an individual, a family or a group.  Information is important, but I’m sorry to say that your success or failure in that regard is based on how much practical effort you have put into learning and practicing these skills before they are needed. Of course not everyone will be ahead of the curve, and there would be many folks that have no idea of the fact of wild food, so never tried to learn or apply them.  These could be people you would want to help keep alive.

While simple foraging could indeed be useful as you trek off-road to your retreat, you may get away with not having practiced these skills before. But if that’s the only role you’ve set aside for wild food, your are missing the bigger picture. Wild edible food, used well, will play a crucial role at your retreat, camp or homestead. All of my early years of living on wild food occurred in a homestead setting.
Yes, I know you have food stores, but they cannot last forever. Yes, if it’s spring (and it probably isn’t) and you get your tomatoes, corn and zucchini started from your heirloom seeds, you might have some wonderful crops come July or August, and I hope you do. I’d love to join you if there’s enough to go around!

But you are a prepper, right?  Farming can be difficult; there could be drought, early and/or late frost, hail, wind or unpredictable weather or scant sunlight, problems with deer, rabbits, or other critters, insect trouble or possibly even theft from daring people in the night who didn’t take the trouble to plan ahead or think things through. When gardening graduates from a hobby to a vital necessity, the cost of failure graduates, too.  You do have a backup plan, right?

Even if you get a bumper crop, there’s still the problem of storage. Unless you thought to include a freeze-drying apparatus or commercial-level canning in your preparations, your storage will be limited by the number of Ball jars you have, whether your freezer can work or not, or whether you thought ahead to build a solar food dehydrator or have the materials and time on hand to build one. Those tomatoes will be good and plentiful in their short season, but you will need to do better than give or barter the surplus- you’ll want to store them.  A question will enter your mind during your high-volume canning efforts during the heat of summer: Is there an easier, high-nutrition food solution that we can use in parallel to traditional cultivation?

Yes there is.  That’s the main reason why we use wild food. Wild edibles aren’t just something you can live off of when there is nothing better; they really start to shine when you use them as a supplement to everyday nutrition. By simply harvesting, drying, pulverizing and storing in Zip-locs or dry jars, you can add a pinch or two of dried clover, violets, lambs quarters, chicory, chickweed or amaranth to your soup or casserole, your burger or omelets—anything you want. You can sneak it into any dish, and you’ll be increasing nutrition and quantity while also squeezing the most out of your food stores.  Later, when you are used to it, you’ll increase your usage, and why not?  It’s solid nutrition.

Wild food is man’s original food, so it is quite naturally your ‘backup food store’ while you’re striving to grow fancier food.  We do agree on the prudence of having food reserves, right?  Anyone who values preparation will immediately see that, as a backup plan, wild food  is undeniably the best and only viable plan for your new homesteading efforts (unless you count waiting for the supermarket to restock, that is).
Harvesting and putting up wild food gets most efficient when you do it in quantity and get used to the idea of storing it as opposed to consuming it fresh. This is a long-term, staple food we’re talking about here, not having snacks with the forest creatures. It’s sort of an industry so you have to approach it as such, but it’s less effort than the traditional cultivation you’ve been planning.

How can you harvest sizable quantities of wild food if you have to walk a few country miles just to find it? Well, if you’re doing regular gardening, you’re going to find that this food pops up all by itself. The whole concept of weeding is keeping your cultivated food from being overrun by the incredible, edible weed. “Oh no! There’s food in with my food!”  Are you starting to get the idea yet?  If you’re not careful you could grow five or six different waves of wild food before your tomatoes are ready, all of which could be eaten, dried or frozen long before those tomatoes have to be put up.

Another point: A vegetable garden could be almost completely camouflaged if you were to allow it to become purposely overrun by tall weeds around its border! For that matter, your separate “wild garden” would never be looked at twice while your vegetables provide a fantastic decoy to the real nutrition, making your wild patches sort of a stealth garden, if you will.
You will be making frequent trips to your wild garden, harvesting and allowing it to replenish and harvesting again, over and over until you have a winter’s supply and then some. This takes the ‘wandering’ out of ‘foraging’ and bumps wild food up to a production level, where it needs to be for you to depend on it.

The transplanting and cultivation of wild edible food is actually quite easy. You can Rototill a strip to see what comes up from freshly tilled earth. This is a great exercise to see what grows naturally in your chosen patch and to see what the seedling forms of the wild edibles look like. Like most young plants, they do not look much like their later form until two or three sets of leaves form. These can then grow to full harvest maturity right where they started.

If you want to be sure your wild garden has the wild food you have identified elsewhere, just transplant it! There is nothing very exotic about transplanting wild food, but it’s easiest when the plants are small. This means doing it at the right time of year, because a weed will wait for nobody. Many plants like burdock, dandelion and chicory quickly establish a deep root which would make transplanting more difficult, so transplanting in the spring is best.

I cover the transplanting and cultivation of wild edible food in my latest book, Promote Wild Food Certainty Through Plant Identification Walks, but I cover it indirectly as a means of populating the type of walk that can be used to help people learn wild food identification by taking a self-guided tour. With labels and dividers, your wild garden can be used to this end, too, and you might find yourself teaching your spouse, your children, or your community wild food identification using this simple but effective method. The idea is simple but it can be rather involved in practice, so I’ll leave the details to the book.  The idea is yours now.  It is a living wild food exhibit that you must harvest from to keep under control. 

A walk works as a teaching aid very effectively, and is also one of the many activities in my new Wild Food Homeschool Teaching Guide.  This subject must be taught to many, and part of that job is yours however you choose to go about it.  I feel that God put wild food on the earth for a reason.

Wild food represents a lifestyle change — a change of mindset — and it takes some getting used to.  It is, first of all, more nutrition than your body is used to dealing with, so over-doing it is easy.  It is often a different consistency and a different taste. You will find that you have to adjust the quantity of your intake. There have been lots of instances where the men that I fed wild food to would overdo it and find themselves buzzing with energy from foods like a cattail pollen pancake or too much yarrow tea. This is why the idea of “a pinch to nutrition” is a good one. You will want to start slow and follow my Rules of Foraging as you go, reprinted below for your convenience.

You can dive in and go gung-ho, surely, but this is a journey and can’t be traveled all at once, especially on a deadline of personal starvation.  You need to start now, before you need it. The essential unit of learning this skill is learning one plant thoroughly and completely.  THIS represents one step, and that step is repeated for each and every plant until you finally have a full collection of them.  You quite probably do not have even one plant learned completely all the way from ID to storage. If so, you have not really started your journey into wild food proficiency!  Let me break down how to take that first step of one plant all the way:

  • Start by finding one edible plant.  You probably know of one already. 
  • Learn its identification with certainty.
  • Learn which parts to eat and each one’s various uses.
  • Clear the plant for your use by running it through the Rules of Foraging.
  • Learn that plant’s particular harvest and preparation.
  • Start eating it! Easy does it. Make it a part of you by eating it green when in season.
  • Start collecting it in bulk.
  • Start drying it and put it up in Zip-loc bags or glass jars.
  • Start adding it to meals, a pinch at a time and increasing over time.
  • Figure out, through use, what a winter’s supply really is.
  • Start growing it in your local surrounds.
  • Start teaching this one plant to kids, family and friends so they can start.

But I think you get the most important part of what you must do: on a real, sane, manageable gradient: Start!

The Rules of Foraging
These rules are for your own protection when investigating plants that are new to you. If followed closely, they will protect you in the field.

  • DO NOT collect plants closer than 200 feet from a car path or contaminated area.
  • NEVER collect from areas sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, or other chemicals.
  • DO NOT collect plants with RED STEMS, or red striations or stripes.
  • ALWAYS BE FAMILIAR with all dangerous plants in YOUR area of collection.
  • POSITIVELY IDENTIFY all plants you intend to use for food.
  • Take a piece off the plant and roll between your fingers.  SNIFF CAREFULLY.  Does it smell like something you would eat?  If it doesn’t, DISCARD IMMEDIATELY.  If it does, go to rule 7.
  • Take another piece off the plant and roll until juicy.  RUB the tiny piece on your gum above your teeth.
  • WAIT 20 minutes.
  • DOES YOUR GUM ITCH, BURN, TINGLE, SWELL OR STING?  If no reaction occurs, go on to rule 10.
  • Take another piece of the plant and put in a teacup.  Add boiling water and steep for 5 minutes.  SIP SLOWLY for 20 more minutes.  WATCH FOR NAUSEA, BURNING, DISCOMFORT.  If no reaction occurs, you may ingest a small amount.
  • WAIT ANOTHER 20 MINUTES and watch for any reaction.
  •  Keep all samples AWAY from children or pets.
  •  Store all seeds and bulbs AWAY from children and pets.
  •  Teach children to keep all plants AWAY from their mouths and DO NOT ALLOW children chew or suck nectar from any unknown plants.
  •  AVOID smoke from burning plants. Smoke may irritate the eyes or cause allergic reactions QUICKLY.
  •  BE AWARE of your neighbor’s habits with chemicals, pesticides and herbicides.
  •  BEWARE: heating or boiling doesn’t always destroy toxicity.

This is information about wild food.  The editors of SurvivalBlog nor the author make no claims as to the correctness, safety or usability of the data.

The information contained herein is intended to be an educational tool for gathering and cooking wild plants.  The information presented is for use as a supplement to a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle.  The nutritional requirements of individuals may vary greatly, therefore the author and publisher take no responsibility for an individual using and ingesting wild plants.

All data is to be used at your own risk.  Using the Rules of Foraging greatly helps to reduce that risk, but even they are not foolproof.


About The Author:

Linda Runyon is the editor of the Of The Field web site and the author of many wild plant books and instructional materials, including:

A Survival Acre
Linda Runyon’s Master Class on Wild Food Survival
Eat the Trees!
The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide (also available as an e-book.)
A Basic Middle Eastern Desert Survival Guide
Wild Food Identification Guide
Promote Wild Food Certainty through Plant Identification Walks
Wild Cards: Edible Wild Foods (A playing card deck with photos and descriptions of 52 different edible plants.)

She has set up a 10% coupon code “backupplan” for SurvivalBlog readers that is good until July 4, 2013.