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July 28, 2014
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The joys of foraging

The author, seen here, is surrounded by cattails, which provide many edible portions.
Photo by Stephen Sterling

By NATHANIEL WHITMORE

I am generally happiest when foraging. By modern standards foraging is an eccentric pleasure based on an unusual, specialized knowledge. It is a loners’ sport for those who enjoy the quiet sounds of wind in the leaves and birds singing along. But it is not just the wildlife that keeps one company in the woods. When we pick wild plants, we do so alongside countless generations who have survived through just that practice. The knowledge of wild foods is one of the oldest continuous threads of human experience.

Such a pleasure is not contrived by advertising, nor is it a phase of childhood development. The joy of wild crafting (harvesting from nature) is a deep connection to the ancestral lineage mentioned above, to the cycles of nature and to the language of plants.

Wild foods, to those that enjoy them, have a certain perceivable “glow” that can be sensed simply by being in their presence and can be felt when they are eaten. I am convinced that the nutritional benefits of wild food are greatly superior to commercial foods and even to garden vegetables. Just as the Chinese tradition favors ginseng from the wild over cultivated roots, I prefer my medicinal herbs, vegetables and mushrooms from Mother Nature herself.

Every spring refreshes with maple syrup, then dormant roots like burdock, followed by morels and a handful of other early mushrooms, all opening to a cascade of old friends like violets, ramps, fiddleheads and nettles. As spring continues we get Japanese knotweed, milkweed, poke and the flowers of black locust.

There are many different parts of plants that are edible. Early spring (and then again late fall) offers roots such as burdock, oyster plant, and spring beauties. Then shoots appear: milkweed, poke weed, and knotweed. Of some plants you eat the flower shoots: winter cress and cattail (from cattails we get many edible portions—starch from the rhizomes, vegetable portions, tender leaf-bases, immature flower stalks and pollen). Yes, indeed, we can use pollen as a food, including pine pollen.