By Jonathan Townsend
I have always been fascinated by the topic of wild edible and medicinal plants. There is something truly freeing about the ability to collect food and medicine from the wild, without money and without a prescription. Not to in any way impinge on the many benefits of modern medicine, but you don’t always need to go to a doctor for an antibiotic, a cough or a cold. Often the nutritional content of wild edibles is significantly higher than store bought goods, and in fact, many of our current synthesized medicines originated from a plant's tissue.
An excellent example of this is the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), which is high in Vitamins A, C, D and B complex. Once a staple in our diets as a salad green or used for the roots or flower head, the dandelion is now considered a weed and the target of whatever herbicidal regiment one has at hand. Despite this crusade at elimination, the dandelion is still ubiquitous, still surviving and also still available to all who want to try. The bitter taste associated with dandelions and many wild salad greens is actually an indication of a potent antitoxin that purifies the blood. Burdock (Arctium lappa) is probably better known for the extremely irritating way it spreads its seeds, but it is another common “weedy” plant that has a myriad of medicinal uses. Burdock is an extremely potent blood purifier and is used world-wide. Additionally, it can be used to treat gout, sciatica, psoriasis and acne. The young tender leaves are also great as salad greens or cooked down in vinegar.
A word of caution – you cannot simply just go out into the world and start collecting random plants to eat! Every year, there are many who get sick and even die from accidental poisonings. For example, Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) and Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) are in the same family and both look very similar. Poison Hemlock is extremely toxic, while Queen Anne’s Lace is essentially wild carrot. However, Queen Anne's Lace has a characteristic dot in the center of the flower head, a fairly easy distinction – provided you know this key distinction! Knowing how to accurately identify a plant is essential. Botanists utilize several plant attributes that tell them very precisely what genus and species they are looking at. This skill and knowledge can only come with time and study and is imperative to gain if you want to succeed at collecting edible and medicinal wild plants safely.
Besides toxic look-alikes, the location of where you are collecting is also important to note. Many areas of our world are polluted through human activity, and there are regions that have naturally occurring toxic elements like mercury and lead. Old railway tracks may also seem like a promising area to look, but keep in mind the powerful industrial strength herbicides that were sprayed on the tracks while the railway was operational. This may seem funny to some, but make sure there aren't any dogs, cats or large populations of wild animals where you are picking – urine and feces can be a contaminant that no one wants to accidentally ingest! Proper preparation of a plant can be critical as well. Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is covered with nasty looking spines, apparently inedible. However, boiling the young leaves removes those spines and provides a spinach-like meal. There are many other plants that must be properly dried or cured before eating as well, so make sure you learn the most appropriate method for the species of plant at hand.
Besides the more common lawn and roadside species, there are many native species that have potent medicinal properties. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a common ornamental garden plant in Western New York. Many herbal teas and immune boosting remedies contain Echinacea, which can be found in the roots, leaves, flowers and seeds of this plant. Two other native wildflowers that have edible or medicinal uses are Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and Beebalm (Monarda didyma). Jerusalem Artichokes have a very tasty potato-like tuber underground, which can be prepared in exactly the same way. They are fast growing and easy to propagate. Beebalm, a member of the Lamiacaea or Mint family, is commonly used in teas. Mints often contain thymols, which are potent antibacterial or antifungal chemicals. Native Americans would boil the roots and leaves to concoct an antiparasitic tonic.
There are hundreds of other useful species in this area, including cattails, assorted berries, various trees with edible fruits, leaves and nuts – even pine pitch can be used medicinally! So why not look further into this most fascinating topic – not just as a hobby but also as a way to further connect with the natural world and improve your physical health at the same time!
Jonathan Townsend is a Conservation Biologist at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, co-owner of Royal Fern Nursery, former CWC Conservation Lands Manager and local bat expert.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.