I love to step off the sidewalk and into the woods. Paths sneak all over the place around here. You can find me sneakin’ around, too. Once spring got rockin’ and green took over brown, I just had to know: what tastes good?

To a lot of people, foraging is a foreign concept. If it isn’t on a grocery store shelf, it isn’t food. Take meat, for example: chicken, pork, cow, some kinds of fish. If you can find a goose in a freezer, you’re a lucky duck. If you offer someone rabbit or venison at a casual cookout, odds are they will cringe. It is the same with plants. When it comes to leafy greens, Americans are exposed to lettuce, spinach, various packaged herbs, and sometimes chard or kale (for those dangerous hardcore “foodies”).

“I eat dandelion greens, the flowers too.” “That’s crazy!” someone told me. If you want to really blow their mind, you can whip out your copy of Wild Edible Plants and show them the hundreds of other types of free calories and nutrition nature spits out, hoping some smart creature tiptoes by and helps itself to. Death is reproduction in nature’s great big food chain.

Some people understand this, and when you share your newfound knowledge, the right ones will ask you for more information and resources. One fellow knows all about survival, but nothing about foraging. He wants to teach his children someday, so I suggested some books. The internet is also a vast resource. If you don’t have a guide, just make sure you have a smart phone and you’re all set.

Before agriculture and cultivation, humans foraged for food. They hunted and they gathered. Agriculture is a great advance — don’t misread me — but as much as picking a few fresh leaves off your spinach plant, picking fresh greens straight from nature is satisfying and rewarding, both for body and spirit.

As a human being you are getting back to your epigenetic roots; you are squatting and bending and twisting and getting your hands dirty; you’re eating nutrient-dense food instead of weakling conventionally-grown food shipped across the country (which is devoid of most of its nutrition by the time it reaches your plate); and you’re sharing the experience with your family, friends, loved ones, and, well, the birds and the beasts. If anything, you’re getting some sun and that’s great, too.

Today foraging has taken a back seat to convenience and — let’s face it — a lack of knowledge. I’m learning as I go. I’m no doomsdayer, but I think it’s important to possess some “survival” skills. Some of my friends were laughing about my odd hobby of foraging, but they readily admitted: if there is ever an apocalypse, I’m the guy they want to know.

12:00 dandelion flower 2:00 plantain leaf 5:00 white clover leaf and flower 7-11:00 dandelion green

12:00 dandelion flower
2:00 plantain leaf
5:00 red clover leaf and flower
7-11:00 dandelion green

Less than five minutes of a walk from my back door, I managed to haul in enough food to serve as a side dish for three people in a meal (see featured image). It took me less than ten minutes to pick it all, and I left plenty behind for later. It often takes less than that, as I will simply pick what I see on a walk or bike ride and put it in my backpack. Below I will show you the three edible plants everyone should know. They are perhaps the most common and easiest to identify. But first, there are a few things every forager should know and recognize:

1st. Take caution picking anything on a roadside, in town, in other people’s yards, or on private property. Pesticides, car exhaust, and property rights all come into play. If you spy good pickin’ on a rural property, ask the owner for permission!

2nd. Never pick every plant in sight. There are various opinions of how much to pick and how much to leave. My limit is “Take what I need.” You don’t want to decimate the population. The nice thing about wild plants is that they are resilient (which is why they are more nutritious than conventional plants): they will grow back fairly quickly. But don’t risk wiping out an ecosystem unless you are pretty desperate. “Good things come to those who wait.”

3rd. Once you recognize a plant, you will always see it everywhere. You won’t worry about double-checking its identity. When learning any new plant, always identify it before eating, until you are sure you know what you’re doing. For example, I didn’t see red clover until today, so I took it home and looked it up in the guide before sampling. Turns out, it’s not very digestible raw. If I ate it in the field, perhaps I’d be a little bellysore right now. I also suggest you introduce any new plant in small amounts until you are comfortable eating it more regularly. [note: this article is a simple, brief introduction. Please consider investing in a guide and doing your own research before putting anything you pluck from the ground into your mouth!]

4th. Always check for ticks if you’re stepping off the beaten path or into any bush at all. A tick can take up to a day to find prime real estate on your body, so checking immediately is a good habit to keep. Up to 60% of ticks carry lyme disease. (Thanks, secret government experiments gone awry! Not creeped out yet? Read this.)

I also reccommend you wash anything you forage. For all you know a deer just took a leak on it. Also unexpected animal protein (insects) may lurk in cracks and crevices and petals of your haul. Yum, but not for everyone.

Now, for three edible plants that ruin your lawn, but enhance your meal. Bon mange!

DANDELION

dandelionDandelions are the easiest edible plant to identify. Dens leonis, or lion’s tooth, has jagged-edged leaves that bunch around its long stem and proud yet lazy yellow sun-shaped flower. Every part of the dandelion is edible raw: the flower, the leaves, and the roots. From salad garnish to root-“coffee,” to wine, it’s a miracle weed. I like to sautée the greens and flowers in bacon fat.

The greens are best when young, before the flower arrives. They turn bitter then. I still eat them when they turn bitter, but to each his own. You can blanch them once or twice and change out the water to get rid of some bitterness. The flowers pop up all summer. Don’t wait though, if you see them — the next day, they could be white puffballs. In that case, all you can do is have a little fun and act like a kid, blowing them into the wind. The roots can be lifted up in the fall and ground for a “coffee” drink. The flowers can be fermented into a white wine.

D-greens are high in Vitamins A and B6, calcium, and iron…pretty cool if you don’t eat meat or offal and need a good source of these micronutrients.

Go pick a dandelion right now and eat the flower. Sweet little burst of free deliciousness. You are now a forager.

CLOVER

whitecloverWhen my dad took me out into his yard and picked a bunch of tiny clovers and popped them into his mouth, all I could think was “CLOVER IS EDIBLE?”

They’re every-where! On clover and the next plant, plantain, says my dad, a hobo could live quite well. My dad’s funny.

It depends on how big the clovers get. I suspect they are not worth the caloric expenditure to pick. Clover seems more beneficial as a tea. The big, purple flowerheads can be ground into a flour as well, according to my foraging book.

Clovers are rich in protein, however, so if you can find enough, they’re worth picking for a side dish. Just remember to boil the leaves and flowers for 5-10 minutes so as to make them more digestible.

The clovers I picked today are red clovers, but there are numerous varieties that are very similar.

PLANTAIN

plantain This plant is  probably the scourge of your perfect lawn. When I found a patch of plantain right near my house, I started dancing!

And plantain is tasty! The young leaves are sweet and chewy. I’ll take plantain over baby spinach anyday. As the leaves get bigger, they turn more bitter, but still retain some of that subtle leafy sweetness. The veins in the leaf become stringier and the plant is a little more difficult to work with. If presentation isn’t your concern, then no problem. I prefer plantain raw, but they are delightful sautéed or boiled with some butter.

The leaves of plantain lie low, but a flower will spire later in summer from the middle. The seeds are also edible after roasting, though I haven’t tried them yet.

Plantain also possesses natural healing properties, when applied to cuts, bug bites, and rashes. Neat!

So now you know: your backyard is a bountiful garden. If the world ends, and the food supply runs out, you can live off of wild greens until you get things sorted out. Or you can eat them now. They’re free for the taking.

[note: all illustrations from Wild Edible Plants by Peterson Field Guides]