Our homesteading ancestors depended on the land for more than just the crops that they planted and the game that they killed and ate. If you know what to look for, food is abundant all around you.
Even though I plant a garden and reap the benefits, there are edibles all around that I harvest without a thought towards planting or maintaining.
Early in the spring wild mustard and poke salat yield greens either for cooking or salads, ditto the dandelion.
The wild mustard has a turnip-like root that can also be dug up, peeled and chopped and cooked with the greens, or eaten raw. In some parts of the country it’s still known as wild radish.
Poke must be harvested young, once the plant gets large it turns poisonous. But the early greens are quite edible although they have a strong pungent taste that some folks find a bit too bitter. One lady I know uses the stalks of the young poke as well as the leaves, she cuts them into about two inch lengths and dips them in egg, rolls them in cornmeal and fries them in bacon grease.
I know of three different small patches of wild asparagus, I check them often in early spring, and when the first stalks sprout I harvest them and take them home for dinner. Wild asparagus is essentially the same thing as the cultivated version, it probably originates from birds eating the seeds from the asparagus in someone’s garden and then flying off and pooping them out in another location. A lot of plants get spread around that way.
On the side of a gravel road nearby grows a patch of wild strawberries that I discovered quite by accident on one of my morning strolls. I keep an eye on them so that I can pick them when they’re ripe.
Where I live this time of year the blackberries are blooming, gracefully arching canes loaded with white blossoms abound. I’m always on the lookout for easily reached patches as I drive around. Not far from here is a remnant of an abandoned apple orchard that has sprouted a huge blackberry patch amidst the apple trees. (The rest of the orchard has been bulldozed to make way for office buildings and a subdivision.)
Wild red raspberries are my youngest daughter’s passion, there’s a ditch full of them just around the corner from our house and another sizable patch in a clearing in the woods above our house. There are a few black raspberries around as well; they ripen just before the blackberries and red raspberries. Also up the hill from our house is a shallow pond formed from the spring overflow, watercress grows there. I know of a bigger spring a couple of miles away that has much more watercress growing in and around it.
Wild blueberries grow in this region, the bushes and berries are smaller than the domesticated varieties, but the berries taste as good if not better than their cultivated counterparts. Unfortunately, the only ones that I know the location of take a bit of a hike to reach. And it can be very disappointing to take that hike only to find that the berries are still green, or that the birds have already stripped the bushes of the ripe berries!
There’s a little country church on a gravel road nearby. It has two large black walnut trees growing next to it. Now getting the green hull off the nut shell will stain your skin black everywhere it touches, and it won’t wash off, it has to wear off. But since these two trees are just above the gravel road, many of the nuts fall or roll into the road itself. As the good church-going folk drive up this road, the tires on their cars run over the walnuts. This crushes the outer green hull which then falls off, leaving most of the walnuts intact. I give them a day or two to fully dry, then I walk up there and pick up a few pounds of hulled walnuts. I bring them home and sit on the front porch and shell them—without getting my hands stained! Sometimes while I’m up there I kick a bunch more of the green-hulled walnuts into the road.
In the middle of the parking lot of that little country church stands a truly majestic oak tree. It drops thousands of acorns every year. Although today most people (including me) don’t bother with harvesting acorns because of their bitterness, they were a staple in the diet of many Native Americans and probably many of our homesteading ancestors as well. It takes a bit of work to make acorns palatable; the process basically consists of peeling and grinding the nut, then rinsing the resulting acorn meal repeatedly with water to wash the bitterness out. My Dad experimented with processing and cooking acorns, I remember several gallon jars of acorn meal lined up on a pantry shelf at one point. And some of the recipes he came up with weren’t bad; others—well, we’d best not go there!
Even though I don’t harvest acorns myself, it’s nice to know that the option is there if needed.
Persimmons are one of my passions, and I know the location of five persimmon trees within a two mile radius of my house. Two of them are on private property, but it just so happens that I spotted them as I was sitting and drinking coffee with the property owner. She said that she didn’t have any use for them and that I could have all I wanted. The trick with persimmons is that you have to wait until after the first hard frost in the fall to pick them. Otherwise they will be so bitter as to be inedible. Talk about puckering your mouth! But after that first hard frost they’re sweet and silky-smooth on your tongue. Of course you have to race the birds to get them!
Almost anywhere you live there’s bound to be something edible growing that you can harvest. In a city park one day I happened to glance down and noticed a hazelnut on the ground. Upon further inspection I discovered that it had many siblings. I went home with my pockets loaded.
So if you have an interest in free food, ask around. Find out what grows wild in your area and when it’s ripe and ready to pick. Blackberries and raspberries are expensive in the grocery store, many times sold in tiny six to eight ounce packages. But I bring them home by the bucketful and all it costs me is some time and a few scratches. Oh, and a little bit of sweat, too. One must dress properly for wild berry picking, the canes of wild blackberries and raspberries have many thorns. I dress in boots and jeans and long-sleeved shirts. As July is the month in which these berries ripen around here, I go out very early in the morning when it’s still marginally cool. But by the time I return it’s usually hot and sweaty out, and I’m happy to exchange my berry-picking gear for shorts, tank-top and sandals!
Although a Wild Harvest takes a little bit of effort, I find it supremely satisfying to bring home and serve edibles that Mother Nature provided free of cost and labor (other than harvesting).
For more on this subject, check out our Living off the Land series.