Into the wild: Learn to eat from the garden that grows itself

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Living Earth School co-owner Kate Knott says wild edibles pack more nutrients than the greens you get at the grocery store. Photo: John Robinson Living Earth School co-owner Kate Knott says wild edibles pack more nutrients than the greens you get at the grocery store. Photo: John Robinson

Some folks think of “greens” as the contents of a plastic bag in the produce section; others grow lettuce and spinach in their home gardens. There’s another vegetable paradigm, though, and it’s lurking right outside your back door. Welcome to the world of wild edibles.

To walk through an ordinary backyard with Kate Knott or Rain Perrie is to experience the world coming alive in a new way, as plants that always seemed like weeds—or went unnoticed altogether—suddenly start looking like food. Knott became interested in wild edibles more than two decades ago and now teaches students at the Living Earth School, which she co-owns, how to forage for food outdoors. Together with Perrie, also a local wildcrafting expert and an herbal medicine maker at Farfields Farm, Knott introduced us to the surprising world of food that grows itself.

Greens are the widest category of wild edibles, especially in spring. Knott and Perrie both believe that wild plants deliver a greater concentration of nutrients than most cultivated veggies. Dandelion, for example, is a plant that practically everyone can recognize, and it’s high in iron. “People pull it out of their gardens,” says Knott, “but it’s more nutritious than what they’ll be planting.”

Every part of the dandelion is edible—leaves, flowers and root. The leaves are best in early spring, before flowers appear; they’re more tender and less bitter then, and mix nicely into a salad (add some wild onions, too!) or cook up with eggs or stews. Perrie compares dandelion root to carrot. “If you’d put carrot in your beef stew,” she suggests, “put in dandelion root instead.” There are many other uses, including making fritters from the petals, or roasting and grinding the roots to make a coffee substitute.

Violet is another common plant in yards and parks. It’s recognized by its small heart-shaped leaves, which—like dandelion—you can add to salads or throw into any cooked dish that normally would call for spinach. The flowers are edible, too. Perrie likes to use them as a garnish on deviled eggs for Easter; they can also be candied or made into simple syrup for adding to cocktails or sparkling water.

You may not be familiar with chickweed, but once you learn to recognize its small pointed leaves and its habit of growing abundantly in lawns and flowerbeds, you’ll realize how common it is. Perrie likes to send her young children out to harvest it with the instruction, “Give it a haircut!” Trimming the tips of the plant, she explains, encourages it to grow back even more luxuriously. “Kids have an affinity for it,” she says. “They’ll shove piles of it in their mouths”—a great snack considering it’s high in iron, zinc and potassium. Substitute chickweed for basil in homemade pesto.

One more abundant plant is garlic mustard, an invasive species that native-plant enthusiasts detest—but if you pull it up by the roots to harvest it, you’re doing the environment a favor even as you bring home a food that’s packed with nutrients. Get to know its leaves, which can be rounded to triangular depending on its stage of growth; look for purple stems with tiny hairs to help identify it. “It’s very nutritious,” says Knott. “You can sauté it with eggs and wild chives.”

Another easy recipe: Add wild greens to a bottle of apple cider vinegar, let it sit for three to six weeks, then strain. Use in salad dressing or as a tonic full of vitamins and minerals drawn from the greens.

Other edible wild greens include purple nettle, lambsquarters (also known, for good reason, as wild spinach) and wood sorrel. Most are best gathered at a particular stage so that their flavor isn’t too bitter. John Kallas’ book Edible Wild Plants is a great resource to help you get to know the life cycle of each plant, and walking with an expert is very helpful. Knott and Perrie both say that, after a while, the plants come to be known as familiar friends in all their stages. “It’s like getting to know a person,” says Knott.

Wildcrafting expert Rain Perrie suggests subbing chickweed for basil in homemade pesto. Photo: John Robinson

Foraging inevitably connects one with the subtleties of all the seasons, and deepens appreciation for the natural world. “This is nature’s garden that we don’t have to tend or fertilize,” says Knott. “I see adults in classes becoming enamored—‘It’s all right here?’ It’s organic, it’s not genetically modified, it’s locally grown.” Perrie notices a state of calm come over people as they, for example, sit in a group shelling black walnuts or hickory nuts. “People have a primal need to connect with their food,” she says.

Many wild edibles are ready to eat right from the plant—what Knott calls “trail nibbles.” The greenbrier vine, often a plant that hikers tend to gingerly brush aside as it hangs into the trail with its sharp green thorns, offers new green tendrils in the spring which taste something like asparagus. Redbud flowers are edible, sweet and known by nearly everyone. You can also eat the young seedpods of the redbud, when they’re still fresh and green—Knott suggests adding them to stir fries.

In early spring, spicebush—an understory plant you’ll find in the forest—produces bright yellow-green buds and flowers, easy to nibble as you walk, as are its new leaves. A distinctive spicy smell greets your nose when you break off a spicebush twig: a clue that these twigs can also be used to make tea. Pour boiling water over broken twigs just as you would with a teabag. Or poke twigs into meat as it’s roasting to add flavor. Spicebush berries, which appear later in the year, can even be dried and ground to use as a spice.

The needles of the white pine—identifiable because they grow in clumps of five—also make a nutritious tea. Knott recommends chopping the needles first and using one palmful per cup of boiling water when you infuse.

Of course, use caution when learning to forage; know your plants and consider location. Don’t gather from places where dogs are walked, where chemicals are sprayed, or on roadsides. But do bring your family, say both Perrie and Knott. “Get your kids involved,” says Knott. “Everybody loves to eat.”

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