As Native Americans, I find it sort of funny that we’ve become so trusting of packaged products in supermarkets. Then again, much of today's society relies on foods wrapped in plastic or frozen in bags.
Nearly every day there is a warning in the media about one dangerous chemical, ingredient or pesticide in the foods people traditionally consider healthy—not to mention the horrid exposure to bacterial infestations like e-coli.
Foods some doctors call healthy may be labeled as health hazards by others—and those opinions may change with new reports and time.
With the spring season right on our doorsteps, look around, rather than heading to the grocery or convenience store. You might find a lovely wild meal.
Less than 75 years ago things like dandelion, sorrel, purslane and other so called "weeds" were part of our regular diets. These early shoots and greens were treasures to our ancestors and still are to those of us who forage.
I admit I am sort of a quasi-forager, or is it "fauxrager." There are less than a dozen wild plants I am absolutely sure about, however, serious food hunters—what I’d call "plant whisperers"—can seek out and feed themselves throughout the year as they enjoy this connection with nature.
Each season brings a bounty of selections. Just to name a few: spring ramps, fiddleheads, lamb’s quarters, milkweed shoots, violets, chickweeds, the mustards and the cat-tails all poke their little selves up through the warming earth.
Late spring brings sorrel, varieties of cress, daylilies, purslane, wild strawberry and all the other wild berries through June and July.
Later in summer and into fall more berries, mushrooms, wild grapes, cranberries, wild carrot, burdock, sumac, ginger and other free meals and medicines can be harvested.
Knowledge is key. Follow one of the many very good identification guides with pictures. Do not attempt to pick by yourself—find a learned mentor. This is especially true for mushrooms. With all wild things, be wary and certain. For example, even dandelions picked along a road with heavy traffic can be contaminated by pollutants. There are many geographic locations in Indian Country and this “walk on the wild side” includes the desert delights: Southeast, Northwest, Plains and here in the Northeast.
My personal favorites are fiddleheads, dandelion, violets, ramps and watercress. All of these are spectacular in fresh salads. As with all wild things, wash them thoroughly.
Pick fiddleheads between three and six inches. Wash well—two or three water changes. Steam or boil to tenderness, about 4 minutes. Chill to use in salads or eat warm with a little butter and soy sauce. They taste much like asparagus. (Later in the season, Native people traditionally eat the starchy roots boiled as an effective medicine for worms and some blood disorders).
Always pick the greens to eat before they flower. Wash well. Dandelions are delicious alone or in a mixed green salad. It is an excellent source of vitamin A (7,000 units per ounce) and also a good source of vitamins B, C and G. The root is prized as a diuretic in tonic, tea or coffee form. Dandelion root today is used in many prescription drugs for urinary complaints and blood disorders.
Both the flower and the leaves are edible. Violets and great in salads, and they are often used in and on baked goods—especially for their decorative qualities. Natives use them as an antiseptic and expectorant—especially in tea or tonic form. As a tea or tonic, violets have many medicinal uses.