I like to start my foraging tours off by leading the group to a patch of dandelions. “What are those?” I ask, and of course somebody answers “Dandelions,” because pretty much everybody knows what a dandelion looks like. “How do you know?” is my next question. “Well, it’s got a yellow flower,” comes the response. “Lot’s of plants have yellow flowers. How else do you know?” I reply. And then people start mentioning that it’s low to the ground, the shape of the leaves, and other points that are part of the basic field identification of Taraxacum officinale, the dandelion. Because they learned what a dandelion looked like as kids, they aren’t conscious of how exactly they know it is a dandelion, but they are practicing excellent wild edible plant identification skills nonetheless.
I do this dandelion lead off on my tours to demonstrate to the participants that they do already have the skills to identify which plant is which. They just need to make those skills conscious.
Today I collected red clover blossoms.
Red clover blossoms make a wonderful tea fresh or dried, but more interestingly they can be ground and used as a flour substitute in baked goods (replace 1/4-1/3 of the flour in your recipe if you decide to try this). They give the resulting muffins a pleasantly spongy texture and a hint of sweetness.
I had to pay attention while I was collecting them because they were growing along side poisonous though pretty buttercups (lousy phone photo, sorry about that. The buttercups are the yellow flowers, the red clover the, well, red-ish ones).
That’s fine. I trust my ability to pay attention and know the difference between a buttercup and red clover. But on my foraging tours when I point out a poisonous plant growing near an edible one, people draw back and get timid about collecting the edible plant. It’s as if they would rather trust some expert they’ve never met to sell them their food via the supermarket than their own ability to tell the difference between two plants. Yet we eat foods all the time that have poisonous parts without thinking twice about it. Tomato plants, for example: the fruit (the part we eat) is edible but the leaves are poisonous. Rhubarb is another example. The green leaves are poisonous but the reddish leafstalk and midrib are the delicious spring treat I look forward to every year.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of accurate plant ID if you’re foraging. The first rule of foraging is if in doubt, throw it out. My point is that plant identification is a learned skill, not something you’re born with. You learned how to recognize a dandelion when you were a kid, and if you want to you can learn to recognize red clover vs. buttercups (which don’t look remotely similar, by the way). You could do this with a field guide, or by going on wild edible plants walks with more experienced foragers (just Google the topic plus your area. If you live in the NYC area, my next wild edible plants walk will be for Green Edge Collaborative on June 20th), or by double-checking your ID via numerous plant web sites online.
One more story to make my point: A few years ago I was working at the Kaatsban Center for the Performing Arts in upstate New York. There were teenagers in the show and their parents had come up as chaperones and to enjoy the performances. We stayed at a pretty sleezy motel with an iHop-type restaurant and nothing else nearby. Just outside the restaurant was a thicket of blackberries at their peak. I collected a bagful thinking they’d be a welcome addition to the motel restaurant’s pancake breakfast. Not one of the kids or their parents would touch them. “How do you know they are blackberries?” one of the teenagers asked.
That made me incredibly sad. I grew up in a city and have lived most of my life in cities, but at least I still know how to recognize a blackberry. This trend of forgetfulness and trusting packaging more than personal know-how is something I think we should start reversing at once, before it’s too late.
And as for that “pay attention” factor? That’s part of the fun. I suck at meditation, but from what my meditating friends tell me about the benefits of “mindfulness” I think I get the same thing out of walking with my eyes on the lookout for the next great free forager’s harvest, tuning into the details to make sure I’m right about what I’ve got, and then sitting down for the feast that follows (actually, I don’t think the feast is part of your standard meditation practice. I’ll stick with foraging).
About Leda’s book: Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith