Childhood these days is a lot different experience than when I was that young. I have photographs of me, as a baby, sitting on a blanket outside our home and looking at the weeds and grass around me. Even then I was fascinated with wild growing plants, and that was the foundation of my lifelong affinity for wild food survival. These days it seems that childhood is an ongoing assault on the senses, from TV to constant, loud music to vaccination needles that contain mercury, and on into school, where there’s the confusion of ill-advised curricula that discourages actual learning.
It’s no wonder that an ever-increasing number of conscientious parents are opting out of that. The number of parents who choose to homeschool their children has been steadily increasing over the last 13 years, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association– an organization dedicated to helping homeschooling parents deal with an intrusive government. The primary reason that parents choose that route is because they know that every child is an individual and therefore has distinct needs, aspirations, desires, and skills. Also, a homeschool environment allows the parent to choose and implement with their children’s basic survival skills that will be valuable to them throughout their lives. Knowledge of wild food is, in my opinion, one of those essential skills.
I say this because of my many years of homesteading in the wilderness, where a knowledge of which wild plants (naturally growing weeds and trees) kept me and my family from starvation countless times. The years I spent in the wilderness gave me a unique perspective on survival during very difficult times, and after I returned to civilization I became intent on sharing that information through wild survival classes, books, and so forth. However, that brings me to the point of this article– the fact that my most appreciative audiences were always the children. For all the years that I taught wild food classes and hosted wild food identification walks, the delight and wonder in a child’s eyes at holding up a clover blossom or a wild rose leaf and realizing each is edible just charmed me and their parents. Additionally, we knew that child would never go hungry.
One of my most successful activities for children centered around the red clover, since that blossom is so distinctive, as it has the white “V” pattern on the leaf. Often red clover and white clover are among the first wild edibles to come up in spring and will flourish all throughout the growing season. No matter how often a field is mowed, those pretty clover plants grow right back! Children quickly learn to identify red clover, and they love being handed their own “Clover Plate”– a paper plate that has been clearly marked into four equal sections. (This is also a great excuse for teaching fractions!) I would point out to them the four edible parts of the clover plant– the red blossom, the leaves with that “V” mark, the stem, and what I call “nectar pieces”, which are the separated individual blossom bits. Kids love games, and so they had fun running around and filling up their Clover Plate with those four edible parts. When everyone had plenty of each part, we went back home and ate our bounty. There is an entire wild food recipe section in my book– The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide, and one clover meal we made was clover soup. A particularly unusual appetizer and party-pleaser was battered and fried clover blossoms. Nobody had seen or tasted anything like them before! Plus, I never had any problem students while teaching them wild food survival skills.
A variation of the clover plate game is to locate an area where you can identify four different edible wild foods, and use one section of the plate per plant. For example, if you can spot dandelion, wild violets, chicory, and wood sorrel, you could have your students collect the flowers from each, bring them home, wash them thoroughly, and decorate a cake or pastry with them. Alternatively, you could include colorful bits of those flowers in popsicles for a decorative and nutritious summer treat. Very young children could be given a cup and shown the bright yellow dandelion flower to pick, so they can be included in the hunt as well. As the child gets bigger, give him or her a larger cup or bag, and tell them how many dandelion flowers they should pick, thus combining arithmetic with their outdoor adventure. It’s just never too early to start an interest in wild food and as young people add to their store of wild food survival knowledge. You will find them coming up with any number of entertaining, interesting, tasty, and useful ways to include wild food in their meals, snacks, and crafts. One decorative use of wild food is to have the children collect a number of wild leaves and flowers that appeal to their artistic sense and paste them to their “Wild Bag”– a large paper shopping bag with handles that they can carry their wild food bounty in.
There is an increasing number of highly skilled artists who create intricate patterns and designs using only wild plant pieces to make effective and pleasing framed art work or real life note cards, for example. Once a parent starts a child on the wild food path, there’s no telling how creative they can become with it, not to mention the survival benefit of harvesting and preparing their own wild food, to the betterment of their health and well-being.
I have found that teenagers have a particular affinity for the cattail plant, which is so much fun to harvest. On my cattail foraging trips I learned to bring with me shears, long boots, a plastic garbage bag, and a 4-foot board that would hold my weight, plus a towel, in case I fell in the boggy mud. The board was so I could surf the cattail mats and travel easily from one patch to the other, harvesting all the way. (I recommend that kids be supervised while harvesting cattails!) Inside the cattail stem is a whitish pith, and it’s a lot like a cucumber. At the height of summer those stems will be from ½ to 1 inch in diameter. You can peel the pith out, wash thoroughly, slice into 6-inch pieces and pickle them by adding hot cider vinegar and some pickling spices. My son loved them, and would eat them by the jar full.
Once I found out how much nutrition is in the cattail, I was grateful that my son found those pickles so flavorful. I was astonished to learn how much nutrition is in Nature’s free wild food, and so I have included a nutrition chart in The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide for everyone’s reference. (Much appreciation goes to Dr. James Duke, who compiled the original data.) The cattail is nicknamed the “supermarket of the swamp” because all parts of it are useful. The early cattail shoots can be eaten raw in salads; the early green heads can be eaten raw, or cooked and eaten like corn on the cob; the pollen can be included as a nutrient additive in baking; the roots can be dried and then ground into flour; and the leaves can be used for basket weaving and other crafts. Plus the stems make excellent popsicle sticks. (Of course, active children will find other uses for the stems, too!)
There are edible trees as well as the many edible plants that grow freely around us. I found so many food uses for six common ones– pine, birch, balsam, willow, maple, and beech. I collected so much useful information about them that we now have a tree book so others have access to that information too. In addition to the nutritional aspects of trees, such as the inner bark of pines and birch that can be harvested and ground into flour for baking, I also discovered a good use for the natural pine and balsam Christmas tree needles that can seem such a trial after the holiday is done. Here’s what you do: After all the lights and decorations have been removed from the tree, place a sheet completely around the base of the tree so that all the needles can fall or be knocked onto it. Any twigs or branches that fall into the sheet will need to be removed and this the children can do for you later, so that what you store in paper bags are just the needles and nothing else. Realize that those needles that you would have discarded along with the tree actually are a free nutrition source (vitamin C, to name one) for your family, and that along with hot pine tree tea during the coming winter months you are also teaching your children survival and sustainability.
Of course the maple is a favorite tree, not just because of its delicious syrup and those gorgeous fall leaves, but also because of the maple tree “helicopters”. Maple seeds are encased in the two balls in the middle of two “wings”, and to me that whole seed/wing form resembles a small helicopter. The reason for the wings is so that when the helicopter falls from the tree, the wings can get caught in the wind, which carries the seeds far enough away from the parent tree that a new maple will have enough room to grow up. I learned that those maple seeds can be collected up and made into really good seed cakes. I guess I’ve harvested thousands of those seeds in a season so I could make my seed cakes. What you do is once you separate the “brown and down” (on the ground) seeds from the wing, you next need to separate the seed from its little case. Children have a great time pinching on the seed case so the seed shoots out. They will happily collect a little mountain of the seeds so you all can make the seed cakes. My recipe was to take two cups of maple seeds and pound them until squishy. (You can delegate this job if you wish.) With clean hands, I made thin patties and then fried them up in some olive oil until browned on both sides. Then I would serve them with maple syrup on top. What a nice treat that was for everybody who pitched in to help. Or, you could just take the seeds and roast them for a healthy snack for the kids to have with them for nourishment on an outing.
I derived so much personal benefit and joy from teaching children, that even in my older years I spent many rewarding hours in the summer teaching wild food to children and adults at a camp near where I lived at the time. Each of the plants we studied in those classes was in its own pot, which made it easy to bring them out every summer to have on hand. We had everything right there so everyone could learn their plant identification up close. Then we could store them in a safe place during the rest of the year. Previously I had taught folks how to benefit from potted wild food even while living in small apartments, so it was easy for me to create the potted wild edibles for those summer classes. Then, of course, the class attendees would go out to a wild area and identify and harvest the free wild food they had learned about in class, or they would go home and create their own area in their yard for wild food. The opportunities for fun and finding free wild food in the dirt are limitless.
I recently received a note, from a 14-year old homeschooled girl, who wrote, “When I say wild foods I basically mean plants that are edible. Most people would consider these plants weeds. You can find wild foods in fields, woods, gardens, pots, and any space where a weed can grow. Why do I do wild foods? Well, there are lots of reasons. The top three are probably health, exercise, and independence. The grocery stores are selling fruits and vegetables, but they are usually shipped from far away, genetically modified, and sprayed with bug poison. All of these things are not good for our bodies! But with wild foods, we know where our food is coming from, we know that they are fresh, we know that they are not genetically modified, and, if we are careful of where we harvest, we know that they are not sprayed with harmful things. Another reason I enjoy wild foods is the exercise. Exercise is important, and when you are digging up all different kinds of roots, you are definitely getting some good exercise! The last main reason is independence. Wild foods are even more sustainable than gardening. So, if there was to be some kind of disaster, I know that my family would not starve. I love to touch things, taste things, and smell things. This is a perfect hobby for me, because I can touch the fluffy milkweed seeds, I can taste the fragrant peppermint leaves, and smell the sweet milkweed blossoms. The last reason I love it is that I just love being outside. I love the sunshine and fresh air. It is a great way to get my energy out. Wild foods are important to me, and I hope that I have shared why. And I also hope that other people will be inspired to pursue wild foods.”
This girl, obviously very well educated at home, learned her wild food lessons from a woman who is a very good friend of mine, and I cannot put into words how important the communication from this girl is to me. It reaffirms my belief that everyone, and most especially the children, delight in becoming proficient in wild food identification. My years in the wilderness, and the subsequent many years of teaching, both in New England and in the warm desert area of Phoenix, Arizona, gave me a formidable amount of wild food information, adventures, and experiences with all ages of interested folks. As a result, I have been able to contribute a worthwhile quantity of bona fide wild food materials because I lived it all for many years and then shared what I’d learned– the good, the not-so-good, and the downright hilarious.
Only recently did I produce enough breadth to my wild food informational output to be able to put together a comprehensive selection of materials for homeschool parents. This is my “Wild Food Homeschool Package”, available at my website, OfTheField.com. Items in that package include the coloring book I created titled “Wild Foods and Animals”, and I have photographs of younger children entertaining themselves with that coloring book while learning about wild food. I know they love having their art work posted where others can see and appreciate it. Children (and adults) can play just about any card game they can imagine using our “Wild Cards” card deck, while learning about a different wild plant that is pictured on the picture side of every card. In Homestead Memories there are my hard-to-believe adventures with wild food (and bears, and beavers, and coy dogs, and very cold winters, and more), and I include some key wild plant medicinal information as well. A number of parents have written to me to say how much their children love hearing those wild stories at bedtime!
In my book Create Wild Food Certainty through Plant Identification Walks, children can find out how to build their own small (or large, if they are so inclined) wild food walk, where they can put identification markers beside each wild edible they have planted (or that grows there naturally), and teach other kids about wild food. It’s quite something when a child educated in wild food identification goes into a back yard or park area and sees growing wild the very plant they’ve been studying. The light goes on that yes, free food really is everywhere, and yes, they are never going to starve no matter what happens with the regular food that is sold in stores. It is empowering to them.
I do believe that the future of this planet depends on how truly well-informed our children become and how responsible they feel towards their stewardship of the Earth. Getting to the truth is often a tricky proposition in this era of mass media, but Mother Nature does not lie, and she has provided us generously with an incredible variety of interesting, nutritional, and free edible plants and trees. And yes, it is fine to take the time to stop and smell (and forage on) the beautiful and naturally growing roses along the way.
About The Author:
Linda Runyon is the editor of the “OfTheField.com” website and the author of many wild plant books and instructional materials. She extends a special discount for Survival Blog readers using coupon code “redoubt”, good for a limited time.
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.
DISCLAIMER: 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 using 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.