by Christina Shepherd McGuire // Photographs by Emily Sustick
“Eat your weeds” and “eat with the seasons” are statements we hear from both foodies and health practitioners these days. At one point in time, we—as in “humans”—didn’t need the reminder. We lived closer to the Earth, actually foraging on the bounty that poked up from the ground in the early spring (to cleanse our liver of winter’s accumulation), during the summer (to cool our bodies from heated temperatures), and in the fall (to combat the dryness of the changing seasons). But somehow, with modern food processing and distribution, we strayed away from aligning the food we eat to the rhythm of nature. That’s why I made it my mission to take a detour from life’s hubbub and connect with nature’s goodness through Full Circle Education’s Wild Edibles Workshop.
Before venturing out on a warm June afternoon, Teton Science School botanist and guide, Kevin Taylor, reminded us to “leave your egos at home” and ask a lot of questions. To begin, Taylor familiarized us with the basic foraging ethics: 1. Only collect plants where they are in abundance, 2. Don’t collect along roadsides, trails, or parks (they may have been sprayed), 3. Take a reverent approach and remember that harvesting a plant is comparable to hunting and killing an animal for food. He explained that after years of studying plants and using them for food, he now has a different relationship with them, often “greeting an old friend again” as it peeks out from under the snowmelt.
Without hesitation, we dove right into weeds, because—well—they are the first plants to come up in the spring and they are also the most nutritious. Dandelion, for instance, has eight times more nutritional value than green leaf lettuce. And other weeds in the sunflower family like prickly lettuce, oyster plant (a dandelion on steroids), and pineapple weed follow suit.
I learned dandelions were brought over by early European settlers for both edible and medicinal purposes and that pineapple weed (a plant prevalent in my driveway) tastes and acts like chamomile when you dry the flowers and steep them into a tea. Then there are the mustards like black mustard, pennycress, shepherd’s purse, and watercress. Experiencing their spicy, cleansing tastes transformed my relationship with these commonalities that grow on roadsides and in creek beds.
Venturing into the woods, we explored the uses for the low growing, mucilaginous plantain—a replacement for moleskin and a mosquito sting aid. We stumbled upon the prevalent wild roses, whose hips are a good source of Vitamin C in the fall, and the protein-dense stinging nettle, a digestive aid and antihistamine. By far my favorite finding was the yumminess of the lower cattail stalks. Pulling its rhizome from the ground and peeling back the outer, this stalk—chock full of Vitamins A, B, and C,—tasted like the tender inners of celery.
My experience that day—and the teachings that Taylor instilled—has me looking at wild plants in a whole different light, especially the weeds. As the workshop concluded and we walked back to our cars through the field of Snowdrift Farms, I felt nourished from the ground up (no pun intended) and much better armed to tackle this season’s foraging. It’s a knowledge I now take with me into the woods, as I try to identify the unfamiliar and sample the plants I know best. I plan to intimately acquaint myself with one or two plants every year—this year, it’s nettles and rose hips. In fact, with the help of nettle tea, allergy season was delightfully uneventful, proving there’s better ease the closer your alignment is to nature. Next year I’ll choose something new—perhaps huckleberries and morels. And I’m crossing my fingers that a mushroom workshop is up next.
For more information on Full Circle’s Sustainable Living Workshops, check out tetonfullcircle.org.