by Sue Muncaster
“The closer you look, the more you see,”– an obvious cliché, but as we crept along the leafy green path that follows a small creek at Snowdrift Farm I learned that “the closer you look, the more you eat.” I had previous experience cooking with wild watercress and stinging nettles and have been known to snack on dandelions with my four-year-old, but who knew that spiky Canada thistle could be munched on raw by folding and curling it up to avoid the spikes, that aspen bark might save you if you’re starving, or that a wad of non-toxic grass tucked between your cheek and gum is a good way to stave off hunger at the end of an epic hike?
“The mission of Full Circle Education is to enrich lives and to build a sustainable community—one that doesn’t use too many resources from outside and lives lightly in a place that draws from the land,” said founder Erika Eschholz, before embarking on our Wild Edibles Workshop led by ethnobotanist and Full Circle board member, Kevin Taylor. Taylor, a self-described “student of the woods” holds advanced degrees in botany and plant taxonomy and believes that participation in nature is key to this goal. For him, eating off the landscape emotionally connects him to the environment.
Our varied group ranged from experienced foragers and local expert naturalist Andy Steele, to a few foodies, a nurse and a cardiac surgeon, some novice botanists, a farmer, two teachers, and one woman who wanted the skills to gather food in a post-farming world--should that ever come to pass. Our stated interests included using food as medicine, not buying vitamins, learning a lost art, educating children, connecting with the universe, and developing a “better sense of place.”
“The hardest part is identifying plants with total confidence,” Taylor told us. And, for that reason, this blog post should not substitute a good edible plant book or knowledgeable guide. Nonetheless, here are some fun tidbits to whet your whistle:
- Young plants—pre-flowering—are always the tastiest and most digestible. This is why bears follow the snow line as it melts.
- Dandelion greens are eight to ten times more nutritious than green leaf lettuce. Their name comes from the French dent-de-lion meaning “lion’s tooth” because of the sharp, teeth-like edges of the leaves.
- According to Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore's Dilemma, bitter foods are high in anti-oxidants. Just about all the wild plants we sampled easily tipped this scale.
- The flowers of common mallow (Malva neglecta) have a mellow flavor and their mucilaginous leaves will thicken soup, when added.
- Everet’s thistle is named after a member of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition who survived by eating it when he was lost in Yellowstone for 37 days.
- The grains from wild sedges and non-toxic grasses can be used to produce high-protein flour, similar to wheat or barley, when dried and ground. If you only had the patience …
- The leaves of the white-flowering pennycress—a weed I pull religiously out of my garden—are spicy and delicious.
- All mustard plants are edible and can be identified by flowers with four petals and six stamens (four long, two short). Some species have high levels of mustard oils and should be eaten sparingly.
- Stinging Nettles are considered the “seaweed of the West.” They are high in protein, iron, and vitamins A and C. They are used as a cure for poor circulation and urinary infections. Here’s my recipe for Sesame Chicken-Nettle Soup.
- The tiny white flowers and roots of the herb valerian are often used as a sleep tonic.
- The long roots of the tall, yellow-flowering weed salsify, commonly named “oyster plant”, taste like oysters. Turns out I’ve got a sea of it in my backyard in Victor!
While taking notes for the workshop, I discovered old doodles in my journal that read “open mind” and “relocalize food—encourage and renew sense of community and adventure for visitors and residents alike.” Although I may never take Taylor up on his offer to embark on a four-day wild edible—taking no food in my backpack—I have a new reverence for the weeds, herbs, and trees in my backyard. And a bursting curiosity to find out more…
- Don’t collect rare plants.
- Only take what you can use.
- Collect with reverence and respect for a plant’s life force.
- Teton Valley and Jackson Hole are home to two of the world’s most poisonous plants—water hemlock and poison hemlock—so be careful!
- Avoid public spaces or lands where non-native species (weeds) are sprayed with chemicals.
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Sue Muncaster is a freelance writer, food activist, passionate cook, and mom possessed by a dream of a more fulfilling, sustainable lifestyle for her children here in the Tetons.