Eat For Free: Wild Food and Foraging

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Food costs can easily spiral out of control for a modern family. But it is easier than you think to begin to reduce the amount you spend on sustenance. Whether you have a garden, a small outside yard or even just a windowsill, you can begin to supplement your diet with healthy, home grown organic food. Just a few containers can yield a bounty of leafy salad and herbs that will begin your journey to greater self-sufficiency.

What many people do not realize, however, is the bounty of free food that you can find right on your doorstep. A little knowledge of uncultivated crops can allow you to get out there and find food for your family that is completely free and hugely abundant. With a little consideration, it is possible to harvest considerately and leave plenty for all your friends and neighbours. No matter where you live there will be some wild foods at your disposal.

I grow my own vegetables and keep chickens for eggs in a mature fruit orchard on our 1/3 acre plot. But when I harvest, I do not restrict myself to the crops I myself have sown and grown. I have not had to buy any vegetables or fruit at all since we moved in here a couple of years ago. Any gaps in the cultivated calendar have been filled by the abundance of free, wild food on our land and in the hedgerows and woodlands nearby.

Eating The Weeds

In the spring and early summer, we have greens galore where we live – stinging nettles (picked with gloves and prepared with care but absolutely delicious, slightly sweeter than spinach), sticky weed (galium aparine, delicious in salads or wilted when very young), ground elder (a pesky perennial weed that can be eaten wilted and has a great, slightly celery taste), plantain (not to be confused with the tropical plant, this is a common, leafy weed that can be used just like spinach, kale or cabbage) and a range of other greens such as purslane, chickweed, lamb’s quarters and Good King Henry, all of which are common weeds in many parts of the US and Europe. All of these healthy, green leaves are classed as weeds, all are found within 100 yards of my front door.

It is likely that you too will find plenty of edible weeds close to home, perhaps even in your own back yard. It is easy to overlook this bounty but once you have tried them in a variety of delicious recipes, I am sure you will be seeing and collecting them wherever you go. Another common weed that you are likely to encounter is the dandelion. Dandelions are found all over the place. Not only can the bitter leaves be used in moderation in salads or blanched, the flowers can be made into fritters and the roots can also be used for a number of purposes.

Edible Tree Foliage

You may be surprised to learn that it is not only weeds and leafy ground cover plants that will provide you with healthy greens in the spring. A number of trees also offer edible foliage, especially when that foliage has first appeared. One of the most delicious leaves in the spring in my area is the beech, commonly found in many hedgerows as well as in fully grown trees. The tender young leaves are great in salads and taste a little like lemon or sorrel. Linden leaves are heart shaped wonders with the crunch of iceberg lettuce but far more goodness. Birch leaves are bitter, but a little like radicchio and great when mixed with other greens in a salad. Hawthorn leaves are one of the most tasty of the edible foliage, with a rich, slightly nutty taste.

Hedgerow and Woodland Fruits

As the year progresses, the wild food forager can look forward to sweeter treats from hedgerows and woodlands. A variety of wild fruits can be found in more rural areas and these can often be so abundant that you will have to learn how to preserve some of your wild harvest.

Crab Apples, for example, are often neglected and you can often come across one on a roadside that no one is harvesting. Crab apples are not usually nice when eaten off the tree, but can be prepared into a range of jellies and other preserves that can provide you with a great source of vitamins that will last throughout the year. Crab apples are also a useful source of pectin, to help you set any preserves that you make with low-pectin fruits.

Sloe, bullaces, greengages and some wild plums and wild cherries are other fruits that you may find along lanes and roadways, though as with all wild foraging, you should be sure of what you are picking before you eat anything. Get a good, up to date, foraging guide or take a course with someone who can help you to identity wild foods in your area. Some wild plums, damsons and other fruits are even sweet enough to eat straight from the trees. Elderflowers and elderberries cannot be eaten fresh but can be made into preserves or used to make a cordial or an alcoholic beverage.

Soft fruits growing in the wild can be another delicious wild treat. Blackberries and wild raspberries are most definitely my favourites. You may also find blueberries, bilberries, dewberries, and many more. If in doubt, always consult an expert before consuming any berries that you come across.

Of course, if you are foraging in an area of human habitation, it is polite to ask permission of the landowner before taking any fruits. You will usually find, however, that the owner has no interest in the fruit themselves or will happily part with some in return for your labor in picking it.

Finding Fungi

Edible mushrooms can be found and can be a useful supplement to your wild diet. But there are some mushrooms that could make you very ill. Foraging for fungi is best only done with the help of an expert and is not something to be attempted by the beginner forager.

City Foraging

Many of the edible wild foods described above can be found in cities and towns as well as in more rural areas. Even in a built up area you may be surprised by the amount of wild or semi-wild food to be found in your area.

An important source of free food in a city setting can also be found in other people’s gardens. Of course you should not take without consent but many edible foods go unharvested. If you see a tree or fruiting bush that is not being harvested in a neighbor’s yard, why not politely inquire whether they would be interested in allowing you to harvest the fruit in return for a share of the produce? Co-operation is key to a more sustainable future.

Wherever you live, throughout the year, you can supplement your diet, save money and help the planet by foraging for wild food and neglected food sources in your area. Take the first step: go and eat some weeds today!

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