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Domesticating Wild Foods...  RSS feed

 
Joseph Lofthouse
garden master
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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We have an epic tale around here about legendary heroes who braved the desert and would have starved except that a Native Shaman Chief taught them how to forage for wild Sego Lily bulbs. The current mythology goes on to say that the plants are so sacred that it is illegal to disturb the plants in any way, and especially not by eating them...

So I finally overcame the religious and social taboos and tasted a bulb last summer. It was extremely bitter, even emetic. And not just a little!!! Perhaps cooking is required?

Since I was digging up roots, I also dug up an Arrowleaf Balsamroot. It was approximately the consistency of tree roots -- Fibrous as can be. Seems like it would take longer to dig a root than the amount of energy that could be obtained by eating it. And highly bitter. It carries the balsam label for good reason. Again I tasted it raw. I just read a web page that said, "When cooked for several days"... Wow... Who cooks a root for several days to make it edible?

I care for several acres of Miner's Lettuce. It tasted great to me last week. When I checked on it's edibility, the Wikipedia article said that it can accumulate "toxic amounts of soluble oxalates." I'm pretty sure that I am capable of tasting oxalates in my food, because they are tart, but what I tasted wasn't at all tart. But still, I didn't sit down and eat a pot of them. Should they be cooked in several changes of water?

As a child I often ate the seeds of mallows, and I have harvested the roots for a medicine woman. Those are small seeds, and fibrous relatively narrow yet very deep roots.

Various species of Biscuitroot grow prolifically in this area. Members of the family are commonly used as food. They might actually be a crop that could be farmed successfully in the deep desert.

I often eat lambsquarters while weeding, but not dandelions: bleck. And definitely not purslane. I planted so called domesticated lambsquarters, but when it grew up and looked and tasted just like a more aggressive form of one of my worst weeds, I mowed it down. A lady planted orach in my garden this spring... Aargh!!! Not another chenopod! I aughta deal with that sooner rather than later.

I saw one wild lettuce plant when I was tilling the other day that was 18" across. It was a glorious plant that thrived and produced abundantly in spite of the cold weather. Most of the other plants were closer to 6" across and just getting a good start. I tilled it under, because I am not interested in domesticating lettuce. I can't stand to eat lettuce that other people have domesticated because it is too bitter. Why would I want to put myself through tasting lots of bitter lettuce plants? I guess that goes for any domestication project... How much bitterness do I need to endure to find a few plants that are slightly less bitter. Repeated next year, and for however many more to find just the right combination to minimize bitterness? And then, what if there are no non-bitter genes to be found within the species during my lifetime?

One problem I run into while working with Jerusalem Artichokes, is that they become weedy, so I have to move to a new place in my field each year so that I don't confuse a volunteer with something that I planted intentionally. How does that work out if I'm trying to domesticate weeds that are already prolific in my garden? At least they aught to grow well here.

I daydream about domesticating these and other crops: Plants that have a history of being used for food, but seem too bitter, or too much work, or too small for my modern sensibilities...

Is anyone else working on domesticating wild crops? What species are almost there and just need a little tweaking? Any best practices recommendations?

 
Rose Pinder
Posts: 410
Location: Otago, New Zealand
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I've grown weeds like miner's lettuce, mallows, chickweed a lot. I like growing them because they are hardier and less work than domesticated plants. They don't need domesticating, just learning how they work in a garden.

I've never hard of miner's lettuce having oxalic acid in it, and agree it doesn't taste of it at all.

The bitter taste is beneficial healthwise and it's worth learning how to eat it and even like it. I don't see the point in breeding something like dandelion to be less bitter unless one has no other greens available. You can grow them and blanch them before harvest and this reduces the bitter.

Here's the now classic essay on bitters and health by jim mcdonald

http://herbcraft.org/bitters.pdf
 
Lorenzo Costa
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Location: Italy, Siena, Gaiole in Chianti zone 9
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Nice question Joseph I dream to of domesticating or at least propagating wild edibles on my land. some of them its true don't have great flavors but it's sometimes only the way we use them as food that changes how they can fit in our kitchens. I use a lot wild edibles that may not have great flavors in soups with other classic vegetables, you just have to think about the cooking time and maybe put them in in the last minutes so to not lose all there nutrients. My problem is that we have so many different edibles from you. I live in Italy and its really long to look up all the names you have to find correspondance here.

I hope Kevin answers your question with some practical advices
 
Joylynn Hardesty
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Location: Officially Zone 7b, according to personal obsevations I live in 7a, SW Tennessee
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" I guess that goes for any domestication project... How much bitterness do I need to endure to find a few plants that are slightly less bitter. Repeated next year, and for however many more to find just the right combination to minimize bitterness? And then, what if there are no non-bitter genes to be found within the species during my lifetime?" Joseph
It's only one more breeding project, hmmm? Shade grown dandelions are less bitter than full sun, so starting from there may quicken the process. Perhaps you have lean-to style bean trellises you could under-seed with dandelion?
I have found that tilling under dandies gives them a new lease on life, rather than destroying them. A plus for me, but if you don't like bitters, perhaps you would be adding in additional work.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Posts: 2495
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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I ate non bitter dandelions this spring. Perhaps I should say this winter, because they had to be picked super-early: Just after sprouting. Would be a lot of work to pick enough to feed myself.
 
leila hamaya
pollinator
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Location: northern northern california
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i actively cultivate a lot of feral weedy types plants for eating. they are so easy to grow, able to self perpetuate and keep spreading with little fuss, and are pretty much always available for being able to harvest something.
some are better than others and i look forward to them, but others are kind of...a backup ...if theres nothing in the gardens and/or better choices, they are always available for harvest. otherwise i just let them grow and keep getting more abundant while choosing the more attractive garden produce, when its available.

Joseph Lofthouse wrote:
I ate non bitter dandelions this spring. Perhaps I should say this winter, because they had to be picked super-early: Just after sprouting. Would be a lot of work to pick enough to feed myself.


totally, this is key. when they are really tiny, with the new leaves they are much better tasting. lambsquarters sprouts are pretty yum =)
with some wild/medicinal plants it is important to know the proper time to harvest them.
in my area most of the wild greens i eat are already starting to be past their prime eating time. well except miners lettuce, which is always good....and the wild onions/leeks i am particularly fond of, those are always good too =)

but thats some of the advantage of the wild weedy green types of plants, usually they are so much ahead of the game that they are available in abundance in early spring, long before even the lettuce and whatever else you might be growing.

with the older leaves its best to mix them up with other tastier greens. so 60-80 percent regular lettuce, or whatever other more bland greens, and then a small amount finely chopped - mallow, dandelion, sorrel, chicory, or etc. then they are blended in, but give a nice tanginess to your whole salad, or chopped finely and added to soup, at the very last minute of cooking.

also agreed with the previous poster who mentioned the medicinal quality of bitters. wild lettuce is more of a medicinal herb than green. a lot of medicinal plants have really intense properties, but other benefits besides tastiness.
 
Kevin Feinstein
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This is a very interesting topic and is pretty complicated, especially when it comes to oxalates and such in wild foods. All plants have oxalates, some more than others. For instance kale has less than chard, lettuce has less than spinach. The wild foods, like lamb's quarters, which is wild spinach, typically have far more. Interesting to note that good calcium found in food, naturally helps ameliorate the effects of oxalates to a certain degree. Many foods that are extremely high in oxalates are also very high in calcium, such as purslane. The poison and the cure to a degree. '

There is debate about miner's lettuce, not sure if there is a really good scientific research done on it's edibility. I know that I don't eat too much of it. A salad of it is fine, as well as a side of cooked greens on my plate. I do however, sense physically that there is something to the reports of it being toxic or high oxalates in very large doses, so I don't recommend making green smoothie after green smoothie of miner's lettuce. Many wild plants are like this, it's something that I can sort of taste or sense now. Oxalates are also intensified in plants when the weather is really hot, dry, or some other stressor in the plant. I can hardly eat my chard growing in the middle of the summer for this reason. Wild plants, because they often are growing in harsher environments than in our tended garden, often do the same thing.

As time goes on, I find myself eating less and less "wild" plants and more and more kale, cilantro, etc. from my garden. I use my body to tell me what to eat and what not to eat nowadays, but that came through lots of research, training, and experimentation.

One thing I like to do is eat wild plants such as thistles or nettles, that have a different defense mechanism than oxalates/alkaloids/etc. They have stinging hairs and physical spines to protect them from predation. I sense no issues eating lots of these!

I don't think you need to domesticate wild lettuce (which is actually not considered an edible, but a medicinal) as this has already been done. Look a seed catalog for all the domesticated lettuce varieties there are!

Some good wild candidates that I have come across for domestication are ground nuts (Apios americana), thistles, elderberries, California chia, brodiaea/dichelostemma, chuffa, -- I'll try to think of some more. Something I have been interested in for a while.

 
Elisha Monger
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Location: Roseburg/Eugene, OR
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Another point I haven't seen made yet is that adding a little salt will cut the bitterness. I made a mostly dandelion salad the other day after I had a "weed" complaint. A light dusting of salt into the greens and I bairly tasted the bitters. Why take the effort to breed out beneficial bitters when it is so easy to negate the taste in the food prep phase?
 
Kevin Feinstein
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About bitters, wild food, and poison . . .

In my new book, Practically Wild, I tried to mention something that comes up in my foraging classes quite often. That is, if it tastes poisonous or toxic, it usually is. The inverse of this is NOT TRUE at all - if it tastes edible it is edible -- This is likely to get you killed. However, most poisonous things do taste poisonous. For instance, if you find something you think is a wild plum or cherry, and it is bitter (not to be confused with sour) you should spit it out, you probably have misidentified and it is likely poisonous.

So on to things like dandelion greens . . . They are bitter, yes. This bitter is very good for you, yes. However, in nature, things like dandelions are the EXCEPTION to the rule above. Most bitter tasting things are toxic or poisonous. Even dandelion greens have alkaloids in them that make the bitter taste, and too much of them is not a good idea. (not going to kill you or anything, but eating too much of that bitter is not going to make you feel good.)

This exception of dandelions often poses a problem to the beginning wild plant foragers -- I know this happened to me as dandelion was my first wild food I consumed. It erroneously makes one think that wild food must taste bitter/bad. It leads the beginning forager to make themselves eat bitter plants that might contain toxins as they think that wild food should taste bitter. That is why I do not recommend starting with dandelions and similar bitter foods.

 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Posts: 2495
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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A few years ago a lady sent me some seeds in a swap. They looked like potato seeds, but when I planted them they turned out to be a berry. They looked similar to a garden huckleberry. So I let them grow. They produced black berries that tasted sweet as could be... In the fall, just before tilling my fields, I was gleaning the fields and decided that I aught to harvest the seeds. Whenever I save garden seeds I taste the plant that they came from to make sure that it's something that I want to grow next year. So I ate a clump or two of berries from each plant in the row as I gathered seeds. They were sweet and pleasant as could be. About 6 hours later I woke up with the worst upset stomach that I have had in 30 years. Ooops. So I got up, and retrieved some of the berries, and found a photo of the plant that I had taken during the growing season, and keyed out what I had eaten. I looked up the progression of the poisoning, and decided that I would either die, or I wouldn't. But I didn't want to die without letting my family know what had happened, or why I was sick if it came to that. So I went back to bed after writing the name of the species on my chest with a magic marker: "Solanum Nigrum, Sorry"
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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I find any food containing latex to be very distasteful. So that pretty much eliminates lettuce from my diet. If a plant contains latex when I pick a leaf, that's a good sign that I will not be eating it, regardless of whether anyone else does.

 
Rose Pinder
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There is debate about miner's lettuce, not sure if there is a really good scientific research done on it's edibility. I know that I don't eat too much of it. A salad of it is fine, as well as a side of cooked greens on my plate. I do however, sense physically that there is something to the reports of it being toxic or high oxalates in very large doses, so I don't recommend making green smoothie after green smoothie of miner's lettuce. Many wild plants are like this, it's something that I can sort of taste or sense now. Oxalates are also intensified in plants when the weather is really hot, dry, or some other stressor in the plant. I can hardly eat my chard growing in the middle of the summer for this reason. Wild plants, because they often are growing in harsher environments than in our tended garden, often do the same thing.


That might explain why feral rabbits don't eat miner's lettuce (but we are talking about Claytonia perfoliata right?). What are you meaning by very large doses? I think smoothies can be problematic for wild foods because you lose the taste and triggers that come from chewing (loss of benefit, and more likely to have side effects).



 
Kevin Feinstein
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Rose Pinder wrote:

There is debate about miner's lettuce, not sure if there is a really good scientific research done on it's edibility. I know that I don't eat too much of it. A salad of it is fine, as well as a side of cooked greens on my plate. I do however, sense physically that there is something to the reports of it being toxic or high oxalates in very large doses, so I don't recommend making green smoothie after green smoothie of miner's lettuce. Many wild plants are like this, it's something that I can sort of taste or sense now. Oxalates are also intensified in plants when the weather is really hot, dry, or some other stressor in the plant. I can hardly eat my chard growing in the middle of the summer for this reason. Wild plants, because they often are growing in harsher environments than in our tended garden, often do the same thing.


That might explain why feral rabbits don't eat miner's lettuce (but we are talking about Claytonia perfoliata right?). What are you meaning by very large doses? I think smoothies can be problematic for wild foods because you lose the taste and triggers that come from chewing (loss of benefit, and more likely to have side effects).





I agree with you about smoothies and wild food. One of the things about wild food is that often there are tons and tons of something available that is edible, but it cannot be eaten in any quantity. Oxalis (sour grass) is an example. It grows here as a noxious weed everywhere, but you can only eat a few leaves (too sour but also because of the high amount of oxalic acid.) I see lots of edible weeds out there and although I like to eat them in small quantities and medicinally, my giant green smoothies are made of kale and lettuce, not chickweed and dock leaves. Although I do include many wild foods in my green smoothies, but only small amounts. I might put in one dock leaf, one stalk of cleavers, a few dandelion greens, etc.

I just find that the foraging world often lists plants as either edible or not, not really putting any context into what type of quantity or balance they should be in the diet.

There are some exceptions, for sure, so I guess you could call them super edible wild foods. Here are some that I like to eat in fairly large quantities: stinging nettles, pine pollen, thistles, acorn meal, wild onions, blackberries, huckleberries, persimmons, . . .
 
Rebecca Norman
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I've been interested in wild food, mostly wild greens, for the past few years. A few random anecdotes:

Wild buckwheat is a common field and garden weed here, so people collect it and use it as a green, and also dry it for winter. FOr several years we would buy some dried and serve alongside our New Years feast. It's one of the most delicious greens, smooth and rich and nice. And it's prized around here in the places where it does grow. But read online and you'll find that buckwheat leaves eaten in large amounts can cause dangerous and painful photosensitivity, in humans or other animals. There's a scary story online by sme guy who was making smoothies of buckwheat leaves with cucumber or something, and drinking more and more of them with his friends as they got weird skin problems, and finally reallized the buckwheat was to blame.

I don't think green smoothies really sounds like a good idea. All things in moderation! Greens tend to be intense in various active or lively ingredients, and are often very good for you in reasonable amounts. I'm sure that buckwheat leaves in normal amounts are good for you, and I will continue the occasional binge on them as they are so delicious and taste so nutritious! But I will not be making green smoothies of anything.

I've come to love two wild greens that grow here, that you have to leach the bitterness out of. One is Lepidium latifolium, aka perennial pepperweed, which is native around here and grows rampantly in some places. WIt really serves a good purpose for us, providing copious greens at times of year when we don't get much fresh vegetables. You pick the tender shoots and boil them 5 minutes, then soak for a day or two in fresh water till the bitterness is totally gone. Then drain it and fry up like any greens with fat or oil and some onions or whatever. Very smooth, rich, and delicious. They grow so copiously between here and town that we collect sacks and sacks full and dry them for the winter (we usually are feeding 60 to 130 people). It's great for feeding nice varied vegetables to our students in the winter when no vegetables are available in the market here. We eat it probably once a week all winter, and then again fresh in the spring. If we were to start saving enough to eat them daily in winter, I might be concerned about overdoing it, but once or twice a week feels really good. I have domesticated it in the sense that I brought roots and planted them along an unused canal, but then a few years later I felt the canal had enough useful stuff growing on it now, and the pepperweed is abundant elsewhere, so now I'm trying to reduce it.

Likewise, caper plants grow wild here, and at this time of year the shoots are excellent. We process them the same way: boil 5 minutes, then soak overnight in fresh water. These are really the most deluxe and yummy veg. When the bitterness is gone, they make a smooth rich vegetable that I would liken to asparagus. Really worth the trouble. I've been germinating caper seeds and trying to plant them out in unwatered spots nearby because they don't grow so abundantly around here, and we rarely get enough at once to feed our 100 - 130 people, let alone dry more for winter.

Lambsquarters and malva neglecta, well, we do collect those and take them to the kitchen, but I think they are so prolific that there's no way we'll ever eradicate them from the garden. I wouldn't plant them intentionally since other vegetables are more productive and easier to harvest, but I do think they're fine for the kitchen. And not bitter at all, no process required except the stems can be stringy so you have to pull the leaves off.
 
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