Foraging Basics

By Amy Crowell
Photography by Andy Sams

I knew foraging was finally in vogue when it hit the pages of Martha Stewart Living last year. Since then, I’ve noticed stories about wild edibles in just about every major publication, including The New Yorker’s food issue last November. New York City’s parks have banned foraging altogether since too many people were doing it.

According to the Hartman Group’s publication Looking Ahead: Food Culture 2012, “going beyond local and seasonal, the foraging trend will move from restaurant to kitchen table in the coming year as food enthusiasts take trowel in hand for some ‘wild crafting.’”

If eating local was the new organic, foraging is the new eating local. So, where to start? 

Learning from someone who is familiar with wild edibles in our area is by far the best way to get started. A local expert can help you properly identify plants and will be able to highlight the subtleties in our seasons and bioregions that affect wild edibles. A class can give you a much deeper sense of place and a broader understanding of the local ecology.

Here in Austin, we’re lucky to have Scooter Cheatham of Useful Wild Plants. He and Lynn Marshall have been introducing people to our local edible flora by offering fabulous courses, called “Weedfeeds,” since the 1970s. Herbalists Nicole Telkes and Ginger Webb are also great local resources who offer classes or consultations on the subject. If you’d like to venture out a bit farther, the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center presents a monthly class taught by Dr. Mark Vorderbruggen (aka Merriwether the Adventurer)—Houston’s resident wild-edible-plant expert—called “Edible Wild Plants—The Real Organic Food.” Also, as part of my Edible Yards business, I offer wild-edible-plant walks that focus on how to identify, responsibly harvest and prepare tasty wild treats.

There are many beautiful books in print these days on foraging and wild edible plants, but most of them feature only a few plants that can be found in our area. Delena Tull’s Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest: A Practical Guide is one of the best and easiest books to use for our region. The Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains and Northern Mexico is a multivolume encyclopedia that contains the most comprehensive and detailed information on wild edible plants for our region. These giant, groundbreaking books are perfect for your libraries but not very handy as field guides. If you do go hunting for a simple pocket field guide for wild edibles in Texas, you won’t find one. Lee Allen Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants is a good guide in general, though it doesn’t contain everything you can find here in Central Texas. Be sure to cross-reference any general field guide you find with a local reference as well. 

Merriwether maintains a great website on the subject, and I also write blog posts highlighting wild edible plants in and around Austin. Anything written by wild-food experts Samuel Thayer or John Kallas will be very informative, as well, though they forage in other parts of the country. 

Looking out in the yard, you might first notice a sea of green and brown. Peering a bit closer, you’ll notice that there are actually a daunting number of plants inhabiting your lawn. Learn only what is edible at first, and learn one or two at time. Study a plant and train yourself to see it and recognize it in different seasons. Notice how it sprouts, flowers and goes to seed. Taste it at different times of the year, and note how it turns from sweet to spicy to bitter. Remember the texture and the shape of the leaves and color of the flowers. Learn the most distinguishing factors about the plant and don’t get caught up in botanical terms if they don’t make sense to you. Figuring out how to encourage the growth and regeneration of the plant is also a great skill to learn, as this will contribute to sustaining our wild places.

Many wild-food authors will craft lengthy warnings against eating things you can’t positively identify. And yes, it is important to be cautious and identify a plant before you eat a meal of it. But I think these disclaimers do more to scare people than to protect them. Trust your taste buds and instincts. If you see a plant out in the wild that looks a lot like the mustard growing in your garden, give it a nibble and note the taste. If it’s spicy like your garden cultivar, then it is probably a wild version. Check one of your references to make sure and then harvest away! 

Now is a great time to harvest spring greens such as lamb’s-quarter, peppergrass, chickweed and mallow. New, tender prickly-pear pads will be appearing soon, and watch for juicy-ripe wild blackberries, mulberries and agaritas later in April and May.


POOR MAN'S PEPPER PESTO

Makes ½ cup

This pepper pesto (“poor man’s pepper” is another common name for peppergrass) will add a wild, spicy kick to your pastas, pizzas and crusty breads.

1 c. chopped and packed peppergrass (leaves,
   tender stems and siliques)
1 clove garlic
2 T. pecans
½ t. salt
¹/3 c. olive oil
¼ c. grated Parmesan

Add the peppergrass, garlic, pecans and salt to a blender or food processor and pulse. Slowly add in the oil while pulsing. Add the cheese and blend all of the ingredients to desired consistency.

 

LOCAL TEACHERS AND RESOURCES

Scooter Cheatham and Lynn Marshall
Useful Wild Plants, Inc.
www.usefulwildplants.org

Nicole Telkes
Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine 
www.wildflowerherbschool.com

Ginger Webb
Texas Medicinals
www.gingerwebb.com 

Amy Crowell
Edible Yards and Wild Edible Plants of Texas
www.edibleyards.com
www.wildedibletexas.com

Merriwether the Adventurer (Houston)
Merriwether’s Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Texas and the Southwest 
www.foragingtexas.com

Sam Coffman (Austin and San Antonio)
The Human Path
www.thehumanpath.com