I am writing this because of a life long interest in self sufficiency. At an early age I wanted to be a mountain man like Grizzly Adams or Daniel Boone and as I grew up nature and the outdoors called me to the Boy Scouts where my adventure in learning began.
Today the southeast is full of Duck Dynasty types, survivalists, great outdoors men and others who see the end of the supermarket and government order, the end of fast food and cash flow. So, I meet all types, from the curious Boy Scout dad to the up and coming survivalist. This is written to share the knowledge I have accumulated over the past forty years to make fine dining from the wilds or your own backyard more achievable. Although some plants or plant parts are edible raw, you must cook others to be edible or palatable. And just because it is safe to eat does not mean it has nutritional value or savory taste. Edible means only that a plant or food will provide you with necessary nutrients, while palatable means that it actually is pleasing to eat. Many wild plants are edible but hardly palatable. Take away fats, flavors and seasonings and much of the food available in the grocery store might actually fall into that group, so enjoy experimenting with wild food.
Here is a basic start to identifying those edible plants which an be done through experience and some memorization. Basic botany groups different plants into easily memorable patterns.
Starting from the bottom up is basic types of root structures which are the bulb, clove, taproot, tuber, rhizome, corm, and crown. Bulbs are familiar to us as onions and, when sliced in half it show concentric rings. Cloves are those same bulblike structures that remind us of garlic and will separate into small pieces when broken apart. This characteristic separates wild onions from wild garlic. Taproots resemble carrots and may be single-rooted or branched, but usually only one plant stalk arises from each root. Tubers are like potatoes and daylilies and you will find these structures either on strings or in clusters underneath the parent plants. Rhizomes are large creeping rootstock or underground stems and many plants arise from the “eyes” of these roots. Corms are similar to bulbs but are solid when cut rather than possessing rings. A crown is the type of root structure found on plants such as asparagus and looks much like a mop head under the soil’s surface.
Now there are grasses, vines, shrubs, trees and they all have leaves. Those leaves come in many different shapes and they all sprout from a stalk. How the sprout, from opposite, or compound, simple or alternative or even basal rosette help in identifying the plant as do the leaf shape and composition. Hard and shiny or soft and furry, lance shaped, oblong, wedge shaped, triangular, elliptic or long pointed. Each is a type of leaf identifiable to a species, genus, or family. Visual identification is the foundation of a sure safe meal.
So you want to eat a new item, guess there should be way to check out that item right. Well try to remember its a new I.T.E.M.
Identify the plant beyond doubt. Don't count on me to be an expert. An EX is a has-been, a spurt is a drip under pressure. Get a good book on botanicals and wild edibles. (That's is two books with illustrations and photos) Pictures often don’t tell the entire story. Yes the Internet is full of informative sites and resources. In this age of twisted truths and misinformation will you trust your life web site alone?
What grows here in the sandy soils of SE Georgia might look different in the clay soils of N Georgia. Temperatures, soil conditions, amount of sunlight, competing species, they all have the ability to make something look a bit different. It's a visual thing. You know how “we all look alike” to a different nationality or race? Well, its a plant; depending on your training, experiences, visual acuity, they all look alike. Drugs and poisons are mostly made from plants, so don't drug yourself or poison yourself on a guess.You can always attempt to find a local university professor or a farm extension agent who is also a botanist to help in your identification, but append your questions with, “Do you guarantee this is okay to eat?”
To the botanist, university professor, ranger or other “expert'. To certify a plant is edible means: you have found it many times, prepared it properly to eat many times, eaten it many times and every time you see it anew you make sure it is the right plant. It is one thing to be wrong and endure all the aches, pains, gut wrenching or medical examinations that its consumption entails by yourself, it is another to be wrong and have people get sick over it. Can you pay the lawyers and the medical bills of the associated victim if you make an error? Yes, I respect your education and experiences. I also respect your common sense in recommending a new food from the wild for a friend or acquaintance.
Time of year is next. If the pictures show a of a plant species in September with purple berries and you are looking at a similar live plant in June with those berries, it is probably a different plant. Yes, major geographic distances can alter fruiting of species, but major geographic differences are comparisons of South Africa to the North Eastern United States. If it is on your continent don't expect the timing of fruiting, blooming, leaf color or other indicators to vary so greatly. Some plants that bloom or fruit once a year in a northern climate may do so twice in a warmer climate. Welcome to SE Georgia. As an example, pyracantha fruits twice here in SE Georgia. (Evergreen bush with clusters of little red soft berries) If a plant is not doing what you believe it is supposed to be doing at the right time of year, answer why. This is reasons to study with a local expert.
Environment. Where is the plant growing and what is the surrounding environment? The explosion of population worldwide has brought international shipping and landscaping together. The invasion of the fireant to North America is due to framing lumber and from South America. In Florida there are many species of wild plants that are considered nuisance because they are not native to the area and clog waterways or overtake bridges. In North Georgia we have kudzu, in southeast Georgia we have the Chinese Tallow or popcorn tree. Neither of these species is native to North America however over the past hundred years plants have been brought in for the ornamental or environmental benefits later to be found and listed as noxious or invasive species. So, while it is not uncommon to see plants far from their normal areas is also important to be aware that for the most part edible wilds are admirably native to the area. Another part of the environment is what surrounds the plant I am foraging for. Here in Southeast Georgia we live near the Ogeechee River, which has had some severe cases of toxic poisoning from a nearby fabrics manufacturer. The coatings put on fire protective gear have been washed into the local river causing a great deal of environmental damage including large fish kills. Just an hour of the Savannah River is the Savannah River plant on nuclear manufacturing this facility which has had a history of pollution to downriver. The state of Georgia still cautions people about eating fish from the Savannah River. That same river water is the back flow and tidal resource many local streams and creeks. So ask yourself what is the source of the water that is feeding my wild edible. How close is the nearby manufacturing facility that may be poisoning the soil? How close is the local farmer who may be spraying a cocktail mixture of chemicals on his crops every year? How close is the local waste disposal treatment plant? All of these things can affect the makeup of the Environment of the wild edible you seek. Plants growing near homes and occupied buildings or along roadsides may have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Don't forget about the plethora of petroleum products that it takes to run an automobile that have leaked off, washed to the roadside by local rains or dumped.
Method of preparation. While some foods are completely edible after being cooked others are not edible and may cause sickness in the raw state. Some foods may need to be more than just washed and dried. Others may need to be dried and pulverized into a powder to make a flour or other digestible matter. An good example of method is boiling. Pokeweed: You must boil it at least twice, if not more times. If you boil it once, like many other greens, you might get ill from it. Despite efforts in the United States to get pokeweed into the food supply, the need to boil pokeweed more than once has kept it out.
Other potential food plant may need to be soaked in salty water, or peeled or only certain parts of the plant like leaves or flowers are harmful. Some tubers have to be cooked twice. Even a baked potato holds little nutritional value in a raw state. You method of preparation is important. Some plants develop extremely dangerous fungal toxins. To lessen the chance of accidental poisoning, do not eat any fruit that is starting to spoil or showing signs of mildew or fungus. Many valuable wild plants have high concentrations of oxalate compounds, also known as oxalic acid. Oxalates produce a sharp burning sensation in your mouth and throat and damage your kidneys. Baking, roasting, or drying usually destroys these oxalate crystals. The corm of the jack-in-the-pulpit is known as the “Indian turnip,” you can only eat it only after removing these oxalate crystals by slow baking or by drying.
So there you have my introduction to wild edibles. Perhaps I can continue this on other opportunities. One sure thing, while you are out poking about for wild thins to eat you are sure to see a bee. Who knows, if you can follow her home there's a sweet treat containing all the nutrients needed to sustain life.