Wild Edibles

By Karen Stretton, NJSOC AmeriCorps Member

While shopping at a typical American grocery store, it’s easy to forget about the complex system of knowledge developed by our ancestors in order to live off the land. The presentation of product is well organized and labeled; the food itself abundant and flawless. While the industrialized food system in the United States allows this disconnect with nature, there remain people who are interested in acquiring the knowledge necessary to live directly off of food that grows in the wild. Historically these people were known as hunter-gatherers, but today they are often called foragers. If you walk through the forest with a knowledgeable forager, they can identify a smorgasbord of edible wild food that is available for the taking. Additionally, urban foraging has recently grown in popularity, with wild food tours being offered in San Francisco and restaurants building meals around wild ingredients. This article is going to focus on three edible wild plants that are prevalent in Stokes State Forest and don’t require a botany degree to identify. These include blueberries, cattails and sweet ferns. In fact in the early years of the School of Conservation, students who took the Wilderness Survival class would identify wild edibles with the help of the instructor, and at the end of the class cook and eat their findings!

Blueberries are one of the most commonly known wild edibles, likely due to their success as a commercial crop. Wild blueberries are happily still thriving in New Jersey. Different species of blueberries thrive in a wide range of habitats, but especially in the acidic and sandy soil in southern New Jersey. Freshly picked blueberries can be enjoyed by the casual hiker, and are also a favorite of the local black bear population. Blueberries are also commonly baked into pies and muffins, and are easily preserved as jellies or in a dried form.

Cattails are a favorite of foragers because they can be made into many different foods. As one of the best known wetland plants, they thrive in fresh and saltwater. Early in the growing season, the emerging green vegetation can be harvested and eaten raw, but is preferably boiled for several minutes in salt water or butter and consumed as a wild vegetable. The roots of mature cattails are the ones responsible for the diverse edible possibilities of this plant. The roots are high in nutrients, and can be ground into white flour. Jelly and juice are two other possible uses of ground cattail roots. Finally, the sprouts at the tips of the root can be eaten raw as a salad or boiled and eaten as a vegetable.

Sweet ferns are one of many ferns that live in Stokes State Forest. The mature ferns can be brewed into a tea, with approximately two spoonfuls added to a cup of boiled water. Fiddlehead ferns are ones that have not yet unfurled, and these youthful sweet ferns can be harvested as a source of vitamins A and C. Fiddleheads should be cooked to minimize bitterness.

Living in New Jersey in 2011, identifying wild edibles can be a fun activity for people of all ages. It is ideal to begin the journey into wild food sources with a knowledgeable forager, but over time it will become second nature. Blueberries, cattails and sweet ferns are examples of recognizable wild edibles that are easily accessible during the growing season. In his 1962 bookStalking the Wild Asparagus,the renowned foraging expert Euell Gibbons provides ample advice for novice foragers as well as many suggested recipes. He emphasizes the necessity of going into foraging with an open mind, and the importance of investing time into preparation of the food. With enough experience and initiative, entire meals can be assembled without ever setting foot in a grocery store. Gibbons thrived on this, hosting a dinner party that featured wild leek soup, biscuits made with cattail flour served with chokecherry jelly, dandelion crowns as a vegetable, and crayfish tails sautéed with wild onions (Paraphrased from Gibbons, p.8). During the Great Depression Gibbons used his knowledge of wild edibles to sustain his family, and it is worth remembering that there are still many people in the modern world dependant on inherited knowledge of local plant life.

References

  • Gibbons, Euell.Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Company, Inc, 1962.
  • Hansen, Eigil and Jon Smith. “Edible Wild Plants of Sussex County, New Jersey”. Prepared for the New Jersey School of Conservation, 1962.