By Christopher Loomis, Communications Intern
All information posted in this wild edible blog series is generalized, presented for informational purposes only, not medical advice, and presented “as is” without warranty or guarantee of any kind. Readers are cautioned not to rely on this information as medical advice and to consult a qualified medical, dietary, fitness or other appropriate professional for their specific needs.
The first wild edible I’ll cover in this blog series is stinging nettle; the Latin name is Urtica dioica. Stinging nettle is both a food and medicine. Although nettle does have a bit of an attitude since its leaves can irritate the skin, it is a plant with many beneficial properties. I like to think of it as a superfood.
Nettle can be found in damp, mineral rich environments; it often grows near streams and running water. In the Bay Area, nettle grows from the fall into spring. It is a very vigorous and aggressive plant. For example, many people attempt to kill nettle by spraying pesticides, or weed whacking; however, nettle usually grows back quickly. Additionally, nettle can grow in polluted and unsanitary areas. Because of its vigorousness, many gardeners see nettle as an immense pest.
Yet, nettle is undeserving a reputation as a pest. It is a nutrient dense wild edible. Nettle is rich in vitamins K and A, and minerals such as Calcium and Maganese. Because nettle is so nutrient dense, it makes an excellent tonic. Nettle leaf tea can be an effective substitute for coffee. Unlike coffee, nettle tea does not lead to an energy crash; instead it provides sustaining energy. One can easily find dried nettle leaf tea at health food stores; however, nettle grows in abundance throughout California, so anyone can harvest wild nettle leaves and dry them for tea usage. Nettle also grows in other temperate parts of the United States. Remember, it is important to make sure that nettle leaves are harvested from a safe and clean environment.
Nettle is quite tasty as a food. Cooked fresh nettle leaves have a very unique flavor. I would describe the flavor as a meaty, rich green flavor. Some people find the flavor of nettle to be too strong. Other people enjoy fresh nettle leaves raw; however, I would advise people to cook their nettle leaves because raw nettle leaves may irritate the tongue and throat.
Nettle has numerous medicinal uses. For instance, nettle can help to address fatigue and exhaustion; the seeds are particularly effective in treating fatigue. From my own experience, nettle seeds have powerful energizing effects. I have used them whenever I feel like I cannot finish writing a paper due to fatigue. A downside is that nettle seeds can sting similar to eating the leaves raw. Thus, I advise people to cook nettle seeds if they want to use it for its energizing properties. Nettle leaves can also help to relieve allergy problems. I have used nettle leaf tea during the spring to stop allergy problems like congestion, sneezing, and water eyes. Nettle also helps to address skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne. Nettle addresses such problems by helping the body during to detoxify more through the liver. The liver works more efficiently due to nettle. One of my good friends regularly drinks nettle leaf tea to prevent his eczema from becoming inflamed.
Overall, nettle is a remarkable wild edible since it serves as both a food and medicine. Since nettle grows all over California and the United States, people should consider hunting for it.
Dandelion is the second wild edible to be covered in this blog series, and is a great example of a common, yet underused wild edible. Dandelion can be found in numerous areas as it grows in both suburban and urban settings. Here in California, dandelion can be found from fall until spring. It can grow in a wide variety of soils – from sandy soils to clay soils. This is one reason why dandelion is proficient in reproducing; it is plant that can make the most of very little. Like nettle, dandelion is both a food and a medicine. This makes dandelion an excellent food resource. Like nettle, dandelion is both a food and medicine. Although dandelion is originally from Eurasia, it has established itself all over North America.
Dandelion’s hardiness is what impresses me. I know of numerous people who tried to kill off dandelions in their gardens by spraying them with herbicides, or digging them up. Yet, dandelions seem to come back in their gardens. In fact, gardeners may actually help dandelions to spread, especially if the gardener cuts a root piece because the plant is able to grow from these clippings. Given dandelions’ hardiness, I believe that gardeners are better off harvesting dandelions for food instead trying to get rid of them.
All parts of dandelion are edible; including its leaves, flowers, and roots. The leaves have a bitter flavor, which is reduced once cooked. In my experience, dandelion leaves taste less bitter in the spring than in the fall. In some cultures, bitter foods like dandelion leaves are used to complement rich, fatty foods like pork or beef. Dandelion flower can be used to make wine, and was once quite popular in European countries such as France and England. The roots of dandelion can be used as a caffeine free substitute for coffee. A few people I know are quite fond of dandelion root tea. To them, the tea has a flavor similar to black coffee. You can make dandelion root tea in your home, and it is also available at health food stores.
Dandelion has numerous medicinal and nutritional properties. The leaves contain more vitamin A than carrots; a vitamin beneficial to human eyesight. The leaves are also rich in antioxidants, and some people claim that it can help prevent cancer and other illnesses. Although dandelion leaves are quite bitter, the bitter flavor aids in digestion. If one consumes a very rich or hardy meal, dandelion leaves can come in handy to help prevent indigestion. This is a reason why some people use dandelion leaves as a bitter tonic. People suffering from gallbladder problems may benefit from dandelion since it helps them to break down food more efficiently.
Dandelion root can be effective in detoxifying the body because it is a diuretic. The root is also rich in potassium. Potassium is very beneficial to bone health. If an individual is suffering from cramps, or muscle tension, they should consider drinking dandelion root tea. Potassium is also important for maintaining a normal blood pressure.
Dandelion is a very dynamic plant. To me, it funny that so many people attempt to get rid of dandelions; it seems they fail to recognize that dandelion is a valuable plant for both nutritional and medicinal purposes. Dandelion is an excellent starter plant for anyone who is new to wild edibles.
Mallow, also known as Malva sylvestris, is a wild edible that can be found throughout world in many types of soil, such as sandy or clay soils. Although mallow is originally from Eurasia, it has naturalized throughout the United States. It can easily withstand drought, but typically thrives in the wet seasons.
Mallow is an immensely versatile plant. When cooked, mallow leaf has a mucilaginous texture, making it an effective thickening agent in soups. The leaves can also be used in salads, although I prefer to use them in stir-fries or soups. Whenever I make minestrone soup, I make sure that I add a few mallow leaves for thickness and to balance out the other ingredients. I’ve also found that the leaves are an excellent substitute for grape leaves when making dolmas, which is a traditional Greek dish made with rice, meat, and vegetables stuffed in grape leaves.
Mallow root is more medicinally active compared to the mallow leaf because it contains more mucilage. The mucilaginous texture is reminiscent of okra, a cousin of mallow. Mallow root can be made into tea, and can be effective in relieving stomachaches and gas. The mucilage helps to soothe an upset stomach due its anti-inflammatory properties.
The leaf and root can also be used for helping skin conditions when boiled down into a thick gel. The gel can be applied to the skin for eczema, psoriasis, and other skin conditions. Mallow gel can also be used to lubricate the lungs, and help individuals suffering from a dry cough. In many countries, mallow is a traditional cough remedy.
Overall, I believe that mallow is an excellent wild edible. One can easily find it in any given area. Like other wild edibles, it has numerous medicinal applications. As always, when foraging wild edibles be sure to check that the area you are foraging in has not been sprayed with pesticides.