“… and by feral I don’t mean ‘a failed wild thing’…there is no such things as a failed wild thing…it is in the nature of wild that this is it’s only option. No, feral is a failed domestication.”
-Stephen Jenkinson (1)
Wild Plants. Wild Food. Wild You.
Prior to industrial farming, humans always included wild plants in their diets. Wild plants are more rich in minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and medicinal qualities than cultivated plants. Thus, I invite you to shift the paradigm that a modern western diet is comprised of merely 30 or so species of plant. Instead, keep a food journal and see how many new species of plant you can learn to identify and eat.
Dr. Brownen Powel et al. conducted a study to explore the role of wild foods in the diet of children and mothers in the East Usambara Mountains. The study identified that participants were eating over 92 different wild food species. Although the wild food species contributed to only 2% of total energy consumed in the diet, they are the source of large percentages of vitamin A (31%), vitamin C (20%) and iron (19.19%). (2)
Wild foods do not require water for irrigation, nor do they need to be planted or tended to. Furthermore, wild foods require less fossil fuels to transport and store than commercial crops. Finally, wild foods are often free and available to anyone willing to take the time to locate and harvest them.
Ethics of wild harvesting:
In her book Wild food plants of Hawai`i, Sunny Savage writes,
“My cousin Ila hatter [a prominent wildcrafting teacher and author] taught me the following, a general guideline for right relationship with the plants:
- Pass by the first plant so that it can go to seed.
- Pass by the second plant so that animals, insects, and fungi can coexist with it.
- Then, pass by the third plant so that it is available for a brother or sister in need.
- You are now ready to harvest.
The Ethics of Wildcrafting commands us to respect. I love the definition of respect “to look again.” (3)
Always ask permission to harvest on private land, and also be sure to familiarize yourself with regulations and parameters for harvesting on public land. Finally, harvest from areas that are pure and clean: free from pesticides, away from busy roads, far from asphalt and concrete runoff, away from septic leach fields, and overall healthy in feel and appearance.
Here is what’s growing at Gingerhill Farm, Wild and Feral:
This article is intended to serve as a brief exposè to highlight the abundance of wild and feral foods that are present here at Gingerhill without anyone willing them to grow. For example, in a 20 minute walk, I was able to harvest 10 different species of wild and feral plants. However, there is no way that this article is able to convey the accolades that these plants deserve. If you are interested in wild harvesting, please utilize the resources listed at the end of this article, and more, to familiarize yourself with the plants.
Some wild plants also contain toxins such as oxalic acid and must be properly cooked for safe consumption. For example, amaranth, oxalis and purslane are high in oxalic acid and should be blanched before eating. In my previous blog, How to Go Greener, I write about ways to minimize exposure to oxalates.
Common name : Hawai`ian name : Latin Name
Amaranth : Amaranthus dubius, A. hybridus, A. spinosus, A.viridis :
There is so much to say about amaranth that I will devote my next blog to this plant. Until then, you should know that amaranth was almost eradicated in Guatemala when the Spanish invaders made it illegal to grow this heritage plant under penalty of death. Today it is quite miraculous that you can purchase this ancient grain in the grocery store and find it growing wild and feral all over the planet.
At Gingerhill we have a wild variety of amaranth that has small seed pods, a spiky stalk, and edible green leaves. We also are growing a heritage Guatemalan Red Amaranth with regal ruby flowers and garnet rainbow leaves that Sarah Montgomery of The Garden’s Edge gave to me. (4)
Though the leaves are edible, you should blanch, cook, or steam them before consuming. The leaves are high in protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The seeds are also a rich source of protein, the amino acid lysine, calcium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and selenium. Seeds are naturally gluten free and delicious when cooked or popped.
Cat’s Ear: Hypochaeris radicata
Cat’s ear grows in grassy fields in a basal rosette shape with scalloped greens and a yellow flower. It is similar to dandelion in appearance and flavor.
The bitter flavor is an indicator that this plant is a potent source of antioxidants and phytonutrients. You can eat the entire plant raw. Alternatively, you can sauté, pickle, or ferment unopened flower stalks in place of vegetables like broccoli or asparagus.
Gotu Kola : Pohe Kula : Centella asiatica
Grows low to the ground in cool, shady areas where the earth is moist. The leaves look like a fan that resembles a cerebral hemisphere.
The doctrine of Signatures states that herbs resembling parts of the body are suitable for treating ailments of those body parts. Gotu kola is a powerful herb that supports longevity, memory, cognitive ability and overall brain health. The leaves and roots of the plant are edible and are an excellent herbal supplement to the diet. Try adding a few leaves to your salads.
Climbing Dayflower: Honohono grass: Commelina diffusa
This creeping vine grows abundantly in gardens and orchards. It is quite invasive, as small sections of this plant can break off and propagate easily.
The young tips, leaves, stems and blue flowers of the honohono grass are edible raw and cooked.
Mallow: Malva neglects & M. parviflora
Mallow grows low to the ground in rainy season. You may find it in the garden, lawns, fields and forests. It is in the Malvaceae family, which also includes cotton, hibiscus and okra.
All parts of the plant are edible, and mallow has a mucilaginous quality to it. Notice that mallow leaves also have a waxy sheen to them. Leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and selenium.
Mullein: Verbascum thapsus
Mullein grows to be several feet tall in acidic soil with low fertility. You will notice mullein because of it’s vertical flower comb dotted with colorful blooms and fuzzy, floppy, bunny-ear leaves.
Mullein flowers have antibacterial properties and can be crushed into a paste and applied topically to a minor cut. You can dry the leaves to brew into a tea to support respiratory health. When you are out in the bush, you can use the young fluffy leaves as a biodegradable toilet paper, assuming you are not allergic to the plant.
Nasturtium: Trapaeolum majus
This is one of the first wild foods I learned to harvest. I found it growing wild on a bike path in La Jolla, CA. It is easy to identify because of it’s whimsical round leaves and bright, fragrant orange, red and yellow flowers.
The flowers and greens are edible both raw and cooked. The flowers are peppery and sweet and are lovely as a raw garnish to salads and soups. The greens can be pungent and spicy and I prefer to eat them sautéed with butter.
Wood sorrel: Oxalis spp.
This is a very common plant and is found worldwide. When found in the garden patch, this plant may indicate low calcium and high magnesium.
The heart-shaped leaves have a bright lemony taste and are edible raw only in small quantities due to their high oxalic acid content. Oxalis should be blanched if you are eating a diet high in oxalates. The pink and yellow flowers and green seed pods are also edible.
Purslane: akulikuli kula : Portulaca oleracea
Purslane grows in recently disturbed soil. It is a shiny, waxy plant with petal shaped leaves.
The leaves, stalks, flowers, and seed pods are edible raw. However, you should be sure to blanch or cook them if you are eating large quantities of purslane. This plant is high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, and zinc.
Perennial peanut: Arachis pintoi
A low, non-twining leguminous ground cover with oval shaped leaves that grow in sets of four. The yellow flowers are open early in the day. This plant generally functions as a ground cover or forage for chickens in permaculture, and the flowers are edible for humans.
I like to collect the cheerful yellow flowers to add to salads or for garnish. They have a bright, nutty taste.
Take a walk:
When I set out to harvest wild plants, I notice something magical and perhaps ineffable happens: the plants guide me. Notice what calls to you, the quality of your thought, and where your wanderings lead you when you are out harvesting. Foraging is not about getting what you want, but rather surrendering to respect- a new way of seeing the world.
I love and adore the vegetable garden that our community attends to. There is a dance in the rhythm of sowing, sprouting, planting, tending, and harvesting. Wild harvesting is not a replacement for the garden. Rather, it is an extension of the edge; a calling forth to explore our roots and surrender to the wild.
- Powell, Bronwen, Patrick Maundu, Harriet V. Kuhnlein, and Timothy Johns. 2013. “Wild foods from Farm and Forest in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition 52 (6): 451-78. doi: 10.1080/03670244.2013.768122
- Savage, Sunny (2015).Wild Food Plants of Hawai`i. Maui, HI: Author.