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There is a world of food that exists outside of the supermarket– types of food that people who only get their food from stores never see or learn about. In my effort of sustainable and self-reliant living, I have become an advocate and convert to the idea of eating local plants in the area where I live, even to the point of eating “weeds”. Doing the same will greatly improve your food security, but it may earn you some stares from neighbors. Dandelions are the quintessential weed to eat; they are easy to identify and grow almost anywhere. Although dandelions are common and nutritious, they have few calories and cannot make the mainstay of a meal. So, I set out searching for other common “weeds” that could supply the daily caloric intake people need.
After all, what is a weed, except a plant that grows well in adverse conditions? Traits like these– hardiness and reliability– are exactly what is desired in a food source. A crop that needs no care and still produces food is to be desired above all others! So, I chose to eat the weeds. I personally prefer to plant them myself in my yard and garden. This removes the controversy over foraging, which has resulted in arrests in some instances, and it improves their quality. However, I have also, on occasion, harvested “wild” weeds from areas I know are free of pesticide and herbicide use and where it is legal to do so.
Discerning which plants are useful as food can be a tricky business, similar to picking mushrooms. There are some plants that look strikingly similar to noxious or poisonous plants. Another important consideration is to learn and use the Latin names of plants. Many plants have the same or similar “common names”, but each will have a unique Latin name. I deliberately began my quest by choosing plants that are easily identifiable and have no known poisonous lookalikes.
The following plants fit the bill admirably, providing complex carbohydrates, edible oils, and protein in quantity:
(Also known as Goat’s Beard, Showy Goat’s Beard, Meadow Salsify, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon)
Growing profusely outside my back door, the bright yellow, dandelion-like flowers are easily identified. These flowers open in the morning and close up in the afternoon, lending to the name “Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon”. Later in the summer, the fluffy seed heads pop out almost daily. The flowers are also, reportedly, an accurate predictor of rain, closing up whenever rain is on the way. This may be an old wives tale, and the flowers close around noon anyway, so any use as a weather forecaster would be limited, even if true.
With the plant being very common, easily identifiable, self seeding, and the whole of the plant being edible, Tragopogon pratensis stands out as an excellent food crop. Tragopogon pratensis is one of the few weeds that produces an edible, starchy, and good tasting tap root. Wild plants in marginal soil conditions produce smaller roots than cultivated plants but do not require the added input of gardening effort.
The plants go to seed in the mid-summer, usually from July to August, but this is sometimes dependent on the climate you are in and your localized weather conditions. Seeds can be planted any time of year but naturally overwinter well in the soil and germinate in the spring.
The tubers themselves resemble small white carrots in structure, although they are smaller than normal supermarket carrots. They are easily harvested by pulling them up from the base of the plant in good soil. However, when harvesting wild plants, a weed puller or small shovel is useful to break compacted soil. I usually wait until after a rain fall, which loosens and softens the soil, to make for easy harvesting, or I use a weeding tool from the hardware store. The roots have been compared in flavor to a cross between parsnips and sweet potatoes, and the plants that are cultivated with intentional watering and good soil can produce fairly large roots in a season. Depending on the plant, tubers can get quite stringy– sometimes it seems like they are all string– but even if you boil a pot and find that they are too stringy to chew, you can scrape the starch out with a dull edge (like a butter knife) and make a tasty mashed potato-style dish.
The rest of the plants can also be eaten, beginning with the young shoots and leaves, which can be eaten raw or cooked like asparagus. While it is possible to eat the entire plant raw (useful in an emergency), they taste better and are less tough when cooked. You can steam or fry the leaves in butter, and chop them up into smaller pieces before cooking, if you find them stringy and fibrous.
They grow well in marginal terrain, such as gravelly slopes, hillsides, and ditches. When collecting wild plants, I am always careful of areas that may have been sprayed with herbicides and insecticides, such as rail yards and roadsides. The plants can be harvested at any time of the year but will be largest and have the biggest tubers in the autumn, after a full season of growing. Tragopogon pratensis roots can be stored in a root cellar or similar structure the same way that you store carrots. If you keep the soil or sand at a constant humidity, they will remain firm throughout winter. Roots can even be replanted in the spring to get a jump on growth, if desired. Another possibility is to keep a few plants indoors as houseplants, and harvest the greens throughout the winter as desired.
Each plant produces just one tuber, similar to carrots and parsnips, so if you are harvesting the tubers, or plan to do so in the future, planting numerous plants is your best bet. I personally plant quite a few, since although they are present in the wild, the numbers of plants growing naturally is not enough to be viable food source (though it would make a good supplement). Did I mention that they require virtually no care? You don’t even need to weed them; they are the weed! A big patch of Tragopogon pratensis in bloom is a beautiful thing.
(Also known as Siberian Pea Tree, Siberian Peashrub)
The Caragana  is a large deciduous shrub (the leaves fall in the winter) that can grow to heights of up to nineteen feet and have a base of up to thirteen feet in diameter. It has yellow flowers that appear in the spring, usually from May to June, and goes to seed in the fall from August to September. The shrub resembles a willow in structure, with many shoots and stems, some of which can get rather larger, protruding from a single rootstock. The plant is hardy from zones 2 to 7 and can survive in most of the climate zones in North America. It has been naturalized in Europe, North America, and Australia for many years, the settlers having had used it for shelter belts because of its excellent growth rates and dense understory.
In my opinion, the Caragana is one of the best producers of wild, perpetual food in the nation, especially for northern latitudes and continental climates. There is no other temperate tree or shrub that compares with its hardiness, production, and low maintenance. Nuts have high protein and oil content, similar to Caragana seeds, but they require high levels of watering and (for the most part) a mild climate hardiness zone. Meanwhile, the Caragana shrub is drought tolerant and produces similar yearly harvests that are high in protein and oil content. Beans can have similar nutritional value as Caragana seeds, but require planting and gardening effort every single year that Caraganas do not. Furthermore, and most notably for those who live in temperate climates, the Caragana is hardy to planting zones from 2 through 7 and thrives in cold climates, even surviving winters where temperatures drop to 40 below! The flowers are also edible and can be added to salads or other dishes; they are good in pancakes.
Plant once, harvest forever.
Because the Caragana is a long-living shrub, the seeds can be harvested yearly, like a fruit or nut, and it requires only trimming to keep growth in check. The seed pods resemble a small pea pod, with around two to six seeds inside each pod. Caragana seed pods “pop” open as they mature and dry, with a characteristic snap that sounds like a bowl of puffed rice cereal. If you ever walk past or sit near a Caragana bush in late August or early September, the sounds of bursting pods is easily recognized. This feature makes harvesting even easier. You can pick the seeds before they burst and then dry them, upon which time they will pop open and the seeds fall out; there is no shelling required! Or you can lay a sheet or tarp below the bushes and collect the seeds as they burst from the pods on the branch. Harvesting them before the pods burst allows more control over quality, since you only get the seeds from the pods you pick and no additional droppings from other plants or animals, such as birds. When I dry them, I lay them on a sheet in the sun with a second sheet on top, as the seeds otherwise would travel several yards when the pods pop open. I leave them this way until the pods burst, and then I separate the dry pods from the seeds by sifting them or letting the pods blow like chaff in the wind. The seeds resemble a lentil in size, though they look more like a bean, and can be cooked similarly to whole lentils.
The final appreciation for the Caragana is the fact that they are nitrogen fixers, meaning that like peas and beans, they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to solid state nitrogen that acts as a fertilizer for the soil. This is the main reasons that Caraganas can thrive in poor soils. If growers are looking for middle level cover for food forests or forest gardens, the Caragana can fit the bill admirably, and provide years of food from a single planting.
The one caveat regarding Caraganas is that some areas in North America are beginning to list Caragana shrubs as invasive species– a proposition which is a little overblown in my opinion. Caraganas have been planted as shelterbelts across the plains for well over a hundred of years, and while they do spread they certainly have not overrun the nation. The main reason they are considered for nomination to be included as invasive species is because once large Caragana patches are established, they can be difficult to remove. They also tend towards monoculture; their natural patches are close knit and prevent other low-level species or saplings from becoming established. Large areas of Caragana can be burned, which is the best method for total eradication; smaller plots can be plowed over, which is the traditional method, or killed with herbicide– my least favorite option. Cutting them back is an option as well, for small scale plot management.
However, the ancient shelterbelts, planted by homesteaders and settlers, remain largely where they were planted without major expansions, so I personally feel that the idea of Caragana’s taking over a forest is a great leap in logic and an unfounded concern. I prefer to have single plants interspersed with other ground-level forbes (leafy ground cover) and high upper-story food producers, such as fruit and nut trees, to take advantage of the nitrogen-fixing properties of the Caragana and increase the growth of food-producing plants surrounding them. Still, I feel the above concerns bear mentioning. Personally, the qualities for which governments are considering listing it as invasive are the very qualities that make it such a great food source– namely, its tenacity and ability to thrive in harsh conditions with no human input.
Another unique use for Caragana that readers who raise chickens may care to take note of is as a staple bird food; being high in protein, it makes an excellent food source for chicken and game birds. It has been successful in promoting wild grouse and pheasant populations, providing both food and cover for those species. It’s thick and tangled nature makes it an effective hedgerow, which can be improved even more by weaving and intertwining young shoots together, which then grow thick and strong in a uniform living wall– a natural fence for farms and homesteads.
Caraganas can be most simply and easily planted by scattering seeds around on the ground and scraping a light dirt cover over them. The young plants, like most young plants, require sufficient water, so planting during a rainy time of the year (spring where I live) gives better results than other times of year. They can also be germinated indoors and then transplanted outdoors when they are one to two inches tall. I have had the best success with planting this way, although it is more labor intensive than just throwing seeds about.
There are “old wives tales” that Caraganas are toxic; not only has this been shown to be false by several studies, but the seeds have been shown to be completely edible and contain 12.4% fatty oils and up to 36% protein (Meng et al., 2009). Most people credit North American stories of inedibility to the fact that the Caragana is avoided by North American ungulates (ie. deer) and livestock, and I tend to agree with this assessment. Deer also avoid eating canola that is drying in the field. With caraganas having similar seed pods that are pokey and sharp, the physical structure of the plant may be more of a deterrent than the chemical make-up. Eating sharp pokey pods is not pleasant.
If you do choose to look into foraging for these two species– caragana arborescens and tragogpogon pratensis– instead of planting them yourself, their designation as “weeds” may be of benefit to you. In the city where I live, people are encouraged to remove “invasive” species when they are found on public lands. This is a bit of a grey area, but it may be worth looking into for readers where foraging restrictions are in place.
If you do not have either of these species around the area you live, there are suppliers online, although they are few and far between. Seeds are available from online suppliers and auction sites (like eBay). Some government farm improvement agencies will provide Caragana plants free of charge for use as shelter belts and windbreaks for farmers, although the programs like this in my area have recently been canceled. Tragopogon pratensis is a little harder to source, but seeds can be found from online suppliers with a little effort.
In general, newer seeds from recent harvests have better germination rates and are desirable over older stock. A small plot of hardy, edible, high calorie weeds can be started from a few dollars worth of seeds and can provide a source of perpetual, low effort food in years to come. There are many, many other plants that are useful as food and require little to no effort to grow, but these two are a couple of the few that can thrive in almost any climate in North America and produce enough calories to be a significant source of food. So get planting!
Plants for a Future: Tragopogon pratensis (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Tragopogon+pratensis )
Plants for a Future: Caragana arborescens (http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Caragana+arborescens )
Meng QX Niu Y, Niu XW, Roubin RH, Hanrahan JR (2009). Ethnobotany, phytochemistry and pharmacology of the genus Caragana used in traditional Chinese medicine. J. of Ethnopharmacol., 124(3): 350-368.
Katelyn B. Shortt and Steven M. Vamosi (2010). A review of the biology of the weedy Siberian peashrub, Caragana arborescens, with an emphasis on its potential effects in North America (2010). Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada (Retrieved June 2014 from http://ejournal.sinica.edu.tw/bbas/content/2012/1/Bot531-01.pdf )