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Wild Food, Cultivated Eyes

No, not potato eyes, your eyes.  One of the definitions of cultivate, is to acquire or develop (a quality or skill).  The skill I want you to cultivate is eyes that notice things, in particular, plants.  I wonder if you have any idea how much diversity of plants and animals there is around you.  I thought I’d show you a few pictures of the wildlife around me to demonstrate. 

This first picture is of a scarlet tanager that was in a tree in my yard.  For all its brilliant color, it’s a bird not often seen. 

Next (below) is a moth in the Plume family.  It’s probably a grape plume (Geina periscelidactyla).  Try saying that once, let alone fast!  The grape plume moth is just over ½”, so you really need to be observant to see it.  I enjoy seeing new kinds of moths and taking pictures of them.  I submit the pictures to a website that has people who will identify them.  So far, I have had over 350 different moths identified for the county where I live, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!! 

The next picture (below left) is of a mantis fly (a little over an inch long).  I have seen a few, but not often.  I was in my 40’s before I realized there was such a thing as a mantis fly. 

My last picture is of a red trillium (below). 

These beautiful spring flowers grow in rich moist woods in the east.  Although these are not considered rare, they are rare for me to see.  So, what do these things have to do with wild edibles?  It starts with curiosity, an inquisitive mind, and a delight in the creation around you.  Once you realize the diversity and beauty that is around you, you start to pay attention, to see, and notice.  Your eyes start to be cultivated, acquiring the skill of seeing, and not just looking.  As a beginner, when looking for wild edibles (or medicinals), it’s very easy to see the forest but not the trees.  As we look around us, it’s all green leaves.  HELP!  It’s time to develop the skill of observation.  Let’s take dandelion.  It’s early spring, so no chance of the yellow flowers or white seed heads to help us find one.  Where do we look?  If we know that it likes lots of sun, we won’t look for it in the dark shade of the woods.  It tends to grow in grasslands or cultivated/disturbed ground.  Out in someone’s yard, what do we see?  Grass, weedy-looking plants, maybe a bush or two.  Now we can weed out (pun intended) the grass.  We should be looking for a broadleaf plant that’s low to the ground with leaves smooth to the touch.  The leaves will be moderately to heavily toothed with the teeth pointing toward the base of the leaf.  As you break a leaf off, a milky sap oozes out.  Dandelion!!  When your eyes have acquired the skill of identifying dandelions, you can spot one a long way off while walking.  When you get really good, you can pick out edibles from a vehicle (hopefully not while driving:).  Noticing habitat and the shapes of leaf and plant take time, but it is a skill that once acquired, will serve you well.  Knowing (picking and eating) wild edibles is a skill that is not learned in a day but it’s better to have and not need, than need and not have. 

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

 No, this is NOT edible, but I thought it would be good to talk about it considering our discussion so far.  I have done a few wild edible walks (weed walks) and am constantly amazed at how many people don’t know what poison ivy looks like.  If you are going to be looking for edibles, this is a plant you need to know!  I’ve seen people walk thru it, stand next to it, come close to grabbing it to ask “what’s this?”.  Poison ivy is a vine that can sometimes take the shape of a bushy plant.  The leaves are compound leaves that come in groups of 3, hence the old saying “leaves of 3, let it be”.  They will be somewhat shiny like satin or semi-gloss paint.  As you can see in the picture below, the middle leaf is entire near the base and lobed or serrated towards the tip.  The side leaves are mostly entire (smooth) on the side that looks at the middle leaf, while the opposite side is more heavily lobed/serrated.  The leaves can be very small to 7” long and 4” wide.  When growing on the ground the leaves tend to be smaller, 2-4“ long, but if it’s a large thick vine growing up a tree they will tend to be quite large, sometimes looking like it’s part of the tree instead of a vine.  Poison ivy has whitish berries that can have a faint waxy look to them (sorry, no picture).  In the winter, the ends of the twigs sport little leaf buds that look like an artist's paint brush.  Often these buds are a brownish-yellow color but can be greyish as well (pictures below). 

These can be hard to spot sometimes, but it’s good to be aware of them if you are cutting down trees or are getting down in the leaves and dirt.  The vines themselves have aerial rootlets which mean that little roots come out of the vine anywhere.  On a tree-climbing vine, these rootlets grab onto the bark and make the vine look hairy. 

All parts of the poison ivy plant contain an oil called urushiol which is toxic and causes the itchy rash on your skin and is available all year around.  This oil is transferable.  Contact with clothes or animals that have touched it can transfer the oils to you.  Do not burn!  If you breath the smoke, it can go throughout your body and will be extremely bad. If you suspect contact with your legs or feet, walk through tall grass and weeds as this will help remove the oils from you.  If on hands/arms you can take a handful of grass and wipe yourself off using one handful per wipe so you don’t spread it around.  Washing with soap and water is always good too, and the sooner the better.  If you get poison ivy (itching red bumps that spread) you can rub jewelweed on the rash which will help with the itching, but like all other topical solutions, it only masks the itch but doesn’t attack the cause.  The only thing that I have found to get rid of poison ivy is a homeopathic remedy called rhus tox (or rhus toxidendricon).  This comes in 2 strengths, x and c.  I have always used 30x but I have heard that c may be even better.  After I realize that I have poison ivy, I’ll take 1 pill 3X a day for 3-4 days.  Usually after the first day, the itching is gone and in 3-4 days, the rash is gone as well.  This can also be used as a preventative.  A lady from work would get poison ivy every time she mowed.  Last summer, she took a pill before mowing and didn’t get poison ivy all summer.  Get some rhus tox HERE.  Now to something you can eat!

Once again, remember to correctly identify (with no doubt) before you eat it!! Refer to the

January article for other important cautions.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

This is a plant which is quite common in the US and many of us have grown up playing with its seed heads, or fought with it in our lawns as adults.  I personally wish I had more of them in my yard as they are delicious, and every part of the plant is edible.  Dandelion is a perennial that blooms in the spring and fall with the leaves forming a rosette and having toothed edges.  The leaves can be extremely toothed from base to tip, or moderately toothed at the base with a more rounded, smooth tip.  I have found that more teeth usually means more bitter.  The leaves will feel smooth and have a thick, hollow rib/stalk running through the center which can be light green to purplish in color.  When you break off a leaf (or flower stalk), a thick whitish sap will come out.  The teeth (especially on deeply toothed leaves) will point back towards the base.  As you can see in the 2 dandelion pictures (above), the leaf shapes can be quite different, but the essential characteristics stay the same.  The dandelion has a single yellow flower per stem which turns into a round white seedhead. 

Each seed has a hairy parachute structure attached to it which allows the wind to broadcast the seeds far and wide.  As stated earlier, all parts of the plant are edible with the leaves and roots having medicinal properties.  The leaves are usually eaten raw in salads or blanched as cooked greens.  The roots can be eaten like carrots or roasted to make a tea.  Some people roast and grind the roots to make a coffee extender.  The roots are best harvested before blooming or in the winter.  This allows the root to be tender and full of nutrients which it would otherwise use in producing the flower and seeds.  In January, I dug up 2 plants, cleaned and chopped the roots, and then roasted them.  I then used the roots to make a tea which was quite pleasant in taste.  The roots were only 3-4” in length, so as you can imagine, there’s a bit of work for 1 cup of tea!  Walmart sells dandelion tea, so you can see if you like it before making your own.  The flowers are usually used to brighten up salads or made into wine to brighten up your day. 

Most people should have no problems consuming dandelion as a food.  However, you should know that dandelion is a diuretic which will cause you to urinate a lot.  This is probably truer when used as a tea.  It may interact with antibiotics or drugs for high cholesterol.  If you are allergic to ragweed, chamomile, or others in these families, you may be allergic to dandelions.  The sap in the stems is a latex, so if you are latex sensitive, you might experience symptoms. 

Some common dandelion lookalikes are hawkweeds, cat’s ear (sometimes called false dandelion), coltsfoot, and sow thistle.  Most of these can be eliminated quickly as they do not have hollow stems, no whitish sap, or the leaves are hairy.  Coltsfoot is toxic, but when it flowers in the spring, it won’t have any leaves, and when they do appear are quite different in shape from dandelion leaves.  Sow thistle (edible) does have yellow dandelionlike flowers, whitish sap, and leaves that may look similar.  The teeth on the leaves will have sharper tips which are almost prickly but do not point back to their base.  If flowering, there will be many flowers on one stem and the plant will be larger than dandelion.

Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)

This plant is a perennial evergreen in the mint family and does have a slight minty aroma.  It’s found in disturbed spots as well as lawns and fields.  It prefers moist and somewhat shaded areas, but can grow in full sun. This is one of those plants that is not very noticeable and is easily overlooked.  Cultivate those eyes!  Ground ivy doesn’t get very tall, usually 2-3” but will get as high as 8” when flowering.  It has a square stem and grows (creeps) along the ground which is its main mode of spreading.  It has opposite leaves that grow out of nodes along the stem.  Also at each node, it sends forth roots, which is a great help in identifying this plant. 

The leaves are somewhat kidney or heart-shaped with scalloped edges and have a short stem or petiole attaching them to the main stem and should be the size of a cat's paw or smaller.  The leaves should also feel somewhat rough or lightly hairy.  Often, the leaves will also have small light green or whitish spots or blotches.  The flowers appear mid-summer and are blue and tubular shaped.  The leaves and flowers can be eaten fresh or dried and are often used to flavor salad or as a tea.  Try them as flavoring in cooked dishes as well.  Because of their spreading nature, you will often find large areas full of ground ivy, but despite this, it’s best to eat in moderation as there are medicinal qualities that may make you uncomfortable if eaten in large amounts.  There aren’t any studies that show harm to people, but like everything new, start small.

Some lookalikes are henbit (edible), purple deadnettle (edible), young common mallow (edible), and sometimes Persian speedwell.  Henbit (bottom left) and purple deadnettle are also in the mint family and will have square stems as well as leaves that look similar to ground ivy.  Henbit and purple deadnettle both grow upright and do not have nodes with roots and leaves growing from them. Henbits’ upper leaves do not have stems/petioles but attach directly to the main stem.  Purple deadnettles' upper leaves are purplish and very fuzzy.  When younger, these may be hard to differentiate, but look for a long stem growing parallel to the ground with nodes that have roots.  If it doesn’t have these, then it’s not ground ivy.  Common mallow has a round stem, and its leaves attach directly to the main stem.  The leaves are alternate instead of opposite like ground ivy.  Persian speedwell has a creeping form like ground ivy, but it has a round stem and is very fuzzy all over.  It also has bluish-white flowers.

Hopefully, you are encouraged to go out and find new plants (and animals) to enjoy.  Adjust those eyes, sharpen those skills, and fill your belly with good things!


About Me:

John Miller loves the outdoors and enjoys learning about all the things the Creator has made.  He enjoys hunting, fishing, backpacking, and finding new moths.  While looking into prepping in 2008, he realized that developing skills such as knowing wild edibles and bushcraft skills were more important than storing food.   Ever since then he has been learning and slowly working on the skills of these two disciplines.  He currently lives in Cleveland, TN with his wife Rachel and six children.


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