A couple years ago a group of us were talking, and one person said, "If you were
stranded on a deserted island, which of us would you want to have with you?" She then said she would choose LC "because she knows about all those wild herbs
and berries and would keep us all from starving." I silently chuckled and thought, "Yeah right. . . I'd probably end up poisoning everybody!" The truth
is, I don't know a friggen thing about wild herbs and berries. Cultivated plants—now that's different story, and certainly where my expertise lies. But
wild ones? Uh. I know Dandelions are edible and so is Purslane. (But those don't count because I have grown cultivars of both.) As for all the rest? Well
let's just say I'm not a fan of weed salads.
This book gives an interesting overview of wild plants that are, as the title implies, edible and useful. It is full of illustrations, and the plants are grouped by what part is eaten, such as the root, seed, or leaves, first the edible ones, then those with other uses. Unlike some non-fiction books that require concentration to keep facts and data, or dates and people organized in your mind, this one is breezy reading, with a little about the plant, and who ate it, which was mostly Indigenous Americans who shared it with white settlers. I have to admit, many of them sound quite disgusting, and make me even more grateful that I have a greenhouse full of luscious cucumbers and do not have to resort to grinding some horrible seeds into a powder, mix them with water, and set them out in the sun to bake into a biscuit that tastes like shoe leather. Still, one never knows when one may require unusual skills and knowledge.
Saunders clearly states that before eating any of these plants or plant parts, make sure you know what you are doing because many can also be dangerous. I couldn't agree more. People often ask me about medicinal herbs and my answer is always that I grow culinary herbs, most of which may have healthful values. Medicinal herbs can be deadly unless you have a secure knowledge about them. Take heed.
As stated, the vast majority of the plants mentioned here are discussed according to how the Indigenous Americans used them. Only a handful had their origins with white people. And also, most of the plants discussed are found in the west or southwest, especially the desert and California. And though the Regional Index in the back of the book gives a long listing of plants in the East, the text of the book still gravitates toward the West. There are many references to plants used and named by Spanish-speaking peoples of that area, too.
The first two chapters are about Wild Plants with Edible Tubers, Bulbs or Roots. Many of these, it is noted, taste a bit like potatoes, sweet potatoes, or even celery. One, the bulb of the plant called "Biscuit-Root" was dried by the Indians, pulverized into a flour, mixed with water, then baked into flat cakes with a hole in them, which could be tied to a saddle. The author notes that they taste like stale biscuits! And apparently, the Indians have a different sense of taste than whites, because some of these roots which they found palatable were just plain gross to settlers. One in particular was called Tobacco-Root:
Its deep, perpendicular root, bright yellow within, is vile smelling and ill tasting, but long steaming makes it palatable, at least to Indians. Frémont speaks well of it in his journal, under the Snake name kooyah, though his associate Preuss could not stay in the same tent with it, much less eat it.
The next chapter, Wild Seeds of Food Value, and
How They Have Been Utilized, likewise, has some species that sound yummy and others that are, well, questionable. Of course, we today have many seeds
that are part of our daily meals. Corn, of course is one, plus dried-type beans, peas, and sunflower or pumpkin seed snacks.
There are several pages here devoted to another familiar edible seed, a grain as is corn, and that is wild rice. But many of the others are not quite so familiar, and some sound not so good. Some can be ground into a flour, as we do corn, and others have multiple uses, such as cooking oil, soap, or even paint.
The next chapter, The Acorn as Human Food and Some Other Wild Nuts again makes one marvel at the Indians and their ability to take something not too appetizing and make it into an acceptable food product. I guess one must do what one must do when survival is the name of the game. The nuts of the Basket Oak or Cow Oak were known to be sweet, but most acorns are bitter. But the Indians found a way around that issue:
Some inventive Indian—and doubtless it was a woman, the aboriginal harvester as well as cook—long ago hit upon a simple but effective way of extracting the deleterious principle; that is, washing the finely ground acorns in water. The process of preparing the acorn for human use, as still practiced in some parts of California, is as follows:
And here, Saunders explains how the nuts are laid in the sun to dry, then either stored
away for the future, or ground to a powder if they are to be used immediately. Then a nest of twigs or pine needles is built up a foot or two above the
ground, covered by a clean porous cloth. The meal is spread, then water is poured onto it and allowed to drain over and over until the bitterness is
leached out. To the doughy mass, more water is added, and it is boiled and eaten like mush.
Yuk, but it's better than starving, I guess. As for the Buckeye, our state tree here in Ohio, of which plenty abound in my area, the nut is quite poisonous. Saunders mentions a western variety that, likewise through the filtering process, similar to the acorn, the poison was leached out, but he also says, "One wonders how many prehistoric Californians died martyrs in the perfecting of this process." OK, that one might NOT be better than starving.
Next, we learn about Some Little Regarded Wild Fruits and Berries. And again, many are familiar, such as strawberries and the fruits of brambles (blackberries, etc.), but of course, many berries are downright toxic. Members of the nightshade family, the familiar cultivars we all know as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatillos (and also tobacco), have very poisonous wild varieties, like Deadly Nightshade. If you see something in the wild resembling a tomato or tomatillo, never eat it unless you know exactly what it is.
Wild Plants With Edible Stems and Leaves likewise mentions the familiar and unfamiliar. We know about Chicory and Dandelion, Lamb's Quarters, all of which are related to modern cultivars. There is also one called Wild Rhubarb, but never, ever eat the leave of cultivated rhubarb, which are poisonous. Stems only for that one! There are cresses, wild cabbages and Purslane, Miner's Lettuce, again all familiar, at least to me because I've grown their relatives. In the West, certain cactus provide important food products, but one must know how to carefully extract the edible part. So too, the western Indians and Mexicans made use of Yucca and Mescal. And last I must mention Jewel-weed, because, though I've never eaten it, it is a royal pain in the butt here on my farm, and maybe I should start eating it because I sure can't get rid of it!
Beverage Plants of Field and Wood include those used in hard times as substitutes for tea and coffee, especially during the Revolutionary War—you know, the Boston Tea Party thing—and also the Civil war. These include New Jersey Tea, an evergreen shrub called Labrador Tea, and Sassafras, along with numerous others. The mints were and still are important for the making of a refreshing and healthful brew.
The next three chapters are on plants with non-food uses. Vegetable Substitutes for Soap include roots, such as certain types a Yucca, that yield rich lather, for all types of washing—clothing, hair and body. Different parts of different plants are used for sudsy properties, including seeds or blossoms. In the chapter on Some Medicinal Wildings Worth Knowing, Saunders doesn't necessarily believe many plants thought to cure are actually useful. I agree with that, although of course, certain plants are nutritionally valuable, and that is certainly beneficial to health. Most of the plants mentioned are for simple ailments such as sore throat or colds, or for digestive issues. Miscellaneous Uses of Wild Plants discusses plants with useful fiber for fishing lines, nets, ropes, and even clothing. The milky extraction from Osage Oranges was believed to repel wood ticks. Other plants contain parts usable as dyes. Some plants were used like Tobacco as a smoke, and still others produced waxy, rubbery or adhesive products.
The last chapter, Certain Poisonous Plants is to be taken most seriously. Mushrooms are the first to be mentioned, and that is one (of several) plants you really don't wants to mess with. Eat 'em and you're dead—no cure even in modern times for many.
Lastly, Saunders includes a Regional Index with a listing of what different useful plants are found in your area, followed by a general index. This is a fun and interesting book to read. I quite enjoyed it and learned a lot.
All material on this site copyright © 2015 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.