The first settlers that shaped and tamed this country were nothing more than modern hunter-gatherers and their foraging ways provided a good source of foods when crops were not available. Foraging for wild foods was an important skill and it was passed on to newer generations, even when trading posts were becoming more and more popular.
Although the members of our modern society no longer have to forage for their meals, foraging for wild foods is an important skill that shouldn’t be forgotten. It will provide you with food when the grocery stores will be closed and the supply chains will no longer work.
The foods our ancestors used to consume are still out there for the taking and everyone can benefit from them as long as they know what tasty plants are in season. Foraging for wild foods while exploring the great wild areas of our country should be done only after you learn what is safe and what isn’t. Having a field guide with you is a must while being accompanied by an experience forager would be ideal as you will be able to observe and learn firsthand while foraging for wild foods requires. I recommend asking a local to guide you on your quest for finding and foraging wild edibles. They will be able to show you what plants grow in the area, how to find them, how to establish if the plants are safe to eat and how to consume or storage the plants for later use.
As we enter the fall season, here are some good examples for anyone that plans foraging for wild foods:
It is no secret that fall is the time for nuts and many experienced foragers are looking for the mast trees that produce edible nuts. If the area you live in doesn’t have a large wildlife population, chances are you can still find this mast, year round beneath trees. However, since fall is just around the corner you should concentrate your efforts on gathering freshly nuts and acorns.
You’ve probably learned from your grand-parents that most acorns are edible, but if you remember well, some preparation is needed to remove the tannic acid content of acorns. While white oaks contain less tannic acid than reds, they still require going through the same preparation method. The Native Americans used to shell the acorns and place the nuts in baskets and then submerge the baskets in clean, running water. The nuts were left in water for at least three days in order to make sure the tannic acid would be leached from the acorns. Nowadays, people just boil the acorns in large pots until the water turns brown from leaching all the tannic acid. This process is done until the water remains clean during the boiling process. The Native Americans used to dry the acorns in the sun and grind them into a powder to make valuable flour. Once you clean and dry the acorns you can also eat them as is, just like any other nut variety.
Suggested article: Survival Lessons from the Native Americans
Walnuts, hickories and pecans
Foraging for wild foods such as walnuts, hickories and pecans is highly recommended as it is a rather easy task. During midfall, you will notice that these mast trees will start dropping their nuts, and it’s the perfect time to pick them. All you need is a heavy rock to crack the shell and you will be able to enjoy the tasty meat from the shell. Native Americans used to let the nuts age as they were transported over long distances. In fact, if you let them age for a few months, you will notice that the taste becomes mildly different than the one of the fresh nuts.
The leaves of lamb’s quarters are coated by a white powder and this wild edible tends to always look dusty from afar. It produces tiny green flowers that form in clusters on top of spikes, and the leaves resemble the shape of a goosefoot. The leaves are light green on the top and whitish underneath and are goosefoot or diamond shaped. The growing tips of leafy stems, leaves, bud clusters and seeds are all edible parts. Lamb’s quarters is best eaten either steamed or boiled.
Sunflowers have been cultivated for thousands of years by Native Americans and they were often found in caves more than 200 years old. Here are just a few examples of wild sunflower varieties: Maximilian’s Sunflower, Giant Sunflower, Woodland Sunflower, Prairie Sunflower, Desert Sunflower and Jerusalem Artichoke. Sunflowers are easy to identify and you need to look for a bright yellow rays petals surrounding a brown central disk. The disk flowers go to seed in the fall and it’s the perfect time for foraging for wild foods such as wild sunflowers. Treat these plants as you would their cultivated counterparts. Roast the seeds and remove the shells before eating plain. Foraging for wild foods such as wild sunflowers is easy and there’s now way you could go wrong.
During this time of year, the dogwood fruits are turning red and there’s a big competition for them. The squirrels love these fruits and when they start hitting the trees, it’s a clear signs that the fruits are ready for picking. Dogwoods have simple, untoothed leaves with the veins curving distinctively as they approach the leaf margins. Dogwood flowers have four parts. In many species, the flowers are borne separately in open (but often dense) clusters, while in various other species (such as the flowering dogwood), the flowers themselves are tightly clustered, lacking showy petals, but surrounded by four to six large, typically white petal-like bracts. The dogwood fruits are brightly colorful and contain tiny seeds which are also edible. The can be turned into jam, fermented into a wine, or eaten raw after slight bletting
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Watercress is an aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial herb with bright white flowers that resemble the shape of a cross. This is a great peppery tasting green but you have to pay attention when you forage for it. The leaves, flowers and unripe seed pods are all edible parts. Always be careful of water quality because this plant can harbor parasites if grown in the presence of waters that have waste runoff. It’s always best to cook it and you should avoid eating it raw, regardless where you found it. Watercress grew along streams and provided a fresh vegetable for salad for many of the early pioneers.
This plant is also known as Red Sorrel or sour weed and it can be found all across the United States. Sheep’s sorrel was likely introduced from Europe and it was used by costal first nations. It forms triangular leaves that grow in a rosette of long stemmed basal leaves. It grows yellow and reddish flowers on the top in clusters along the stem. This plant likes the same conditions as blueberries, so if you forage for blueberries, look around for spots where there is sufficient light and chances are you will find sheep’s sorrel. Use only small quantities of leaves as they contain oxalic acid. Chopped leaves can be added in a salad or on top of cooked meals to give it a nice zest.
This plant was introduced to North America during the 1700s with the founding of the colony on the Detroit River by Antonine de la Mothe Cadillac and it was used as a food source during emergencies. The plant has oval, flat leaves that turn yellow when flowering. Flowers are produced in racemes and are white, small and equal in size. The young leaves and seeds are the edible parts of this plant and many foragers look for it during early fall. The young leaves can be consumed raw or cooked and they should be harvested before the plants flowers. Cooked leaves can be added to soups or used as a potherb like spinach. The seeds are usually grounded into powdered and used as a mustard substitute.
Related reading: Top 10 medicinal herbs for your garden
These are probably the tastiest fruit you’ve never heard of and it is a desired price for the experienced foragers as their season lasts only a few weeks in late fall. Even more, wildlife likes them too, so there is a big completion for these fruits. The pawpaw tree is native to the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern United States and it can found in well-drained, deep, fertile bottom-land and hilly upland habitat, with large, simple leaves and large fruits. The fruit of the pawpaw is a large, yellowish-green to brown berry and have a banana-like texture. The flavor of the fruits is a cross between an apple and mango, and kids love them. When foraging for wildlife foods such as pawpaws, timing is critical as you need to check for ripe fruits before the wildlife does. To tell if the fruits are ripe, one should look for soft fruits that shake easily from the tree. Fresh fruits of the pawpaw are commonly eaten raw, either chilled or at room temperature. The fruit pulp is also often used for making pies, custards, cookies or cakes.
This is considered the largest native berry in North America and folklore states that persimmons are best after a hard frost or light freeze. It is a small tree usually 30 through 80 feet in height, with a short, slender trunk and spreading, often pendulous branches, which form a broad or narrow, round-topped canopy. The peculiar characteristics of its fruit have made the tree well known. This fruit is a globular berry, with variation in the number of seeds, sometimes with eight and sometimes without any. The fruits can be eaten raw or cooked in various ways and their seeds were roasted, grounded and used as coffee extender by the early pioneers. The pulp can be used to make jelly, syrup, beer, wine, liquor, bread, pancakes, pudding and molasses.
While some of the wild edibles listed in this article are native, some were brought here by pioneers from Europe when settling the first colonies. Learning about these wild edibles, when and how to harvest them will help us survive when food is scarce. It will allow us to live with what is readily available to us in the wilderness. Foraging for wild foods is a skill that should be practiced with every occasion we get as it will prepare us for tough times.
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