I'm working quite hard to finish the wild edibles book... But I can see the elderberries are ripening, and so I'm recycling this old blog post of mine, hope you enjoy:)
This must be the most truthful publicity slogan ever: “Elderberry is underestimated”
Dutch: Vlier - French: Sureau - German: Holunder
“Getting to know all these different plant species, where do I start?” It’s a question I am asked quite often. Mostly my answer is “Well, just start with one. Choose a common plant that grows near you. A plant with lots of useful possibilities. And spend a year in its company.”
One of the plants that is such an ideal ally, is the Elder (Sambucus nigra). Grows nearly everywhere, houses a whole world of folklore and legends (complete books are written about the tales of the Elder), it is as suitable as food as it is as fabric colour. On top of that, it provides ideal material to make toys with, and good medicine to boost your health. This is a plant that invites us to smell, taste, touch… and a living example of how different plant parts may contain completely different substances, each to be harvested at their own time of the year.
Every now and then, it’s good to take your own advice. So I decided at the end of last winter, when the first green Elder leaves were showing “Oh yes, the Elder, I would love to spend a whole year in her company again”. Because it’s never right to think that you know a plant entirely, even though you can’t count the bottles of elderberry syrup you’ve made anymore, or the amount of elderflower pancakes.
And yes, last year was another epiphany for me.
A couple of weeks ago, when it was snowing (quite early here for the time of the year), I had to smile… apparently someone was shaking the feather blanket of the Elder Lady! I couldn’t resist telling the whole tale once again. A quick glance to the shelves in the kitchen told me it had been a fruitful elder year. A whole range of elder preparations smiled at me. Tinctured flowers, dried flowers for tea, syrups of berries and blossom, berry marmelade, elder leaf oil and salve, klakkebuizen (no idea what the English word for that is; but the hollow twigs can be used to shoot chewed paper at a target – mostly the victim is a teacher , pieces of elder-coloured fabric, elder flutes (in Flemish there is the wonderful word ‘Flierefluiter’, meaning someone who plays an elder flute, or someone who doesn’t worry about a thing in the world…)
Small wind flute made from elder wood
And the daydreaming had started… About the elder blossoms, picked in a lovely permaculture garden in Friesland. About the harvest of the berries, with the company of a special friend, and how the songs to celebrate the berries just flew out of our mouth and heart… The flutes we tried to make, near the water, one trial after another and another trial, until we got a bit of unexpected professional help, which resulted in a flute that imitates bird sounds so well, that even the cats were confused.
Yes, that year with Lady Elder had certainly been a fruitful one...
I have written earlier about the definition of a weed. And of course, I am aware that this is only a name, a label. "That which we call a rose, by any other name would small as sweet", as Shakespeare mentions in his Romeo and Juliet. Today, I'd like to dive deeper into the difference between wild plants and weeds. Some people use the two interchangeable, however, there is a difference.
Wild plants are those plants that have evolved without without human interaction. Actually, that is not true at all. A lot of them rely on humans for spreading their seeds - the best example being plantain that was spread by European colonists on the American continent. The sticky seeds made the long travel on their shoe soles and spread everywhere they walked - it gave plantain the name 'white man's footstep'.
But what I mean is that they have not been cross-bred or cultivated for various reasons: bigger or more colorful flowers (like roses), bigger fruits (think strawberries), less bitter leaves (like wild lettuce). But a wild plant is not by definition a weed. Native orchids are wild plants, and so is arnica, or common sea-lavender. And they are not growing like weeds - they are rare, and often protected.
A weed is a plant that grows abundantly in various circumstances. It's not picky about the place where it grows, or the soil, it's not vulnerable to diseases or plagues. It thrives under extreme conditions. Even some cultivated plants may grow like weeds, though most of them are wild plants. And generally, they love the company of humans. You find them in greater number in cities, gardens and meadows (yes, of course the countryside is a cutivated landscape) than you'll find them in the deep wild (or whatever's left of that).
They are very adaptable. Pictured above is broad-leaf plantain, and it shows the potential of weeds to adapt to their environment. Both leaves were picked only 1,5m away (that's about 1.6 yards), and yet their size is significantly different. The leaf on the left side was growing in the shade. This plantain plant made huge leaves, in order to increase its surface. Why? Photosynthesis.
The leaf on the right was picked from a plantain that was growing in a sunny spot. It had lots of sunlight, so had no need to form a bigger leaf. This is plant language, folks. This is how you can read where a plant has been growing.
Keep in touch - more about plant language soon!
“Sour, sweet, bitter, pungent, all must be tasted”
My mother-in-law has a nice collection of old cookbooks, that illustrates how even in food there is a thing like fashion. Foods that were popular staples 50 years ago may be almost forgotten today. But most remarkable is the fact how we sweetened up about everything and simply forgot about the so important bitter foods.
Processed foods nearly all contain sugars or other sweeteners, even savoury things where you'd never add anything sweet to if you'd make them at home. Common fruits and vegetables are cultivated for higher sugar contents. For those who ever ate a wild plum or prickly wild lettuce, you know that's true.
And here come in the wild greens; the forgotten superfoods. A lot of them have a bitter component; some slightly, some very strong. And this is the main reason they do not have the popularity they deserve. But I can't say this enough: bitter is good for us. And it is possible to re-program your taste buds.
When I introduce people to wild edibles, I try to stay away from the most bitter ones, not to discourage the people tasting them. But then there's always dandelion, very much in your face, and everywhere, and it's also the one that everybody recognizes. It's simply impossible to talk about wild plant foods without mentioning the healing properties of bitterness.
So here's some wisdom on bitter herbs I want to share with you. Herbalist Jim McDonald wrote an excellent, in-depth article on 'Blessed Bitters', where he explains about Bitter Deficiency Syndrome, and the healing powers of bitter foods. You can read it here (pdf file) and get hooked on wild edible herbs :)
Plants behave in some oddly intelligent ways: fighting predators, maximizing food opportunities ... But can we think of them as actually having a form of intelligence of their own? Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso presents intriguing evidence.
I've already mentioned the excellent nutritional value of wild edible plants; usually they are a lot more nutrient dense than cultivated plant foods, in some cases even a hundred times more! Not only is their vitamin and mineral content higher, they also contain some important phytochemicals that have been bred out in most of our food. These phytochemicals are important antioxidants, antimicrobials and boost our immunity.
Here are some vitamin-content examples:
But apart from that, there's another factor that makes them so interesting to add to your diet: you'll get more variation. Usually Western people eat high amounts of a few species (corn, wheat, soy, sugarbeets, to name a few). I may be more interesting to eat small amounts of a wide variety of species. How many different species of plant foods have you eaten today? 5? 25? 50?
Variation not only offers nutritional profits, it'll also add more flavors to your meals. Nowadays, a lot of our food is sweet tasting, but our taste buds are made for a so much wider range of flavors, and wild edibles cover all of these, from the bitter dandelion root to the sweet himalayan balsam flower.
Usually you forage right before you eat, so wild edibles are as fresh as possible. We all know fresh is best, don't we? Well, bear in mind that a lot of the store-bought fruits and vegetables are cultivated in a way that they look fresh for a longer period of time, during transport and while they're in the store, waiting to be bought. They may even be chemically treated or genetically modified for this purpose. Nutrition is no longer a priority for these crops, as the average consumer rather judges them by their looks. Wild superfoods have all their power on the inside. They may wilt quickly or not be beauty contest candidates, but their freshness and nutritional value rocks!
Wild edible plants are foods that are real. You prepare them at home, with love, or graze as you go, but either way: they're not the processed foods of which we all know they are better to avoid (For those who've done a bit of research, you'll know there are countless theories about what we should or shouldn't eat - but the one thing all of these theories have in common is that they tell us to stay away from processed foods).
And there's another detail: wild edible plants are picked outdoors. Which means your exposure to sunlight (think vitamine D) and fresh air expands. If I get to choose between a crowded supermarket with artificial lights and airconditioning/heating or a walk amongst trees and bushes and fresh greens, with birds singing in the background, that's never a hard choice to make.
We were aired two days ago on TV (watch it here), foraging in Belgium's capital. Right after the filming was done, I got a bit worried about safety. It's wonderful if more people start doing this, but we don't want anyone to get sick. I have a personal limit as to where it is acceptable to forage, but I know other people are more or less careful; it's a thin line.
And it is a remark we get a lot:
"There is so much trash in the city, would you really eat what grows there?"
(And usually the answer is to use common sense, and wash everything thoroughly, and that the invisible trash of pesticides in non-urban environments may be even more harmful).
But let's face it: that's not the real question. Let's turn it around:
"There are so much edibles in the city, would you really throw trash on them?"
Dutch: Daslook - French: Ail des ours - German: Bärlauch
Pictured above is one of my favorite wild edibles: bear's garlic, also known as ramsons. It's a wild garlic species (Allium ursinum) of which you can eat the leaves, stems, flowers and bulbs. But let's take a closer look at that picture. On this particular spot (but mind you, this is a quite common situation, as both plants are typical spring plants that love to grow in shady areas like forest soil) a culinary delight shares its space with the very toxic lilly of the valley (even if you put it in a vase, drinking the water can be lethally poisonous, that's how toxic it is). It's even worse: the leaves have a similar look and are hard to tell apart if you don't know what you're dealing with.
Now here's my point: I don't believe in fear as a good ally for foraging. I believe in trust. Trust that grows and develops by getting to know plants really well, and checking and double checking. Trust that increases through practice and using the right identification keys. This is why I encourage people to start small, one plant at a time. Take one plant that you've known since childhood (for many people these will be easy to identify plants like stinging nettle, dandelion, common daisy or elderberry) and that grows near you.
If you think you know this plant well, you can always get to know it better. Trust me.
And when you really know it like a good friend that you'll recognize from far distance, then get more intimate and put it in your mouth.
Dutch: Perzikkruid - French: Renouée persicaire - German: Floh-Knöterich
Redshank (Persicaria maculosa, formerly known as Polygonum persicaria) is one of those plants that are not really known as edible. It's a rather common weed though, native to Europe and an invasive species in the US, but redshank seems to grow so modestly that no one seems to notice it . But take a look at this close-up of the flower. How pretty is that?
Very typical for wild edible plant is the black dot on the leaf, hence it's common name spotted lady's thumb. Other folk names include persicaria, redleg, lady's-thumb, gambetta, and Adam's plaster.
The leaves and young shoots can be eaten as a palatable and nutritious leafy green. Their taste is rather bland. In fact, redshank doesn't even taste "green", which is an advantage if you want to add greens to your diet but are a bit weary of their taste. As the plant grows taller and starts to flower, the leaf gets tougher, but not too tough to chew on (though this is a very personal thing of course).
In this case, the absense of flavor by no means indicates lack of nutrients! So add redshank to your juices, dips, soups as a free green superfood and enjoy.
And later on, the seed can be collected, but it is rather small and fiddly to use.