How many plants do you eat? Do you get your ‘5 a day’ quota or are you like my Mum and only eat peas (we have to phone ahead when we go out for dinner)? But how many actual varieties of plants do you actually consume?
The Earth has an estimated 400,000 plant species that we are currently aware of. Of these total plants we could eat a whopping 300,000 with the right knowledge and preparation skills. But, despite being the planets most optimal ‘opportunivore’ we only eat a paltry 200 plant varieties globally, and for modern western societies that can be as low as 30-40 species. For some, and I’m looking at you Mum, it’s even lower.
“But hang on, Glenn!” I hear you say, “I eat loads of veggies.”
First off, well done. That’s what I want to hear. But consider this – Cabbage, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Romanesco Broccoli, Savoy Cabbage, Kale, Red Cabbage, Kohlrabi, and Collard Green (to name just a few) are all cultivars of the wild Cabbage, Brassica oleracea, so technically just 1 species, not 9. And this story is not only specific to Brassicas either. So many of our cultivated vegetables are cultivars; a selectively bred version of a wild counterpart.
What is even scarier is that half of humanity’s calories and plant-based proteins come from just 3 plants, Rice, Maize, and Wheat. (See the fascinating book)
Now when I was a kid I read the book, The Death of Grass by John Christopher. It’s a science fiction novel that came out around the same time as Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, but rather than mobile, flesh-eating, giant flowers, it concerns a disease that wipes out grass species, including the 3 mentioned above.
And while The Triffids scared me so much that I could not even buy my Mum a Mother’s Day orchid for fear of it stinging me in the eyes, The Death of Grass scared me even more.
Sure, it’s a novel, but when we look at the current plant diseases ravaging the planet, it does justify at least a cursary contemplation. We are currently in the throes of Ash Dieback, decimating our native Ash trees to an extent that we do not yet know. Sudden Oak Death, Dutch Elm Disease and Larch Phytophthora have already created many problems. And these are not plants that we typically eat.
Although we could.
And here in lies a solution to upping our Vitamin V – variety, as well as increasing our nutrient profiles of our food, giving us a healthier relationship with our food, and generally making us more Human, as nature intended. I would also add that when the flesh eating plants do arrive it may give us the edge over our ‘variety poor’ neighbours. Although there is no science backing this. Yet.
So how can we get more variety of plant foods? Let’s look at some other cultures who thrive on variety.
A study in the late 1960s of the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari identified 84 plant species that were used as food by the group. This is the Kalahari, a semi-arid drought-ridden part of Africa, not the green and pleasant lands of Britain and Ireland. Take into account too that this was when the !Kung culture was already in decline due to external pressures, so this number was likely to be higher in previous generations.
The Nlaka’pamux of British Columbia, Canada used no less than 120 plant species in some way as sources of foods. Arctic dwelling groups report to use 40 plus species, and the indigenous population of Tibet use a massive 168 plants species as food. All better than the modern western societies.
Now obviously the Uber Eats service in those regions is not the reason for such a high variety of plant foods, it’s the fact that these cultures have a healthy relationship to wild edible plants.
Wild food foraging is an absolutely amazing way to increase our Vitamin V. There is a veritable cornucopia of wild plants out there on your doorstep that you could avail of.
I’m not suggesting that you should just go out there and stuff your face with whatever nature puts in your eye line. This is the way to an upset stomach at best, and a painful death at worst. No, you need to arm yourself with knowledge.
How do you get this knowlege?
The trick is to start slowly. If you can book yourself onto a foraging course with an experienced instructor then great. I will keep you posted on our next foraging course, and keep an eye out for our forthcoming foraging videos.
If this option is not available to you then I would suggest arming yourself with a number of books, at least 3, to cross reference. Load up your rucksack with the books and get out there. Start with easy to identify plants that don’t have poisonous lookalikes. Nettle is a great one. You can even identify it in the dark!
I would avoid plant ID apps, at least at first. Why? Partly because I am old and not down ‘wid da yoof’, but in main because I don’t think you really learn as effectively when you are given an answer instantly and without effort. The tactile nature of books combined with the active search really helps to cement the plant in your brain.
Plant identification is all about familiarity. Like making a new friend, eventually you are such besties that you can point them out in a crowd, at distance, just by how they carry themselves. It’s no different with plants. Get out there and and keep interacting with them throughout the different seasons. Once you can identify it, you will suddenly see it everywhere. This is know as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon.
But the one golden rule is “DON’T MUNCH ON A HUNCH” or “IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT”. Basically, don’t stick anything in your pie-hole unless you are 100% sure it’s edible AND that you can tolerate it.
Also learn about the legal, safety and ethical ramifications of gathering wild foods. A great site to check out Mark Williams’ Galloway Wild Foods. Really good resources, fundamental guides, and stunning recipes.
I will link to some of my favourite books at the end.
Other than sheer variety, wild plants often offer us far greater nutrient benefits. Many plants have a much higher phytonutrient, vitamin, and mineral content than their domesticated counter parts, making the potential for healthy nutrition higher. For example, one type of wild apple has 100 time more phytonutrients than a Golden Delicous.
Much of these phytonutrients present themselves as the vibrant colours we see in our foods. Anthocyanins, for example, that give plants their deep red, purple or blue hues, have been shown to be powerful anti-oxidant and may have anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory benefits.
This is where the idea of ‘eat a rainbow every day’ comes in. It is a really good strategy for adding diversity and variety into your diet. And it looks really appetising too.
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy foodHippocrates
When you begin to sample wild foods that have long been a staple in human diets, what you often find is that our modern taste palates have greatly reduced. Many wild foods are delicious, many more are bland, and a good proportion will taste disgusting to you.
The over-riding taste that people initially find abhorrent is bitterness. And bitterness is all too common in wild plants. Our ancestors found this far more appetising, in part due to the fact that they did not have unlimited access to sweet stuff like we do. We still actively include bitter tastes in our diet, from tea to lollo rosso lettuce, and this is something that should be encouraged as they benefit our digestive system in many ways.
I’m a firm believer in the ability to acquire new tastes (see my post on my battle with eggs), the more you sample them the tastier they become. Sometimes.
Foraging as an activity for health
Foraging offers us huge benefits health-wise, in addition to it’s nutritional advantages.
The human body was designed to forage for food, so foraging should be seen as the ultimate human movement programme. It really does cover the whole gamut of functional, human movements.
Walking, jumping, carrying, crawling, hanging, pushing, pulling, bending, reaching, throwing, balancing, squatting, hinging, twisting, you name it, a good foraging walk has it all.
Add to this the fact that in order to find wild plants you generally need to be in Nature. Now this could be a vast forest, or a tiny little nook in a city that nature has reclaimed (just be mindful that it isn’t the neighbourhood dogs’ favourite spot to pee). Wherever it is, science has shown again and again that being out in nature has a profound affect on us both mentally and physically.
It’s the perfect antidote to Nature Deficit Disorder. One study showed “The average American child can recognise 1,000 corporate logos, but can’t identify 10 plants or animals native to his or her own region.” And it’s no better this side of the pond. Foraging is a great way to engage children with nature and food. Even staunch salad dodgers will sample the delights that nature offers because it’s new and exciting, and they feel like an adventurer. I still vividly remember the first edible wild plant that I was introduced to. It was hawthorn leaves and I remember my grandfather telling me all about them. This was in the middle of the 566 km² New Forest, and I believe I could take you that tree today. The memory resurfaces every time I eat them. So get the knowledge and pass it on.
For many of us, we spend the majority of our time indoors and thus miss obtaining the super important Vitamin D that our bodies produce in the presence of sunshine. Foraging give us this opportunity and, depending on where you forage, you may even have the opportunity to lose a few items of clothing whilst you do it. *
*Disclaimer* – Wild Life cannot be held responsible for the legal ramifications of naked foraging. Glenn is so hairy that you cannot actually tell if he is naked or not. Try not to stare please.
To me, foraging is a great way to start building a healthy relationship with food in general. There is nothing convenient about wild food when compared to going to the supermarket, at least not at first. You have to work for your food; search for it, identify it, dig it up/pick it, clean it, prepare it. It doesn’t come ready to eat in a handy Styrofoam tray. When you go to this much effort to obtain your food you are far more likely to do it justice in the kitchen, to put more thought and care into how you cook it.
And you could have all the money in the world, but you’ll still not get wild strawberries in December. Wild food is nothing but seasonal. It connects us with the changing cycles of our endless journey around the sun, makes us adapt to what’s available, and above all, gives us appreciation of what we have at any point in the year. It rouses huge excitement in our household when the wild garlic starts to emerge, or the birch sap is rising. Compare this the numb disillusionment of having to settle for the ‘cool’ rather than ‘chilli heat wave’ Doritos.
The mental benefits of foraging are not to be overlooked either. Plant identification is a definite cognitive skill that develops observation and memory recall.
And to have a successful foraging trip really does require us to enter into a state of mindfulness that rivals meditation. If you are just bimbling along in an unfocused way, thinking about Emmerdale or tax returns, you’ll likely miss a huge amount of plants along the way. However, if you open yourself up to being in the moment, in the hunt, your observational abilities will start to seem uncannily supernatural to the uninitiated. And the way to develop this skill is easy; just get out and do it more often.
When I am in the zone, I am totally unaware of all the things that were stressing me out beforehand; and after the trip, those things seem to affect me less than before.
When I am foraging I feel a deep connection to my environment, like I’m a part of the system rather than apart from it. I feel that my experience reaches all the way back through history to my ancestors and to every other creature that searches for food. In this way, even when I forage alone I feel part of a huge community of wild food foragers spanning all of the planet and all of time. It’s pretty profound.
It is a total sensory experience too. There are not many activities where you get to use all of your senses at once. Every one of them is used in the pursuit of wild food, making this an amazing activity to reconnect your mind and body for a sole purpose.
To me, foraging ticks all the boxes for health. It’s a hugely valuable venture that I truly believe everyone should try. Even if you decide not to try the food, or you are unable to identify anything, it is still a worthwhile endeavour. I’ve learnt so much and had loads of fun even when my foraging basket has remained fairly empty.
So, load up the pack with books, and head on out there to explore the amazing world of wild plant identification. The only thing you have to lose is your dependence on a finite food system and an inferior nutrient profile.
Just remember, don’t munch on a hunch and avoid naked foraging in a public park.
Some of my favourite books:
Botany in a Day – The Patterns Method of Plant – Thomas J Elpel
Wild Food – Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman
Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers – Roger Phillips
Food for Free – Richard Mabey
The Forager’s Calendar – John Wright
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