Thursday, October 29, 2009

wild edible plants

at some point in our lives we reach a point where we realize, whether consciously or unconsciously that there is a lot to learn and we cant learn it all at once. i realize this is perhaps an obvious truth but it is something that frustrates me incredibly and makes me wish i could be smart enough to still learn new things but dumb enough to forget that it isnt all going to happen tomorrow.

in learning the  taxonomy of plants i have come to appreciate this handicap in new ways. 

we all know taxonomy as that latin gibberish used in text books to classify plants and animals. those latin names are comprised of 2 parts. the first word, always capitalized refers to the genus. the second word, always  lower case,  refers to the specific species. as frustrating as it may be, learning the scientific name offers one clear advantage. any given plant may have several different common names like in the case of the white water lilly which has over 240 common names. sometimes completely unrelated species of plants will have the same common name as in iron weed. the frustration of learning the scientific names greatly outweighs the confusion of relying only on common names. but, my god, what a chore.

the good news is that plants are also grouped into families and the common name of the family is not as fallible as the common names of individual species. getting to know the identifying characteristics of plant families can allow you to recognize other plants of the same family without having to know the exact name of the plant. this can narrow things down greatly and point you in the exact direction of where to look for the specific name and attributes of the plant.  when trying to figure out if a plant is usable as food or medicine the reference material used is important. 

some sources are biased against wild plants and will list a certain plant as toxic and dangerous when there could be many qualifying factors involved. some reference will state that pokeweed is poisons and should be avoided. it does contain poisonous compounds however these can be reduced to edible levels by repeated boiling. the plant has also been used through-out history in various medicinal ways.  some plants are toxic in different stages of growth. some plants have toxic parts to them and some parts which are safe. some plants have toxic elements which can be eliminated with proper treatment. elderberry has dangerous levels of cyanide but this can be nuetralized through cooking and elderberry can be used to make delicous drinks, fruit preserves and sauces. to be completely fair potatoes can be dangerous if their sprouts where eaten as they contain the same dangerous chemicals found in a relative of the potato, deadly night shade. but we all know how to eat potatoes safely and take this information for granted. it is important to know the difference between plants that are dangerous in all parts and uses and plants that contain dangerous elements but may be edible or medicinal with proper usage. 

there are many characteristics unique to each plant which is useful for identification but the sure fire way to know a plant is the structure of its flowers. a flower is divided into a few major parts. ascending from the stem up and from the outside in, they are the  sepals, petals, stamen, pistil. with some exceptions, these elements are always in place. some flowers have leafy growths from the base which are called bracts and from above these leaf structures will come the sepals. if there is no distinct separation between a line of sepals and a line of petals then the flower only has sepals and no petals. there are also composite flowers which are actually a large grouping of very small flowers into a flower shaped head. 

the structure of the flower is what groups plants into families. so, the plants in the mustard family will always have 4 petals and 6 stamen (4 long and 2 short) and if you find a plant with a flower that has 4 petals, 6 stamen of 4 long and 2 short, then you know it is a member of the mustard family. the joy of this is that there are 3200 species in the mustard family. all of them are edible.

also very important in identifying a plant is recognizing leaf morphology. there are only a few types of leaves but they are categorized into different shapes, arrangement on the stalks, vein patterns and margin serration. together the leaf and flower structures of a plant give you an overall image of identity. 

however, over a plants lifetime its over all image may change drastically, depending on season and what stage of the plants growth cycle you find it in. leaf arrangements and flower structures will always be the same. but some plants are shaped so differently at different parts of their lives they almost can be mistaken for 2 different plants. 

there are 3 types of life cycles for all plants.

annuals are plants that will sprout from seed, flower, drop their seed and then die within one yearly growing season.

biennial plants devide their growth cycle into a 2 year development. in the first years season they will sprout, grow a leaf formation which is usually small and shrubby, then the plant goes dormant in the colder months. in the second year, the plant grows tall and fast before it flowers, goes to seed and then dies.

finally there are the perennials. these plants will grow and bloom over multiple years. each yeart, in the spring, they re-sprout from the same root stock and then go dormant again in the fall and winter.

when it comes to gathering plants for food or medicinal use seasonality is very important. by mid summer a plant stalk that was edible in the spring may have become tough, woody and/or bitter to the point of being inedible. however, it may be the case that mid summer is the part of the season where they are producing edible flowers or fruit. in fall that same plant my now be dropping seeds and nuts which are usefull. or the plant may reach a point in the season where it is completely past the point of edibility but still has medicinal and utilitarian uses. the most fascinating aspect of learning wild plants is that there are no blanket statements. it is a constantly shifting map of usage. in later posts i will review what i am learning about the uses of specific plants from various sources. not the least of which being hands on experience in the wild.

the beauty of it is that taken piece by piece the process can look overwhelming but seen as a synthesis, where all these elements of use and identification meld together there emerges a single whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. i am told that in the end what develops is a sixth sense. ultimately experiencing plants in the wild can become the same as experiencing them in the produce isle. we dont think about the names or defining features of items in a store. we dont think about the process of elimination required to determine if it is edible or not and we dont think about all the time it took to learn what they were. all the elements have long ago fused together so that we recognize a tomato without even thinking about it.

it becomes intuition.