Knowing what to eat in a survival situation is a great skill to have, but there’s more to eating wild food than the need to stay alive. Foraging is a great way to ramp up your encounter with nature and have a tasty feast of free food. Not every edible wild plant tastes great, but there are at least three that pass the flavor test with flying colors.
There are three common plants you may not be aware are edible from root to stock at different times of the year. All are plentiful in the wild in most parts of North America and taste delicious: the dandelion, the cattail, and the day lily. The dandelion and the day lily are introduced species, but have become naturalized in the wild. And the cattail has been used for food for thousands of years, but most people are unaware of its edibility and versatility as a food plant.
Cattails grow in marshlands, ditches, lake shores, and the edges of ponds. They’re probably one of the most versatile sources of wild food and have been dubbed nature’s pantry. The corms, the bulb-like part of the root stock, can be dug up in the spring to be eaten like potatoes, or mashed up and strained for flour.The tender young shoots make an excellent substitute for bamboo shoots. Pull them from the root stock, and peel down to the tender, white core. You can use them in a stir fry, or boil for 15 minutes and serve with butter. Although they can be eaten raw, it’s safer to cook them to ensure any bacteria is killed.
When the flower spike of the cattail is still green, it can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Serve it with butter, salt and pepper for a delectable treat. When the spike is in full bloom, the bright yellow pollen can be collected for a protein-rich flour. Place a paper bag over it and shake it upside down to remove the pollen. Mix it half and half with wheat flour for delicious pancakes. If you’re able to harvest a lot, be sure to dry it well before you store it in an airtight container.
The Dastardly Dandelion
They’ve become the bane of suburbia, but the dandelion was actually brought to North America as a food crop in the settler’s veggie gardens. Not only are the young, tender leaves a delicious early green, the root, the crown and the blossoms are tasty additions to your wild menu.
The early greens are good raw in a mixed salad, or cooked and served like spinach. And they can be used as a substitute for spinach in any recipe. You may want to change the water after a couple of minutes of boiling to help diminish any bitterness.
The crown, the part of the plant just at the very top of the root, can be used when the flower buds are just beginning to show at the base of the leaves. Peel back the leaves to reveal the tender, white crown, cut it from the root, and steam and serve like asparagus. They taste a little like asparagus and brussel sprouts. They’re a little finicky to harvest, but they’re worth the effort for even a small feed.
The blossoms have become one of my favorites. They’re easy to harvest and plentiful. I make a light fritter batter with equal parts beer and buckwheat flour, but any fritter batter recipe will do. Clean and dip the blossoms in the batter and drop in lots of very hot oil. Sprinkle the still hot fritters with salt and pepper for a great snack or appetizer.
The Delightful Day Lily
Day lilies are still a prominent flower for landscapers, but have managed to survive and thrive in the wild. They will grow in just about any soil, so they’re easy to find in a variety of locations. And they like to be divided often, so collecting a few shoots or bulbs won’t upset the growing cycle. The blossoms also benefit from regularly picking, so don’t be afraid to pick enough for a good meal.
In early spring, the bulb can be eaten raw. Their crunchy texture reminds me of water chestnuts. Later in the year they can be boiled like any vegetable, and served with salt and butter.
The bottom three to six inches of the shoots are fabulous in a stir fry or cooked like asparagus. They taste very much like young peas, but have a more delicate, sweet flavor. You’ll need to remove older leaves because they’re too fibrous to digest.
The green flower buds are perfect chopped up in a stir fry, and make a good substitute for string beans. The full blossoms can be made into fritters just like the dandelion blossoms. They’ll take a little longer to crisp up and will need a larger amount of oil for deep-frying, but you won’t be disappointed.
Plan to take advantage of nature’s pantry on your next hike or camping trip. A wild, gourmet feast is just waiting to be harvested.
(Caution: Be sure you’ve identified plants properly. For example, in early spring, wild irises grow up with cattails and could be mistaken for them. However, irises have flat stems, whereas cattails have round ones. But because dandelions, cattails, and day lilies are so common, chances are you won’t need to consult a guidebook. Most importantly, make sure the area you’re harvesting from hasn’t been contaminated with chemicals or sewage.)
My guidebook of choice for wild edibles in the Maritimes is Lee Allen Peterson’s, A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America.