My best guess is that you’ve never eaten a dandelion. Now, I don’t mean this in an offensive way— I just mean that most people have never had the delight of plucking one of those yellow flowers from the grass and grinding it between their teeth.
Dandelions (taraxacum officinale) are among the most notorious weeds, but they were originally harvested as a food crop and medicinal herb. They contain vitamins A, C, and E, as well as iron, protein, and various minerals. Dandelions are renowned for their effectiveness as a diuretic and liver cleanser. The entire plant, from roots to stem to leaves, is edible (Tilford 1997).
So, why do Dandelions meet their demise through chemical herbicides more often than through our mouths? The same question could be asked of Chickweed (Stellaria media), Clovers (Trifolium spp.), Bedstraw (Galium aparine), Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris), and Lamb’s Quarter (Chenopodium album). All of these are common, nutritious weeds that are edible raw (Tilford).
To the experienced eye, a walk in the park—or even down a city street—will reveal an edible paradise. The forests and fields of the Willamette Valley are home to a diverse array of temperate vegetation, most of which is safe to eat. Both invasive and native plants can be easily foraged as a supplemental food source.
Wild foods are, in certain ways, superior to their cultivated descendents. “We have been stripping phytonutrients” —compounds that may reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer— “from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers” (Robinson 2013 page #).
Early farmers chose to grow plants that were less bitter, lower in fiber, and higher in sugar, because they tasted better, but plants with those attributes also tend to have lower phytonutrient levels. That’s why dandelions today “have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach ” (Robinson).
I’m not telling you how healthy and satisfying wild plants are because I think we should become hunter-gatherers. There are just too many people for that; our wild, natural resources are not plentiful enough to feed the current population, and they would quickly become depleted if everyone went out and wiped the meadows clean of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota).
Instead, we should enjoy a varied diet comprised of whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and poultry grown on small, local, polyculture farms that utilize alternatives to chemical pesticides and herbicides. We should eat reasonable quantities of wild fish and game. We should, whenever possible, grow food on our own property, or in common neighborhood areas. And we should accept the Earth’s often-ignored gift of wild foliage— you can’t get more local than that.
We should especially harvest invasive plants, which need to be removed anyway because they out-compete native plants and take over ecosystems. We might as well eat the Garlic-Mustard (Alliara petiolata) that chokes our wildflowers instead of throwing it away, or spraying it with herbicides, right?
But you can only eat Garlic-Mustard if you know what it looks like. And, honestly, most people don’t.
There’s probably a reason why American culture doesn’t encourage wild plant consumption. By adding wild plants to your diet, you distance yourself from the water-polluting, fossil-fuel intensive, soil-depleting mainstream agricultural industry. Any step away from dependency on the dominant food system is a threat to those who run things. That’s why it’s generally perceived as more dangerous to gather supper in the woods, where poisonous plants lurk, than to eat some lettuce from the grocery store that was sprayed directly with poison.
Danger fades away with the acquisition of knowledge. Once you know a plant, you know it. A book or a person tells you that these oval leaves here, the first bush to come out in the spring, is Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis).
Our brains have evolved to store that information in long-term, deep memory (Thayer 2010). Once you go back to that bush, and see the white, trumpet-like flowers, and watch them grow into the berry droplets that the chickadees like; and once you pinch the ends of the branches after the winter solstice, anticipating the return of the buds, then you know the plant. You remember easily where you saw it, how to find it again. Old instincts are reborn.
Respect for the land is prerequisite for anyone considering foraging. There is always the threat of taking too much. You must remember that the other animals need to eat, too. The plants need to grow for the soil’s sake, and the air’s sake, and for the plant’s sake. But we humans also need to take from the Earth, one way or another. So let us take only what we need.
To the forager, food comes from a tangible place. The relationship between the ecosystem and our own needs then becomes strikingly direct— if we are to be healthy, so, too, must the ecosystem we live in. This has always been true, even within industrialized agriculture; but it is never more evident than when you are kneeling in the dirt, tearing out a Dandelion from where it once breathed, and grew, and drank in the sun. The all-encompassing beauty of the natural world, of the movement of water, the passing of nutrients, and the lives being lived— all of this is inescapable to the forager who has rejoined the cycle; because, to the forager, the Earth is alive again.
Robinson, Jo. “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.” Editorial. The New York Times Sunday Review. The New York Times, 25 May 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/opinion/sunday/breeding-the-nutrition-out-of-our-food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&>.
Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Missoula, MT: Mountain Pub., 1997. Print.
Thayer, Samuel. The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Ogema, WI: Forager’s Harvest, 2006. Print.