In my humble opinion, and in the collective humble opinion of a thousand generations before me, foraging is an important skill to learn. Being able to recognize plant life has meant the difference between life and death for ages untold but it’s something that we’ve gotten away from in the past 100 years as medicine advanced and modern supermarkets began popping up in every neighborhood. Now we don’t have to scavenge for food or concoct homemade remedies, but there’s still much value to be had in the skill of foraging. During lean times, being able to forage can mean much-needed food for hungry tummies and homemade medicines for illness. During good times, it’s a fun family activity—who doesn’t enjoy gathering wild blueberries for pancakes?! It connects you with nature, seasons and events. It can be a boon to your household economy, especially when you’re able to make a profit from the items you foraged…for instance, in our area wild morelles can go for more than $50/lb on Craigslist. That’s insane!
But a word of warning from me to you: don’t be foolish as you’re learning the skill of foraging. Many fruits, nuts, berries and flowers are obvious and easily distinguishable from any other plant, black raspberries for example…but do be cautious as some plants have evil twins that are deceptively similar to harmless plants. Foraging for mushrooms and berries shouldn’t be undertaken lightly as the results can be deadly, so when you first begin to learn this skill, there are a few simple rules that you need to bear in mind at all times.
- No guesswork allowed. Only forage for plants that you KNOW are safe. If you are not absolutely certain that you recognize a plant, walk away. Books can be helpful in the field, but first-hand experience is king so call your local extension office or DNR to find experts in the field.
- Forage in areas you’re familiar with—and with permission. Farmers don’t like trespassers in their fields any more than you like them in your backyard, so get permission first. And be careful of foraging in areas that may have been treated with pesticides and herbicides. Yuck.
- Familiarize yourself with how to prepare the foraged items. You can only eat the berries of some wild edibles, the roots of others, as the leaves are poisonous. (See pokeweed or rhubarb.) Educate yourself!
- Don’t gorge yourself. If it’s your first time trying a new wild edible, try a small amount and wait to see if you have any kind of allergic reaction. Pineapple weed, for instance, makes a beautiful flowery tea—unless you’re allergic to it’s cousins chamomile and daisies, at which point you may find you have a reaction to pineapple weed too!
So I want to show you a wild edible that is easy to recognize though most people don’t know what it is! Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are an invasive weed here in Ohio that grow wild in poor soil. You frequently see them growing in ditches, along fencerows, at the edges of fields…and at 7 feet tall (or taller) they stand head and shoulders above all the other wild flowers. They’re a cousin to sunflowers, as evidenced by the color, smell and fuzzy stems, so if you have allergies to sunflowers, you’ll want to avoid them. As you can see from the picture below, they don’t grow single flowers on individual stalks like sunflowers do; spindly twigs branch off the main stem several feet above the ground and each twig will have 1-2 flowers. They’re beautiful in cut flower arrangements and the bees love them, but that’s not what makes Jerusalem artichokes so valuable to foragers. It’s the roots.
Jerusalem artichokes have very nutritious tuber-like roots that very closely resemble gingerroots in appearance. They grow just below the surface of the ground, so no intensive digging is required. They have a mild, nutty flavor that reminds me of a water chestnut and can be used in a hundred different ways, both cooked and fresh. In olden times, they were left in the ground over winter and dug up in February or March, just as the winter’s store of food was running out, but now they’re considered a delicacy in many circles. So what do you do with them now that you recognize them?
Jerusalem artichokes can be roasted like root veggies with olive oil and herbs. Pan-fried in butter. Simmered in soup. Mashed like potatoes. Or served in a million other ways. Nutritionally, they’re worth the bother. They’re much lower in carbs than potatoes, but full of fiber and vitamin C.
Now you know what they look like, know where to find them and know what to do with them. What’s stopping you?! Keep your eyes open for some Jerusalem artichokes and tell me what you think about them! Til next time!