Long before people started farming, they gathered and ate wild plants. With the modern convenience of supermarkets and cultivated crops, many people in western countries would not have a clue what wild food looks like, nor how to prepare it. Fortunately, there are still people learning and passing down this age-old knowledge.
One such person is Annie Rasor-Rowland, who, along with Adam Grubb from Melbourne, Australia, runs local foraging workshops and has published a book showing others how to identify and prepare edible weeds.1 Adam’s interest first began while looking into herbal remedies. He soon realised a lot of the plants growing around him did not just have medicinal benefits when turned into a remedy but were actually just edible.
He shared some foraged sheep’s sorrel leaves with Annie and, after her first taste of the sweet and tender greens, she too became hooked and has not stopped researching wild plants since.
Annie’s knowledge is primarily self-taught over time. It has been gathered from a lot of research from books, a little bit from the internet, and a little bit from local wisdom from Greek and Italian elders who have been eating wild plants since they immigrated to Australia in the 1960s. There is also a level of trial and error, but it is always based on botanical research.
“Learning to forage is fantastic for the life of any person, you all of a sudden have access to all these really nutritious, free greens which are great for salads and cooking. Weeds are the perfect antidote to the modern western diet; they’re not going to give you heaps of calories, but they provide exactly what the western diet is lacking, which is really fresh, nutrient dense and flavourful plants.” Some common greens Annie forages include purslane, chickweed, and nettle.
Foraging is not just a backyard hobby.
If you have ever watched an episode of the popular Netflix series Chef’s Table,2 you will see that many of the world’s finest restaurants use wild and foraged ingredients to beautifully connect the landscape, seasons and culture for their customers.
Nick Blake is a professional forager based in Southeast Queensland, Australia, providing wild ingredients to a number of local chefs.3 As a chef himself, he finds that foraged ingredients help give a dish context. “Foraging is about understanding ingredients we have at our fingertips and learning to taste, smell and appreciate the influence of seasonality. To me, this deep connection with ingredients and being able to hand pick them each week gives you a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a local chef. Consequently, this gives you more respect for nature and excites the creative process.”
Nick has developed an ever-growing list of what is in season when. “Species available for supply may change significantly from week to week depending on a number of factors including rainfall, humidity, residual soil moisture, onshore and offshore wind direction, swell, tide height and catchment flood potential.” He only picks what he needs to ensure that his practice is sustainable.
Nick often forages along the coastline, where he finds native ingredients such as the beautiful peppery herb sea blight, and warrigal greens, which are Australia’s version of English spinach. Further inland he finds sweet, delicate flowers such as pineapple sage, nasturtiums, wild radish, and native violets. Nick also utilises many common weeds in his dishes, including milk thistle leaves, dandelion root, and onion weed.
Take home tips
If you are curious to try foraging for yourself in your local area, the most important thing is to identify your plant beyond a shadow of a doubt. Avoid plants growing near busy roads or in industrial areas where there could be soil contamination and ensure to check whether the council sprays weeds in your area. Do an internet search to see if there are any foraging organisations in your country and you might be able to find someone who can show you what to look for in your local area. One final tip is to look for fresh young growth, as we would with cultivated plants, which will be the sweetest and softest.
What would Paracelsus say?4
While the plants pictured in this article obviously have valuable medicinal and taste properties, we should remember Paracelsus’ words of wisdom: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.” Thus, excessive consumption of the following species might lead to some unpleasant side effects.
Nettle: To be consumed in moderate quantities if suffering from poor kidney function; not to be consumed at all in cases of hemochromatosis (excess iron). As this plant is rich in vitamin K, it is not recommended for people on anti-vitamin K anticoagulants.
Sheep’s sorrel: If you consume large quantities of either sheep’s sorrel or common sorrel, the oxalic acid they contain may counteract absorption of calcium and possibly cause demineralisation; eating it in abundance may lead to urinary and renal discomfort (anuria, uraemia, kidney damage) as well as diarrhoea.
Purslane: This plant is also rich in oxalic acid, which may affect your kidneys (so it should be consumed in moderate amounts if suffering from kidney stones); since this plant also affects blood clotting, it might have an impact on anticoagulant treatment; finally, a study has shown that it might stimulate the uterus, so it is recommended to avoid purslane during pregnancy.
Chickweed: Not to be eaten during pregnancy and ill-advised during breastfeeding; consuming large quantities of chickweed could cause diarrhoea and vomiting.
Nasturtium: Excessive consumption of this plant could irritate the stomach, intestines and kidneys.
1. GRUBB & RASER-ROWLAND, 2012. See http://www.eatthatweed.com/edible-weeds-book/
2. A Chef’s Table official trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKqj85oo2wI
3. Nick’s business is called Wild forage Australia.
4. For the whole text box, see https://www.altheaprovence.com/fiches-de-plantes-medicinales/, https://booksofdante.wordpress.com/tag/oseille-contre-indication/, https://www.medisite.fr/dictionnaire-des-plantes-medicinales-mouron-blanc.1234535.8.html, https://www.complements-alimentaires.co/mouron-blanc/, https://www.academia.edu/40244707/Capucine_Tropaeolum_majus_FR [accessed on 13.01.2020].