ATLANTA (AP) _ When I was a child, mother used to give me the oldest paring knife in the kitchen and send me out to dig dandelions.
I didn’t realize it then, but that was an introduction to the vegetable garden awaiting anyone who is willing to learn which weeds are both edible and tasty.
″You can eat most anything that is green in this part of the country,″ according to Tom Daggy, a biologist at Davidson College in North Carolina who teaches a course on edible wild plants. ″The only thing I’d suggest staying away from is the mushrooms.″
Fresh, young spring greens are best. Some, like the dandelion, which mother served in a warm white sauce with bacon, are great salads. Dandelion wine has earned a reputation as a form of folk art.
The roots of other plants, such as arrowhead, Jerusalem artichoke and cattail can be baked or added to the pot like potatoes.
Some edible plants include chickweed, wild lettuce, violets, clover, duck potato, mint, wild ginger, wild garlic, hackberry, acorns, plantain, sassafras and day lillies.
Then there are the fruits, such as certain wild grapes and wild strawberries, and once-cultivated plants, such as raspberries, that have ″escaped″ and are found in the wild.
Some of the best wild fruits ripen in the later summer or early fall. They include crab apples, wild cherries, pawpaws, elderberries, blackberries and persimmons.
Nuts and acorns also are abundant in the fall.
There are an assortment of books on wild plants and a reading session is vital before going wilderness picking. But there are a set of basic rules to follow if you want to try your hand at the ancient life style of hunting and gathering.
Be absolutely sure of what you are picking.
It is also important to know which parts of what plants are edible during any time of year. Poke or pokeweed, for example, is food eating if picked early in the spring, before the plants are eight inches tall. Fully developed poke leaves, as well as roots, are toxic.
Don’t make yourself a big salad of greens you’ve never tried before. A particular weed may not be toxic, but an allergic reaction can produce equally severe symptoms.
Try small portions first.
It’s a good bet to avoid plants with white milky juice, red berries or an unpleasant taste or smell.
When you prepare wild vegetables and fruits, use the same care you would with domestic stuff from the corner grocery. Wash them carefully and discard any parts or pieces that look spoiled.
Collect your wild vegetables from safe places. Avoid areas that are possibly polluted, or may be sprayed with pesticides. Stay away from highway rights-of-way where plants may be coated with the residue of automobile exhaust.
Finally, don’t be afraid of being poisoned by a wild plant. The outdoors is safer than your home, particularly during the holiday season, when you bring in plants such as holly and pointsettias, which are poisonous.
Here are a few things to look for:
Queen Anne’s lace, is a wild carrot and its root which can be eaten like its domestic cousin.
Arrowhead, which grows in ponds and swamps, has roots which can be cooked like potatoes.
Cattail roots also are potato substitutes. The seed head can be cooked like a vegetable while it is young and green.
The young shoots and tubers of daylilies can be served as vegetables and the flowers are edible at any age.
All varieties of wild onions are edible and all can be identified by smell.
Lamb’s-quarters and wild mustard are excellent salad greens, especially in early spring.
Watercress found wild has a bit of a peppery bite with more taste than the domestic variety.
Then there is that favorite of New Orleans dessert fanciers, chicory. Easily spotted by ragged blue flowers on talk branched stalks, the young, fresh leaves can be added to salads. But the roots, washed, cut into thin slices, roasted until dark brown and ground which can be a coffee substitute or added to coffee to make New Orleans coffee with chicory, which as an exotic, robust taste.
END ADV Weekend Editions June 11-12