Eating Wild

Hiking up to Bertha Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada) a nice older couple introduced me to the the Saskatoon berry, Amelanchier alnifolia.  They resemble blueberries, but are actually in the rose family. I soon discovered the huckleberry, then the thimbleberry.  I quickly fell in love with eating wild berries, and through Waterton Lakes, Glacier, and Teton National Parks, any chance I got to get off my bike and go for a hike involved a lot of berry picking.  Roadside berry patches also proved distracting while riding, and sometimes the picking was too good to pass up. Often I couldn't help but pull over and wade into the bushes, passing drivers staring at me like I was a bear. 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail I spent a lot more time thinking about what plants I could eat.  Once the berries started to appear around Virginia my picking began and I ate and learned more plants as I moved north.  Wild food is wonderful.  It is a source of nutritious water dense calories that you don't have to carry or pay for, and I'm eager to keep learning more.  Similar to drinking water straight from a mountain creek, it gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, a most intimate way of communing with nature. However, it's not all sunshine and raspberries.

First, learning and harvesting plants requires time and patience, and while the nutritional reward is very high, the caloric reward is generally not.   Anyone that has picked berries or has a garden has a greater appreciation (or suspicious mistrust) for the convenience of grocery stores.  In the wild, food is never as easy to harvest as picking up a plastic container off a shelf.  Picking, and sometimes cleaning and/or bug removal, takes time and can be a distraction from your hiking.  If you are hiking with others that don't have the patience for foraging this can create tension.  I suggest making a habit of taking breaks and camping where the picking is good.

Second, there is some risk in eating a toxic plant, though I suspect the risk is less than most think.  If you eat only plants you know, risk of getting sick is likely less than buying E. Coli contaminated produce from a supermarket.  And the nutritional benefit is huge, especially for hikers subsisting off Snickers and sticky buns.

I learned many of the edible wild plants I'm familiar with from other hikers.  You'll need to use your judgment as to how reliable of a source an individual is.   You can always watch what and how much they eat, and see what condition they are in the next day. There are many books on wild edibles, but the internet has plenty of useful free sources.  If you have a common name or scientific name, or even just a description, plug it in a search engine and see what you can find out.  Unless you trust the source, I recommend verifying edibility with multiple sites.

Below is a list of some of the plants I ate on the Appalachian Trail.  I didn't carry a stove with me on the A.T., so these plants are ones that you can eat raw and with minimal preparation.   I've discovered I've been eating some plants that I really only know at the genus level, and that there are in fact multiple species I am likely eating.  However, I am comfortable enough with my plant ID skills that I feel I haven't been reckless.  I haven't gotten sick, but obviously you eat at your own risk.  Use this as you would any other info on the world wide web: as a starting point.  Click on the links to see more pictures and ID characteristics.

Rubus- This genus includes blackberries, raspberries, and wineberries, and I think it is an overall safe group of plants.  The aggregate berries are easy to recognize, and I haven't been able to find any poisonous Rubus species.  Most do have thorns!
  • Blackberries- There are a multiple species of blackberries on the AT and were the first to appear moving north.  I gather Rubus allegheniensis (Common Blackberry) is the most common.  They taste horrible when still red, so leave them for the hiker that comes by at peak ripeness. 
Typical trailside blackberries.
The blackberries were often bigger and juicier on these smaller low growing plants.
  • Red Raspberry, Rubus idaeus.  Red raspberries are familiar and easy to spot, though they weren't particularly abundant on the trail. I didn't start finding them until Connecticut, but their range is into North Carolina, so perhaps a matter of timing. 
  • Wine Raspberry, Rubus phoenicolasius.  An Asian species that was abundant up until New England.  The berries are similar to raspberries, but a slightly different flavor and texture.  The redder the better. 
Wine Raspberries

Red Mulberry, Morus rubra.   These are trees, not shrubs like Rubus species. Though the berries resemble blackberries they are in a different family.  The berries are more elongated and the leaves have a distinctive shape.  Mulberries are delicious with a unique flavor.  I came across a couple trees on the trail, including one on the side trail to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry. 


Vaccinium- This genus includes blueberries and cranberries.  There are a number of species of blueberries.  I sampled several of them, but most common were the following two species.
  • Mountain Cranberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea. As the name implies, these are found in higher elevations in rocky areas.  They don't seem to be particularly popular for picking, but I find them to be easy picking, tasty, and filling.  They aren't very good if they are not fully ripe, so look for the darkest red.
Mountain Cranberry
  • Lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium anglustifolium. This was the most common of the blueberry species.  They first appeared in Virgina, and got progressively better.  By time I got to Maine they were coming off the bushes in handfuls at peak ripeness.

Maine Blueberries

Gaylussacia, Huckleberries. Huckleberries are similar to blueberries (same family, Ericaceae), but have a bigger center seed and slightly different taste.  There are a two species, Blue Huckleberry, Gaylussacia frondosa, and Black Huckleberry, Gaylussacia baccata, that I ate on the trail.   

Podophyllum peltatum May-apple. I noticed this plant early on, but didn't learn it until I met a couple out identifying wildflowers.  They are conspicuous and easy to identify, but finding ripe fruit, the only edible part of the plant, was not easy.  I tried them at various stages of ripeness and never thought they were particularly good.

Smilax- Greenbriar.  Greenbriar is abundant and easy to spot along the trail.  There are a few species. Common Greanbriar, Smilax rotundifolia, I believe is the most common.  The new growth on the tips is tender and sweet.  I would snack on them as I hiked or save them for dinner.  They make a nice addition to tuna and tortillas.  Ants are often on the tips so check before eating. The roots are also edible, but require cooking and digging. 

Greenbriar tips.

Medeola virginiana, Indian Cucumber Root. This is a popular wild edible on the A.T.  The roots are are edible and have texture like a radish and flavor like a cucumber.  Digging them up and pulling the root out takes some care and washing prior to eating.  Also a nice addition to tuna and tortillas.  However, I'm not a big fan of tearing an entire plant up just to eat the root.

Taraxacum, Dandelions. The most common species, Taraxacum officinale, Common Dandelion, is invasive and abundant in disturbed areas.  Eat up! The young leaves and flowers make a healthy addition to anything you can eat veggies with.

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