Before we gathered our food in grocery carts and online services like Peapod, we gathered it straight from the bush. It’s a shocking idea that the food we eat might not be hosed with the equivalent pesticides of a 1970’s DDT public swimming pool before we eat it, but once upon a time, we foraged. No Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and everything came from nature, au naturale—naked food.
We live in a world of a rapidly changing climate, where food giants like Monsanto Corporation have genetically altered forty percent of U.S. crops, leaving us unable to ascertain the possible effects they’re having on our bodies. It’s important to buy locally produced and organic food whenever possible, but when deep in the bush or even on a day-hike through the light wilderness, it’s nice to know the edible plants around. That’s when Russ Cohen’s skills kick in.
Russ’s environmental education began in the classroom before he shifted to the outdoors. He received a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College (1978) and a masters in Natural Resources from Ohio State University (1982). In case his environmental endeavors didn’t work out, he also obtained a Law degree that same year at OSU. He’s worked with many environmental organizations and has received several awards for his work with rivers. On June 6th of last year, the professional environmentalist and wild food enthusiast took several people—including myself—on a foraging information walk. The walk took place in Church’s Field Mattapoisett, in Massachusetts, the stretch along North St. that becomes Mattapoisett Rd. just past the town line. He talked about some foods, like June berries, tasting good raw, while others, like milkweed, tasted better boiled.
Most people don’t think of daisies as edible, but before the flowers come out, nibble on a leaf, he said. It makes a good salad ingredient. But telling them apart from their nemesis daisy fleabane is as easy as looking at the petals, he said. You’d need tweezers to get the narrow petals off fleabane.
You probably wouldn’t know that the day lilies you’re growing in front of your house could be added to your evening salad, but they have several edible parts. The tubers (near the roots), the crown (near the base of the plant), and the flower buds (regular or wilted), make good salad ingredients. The only caveat he mentioned is that some peoples’ digestive systems aren’t agreeable to the day lily. You won’t die or anything, he added, just have a loose bowel movement or two.
We journeyed farther into Lyme disease country and Russ stood in the hole of a housing foundation as he explained how to spot black raspberries. When they’re small and red they’re about a week from being ripe, he said. During the off-season the stems of the plant have a purplish tint to them and he assured us they could be spotted from a ways away. He said it’s good to know where things are growing during the off-season so you can come back and forage for them when they’re ripe.
He took his pocketknife out and cut off a leafy plant, holding it up. This is milkweed, he said. For milkweed, the best results come from boiling the whole thing in water for seven minutes. It has a green bean flavor and should be picked before the flowers bloom, when broccoli-like tight green buds are visible. Pokeweed is similar. Be wary, however, that you don’t eat the berries or the roots. The berries are poisonous and the roots have a strong laxative effect.
Continuing our walk, Russ’s foraging knowledge seemed unbounded. He knew of oxalic acid in plants like wood sorrel, the clover look-a-like, which is dangerous when consumed in large quantities. And did you know that peppergrass pods can be spread with cream cheese for a tasty snack? Or that any type of maple tree can be tapped for sap even when the tree is dormant in the fall?
He hopped from plant to plant like Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s Fellowship. He might as well have been dancing around and singing. Grape leaves are good between Father’s Day and the Fourth of July, and make pickles crisper due to tartaric acid, he said. Sheep sorrel (not related to wood sorrel) is an indicator of acidic soil. Sassafras fights syphilis. Chicory roots can make a decaffeinated coffee substitute (why anyone would want that is foreign to me, though). Black locust flowers can be used in salads and smell like jasmine. I was typing notes into my phone like an Adderalled stenographer.
It began to rain and Russ sped up, making sure to include all the things he wanted us to know. He mentioned that thorn tips are delicious right off the plant, and bayberry leaves can be used as edible substitutes for bay leaves. One of the most interesting things he said was that roses, all roses, were edible. So next time you see roses at a special occasion, don’t be afraid to eat a couple before the entree comes out (as long as they’re organic and pesticide-free). Be sure to throw the seeds in the garbage, though, because they’re an invasive species from Japan.
Related: Rediscovering Perennial Vegetables
We were across the street now, and were entering a small field with tall grass and larger plants. This is an autumn olive plant, Russ said. It’s good in October and I’ve found that the berries are sweeter when large, round, and red. Walking farther down the road, we came across sedum or “live forever,” which comes out in spring, never seems to die, and adds a kick to any garden salad. The last thing he talked about was sweet fern. A native species used to make tea; colonists favored it when boycotting the British. Some claim it’s an antidote to poison ivy, others claim it’s more useful as an insect repellent. It’s not DEET, but it does seem to reduce the severity of attack, Russ said.
Foraging opportunities like Russ’s workshop still exist today. Just because industrial agricultural is monopolizing the food market doesn’t mean we need to Keep Up With the Joneses. Instead, we can put on some boots, pick up a forager’s guide, and explore our backyards. There are other options for food sources, and in a world plagued by climate change and shortening food supplies, we may need to be familiar with them. Once upon a time, we foraged. And, yes, despite what others will tell you, we still can.
Lead image, chicory, milkweed, black raspberries, wood sorrel, and day lily via Shutterstock.