Locavore Lore: Louisville loves lawns

Forest foraging for food and salvation

Apr 29, 2009 at 5:00 am
Field Cress
Field Cress Photo by Ron Jasin

You know how despite all of our seeking, everything we need is actually right in front of us? Although a deep truth resonates somewhere in that understanding, the human side of me continues to forget it all, and the longings of my heart lead my parsifilian wanderings from one season to the next. Thank god the soil has my back, as I can step right off the front porch and be guided to awareness of the present moment’s wholeness.

While I often dive right into what life offers, sometimes I need to move in baby steps. I love when the world gives me props as I inch along. So as we awaken to another spring, we can be guided by the edible trail the world provides. As food is a comfort and we are what we eat, how appropriate that the plant world offers us a chance to eat our way into these new selves.

Also known as wildcrafting, the practice of collecting plant materials in their natural habitat for food, medicine and craft is an age-old tradition that allows us to explore yet another dimension of our locavorious lineage. Can you get more local than stepping off the porch to fill your plate at this backyard buffet? Not only is it free, nourishing, healing and sustainable, if done correctly (no energy used to even bicycle to the farmers market), there is a plethora of balancing effects that come from aligning with the plants growing where you’re also living.

But first, what to eat?

Before you start picking, you must get a good guidebook (Carmichael’s Bookstore and the public libraries have several), because misidentification is easy and something you could regret. As with any new dietary addition, use common sense and see how your body responds to each plant before consuming it in abundance.

Equally important if you’re harvesting in the city, make sure that you’re picking from a clean area. It’s hard to believe that anyone still sprays chemicals on their lawns, especially when we all know that the carcinogens not only get into the air (so that we all breathe in those deadly toxins), they also pollute our soil and waterways. And why spray these chemicals to attain a yard of plain grass when you could have a veritable smorgasbord of tangy violets, cleansing dandelion blossoms and savory purple nettles? Perhaps it’s an exercise in letting go of control to let our yards reflect our uniqueness. Just as it’s a waste of the lives we’ve been given to spend them trying to fit into some ideal of who we think we should be, attempting to control and weed out the very plants and flowers that make our yards unique seems like a giant denial of potential — here’s to relaxing our grip and watching what wild and wonderful new growth blooms forth.

Speaking of blooming, one of my current favorites in the edible flower category is the purple beauty growing in abundance right now — the violet. If there were ever a flower that could convince us to let go of our outdated concept of a weed, it would have to be this sweet little plant. Not only are violets gorgeous and prolific, they’re delicious, full of healing properties and reputed to be mood elevators. A member of the viola species, they are a great source of vitamin C, potassium and vitamin A, and the leaves are a delicious salad green. Some herbal traditions use the flowers in a spring tonic as a blood purifier, detoxifier, mild laxative and diuretic.

Another delectable edible flower can be found on the magenta limbs woven throughout the region right now — the redbud. The bright pink blossoms are detoxifying and chock-full of vitamins A and E, and they’re delicious fresh off the tree or scattered atop most any dish.

Much maligned by gardeners across the country, thistle is another weedy wonder providing much more than meets the eye. Thistle’s barbed leaves might not appear edible, but when you strip off the spines, they are delicious and taste like celery. The roots can be boiled and then eaten like any other root vegetable, and in the summer, the flower petals are gorgeous sprinkled over salads. Thistle tea is known for cleansing, reducing inflammation and long-term intestinal balancing.

Equally beneficial to both the soil and the body is red clover, currently springing up in lush patches everywhere and soon to be blooming with spiky pink flowers. The small cloverleaves are a delicious green addition to salads, and the edible flowers can be eaten raw or brewed as a tea. Medicinally, clover has been used to balance estrogen levels, and chewing on the blossoms is said to reduce the desire to smoke.

One of the most essential rules for wildcrafting is not to overharvest, but one plant you can consume with abandon is garlic mustard, as it is not native to North America and spreads like wildfire. An invasive, it chokes out native plants and can have a deleterious effect on nearby trees. Luckily for us, pulling it up does both a favor for the local ecosystem and yields a delicious flower and green that makes a great internal cleanser.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the plants growing right now support internal cleansing, as both the season and the planetary alignments suggest that this is an excellent time for embracing a type of cleansing. Pluto, the planet of transformation, turned retrograde at the beginning of the month, bringing us the courage to let go of who we are for who we are becoming; the physical cleansing provided by the plant world only complements this personal energetic cleansing. Though as great and grand as all that sounds, sometimes I can’t even quiet my own mind to know what I need to release; once again, the plant world offers such assistance.

Paying attention to what we eat offers insight into what best supports our wholeness in the world. Give yourself a little free schooling and try this: Pick some redbuds and set them aside for a few days, then taste them alongside some freshly foraged buds and see if you can sense any subtle differences. I love the obvious, so creating opportunities to refine various senses can be an excellent gateway to expanding our subtle awareness and ability to communicate.

The most potent part of the wildcrafting experience is the sense of stewardship inherent in the relationship between the plants and the humans who embrace their gifts, so it is absolutely essential to follow important guidelines before harvesting. Simply walking outside and taking from the Earth without first asking permission and stopping to listen defeats the whole purpose, as learning from and about the plants themselves engages our senses on multiple levels and opens up myriad windows of learning. Eco-herbalist Kahlee Keane suggests:

• When harvesting in the wild, treat the native plant complexes like the fine perennial gardens they are.

• At most, only 25 percent of weedy plants should be gathered in a harvest area; no more than 5 percent of the native plants.

• Do not harvest endangered, threatened or sensitive plants.

• When appropriate, only harvest a part of each plant by pinching off individual leaves, flower heads or rhizome segments, leaving the remainder intact to regenerate.

• Think about what effect your harvest will have on the area.

• Don’t just take plants from the wild, attempt to cultivate them, too. Put to good use previously tilled soil instead of destroying the few remaining wild places.

• Do not harvest from local parks or any other protected land.


So happy scavenging, and remember to be mindful of the sensitive ecosystems with which you’re connecting, and always use a reliable guidebook to correctly identify your plants before consumption.


Sidewalk Salad Salvation:

1 large bowl of fresh dandelion, red clover, garlic mustard, violet and thistle greens

1 cup redbud flowers or garlic mustard flowers

½ cup wild onions, chopped

1 handful of purple violets

Toast red buds or mustard flowers and wild onions on a baking sheet at 425 degrees until slightly crunchy (this will depend on the variable moisture in the buds, so stir and check every few minutes). Toss greens and toasted mixture with your favorite dressing and garnish with violets. Voila!