Foraging: The Wild Side of Sustainable Eating

Feature Stories Spring 2011 Issue

Foraging: The Wild Side of Sustainable Eating

By Debra Illingworth Greene | Photos By Jim Klousia 2

When my children were young, I encouraged signs-of-spring walks in the woods adjacent to our home. We would admire little bits of green coming up through the forest floor or new growth on woody plants—but it never occurred to us to eat what we found. Lisa Nudo, on the other hand, looks at nature through a different lens. She always walks with a bag or basket and a knife. That way she is ready to harvest any wild edibles she sees along the way. 

Spring salad walks are a daily affair in May for Lisa. “I stop and get some chickweed, then walk down to the stream and get some watercress. Then, on my way back up, I pick the small violet leaves, which are an edible green. Typically at that time of year, when the violets are blooming, I might be able to find a few other things in the disturbed soil of the garden. The last stop is to snip some dandelion petals onto the salad, then pick a whole bunch of violet flowers for the top. It’s beautiful.”

Lisa is a wildcrafter—one who harvests plants from the “wild” to eat or use for other purposes. She does much of her wildcrafting on the 35 acres of land outside of La Farge, in the Kickapoo River Valley, where she lives with her partner and two children.

Lisa’s earliest memories of wildcrafting, though she didn’t have a name for it then, go back to age five or six, when she lived in a rural area of northern Illinois. “I had a lot of free time…so I spent a lot of time lying in a vacant field loaded with blackcaps (wild black raspberries). We would tunnel through the brambles and make rooms where the good eating was. They’re sweet and wonderful, like a really rich raspberry. The other two things I remember doing was eating wood sorrel—it looks kind of like a shamrock and is very lemony—and grass. I would pull grass out of its sheath and nibble on it.”

Hunting and fishing, which Lisa lumps with wildcrafting, were also learned as a child from her father and the neighborhood boys. Her grandma, a devoted organic gardener, was also a big influence on Lisa. “She instilled in me the desire to make it with your own hands. Make it, grow it, can it, store it, dehydrate it. And if you don’t know how, find a book about it. The information is out there. Go out and find it.” 

Lisa continues to live her life in this way, learning and doing as she goes. “Once you find something you’re passionate about, you’re a magnet for those things. Over the past 17 years I’ve found a small tribe of like-minded people around me. I have friends who have the information I don’t have, so we’re constantly teaching each other.”

And what has Lisa learned? Enough to provide between 25 and 45 percent (depending on the season) of her family’s diet through wildcrafting, venison, trout and the occasional rabbit or squirrel. 

Spring’s Things
Lisa’s favorite foraged foods in springtime are nettles, chickweed, morel and oyster mushrooms, trout, wild parsnips, dandelions, ramps and maple syrup. Lisa calls nettles and chickweed the “spring prodigals,” and she says, “They come up with such vigor and wanting and are so abundant on our land. I dry a lot of nettles for both stews and tea. It’s so full of all that chlorophyll and iron and minerals. It’s a multi-vitamin in a food source, with 10 times more calcium than kale.” 

Wild edibles are higher in nutrition than almost anything you can buy at the grocery store, according to Lisa. “I think that’s partly because they’re growing where they want to grow,” she explains. “They have not been manipulated. They’re a concentrated powerhouse of sun and elements. That’s why I love them so much. They’re survivors, not to mention they’re free.”

In fact, what others see as undesirable plants, like garlic mustard or dandelions, Lisa sees as a valuable food source. “If someone says invasive, I say eat it,” she quips. For several years, Lisa and a friend celebrated the dandelion with a breakfast devoted to this “weed.” 

The breakfast started with dandelion coffee, made from dandelion roots dug up in early spring, then chopped and roasted in the oven until they turned medium brown, then steeped in hot water. The dandelion coffee was mixed with cream and dandelion syrup made by simmering sugar, dandelion blossoms, lemon rind and water. The main dish was a frittata of sorts, flavored with sautéed bacon, garlic or ramps, young dandelion leaves and unopened buds. The women snipped the petals off of big, open dandelion blossoms and sprinkled them into pancakes, which were also served with dandelion syrup. 

Such a delightful-sounding breakfast makes me pity those with lawns of homogeneous green grass. If you have such a neighbor, you might want to hit him up for brochures to help you identify nature’s delicacies: “Some of the best sources for identifying common weeds—or plants that grow in the wrong spots—are the companies that sell things to kill them. They make great brochures with good pictures,” Lisa adds. 

More Springtime Favorites
Lisa highlights more of Wisconsin’s wild springtime edibles:

  • Young basswood leaves. A fantastic salad addition. 
  • Cat tails. Different parts are good at different times of the year. The young bit inside can be treated like a steamed vegetable. The pollen can be used like flour for baking.
  • Lamb’s quarters. It can be treated like spinach, but is much more nutritious. 
  • Nettles. “Cream of nettle soup is a spring tradition at our house,” says Lisa. They can also go on pizza, in stews and in spanakopita.
  • Chickweed. A lettuce that is not bitter and can be cut off easily by the handful. Chickweed has loft and really bulks up a salad.
  • Wild parsnips. While many people avoid wild parsnips because of the skin reaction they can cause, Lisa says they are perfectly safe to dig when they’re young, before they flower.
  • Ramps. A member of the leek family, they can be eaten fresh, dried or pickled. 

Top 3 Rules for Wildcrafting:

  • Be respectful, both to the plants and the land. Use the one-in-20 rule: If you only see five plants, don’t harvest anything. Look for a larger patch. Respect the earth, the plant population, the land owner. Use all the plant parts you possibly can.
  • Honor the plants. Honor what they’re giving to you: their nutrition, what they’re bringing up from the depths of the soil. Honor your own knowledge: If you’re not sure, don’t eat it until you are sure. Honor that some plants are deadly.
  • Be thankful. Leave some behind. Stop for a moment and be thankful for free food.

Tips of the Trade:
Besides her top three rules for wildcrafting, Lisa shares these tips: 

  • Be curious. Look in parks, look in cracks in sidewalks. Pick a leaf, bring it home and Google it. 
  • Be observant. “The art of scavenging is remembering where you find things,” says Lisa. “I might be out picking one item and see that those blackcap vines are looking good but they’re not in season yet, so I have to remember where they are.” 
  • Get permission. If you’re foraging on land other than your own, be open and communicate with the owners or those overseeing public land. Usually you’re harvesting things that others don’t want, so it’s not a problem. 
  • Have many books. Cross-reference them and know what you know (and don’t know). 
  • Have an open palate. “Another aspect to eating all gathered foods is changing the palate,” Lisa says. “Bitter is a hard taste to sell. A lot of early greens are bitter, but nutritionally that’s what your body needs at that point [of the year].” 
  • Prepare them properly. Find ways to make your foraged food more palatable. Lisa suggests blanching or steaming bitters. “Mask the taste with vinegars. Bacon makes everything better. Or butter. Add a little garlic to it or a few garlic mustard greens. Throw dandelion greens in with mushrooms.” 

Learn More

  • Lisa Nudo looks to Sam Thayer, a Wisconsin-based wildcrafter, when she needs more information about wild edibles. She recommends both of his books, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and his website:
  • Lisa also recommends Rose Barlow’s articles, instructions and recipes at her Original Prodigal Gardens website. Rose was Lisa’s “dandelion breakfast sister” and has since passed away, but the web site is maintained in her honor by the Coulee Region Herbal Institute.

I know I’ll be looking at the ground differently this spring, and I’m hoping to enjoy my first foraged salad inspired by Lisa’s salad walks. Even though I live in the city, Lisa guarantees I can find nettles, chickweed, mushrooms if I’m lucky, burdock, wild parsnip, dandelions, violets, lamb’s quarters, pig weed, elderberry, and where there is a freshwater spring, watercress. “Look at the edge of lawns,” she encourages, “in any vacant lot—anywhere there is a little clump of earth.

We hope you enjoy the recipe for Creamy Ramp and Chickweed Dressing that accompanies this article.

Debra Illingworth Greene is a Madison-based writer who grew up in the Chicago suburbs thinking food came from Jewel. Slowly, over the years, she has come to appreciate fresh, local foods, and now gardens organically, shops at co-ops and farmers’ markets and is a CSA member. She looks forward to the spring thaw when she can take the next step in local eating and use what she learned from Lisa Nudo in writing the article for this issue on wildcrafting.

Comments [2]

Lisa Gaunky | March 13, 2016

I used to do this so much more! Have gotten too busy…need to slow down and forage more.
I really like the info on nettles. I have some dried in the cupboard now. I’ve been taking calcium supplements. Silly me!

Wendy Allen | March 15, 2016

Hi Lisa, thanks for reading! We have a brand new article on nettles published just now in our spring 2016 issue. You can read it here:  Enjoy!
- Wendy, online editor

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