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Is Your Dinner Menu in a Rut? Add Edible Wild Plants

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You don’t have to be a gardener to find nutritious food in your backyard. The Pacific Northwest is full of wild plants that are edible and can be easily added to meals for a taste of the outdoors.

“Foraging for food can be a fun way to supplement a meal or just get out and enjoy nature,” said Barbara George, a registered dietitian at Samaritan Heartspring Wellness Center. “Wild blackberries or huckleberries are common, but there are other easy-to-find plants that are nutritious and can add a little variety to your diet.”

As you hunt and gather, remember that it’s important to find plants that have not been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, and that are located in a place where it’s ok to harvest. So talk to your neighbor before you clear out their stinging nettle, and check with local parks and forests to see if you need a permit to forage.

“When foraging, it’s extremely important to match all of the characteristics of the plant, not just a photo,” said Ms. George. “Look at where the flowers are blooming on the plant, the shape of the leaves and whether it’s growing in a damp or dry spot to confirm that you’re getting the right plant.” 

A good field guide can help you identify edible plants, but these wild crops are a great place to start.

Dandelions

Dandelions are hard to miss as you’ve probably noticed it in your lawn or garden. All parts of the dandelion are edible raw including the roots. As with most greens, the flavor becomes more pronounced as the plant matures. Plants that grow in the shade and new leaves will be the most mild and tender. Older leaves with a strong or bitter taste can be improved by boiling with two changes of water and the middle veins removed.

Mix in a few new leaves in a salad, or sauté like you would kale for a side dish. Unopened flower buds can be eaten fresh or used in cooking. Dried, the buds can be used for tea or seasoning. Harvest roots in the spring and fall for best flavor, when the sugar content is highest. Boil roots in two changes of water with a little shake of baking soda. You can also roast the roots and grind them to use as a coffee substitute. Dandelion greens have more potassium, calcium and vitamins A, C and K than spinach. The greens have natural detoxifying properties that support the digestive system.

Food doses are generally considered safe but talk to your medical provider first if you are on a blood thinner like Coumadin. Dandelions may also increase bowel movements 

Mustard

Mustard plants are prolific across open fields in the spring and the bright yellow color makes it easy to spot. When it flowers, the blooms cluster on the end of the stalk. Each bloom has four petals. The greens and flowering tops are edible raw. New shoots will taste the mildest, but boiling older plants in two changes of water will improve the flavor. The seedpod can have a peppery kick which becomes more pronounced as the plant matures.

Mustard is from the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, turnips, kale and cabbage. Mustard greens are high in vitamins A, C and K, and provide natural detoxifying support to the diet. Try raw greens mixed in a salad for a little bit of pizzazz similar to arugula, or sautéed as a side dish. Unopened blooms can be steamed and eaten like broccoli.

Food doses are generally considered safe but talk to your medical provider first if you are on a blood thinner like Coumadin.

Stinging Nettle

Surprisingly nutritious, a study published in the journal Food Science & Nutrition found that nettles have high levels of calcium, iron, protein, amino acids, and bioactive compounds that have been linked to cancer prevention. The young leaves are edible raw, although prepare yourself for the tingly “sting” of the nettles caused by histamine in the tiny hairs. Boil or steam the leaves to eliminate the stinging properties of the nettles.

Try adding the leaves to soups or curries, or brewing in tea. New shoots and roots are also edible when cooked, but roots are best in the spring or fall. Wear gloves while you forage to protect your hands from the stinging hairs on the plant.

Do not eat if you are pregnant.

Wild Roses

Beautiful as well as edible, the flower petals, unopened buds and fruit called “hips” can be eaten fresh or dried. Wait to harvest hips until after the first frost for best flavor. Cut the hips in half lengthwise and remove the seeds, which are covered in tiny hairs that can be irritating to the digestive tract, before drying or eating. Make tea from the fresh or dried hips, buds and petals. If you have an abundance of the fruit, which are high in vitamin C, try making rose hip jelly, sauce or syrup to use in cocktails or soda.

Seaweed

Most forms of seaweed along the Oregon coast are edible although some are more enjoyable than others and easier to harvest. Never eat seaweed that has washed up on shore and may be rotting. Purple laver seaweed and sea lettuce grow on rocks or sand along the shoreline and are edible raw. Purple laver, also known as nori, is a common wrap for sushi and sea lettuce has a mild, salty flavor. The plants can be eaten raw or dried.

A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found dried purple laver to be an excellent source of vitamin B12, which is typically only found in animal products like meat, eggs and dairy. Seaweed has a moderate amount of vitamin C and iron, and may help lower cholesterol. However it is very high in iodine and may not be appropriate if you have a thyroid condition.

Wild mustard, stinging nettles and wild roses are all edible wild plants that  grow in the Pacific Northwest.

Check out That’s My Farmer classes, a nutrition series for cancer survivors that teaches healthy shopping and the impact of fresh, wholesome foods on your health.

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