August 12, 2015

Back-Yard Edibles

For this post, I'm welcoming back guest-blogger Lindsey. You can read her previous article about life with Asperger's here. She's my go-to person on gardening, plants and living off the land and is going to share some of her edible plant knowledge* with this article.
The recent movement toward local and sustainable farming practices has seen a wonderful uptick in the breadth of available resources for people concerned with the sources of their nutrition. New product labeling, local farmers’ markets, and home gardening and canning have all had a revival of interest as effort is paid by the consumer to make ethically- and environmentally-conscientious diet choices. However, I’ve found one aspect of this resurgence rather under-appreciated – the wild edible.*

For a long time, and not without just cause, there has been a stigma over foraging wild plants for food. Misidentification of species, harvesting the wrong part, or failing to prepare them in a certain way, has led to serious illness and death for many well-intentioned people. Outside of the legal and potential health ramifications, there are also longer-term sustainability concerns when a particular species is over harvested. A well known example is wild American ginseng. It was once a common plant through forested regions of the country, but its popularity has led to severely reduced numbers in the wild from indiscriminate harvesting.

Given awareness of these issues, I believe it is possible to legally and sustainably add wild edibles to our diets. And the best part is that we often need look no further than our own backyards. Since most public land is protected by anti-poaching legislation, starting your search on private property presents the smallest legal risk. Additionally, caretakers usually know what chemicals have been used on the property and if there are any serious biological concerns such as pet waste. My own small backyard here in Maryland is free of applied chemicals and is surrounded by a six foot fence that discourages casual interference from neighbors and outdoor pets. Thus far I have identified and harvested three wild species in addition to the efforts I put into my cultivated garden plot.
Mulberry branch
Morus sp. – Mulberry
Mulberry trees, of which there are many species, are relatively widespread in milder climates. The tree in my yard might be the native Red Mulberry (M. rubra) or the invasive White Mulberry (M. alba), and unfortunately mulberry species often hybridize where ranges overlap. Mulberries are much loved by many bird species, who perform some interesting acrobatics to get to the more inaccessible ripe berries. Because of this, I have not yet been able to collect enough fruit for a large recipe from my young tree.

The berries ripen in the spring, and are culinarily similar to raspberries, blackberries, and other small, soft fruits – mulberry pies, tarts, jams, and even wines are popular delicacies. This last spring, my consumption was mostly opportunistic, sneaking a few ripe berries while I was out weeding the garden or removing invasive vines from my hostas.

Wood Sorrel
 Oxalis sp. – Wood Sorrel
A relative new-comer to my personal list of backyard edibles, “sorrel” describes hundreds of species in the Oxalis genus. Often mistaken for clover, the heart-shaped leaves are distinctive once you know to look for them. The raw flavor is bright and lemony, with a little bit of tanginess from the oxalic acid in the plant. Because the oxalic acid content can exacerbate kidney stones and similar maladies, excessive consumption is not recommended.

Thus far I have added washed raw wood sorrel leaves to salads made with lettuces from my garden, as they add an additional intricacy of flavor. I plan to try wood sorrel tea, and if possible, dig the roots for wood sorrel tubers to cook.
Pokeweed seedlings
Phytolacca americana – Pokeweed 
 The most divisive plant on this admittedly short list, pokeweed is toxic. Pretty much the entire thing has some level of toxicity, from the highly poisonous roots and berries to the slightly less poisonous stems and leaves. Special preparation is needed to reduce this toxicity before consumption, and even then I would not recommend feeding prepared pokeweed to high-risk groups like young children. So why do I bother with this toxic wild edible? Three reasons: Pokeweed is otherwise nutritious. Pokeweed is delicious. And pokeweed is quite prolific. I’d been removing it from my yard as weeds for years before I realized I could put it to use.

Because pokeweed toxicity increases with the plant’s age and size, I only harvest seedlings as a food source – those plants that are less than a foot tall. After harvest, I carefully cut each leaf from the plant, discarding the roots and stems. The leaves I boil for a few minutes, drain the water, and immediately add clean hot water from another pot to continue boiling. This boil I let go for at least 15 minutes before draining well. This parboiling removes the majority of the toxic substances from the leaves, and will substantially alter the smell. After the parboil, I fry the greens in bacon fat. One of my favorite uses is to add eggs and cheese to the fried greens for a complex and wholesome scrambled egg indulgence.
Blackberry cane
 BONUS: Rubus sp. – Blackberry
While not truly a "wild" edible for my own backyard, I include it here since I do not specifically cultivate blackberry canes. Quite the opposite, in fact – I vehemently remove it whenever it pops up in an unexpected place in my yard. Any gardener who runs into an unseen cane or hopeful berry-lover trying to pick the fruits can sympathize with what an absolute nightmare blackberry brambles can be. If you haven’t experienced brambles, count yourself fortunate to have avoided a plant that is a paragon of “death by a thousand cuts”. This particular invader creeped under the fence from my next door neighbor’s yard, where he was trying to eradicate established canes used in landscaping.

All the grumbling aside, blackberries are delicious treats. I’m considering moving a few errant canes to an out-of-the-way portion of my yard for an attempt at pseudo-cultivation. As with mulberries, birds adore the ripe fruit and make off with a good portion of them before I get to harvest. Bird netting would decrease the loss, but as I’m a rather lazy gardener who enjoys the wildlife, I don’t bother. So the blackberry canes stay in the gray area between wild and cultivated.

These wild species have become an occasional part of my diet, supplementing my small gardening efforts of vegetables and herbs. Even though I live on a small lot inside a developed neighborhood, nestled in one of the largest cities in Maryland, these ‘weeds’ are abundant and persistent around me. With a little research, there’s a great chance you’ll find edibles around you, too, to add nutritious variety from plants not readily available for purchase.

*DISCLAIMER: This article touches briefly on sensitive and potentially dangerous topics regarding nutrition. I am not a botanist or medical doctor, and any knowledge I describe here is based solely on my own experiences and research, and should not be taken as informed advice or recommendations.
Author Bio
Lindsey is a graphic designer who lives, works and plays in the D.C. metro region, and has known and loved Melissa, A, and their kids for years. She is currently available for freelance design work and is interested in full-time graphic design positions as well. Find out more about her services and experience.

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