Foraging Friday; Dandelions!

I haven’t gone to sleep yet; that means it’s still Friday, right? Someday I will just start uploading these waaaay late on Thursday.

Anyhow, today’s post is about dandelions, the Scourge of the Suburban Lawn and my second favorite plant of all-time!

A diagram of a whole dandelion plant and it’s flowers. Note the deep taproots going straight down. It’s important later…!

Dandelions are one of the most important plants you could possibly choose NOT to weed out of your lawns. The start with, almost all of this plant is edible. The stems, leaves, roots and unseeding flowers can all be eaten.

The nutritional value of dandelions is through the ROOF. Just two ounces of whole raw leaves gives you more than your complete daily value of vitamin A, and FIVE TIMES your required amount of vitamin K! Those two ounces also gives you a whole gram of protein, often times more which is on-par with some grains. Additionally this plant is packed with vitamins C, Iron, Fiber, Potassium, Antioxidants and Calcium. There are few foods in the world as good for you as dandelion leaves! For animals, that translates into 15% protein and 37% fiber, making this a GREAT feed source too.
In a pinch, the stems of fresh flowers contain a fair amount of sugar, enough to give you a nice boost in the carbs in your diet. The root is a long carrot-like taproot that can be roasted and eaten, or ground and brewed into a dandelion root tea for a coffee-like pick me up!
In a survival situation, dandelions make an excellent food source, giving you more different nutrients in high levels than most things can compete with, if not a lot of calories.

Additionally, traditional medicine across the world used these plants to help with digestions issues, liver problems, there’s even some hint of it making a good diuretic and helping to balance out blood sugar levels… But there’s no scientific proof for any of it. Still, having a solid source of so many nutrients in your diet can give your immune system a SERIOUS boost which can help fix just about anything!

There are no toxic lookalikes in north America for dandelions, although there are more EDIBLE look a-likes such as Cat’s Ears, so this is a great plant for beginners. Even the look a-likes are near impossible to mistake for a dandelion once you know what to look for. I am not aware of any toxic look a-likes in other regions of the world, but I also haven’t searched heavily.

The biggest downside to this plant is it IS bitter. Still, it can be very good blanched and seasoned, as a salad green when young, creamed, or added as part of something else like a pesto. You can even make wine out of it!

Identification

The dandelion is a plant we almost all grew up with as a kid, so when I sent my beau out to pick some for our indoor rabbits, I was shocked when he had no idea what to look for and was terrified he’d picked the wrong plant. He grew up in NYC, where there are no dandelions. So for the sake of people like Greg, I’ll give this a thorough description.

Dandelions (or Taraxacum, as those scientists would have us call it) are a member of the same family as Daisies and Sunflowers. (Please take note, don’t eat this if you have daisy or sunflower allergies; you could be allergic to this as well.)

They are typically fairly small in suburbs (leaves being about six inches tops, with only slightly longer flower stems) but this is due to their growing conditions. Left unchecked in only partial sun you may find leaves getting a good 18 inches long, and a good two feet on the flowers. The flowers are quite obvious, being the sunniest, happiest yellow in the world, with thousands of petals all bunched together, coming away from the center. I suppose it’s worth noting that SOME varieties of dandelions ARE different colors but they are pretty rare… I have never ever seen one in person.

The three stages of dandelion flowers; bloom, closed and seed.

Later, as the flower ages it closes. When it finally re-opens it has dozens of small seeds on white fluff that will blow away in the wind, get knocked off by passing animals, etc. etc. to start more dandelions.

The leaves are long an have strange, choppy sides. This is where people get intimidated. I wish I could say something like “they’re round topped” or “they have exactly 4 lobes on each side” or some such, but the reality is there IS NO STANDARD for it.

To illustrate, here are three dandelion leaves from my lawn with a quarter for size reference. As you can see, the leaves are all very different looking, the top two being only a few inches with no leaf half-way down the stem, the other being nearly a foot and thick all the way down. The lower top leaf has six lobes, the other one four, and the bottom one, who KNOWS because it’s got tears in it and the lobes are shallow and haphazard, not eve symmetrical. The topmost one has a very rounded, broad top similar to the big one, but the middle leaf is very sharp and spear-shaped.

The craziest part of this picture is the top two leaves came from the SAME PLANT. The plant was in dappled shade and the middle leaf was in the sun while the other was in the shade. The leaves have a general shape that is easy to recognize, but otherwise they grow crazy depending on the soil type, water levels, other local plants and sun levels. MOST dandelions growing in partial-sun with other plants in good soil will get big and broad like the big leaf, plants growing in poor soil or blasting sun will look like the middle leaf, and anything in-between closer to the top leaf. I have found some that have almost no lobes at all, smooth leaves with just a ripple to the edge, and yes, it was definitely a dandelion.

A complete and typical dandelion plant.

Other benefits

 

There are other benefits to dandelions other than it’s extreme edibility and nutrition. Those bright yellow flowers contain massive amounts of pollen and are an extremely important pollen source for bees. As most of us know, bees are in severe decline and pollen sources are becoming more and more contaminated. Dandelions are miraculously untouched genetically, and if allowed to grow without chemicals can give extraordinary nutrition to local bees.

Also, contrary to popular belief, dandelions actually HELP your lawn. Urban legend has it that they will suck up the water/nutrients that your grass uses. Well, remember that long taproot? I have examined a slice out of my own soil and dandelions to confirm, so I know this is true; right where the grass roots ended was where the dandelion root started branching out. This is because dandelions actually draw moisture up from deep within the soil, and as it reaches the delicate leaves at the surface is sheds out some of that deep taproot-absorbed water, actually PROVIDING water to the grass. Think about it, why are dandelions so prolific in healthy lawns or even getting by in dry dirt? How many times do you see dandelions thriving in, say, moss? Never! Because dandelions can not handle lots of surface water. The plant needs the grass to help wick the water away from it at the surface while it drinks deep underneath the earth.
Additionally the help add to the biodiversity in your lawn. If all you have in your lawn is grass, all you will have in your lawn will be grass-killing diseases and pests having a feast. Diseases and pests that effect other species like dandelions help to keep that in check.

So next time you’re walking outside with your Roundup, ready to kill all your dandelions to keep them from taking over with harsh chemicals, consider just picking the seeding flowers. It might sound crazy but if you remove all the flowers when they close up to go to seed the environment gets the full benefit of the plant (pollen for bees, lawn care for you, nutrition for local wildlife etc.), without spawning dozens of new plants. Or consider pulling the whole plant and eating it as a power-packed nutritional rocket to your dinner table!

As always, practice safe foraging. Make a 100% positive ID before eating anything, be aware of any local wildlife and wear gloves.

Happy foraging!

Foraging not-so-friday; Wild Carrots

A lovely shot of a wild carrot

If something happened to your way of life and you were on your own would you be able to feed yourself? Would you know what plants are edible? Which ones would kill you? Today we’re going to cover a plant that can bring back to comforts of a normal home but is tricky to ID, the wild carrot.

Sometimes called Queen Annes Lace, the wild carrot is a small, white, woody carrot. It is a common weed and likes growing in sandy soils. This week I found dozens of these growing through the cracks between the bricks of my patio; bricks layed on sand! I cooked them up in a stir-fry for dinner.

A Queen Anne’s Lace flower, with it’s characteristic red blossom in the center

The wild carrot is often called Queen Anne’s Lace because the flower resembles lace. The red flower in the center is thought to represent a blood droplet where Queen Anne pricked herself with a needle when she was making the lace, but in reality it is meant to attract insects to the plant to help with pollination. Not all Queen Anne’s Lace has this specific type of flower, however.

The roots of the wild carrot look, smell and taste like a white carrot. They are much more wooden and stiff then a normal carrot and a touch more bitter, but still quite tasty. They require heavy boiling for older plants to become chewable. You can use the flowers to make a white dye as well. However, the leaves can cause pytophotodermatitis, and should be handled with care. I simply feed these to my rabbits. Basically this means that handling the plants causes you to be severely sensitive to sun and your skin will burn and rash easily. It’s best to harvest wild carrots on a cloudy day.

The problem with wild carrots is they are nearly identical to a similar plant called Poison Hemlock, a plant that can kill you if you eat it.

This is Poison Hemlock, and even just a few leaves can be fatal. Can you tell the difference?

Poison Hemlock is famous for being what killed Socrates. It is an EXTREMELY potent neurotoxin that wreaks havoc on your nervous system causing paralysis from the bottom up. When it hits your lungs you stop breathing and die. Artificial ventilation and CPR can help keep oxygen going through the body for a few days while the toxin wears off… But even a tiny bit of any part of this plant can be fatal. Take a nibble of this to see if it’s a carrot and you could be dead that evening.

So how did my stir-fried wild carrots go? Neither myself, my guests, nor any of the animals that ate the tops have died of paralysis. There are a few tell-tale differences between death on a stick and a lovely, if chewy, carrot.

The first is the carrot itself smells like a carrot. Like punch-you-in-the-face-this-is-a-carrot type of smell. It’s overwhelmingly carroty. If someone made a carrot scented perfume it’d smell like this plant’s root. The leaves don’t smell like anything but the closer you get to the carrot itself the more it’ll smell like a carrot.
The poison hemlock smells bad. When you crush the leaves or the root the scent has been compared to parsnips. It does not have that fresh, herbaceous, carroty scent.

The second are the stems of the carrots are hairy. They are covered in dozens of fine hairs that are quite obvious The stems of the hemlock plant are smooth and often covered in purple spots.

If the plant you find looks and smells like a white carrot and has fuzzy stems, it is likely a Queen Anne’s Lace plant, and is safe to eat. If the stems are smooth and it does not have a powerful carroty scent to it, I suggest removing it and putting it in your trash before washing your hands.

Poison hemlock is also deadly to most animals, and the ones that survive often have severe birth defects in any offspring they produce.

So take care when harvesting your tasty white roots! As always, practice safe foraging techniques! Make a %100 positive ID on a plant before eating it, wear gloves while harvesting, and be aware of any wildlife.

Happy foraging!

Foraging Friday; Plantains!

You’ll notice that this has no relation to bananas at all.

This little plant is probably my favorite foraging plant. Commonly called a plantain, the true name for these plants are “Plantago”. They have no relation at all to bananas but are just as useful!

Originally a european plant, it was brought to america by settlers. Because of it’s wide variety of uses this plant was cultivated, but then went wild becoming a common weed in most lawns growing at the edges of concrete, like sidewalks and roads. The most common kind is the one featured above, the broad-leaf plantain. Most plantains are edible, but since plantains contain around 200 different species, in this case I am just going to be covering the broad leaf plantain (Plantago Major). This is the most common and most useful of all the species and shows up just about everywhere in the world. Remember that if you find a plantain that is not the broad-leaf variety, you should look up it’s individual properties before consumption… However, most are safe to eat.

Leaves as Food

The leaves of this plant are packed with nutrients including high levels of calcium and vitamin A. They also have very high levels of vitamins C and K. Biting into a young tender plantain leaf will bring you back to your literal salad days as they taste a bit like a cross between babyleaf spinach and a mild radish! It’s like having a whole salad in your mouth in one bite. It’s a really nice flavor with a hearty crunch. Because of the high calcium levels this green is especially good for older women and should only be fed in moderation to people or animals that respond poorly to calcium like rabbits. Older leaves are tough and chewy and could be stewed or used in thick dishes that could benefit from some green, like curry or oxtail soup.

Seeds as Food

The seed-stalk of a broad-leaf plantain

Tedious, and hard to gather, the seeds of the plantain can also be eaten. These seeds are packed with fiber! They can be used much like a grain, eaten straight, boiled as a cereal or ground into a flour. I can’t attest to the flavor or cooking properties of this; I have never bothered eating the seeds. Please take special note that in many species the seed husks are a laxative.

Leaves as Medicine

The leaves of the Plantago plant have many uses, but they are actually a strong healing plant grounded in science. I have actually used these leaves on cuts since I was a little girl. Mashed into a poultice, the leaves of this plant are a pain killer, an antimicrobial and antiseptic, and they also speed cell regeneration! (Whaaat!?) This is not some hippie BS factoid either; this has been scientifically tested and proven. Rubbing crushed leaves on a wound that’s been rinsed in water is a great way to clean it out and prevent infection. The leaves can also be boiled into a tea that can be used to soothe bowel irritation and diarrhea. This plant is AMAZING.
Because of it’s intense medical and nutritional properties, if you have a significant health concern like irritable bowel syndrome, cancer or a recent belly surgery, please consult with your doctor before eating or using this plant in any way.

Seeds and Roots as Medicine

The roots of this plant have shown no exceptionally edible properties and I wouldn’t eat them; but the roots of this plant can be used much the same way as the leaves as an antiseptic. The husks on the seeds can be a powerful laxative and are actually used in commercial over the counter products like Metamucil!

Other Uses

The leaves of this plant have long, tough fibers in them and when they get large, they can be harvested and woven into rope. This plant is also known for it’s extrodinary positive effects on soil. This plant thrives in foot traffic and poor conditions and leaves the soil better than when it started. The plant simultaneously breaks up hard-pack soils and the root system helps hold the soil in place as nutrient levels are restored, preventing erosion.

Identifying the Plantain

The most important thing to look for on a plantain is the veins on the leaves. Leaf shape can vary a lot, but in general they have smooth, wide leaves. However, depending on the soil they grow in, how big they are and local pests, while the leaf shape may vary, but the veins never will. They will branch out from the stem of the leaf smoothly and curve around before coming close together at the tip edge of the leaf, giving the leaves their wide, ovular shape.

Thick, fibrous veins through plantains give the leaves a distinctive look.

The plantain grows low to the ground, at or below the level of cut grass. It’s flat leaves branch out from a single, low point and spread out to cover as much ground-space as possible. It’s flower and seed stalks are very distinctive, being tall and very thin cones coming from the main root of the plant, often curving slightly as they rise up. This is one of the easiest to identify wild plants and is probably one of the most diverse in it’s uses!

Flat, and below the grass-line, cut by lawnmowers and nibbled by bugs, this is what most “weed” plantains end up looking like.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. As always, practice safe foraging techniques; wear gloves, be aware of any poisonous animals, bugs or plants that are near by, and always make a careful ID based off of photographs before eating. Happy foraging!

Foraging Friday; Prepping for Foraging

I’ve decided to start a weekly series on foraging for wild edibles. I feel like it’ll help me keep up with posting more often, and it’ll share some of the knowledge I’ve picked up over the years. While most of the homesteading and farming things I do are new to me, hunting down and eating wild plants is not. For years I learned these skills from my mother. She owned every reputable book on plants you could find at the time, a collection I hope to own myself some day.

As a kid we would go camping each year and hunt through the forest for things we could eat. We would find mayapples, danelions and cattails to eat before we retired to our camp for s’mores. We would do leaf rubbings and identify wild plants. We would discuss ones that were deadly poisonous and the ones that were only edible if treated properly.

I was also taught how to build shelters if I was lost in the woods, and how to identify animal tracks. It was all a part of survival to her, in case I ever had to take care of myself in an emergency. Today it’s part of being sustainable to me. Many of these plants run wild as weeds across the US. They’re so incredibly prolific they’re impossible to wipe out. When cultivated, many of these plants get HUGE. They’re normally packed with nutrients and some are things you may even have sitting on your shelf right now.

The most important thing to remember about foraging is to make sure you know what you are eating. One mistake and you can find yourself breaking out in boils, vomiting wildly, or worse, dead. Because of this I have never gone mushrooming. I refuse to forage mushrooms on my own because the risk is too great. However there are lots of plants that are easy to identify, and are completely safe to eat right in your own back yard.

Identifying an unknown plant online is very difficult. If it’s a very common weed you have a good chance of finding it easily, but if it’s slightly rarer or generic in form it can be very hard to find the correct plant. For this reason I suggest that everyone have a book of plants. Specifically, ALL plants, not just edible ones. If you’re trying to identify a plant you’ll want something that tells you what it is no matter what. If you can’t find something JUST like it in an “edible plants” book, you may mistake it for something similar and safe when it’s not. Once you idenify a plant you can always look it up by it’s name online to find out if it’s edible, so buy a good all-purpose plants book instead of a wild edibles book to ensure you know what plant it is you have found. Also, do not buy just a “native plants” book or “wild plants” book either if you can avoid it because many plants are non-native (many north american weeds are imports from europe) or a domestic plant gone wild.

You may also want a decent pair of non-cloth gloves, small clippers and a basket to gather your plants in. Some edible plants like nettle are covered in large spines. You don’t want to touch the spines and they can be difficult to cut, so while these items aren’t nessicary they can be useful. You also don’t want to touch a poisonous plant by accident, so if you are somewhere prone to lots of wild plants (like a campground) you may also want long clothes and high boots.

If you are further south you may also want to beware of snakes, spiders, scorpions or other potentialy poisonous critters. There are many poisonous creatures that hide in the same place your plants do.

Lastly, always make sure to thoroughly wash or cook your edibles. They sit outdoors with lots of wild animals that carry parasites and diseases such as giardia, coccidia or tapeworms, and those are three things you just don’t want in your system. So always wash your plants.

Each week from now on I’ll be featuring a new plant that you can find all over that is edible. I will tell you how to harvest it, how to eat it and what it’s properties are nutritionally to the best of my abilities. In the meantime, happy foraging!