MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 25th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
There’s a good chance that already this morning you’ve walked or driven by a valuable natural resource. The world is full of edible plants, fruit, and seeds that most of us just ignore. Yet learning how to identify, harvest, and prepare wild foods can bring variety and new flavors to your usual diet. Paul Butler has our story.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: As a child I spent hours walking Michigan forests with my parents, buckets in hand, gathering gallons of wild blueberries for pies and jams. Fast forward 40 years, and I still keep a keen eye out for berries, nuts, and other wild, edible plants along bike trails or back roads. It’s called foraging.
ARMSTRONG: It’s fun. It’s like fishing. When you have that pull on the line you don’t know what you’re going to get, and it thrills you. It really does. I am blessed…
Pat Armstrong is founder of Prairie Sun Consultants and a trained botanist. For 50 years she’s been teaching people how to identify which wild plants are edible—and how to eat them.
ARMSTRONG: This is a Burdock, another weed. Queen Anne’s Lace, another weed. Dandelion, another weed, but they all are edible, and so I let them grow back here.
Armstrong lives on a one-third-acre corner lot, in a subdivision in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. Her entire yard is prairie—and she’s personally planted almost every tree, vine, and plant from seed:
ARMSTRONG: I have 400 species in my yard, 343 of which are native. We have 22 edible trees, 16 edible shrubs and vines, and 124 edible flowers and weeds.
As you can imagine, there isn’t much open space—even the roof is covered with grasses, flowers, and cacti. As we walk through Armstrong’s yard, she stops every few steps to identify the many edible plants found growing wild in this part of the country. Armstrong begins with a scraggly looking plant, about five or six feet tall, with scratchy leaves:
ARMSTRONG: This plant here is called cup plant, because the leaves make a little cup around the stem, and that holds water, and this plant is eaten in the springtime when the leaves first come up. I cut the leaves and boil them and eat them with butter and salt and pepper, like spinach.
Armstrong beams as we enter her Jerusalem artichoke bed. Dozens of eight-foot-tall, yellow flowers wave in the steady fall breeze.
ARMSTRONG: It is a sunflower, helianthus tuberosus, because it has tubers on its roots like potatoes, and we eat those early in the spring when they first come up, but this time of year you wait till after frost so you dig around the base…
Many people forage out of economic necessity. It wasn’t until a few years ago when my own family was struggling to make the food budget stretch that I rediscovered the joys of foraging. And Armstrong says it’s a common story.
ARMSTRONG: Our family did the very same thing. My husband was in construction. And of course in the winter we were frequently without a job. So we lived on Hazelnuts, Hickory nuts, wild apples one whole winter.
But today, Armstrong enjoys foraging more for the thrill of the hunt.
ARMSTRONG: Ohh! There are some hazelnuts…by golly! There’s two more! Ha ha! That’s so cool, because all of my other ones, chipmunks ate them all a long time ago. So that is cool. I didn’t know I had any back here!
Foraging is simply the process of finding your food someplace other than the grocery store. Armstrong says farmers markets, home gardening, and edible landscaping are as much foraging as walking fields or forest preserves. While she teaches people how to identify foods in the wild, she also encourages gathering seeds and growing those wild foods for ourselves:
ARMSTRONG: Whenever people want to know about foraging, they want to know where they can go out and collect vast amounts of free food. They are not vast amounts. You need to grow them yourself. You can’t go out and wantonly forage.
It’s this stewarding philosophy that makes Armstrong’s foraging vision unique. It both preserves the natural habitat while encouraging a return to less domesticated, and more regional foods.
ARMSTRONG: This is a dogwood,. This is the Cornelian Cherry Dogwood. And so it has a red berry on it which tastes like a cherry, a sour cherry…
Foraging does come with a number of challenges though: for starters, Armstrong is not the only one gathering from her land.
ARMSTRONG: These are wild plum trees right here surrounding the porch, but the squirrels and chipmunks eat them when they’re green, and they eat the plum off and throw it away, and they take the pit. So it makes me very mad because they don’t even let them get ripe!
But as Armstrong believes every creature has its place and purpose, she enjoys what she can harvest. Besides, she says, there are still plenty of edible plants they leave alone.
ARMSTRONG: These are the European Nettles. Nettles is…
Since many poisonous plants resemble wild edibles, beginning foragers should learn from a seasoned one before getting too adventurous. One blessing of foraging: the cross generational relationships it encourages as older folks pass down knowledge to younger ones..
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that’s part of the thing. You eat what’s in season or you learn about fermenting, you learn about freezing…
Some wild edibles like nuts and seeds can be easily stored for months in jars, but other foods like fruits and berries have a limited shelf life.
ANDERSON: I dry a lot of things, I dehydrate a lot of things, and so I save it that way. You learn about that, about how to preserve things and keep them so you can have them different times of the year…
There’s a natural rhythm that appeals to most foragers—a celebration of God’s bounty throughout the year. Here in Northern Illinois, wild asparagus emerges in March, mulberries and black raspberries in June, apples, pears and nuts in September, every month an opportunity to marvel at God’s creation and thank Him for His provision.
ARMSTRONG: It’s just neat. We’re the stewards. God gave us this Eden, this beautiful, beautiful world with everything that we could ever need, and he gave it to us, and it’s our job to take care of it and to propagate it. To tend it so that things will grow and nourish and flourish.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler reporting from Naperville, Illinois.