by Sergei Boutenko
It was a cold morning in mid-April when we ran out of food. We sat on tree stumps at four thousand feet above sea level and watched as mom rummaged through our shabby backpacks in search of something edible. After several minutes, she managed to round up a half-empty bottle of olive oil, several handfuls of rolled oats, a few cloves of garlic, and a small container of sea salt. We were four days into our journey and had to hike another fifty miles to collect our next food parcel in the closest middle-of-nowhere town in Southern California.
Earlier that year, in January of 1998, my parents decided that as part of our adventurous lifestyle and home-schooling experience, we would hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada along the West Coast. Our team consisted of my mom, dad, sister, cousin (who was visiting from Russia for a year to get a well-rounded American experience), and me. None of us had hiked much, but what we lacked in practice we made up for in drive. My mother spearheaded the idea of a six-month, 2,650-mile walk after she read a book about the adventures one thru-hiker had on the Appalachian Trail. She decided on the Pacific Crest Trail because it was wilder and had less traffic than its East Coast sibling.
At first my father was not too keen on such a long trek, but my mom’s determination quickly appealed to his adventurous side and he fell in line. There is a saying in Russia, “The man is the head of the family, while the woman is the neck, and the head cannot turn without the neck.” As the neck, my mother steered our Chevy Astro van into a parking lot in front of a Play It Again Sports store in Escondido, California. There we equipped ourselves with top-of-the-line used backpacking gear in preparation for the journey ahead.
Once each of us had a rucksack and sleeping bag, my mother initialized phase two—-food planning and management. Since we could not carry six months’ worth of food on our backs, we had to plan how and what to eat in advance. According to the Pacific Crest Trail guidebook, the trail intersects with a small town every sixty to one hundred miles. A backpacker could visit a small grocery store or pick up a general-delivery package full of grub in town. Our finite vagabond budget made it clear that shopping for food along the way was out of the question.
My parents invested all the money they had in bulk food, which we repackaged into twenty-six resupply parcels. Because we had little overnight backpacking expertise, we made an educated guess as to how much food five hungry hikers could consume. Our average resupply parcel contained roughly five pounds of rolled oats, six dates per person per day, assorted dried fruit, mixed nuts, sea vegetables, an eight-ounce bottle of oil, random seasonings, and a few other essentials. Once I had wrapped each parcel with a thick layer of tape, my parents shipped them off. Then we packed our rucksacks and had a friend drop us off at the trailhead on the Mexican border.
Within a week of our April 3 departure, we realized that our calculations were off. Each food parcel we collected lasted four to five days instead of the intended week. Hiking hungry was not only more difficult, but less enjoyable. At the rate we were running out of food, we would almost certainly not make it to Canada. So there we were, at the top of the world without food. No one said much as my father rationed out the last few spoonfuls of oats and olive oil. Group morale was low, and quitting our adventure seemed inevitable. Our stomachs grumbled; we understood that if we were to succeed, we needed to acquire more food.
Before we took off from our campsite that day, my mother ventured down to the nearby creek to wash her face. As she knelt on the sandy bank, she noticed a plant that looked a lot like celery. She picked it and brought it back to camp for further investigation. Though the stalks of the wild plant were thinner than store-bought celery, they looked and smelled the same. We knew better than to eat unknown things, but hunger and curiosity got the best of us. My father decided to take the first nibble to see if it caused any negative reactions. After several minutes of chewing, the verdict was that it was indeed edible. We picked all of the remaining stalks near the river and stashed them in our packs for dinner.
When we made it into town, my parents bought a used copy of Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson at a local bookstore. It noted wild celery, as well as many other wild foods, as being edible and readily available. Flipping through its pages, we got the impression that nature was full of food. We had a family meeting that night to discuss how to proceed. My parents asked each hiker to share his or her concerns in order to determine whether we should continue hiking the trail. The unanimous decision was to attempt the next section of the path while foraging for wild edibles. If this did not work, we would abandon the Pacific Crest Trail.
Like all new things, venturing into the world of foraging was intimidating and awkward. During our downtime, we surveyed our surroundings and tried to identify the flora around us. When we found a potential match, someone from our expedition would eat a small quantity while the others observed. If the eater experienced no negative side effects after fifteen minutes, we deemed the vegetation fair game. We familiarized ourselves with plants such as miner’s lettuce, clover, plantain, dandelion, salsify, sheep sorrel, pineapple weed, and wild strawberry, and Douglas fir.
Adding these edibles to our meals allowed us to conserve our prepackaged food. Our food shortages stopped. And not worrying about going hungry allowed us to relax and enjoy our time in nature. Furthermore, because wild food grew in such abundance along the trail, it soon became our staple. By trail’s end, 60 to 80 percent of our diet was composed of wild edibles. All of the new plants we used in our meals were fresh and extremely nutritious. Our diets grew in diversity and led to improved health. We were astonished how much we enjoyed the flavor of our food and always looked forward to the next meal. In short, discovering wild food enabled us to successfully finish our hike.
Upon completion of the Pacific Crest Trail in September of 1998, we all marveled at how wonderful we felt. Our endurance and energy levels were incredible. Our complexions were clear and our spirits soared. My cousin, sister, and I each gained eleven pounds of pure muscle, while my mother and father burned through the extra fat they had carried prior to the hike. All of these positive changes were indicators that we had been living a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle on the path.
Back in civilization, I continued researching wild edibles. Over then next decade I discovered that in addition to being free food, wild edibles benefit us in at least seven other ways. In the remaining portion of this article, I intend to elaborate on these benefits.
Healthier for You and the Planet
A wonderful advantage to wild edibles is their immense nutritional value. Like store-bought greens, wild food is loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates, and phytochemicals. All of these elements contribute to a healthier state of being. Unlike conventional kale and arugula, wild foods have not been tampered with and remain pure. Most domesticated produce has been hybridized and selected for flavor and transportability, and is increasingly genetically modified (Kallas 2010). According to Adam Drenowski and Carmen Gomez-Carnero, such practices have the tendency to reduce the nutritional value of our food (2000). In addition to producing less nutritional food, large-scale, commercial food growers often deplete the soil of minerals through poor farming techniques. In this respect, wild edibles are also superior, because they grow in areas where soil quality remains high.
Even if you eat weeds that grow in depleted soil, they are likely to be more nutritious than conventional crops. Weeds are hardy and accustomed to surviving in harsh environments. Many have root systems that are deeper than those of domesticated plants (Schofield 2003). This allows them to draw water and minerals from deep beneath the earth’s surface. Next time you spot a dandelion on your lawn after a prolonged dry spell, notice how it remains green, while the grass around it has started to turn brown. If you would like to investigate this matter further, try pulling a dandelion. Is it tough? Does it fight to stay grounded? This is likely a sign that it has deep roots and a high nutritional makeup.
In addition to being healthy for your body, harvesting wild food is more kind to the planet, because it reduces the amount of waste created. When I walk into a supermarket, I sometimes feel uneasy at the thought of how many resources have been wasted on packaging. Chips are sealed tight in a plastic bag, and crackers are double-packaged in plastic and a box, because that’s a requirement of modern food-safety rules. Once I consume the chips or the crackers, the bag will be thrown into a landfill, where it will remain for thousands of years. On the other hand, eating wild edibles or homegrown vegetables creates zero trash. Any scraps left over from meal preparation go into my compost pile, where they break down into rich soil that will eventually aid in the growth of more food. For me, this is reason enough to keep eating homegrown and wild-harvested food.
In 1969 the US Department of Defense performed a comprehensive nationwide study to determine the average distance food travels from farm to plate. The study found that produce traveled an average of 1,200 miles to get to consumers (Brown and Pilz 1969). Brian Halweil, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, claims this figure is likely higher today—-sitting somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 miles. Some of the disadvantages of such practices include loss of freshness, food being harvested and eaten before it is ripe, and a massive waste of the earth’s finite resources.
Halweil says, “We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, DC, requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy.” If this same lettuce is shipped overseas, the ratio of fuel energy consumed to calories provided jumps to 127 (Halweil 2002). When I lived in Hawaii, I found it impossible to buy a Maui-grown pineapple, because they were all exported off the island. If I was craving pineapple, I had to go to the store and purchase one grown in Costa Rica or Ecuador. Likewise, when traveling in New Zealand, it was hard to find apples not grown in Washington State, and here in the apple-producing Northwest, grocery stores regularly sell apples from New Zealand. This is completely absurd and goes against any kind of logic and reason.
On the other hand, wild edibles are a textbook example of local food. If you find weeds growing in the park across the street from your house, you can avoid petroleum expenditure altogether. By walking over to the dandelion patch and harvesting yourself a meal, the only energy expended is your own. This is commonly referred to as “exercise.” Such routines benefit you, while helping you to reduce your carbon footprint.
Expand Your Food Options
As modern food growers and manufacturers continue to streamline the food supply and strive for convenience and profit, our diets become less diverse and our health diminishes. For example, apples that keep well during transportation and have a uniform appearance trump the thousands of older varieties and those that nature has provided. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan writes that the average American eats a substantially less diverse diet now than his or her ancestors did. According to Pollan, humankind has historically consumed upward of eighty thousand species. Today that number has dropped to around three thousand (2008). When you think of pizza, pasta, hamburgers, bread, decadent desserts, and beverages, it may seem like a wide scope of food.
The building blocks of all these eats, however, are things such as corn, corn by-products, wheat, meat, and sugar. We have homogenized our food into what is most economical, not what is most healthy.
I believe that as hunters and gathers, we ate wildly diverse diets comprised of thousands of ingredients. Have you ever heard the phrase “eat a balanced diet?” I have pondered this expression many times. It’s so simple, yet so wise. Perhaps the person who first mumbled it was referring to the abundant environment around him. Maybe he lectured a captivated group of Neanderthals about eating things from the fields, mountains, and lakes. There is much evidence of this when we look at the diets of indigenous cultures.
According to Daniel Moerman, an ethnobotanist, precontact Native Americans are known to have used thousands of plants in their diet each year (1998). Such diversity is still possible today through foraging. Wild edibles are a fabulous way to expand your diet, as there are thousands of them. When you learn to identify just one plant, you have the potential to expand your diet exponentially. For example, the common dandelion has two hundred relatives. If you learn to recognize a dandelion, you could potentially increase your diet by two hundred ingredients.
Preparation for Unfortunate Events
Being less reliant on purchasing food from a grocery store allows you to be more self-sufficient. This is a valuable skill. While I’m not hoping for a major world disaster, I take comfort in knowing that, if one occurred, I could provide food for myself and loved ones by foraging. I have attended several major survivalist conferences and listened to numerous keynote speakers proclaim with certainty that a major economic collapse will occur in the near future. Most of these presenters advise stockpiling food and ammunition.
I find this type of thinking amusing, because if civilization came to an end, any saved rations would sooner or later run out, and you would be back at square one. To me, stockpiling isn’t the same thing as being prepared. I feel equipped to face troubled times because I have the know-how to continue meeting life’s basic needs in any situation. Stockpiling is merely a way to postpone struggles. Knowing what I can eat in my surroundings is liberating. If I needed to sustain myself for years on wild food, I could do it. I would, no doubt, have to adjust my comfortable, modern lifestyle, but nature is bountiful, and I am certain that I could live off the land in a pinch. I did exactly this while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1998.
Bring People Together
Foraging can and should be done with family and friends. Going on food hunts is engaging and fun for people of any age. Think about how much you bond with your loved ones when you share a meal together. Now imagine how much more connected you might feel had you harvested the key ingredients for the meal from the wild. Group foraging can provide memories that will last a lifetime. It’s also a great way to disconnect from all the electronic devices that are constantly competing for your attention in the modern world.
Organic farmers can increase their profit margin by selling edible weeds that grow on their farms instead of throwing them away. A few years back I volunteered on a friend’s farm in Missoula, Montana. The amount of purslane, mallow, clover, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, nettles, and plantain growing on Dave’s land is hard to believe. Easily 50 percent of his crop is comprised of unintentional food. As an organic farmer, Dave barely makes ends meet. He has lots of expenses, and his prices can never compete with those of large-scale conventional farmers and supermarkets.
As I got to know Dave better, I began telling him about the benefits of the weeds going to waste on his farm. I could tell that he was absorbing my information, because his eyes lit up at the mention of such exotic greens. Finally, after many conversations, Dave began selling wild edibles at the local farmers’ market. His booth offered a service that no store could provide, and his profits increased significantly. Best of all, Dave’s team barely had to do any extra work to capitalize on this niche market, because the weeds were already growing on his farm. Throughout my travels, I have met many other farmers who have shared similar stories.
Exposure to Nature, Fresh Air, Sunshine, Exercise, and Relaxation
If you are still not convinced that wild edibles have the power to enrich your life, consider this: they get you outside. Once in the outdoors, you breathe fresh air. Your skin is exposed to sunlight, which fills your body with vitamin D. You walk, crouch, and dig, all of which is excellent exercise. Anyway you look at it, nature is healthy. Foraging is simply another reason and another opportunity to get outside.
Want to learn how to forage safety and responsibly? Follow these common sense guidelines while looking for the plants below!
Sergei’s Simple Rules For Foraging
– Don’t eat something if you don’t know what it is!!
– When trying new food for the first time, eat a small amount to make sure your body reacts positively to it.
– Only mix wild edibles when you know how they affect your body.
Clover—Three oval leaves with pink, white, or red flowers. Rich in vitamin C, calcium, copper, zinc, and manganese. Add leaves and flowers to salads, smoothies, sandwiches, wraps, and soups. Greens taste similar to pea sprouts. Flowers are slightly sweet.
Broadleaf Plantain—Round robust leaves with clear parallel veins. Bountiful seedpod on hearty stem. Rich in protein, beta-carotene, and calcium. Apply plantain juice or poultice to cuts and insect bites for instant relief. Eat leaves in salads and soups. Boil young seedpods like green beans.
Dandelion—Dark green toothy leaves with smooth main vein. Stems contain milky sap. Yellow flowers turn into puff balls in late summer. Rich in vitamins A, B, and C. Great for liver purification. Add young leaves & flowers to salads, smoothies, sandwiches, wraps, and soups.
Miner’s Lettuce—Round, disc-like leaves with a stem that grows directly through the center of the leaf. Tiny white flowers grow at the top of the plant. Rich in vitamins A and C. Greens and flowers are juicy and mild to the taste. Eat as trailside nibble or add to salads.
Salsify—Bright yellow/ purple flowers with daisy-like petals and pointy green sepals. Rich in vitamins A, B, and C. Beneficial for inner organs. All parts of the plant are edible, but the tender parts taste best. Add flowers and delicate greens to salads, sandwiches, and wraps.
Sheep Sorrel—Long leaves with symmetrical lobes that resemble a fish. Tiny reddish flowers that grow at the top of the plant. Rich in iron. All parts are edible. Leaves and flowers are slightly sour to the taste. Add tender greens to salads, smoothies, sandwiches, wraps, and soups.
Pineapple Weed—Tiny, pineapple-like flower heads that grow at the top of the plant. These flower heads smell sweet when crushed. Leaves are made up of many small leaflets. Pineapple weed is essentially wild chamomile. Dry the leaves and flowers and brew in tea.
Wild Strawberry—Three oval leaves with deep serrations. White flowers with five petals. Tiny red berries. Rich in vitamins A, C, and iron. Eat ripe berries as a delicious trailside nibble. Use young leaves and flowers in salads.
Fir Needles—Coniferous evergreen tree. Needles are flat and short. Rich in vitamins A and C. Eat light green tips in salads. Steep dark green needles in boiling water and drink as tea.
Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging, with Easy Identification of 60 Edible Plants and 67 Recipes