Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Winter study

Winter is good for a lot outdoor activities, though the early darkness can be a limiting factor to many of them. When the day reaches the point that I can’t see anything when I am outside, I usually retreat to the cabin and enjoy another activity that seems best accomplished in winter—studying fieldguides. This year I am working on learning more about the local edible and poisonous plants.

Over the years I’ve learned the basics of my native plants, but I’ve never felt really expert about that level of knowledge. Things like birds, animals, animal tracks and even trees, ferns and fungi were always more exciting and interesting to me. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling that I need to spend some time improving my knowledge of the smaller plants around me.

In part, my interest this year is based on two things—the economy and the idea that I’ve pretty well studied most everything else already. My original hope was that I could cut down my food bill by doing some fairly serious foraging in the warmer months. I gave that idea up pretty quickly. Most of the fieldguides are kind of liberal in their take on what is edible. Edible includes many plants with medicinal uses, but far fewer that might actually end up on a dinner table for more than a garnish.

For years, I’ve gathered black raspberries and blueberries. Sometimes I’ve added fiddleheads and dandelion greens to a dinner salad. I gather hickory nuts when I can get to them before the squirrels. But if I put everything together in a box, it might, just might, be enough to feed me for perhaps a couple of days. If I added a few home-caught fish to the mix, I would add a few more days to my grand total, but the bottom line is that my home-gathered food isn’t going to last me very long.

This year I’m hoping to improve that dismal total a little bit. For the record, I’m not planning to eat any mushrooms, so don’t worry about that. I don’t trust my knowledge or lack thereof enough to try those anytime soon or maybe forever. I’m talking more about things like cattails or watercress, maybe burdock. Unfortunately, I don’t even hope to be able to go "off the grid" of the grocery store. I simply want to try the wild things that are out there and get a few free meals from the experience.


Deb said...

I am always amazed at some of the plants that are considered "edible" in those guides. Edible, yeah, but not something you'd necessarily want to eat if you had a choice!

I want to learn more about foraging too. I've had steamed stinging nettles before, and they are pretty good once you get past the fear that the cooked greens will sting (they won't).

Barb said...

Yum - fiddleheads are tasty! I actually had them at a restaurant in Denver and didn't know what they were until I asked. They'll be a nice addition to your salad! Do they grow in the forest or along a stream?
Happy foraging - it will be interesting to read about what you find.

Carolyn H said...

Barb, fiddleheads are good in salads or sauteed. They are really just ferns that are young and still coiled. I think most/all are edible, though not all are really good--some tend toward a bitter flavor.

Carolyn H.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

I come from a long line of foragers—hunter/gatherers who practiced their field arts all their lives. On both sides of the family tree. Growing up, it was a rare meal that didn't have at least one dish from the wild.

That said, it's pretty difficult to make much of a dent in a food budget via foraging, unless your foraging replaces much of the cash outlay for protein—fish, fowl, red meats. I have friends who never purchase any meats, so their hunting and fishing makes a genuine difference in their food budget.

Foraging for the rest of us is more seasonal eating, a dish or two a week maybe, perhaps some freezing and canning. There are literally hundreds of "free-for-the-gathering" items, but most aren't all that tasty, though they may be edible. I have perhaps 50 books and guides on wild edibles, but you could make do nicely with two or three volumes of Euell Gibbons and a couple of Peterson guides. At least to start.

Greens (eaten both fresh and properly frozen for later), fruit, berries, nuts, mushrooms, and perhaps a few items for teas are the best and easiest places to add to your table. Not counting the fish I catch, I still have something wild on the menu at least several times per week. You can do it too. (If you want me to prattle on at greater length re. this, just write.)

Spring will soon be here. So get your tote sack ready!

Carolyn H said...

TGBSISH: I eat and freeze pretty much as many berries as I can find. I fish when I have the time. I beg for as much venison as I can get from the family members who hunt. But I have so far found foraging to be something that really doesn't add much food to the table. It makes me admire our pre-agriculture ancestors all the more. Once agriculture arrived, survival certainly had to have become much easier.

Carolyn H.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

You are indeed right that a full-time hunter/gatherer life had to have been very difficult. There were easy times, certainly, days of plenty; but lean times, too, when even securing a mouthful of food required great effort, great skill, and no small measure of luck.

I'm always amused by some of these "survivor" shows on reality TV. The stars aren't so much surviving as simply starving at a slower rate.

You have to really admire the ability required for folks, not all that many generations back, to survive. It would be hard enough nowadays for most of us to keep chickens and a pig, and plant, nurture, pick and preserve a garden with seeds from Burpee's. Could we do so with only sweat and hand tools, like our grandfathers?

Because I love greens, I pick them by the sacksful in spring—enough that I often have my final "mess" for Christmas. I freeze berries; make them into jams; do the same with pawpaws; freeze and can wild fruits, and bottle them as wine; gather and pick-out nuts for breads and cakes, pies and cookies. I have fish, several meals each week. And there's always a bag of sassafras root and spicebush tips for tea. Other wild stuffs too. But only what tastes good, not only to me. but to practically anyone who comes to dinner; none of that twigs-and-bark, are-we-eating-or-browsing? stuff.

Carolyn H said...

I'm planning for chickens this year, if all goes well.

Carolyn H.