Phew! The last few weeks (here and here, for starters) have been heady-head space and I don’t know about y’all, but I need a break from myself. So I’ll share a new adventure I’ve been incorporating into my repertoire.
I’m eating weeds.
For those who don’t know, Oregon is a forager’s paradise: berries, nuts, mushrooms, and wild greens. A few years ago, I developed an interest in those sorts of things. When I went to Croatia four years ago (more on that here), I noticed mint and oregano growing wild everywhere, and I nibbled on it as I hiked. I even found what looked like a wild parsnip, but knowing that some members of that plant family are toxic (think hemlock), I didn’t dare try it.
A few weeks ago, I took a class at a great resource in these parts called the Siskiyou Field Institute, named after one of our local mountain ranges. I talked a little bit about it last week, but I’ll go into more detail here.
I got up nice and early on an epically rainy morning for the 1 1/2 hour drive to Selma, Oregon. I almost turned back at one point because as I was about to on-ramp onto the freeway, the fastest wiperblade setting wasn’t good enough for me to see properly. But I thought, “Ah, hell! I’m already up and what else am I going to do today anyway?” So I trudged on and the rain eventually let up enough to make me think I might just make it. And I did, though I was eyeballing some of the rivers and streams I passed on the way and wondering if I would be able to make it home.
There were about 20 students of all ages there (though I was by far the youngest). We settled in with some freshly made pine needle tea for some slides and lecture about some of the spring greens available to us that couldn’t be mistaken for anything deadly. Our instructors were the director of the center, Daniel Newberry, and a local character named Bruce who is the grandson of two native Americans who taught him all sorts of things about the area. It was somewhat comical during the presentation how Daniel was obviously trying to keep things simple for us, but Bruce kept interjecting with his complications, like how plants have many life cycles and some are edible and some are not. Or how they wouldn’t pick things growing beneath a cedar tree. All that ancient wisdom stuff that kept our ancestors alive and that we’ve all forgotten.
After lectures, we set out on a small hike and saw miner’s lettuce, chickweed, narrow-leaf plantain, and laurel trees. A lot of plants are about a month behind schedule right now due to our late winter and prolonged spring, so there were a few we missed. Then, after lunch, we went on another walk through a cow pasture and saw sheep sorrel and chicory. Even though these were some elementary beginnings, it was useful to me to gain some confidence identifying and eating these plants.
And imagine my surprise to see a lot of these plants growing EVERYWHERE. I scored some miner’s lettuce in a sidewalk cut-out around a tree near my favorite local coffee shop and then found several plants in my own yard. Our yard isn’t ultra-manicured and we’ve tried to maintain a somewhat natural look, which is apparently helpful to plants like miner’s lettuce and chickweed that like disturbed soils that aren’t too disturbed. Think vacant lots, and you just might find tonight’s salad. We have several patches of miner’s lettuce, which is delightful and impossible to misidentify, and plenty of chickweed. So I’ve been nibbling on those for the past few weeks.
But I was kind of bummed that I hadn’t seen any sheep sorrel yet. It’s a relative of the domesticated sorrels and has a pleasantly tangy lemon flavor due to its oxalic acid and tannins. The other day, when my daughter woke up from her afternoon nap, we headed outside to soak up some sunshine, heading down the dead-end block near our house. As we perused the vacant lot there, lo and behold, several patches of sheep’s sorrel were growing there, but were too tiny to harvest now. Then I headed down to the mailbox, and on my way back I noticed a few clumps of leafy greens poking out of some untended bushes in our yard, and yup, more sheep sorrel! And these were big enough to eat now. As thrilled as I was, I was more thrilled that I read up on it first, because you shouldn’t eat too much of it in one sitting as it can cause stomach upset. But a few leaves accenting a salad or soup should be just dandy.
If you’re interested in learning more about wild edible plants, it’s easy to go to your friendly neighborhood bookstore or browse Amazon. But I think this is an introduction at best. If you have classes or knowledgeable people in your area, check ‘em out, because it’s the best way to learn what’s available in your region. It’s fun to learn, but it might also come in very handy in a survival situation (Did you know you can eat pine bark?! Pound the softer inner stuff with a rock until it resembles shredded wheat.). I’m also looking forward to supplementing our backpack trips with some fresh greens.
I’m also lucky that an interesting forager guy sells mushrooms, berries, and other odds-and-ends at our Farmers’ Market every Tuesday. I got some stinging nettles from him a while back and made an awesome soup with it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), they don’t grow around here, though I hear they can be found closer to the coast. But for those of you who do know where to harvest them or also have access to them at a market, I’ll have a recipe for you Thursday. No nettles? Simply sub spinach.