Just because the weather is turning chilly doesn’t mean all foraging opportunities are over and you must wait for spring to be out on gathering foray’s again…. not by a long shot!
Editor’s Note: This article by Donna is a great complement to Eric’s recent piece on Fall Foraging here. Wonderful to have two resources with different plants to target.
For many plants, harvesting time is just beginning. Late August through October and November offer some of the tastiest wild morsels ever. At least that is true of the northeastern and southeastern United States and probably other climes as well. And those plants are well worth the wait. There are flavor bursts and textures that are only available when the autumnal equinox marks the arrival of the season.
Fruits, nuts, and seeds are abundant and autumn is the time when the roots are filled with the most goodness and nourishment. The burdock leaf and burrs have died off; the sassafras leaves are turning yellow and peachy orange so the nutrients from these plants have begun to return to the root system to winter-over. Now is the time to harvest!
Learning to forage year-round is an all-important survival skill. If we, in a volatile future, have food shortages, rioting, and hunger as Venezuela has had for the past several years where citizens wait in lines for two or three hours just to get a minimum of basic food at an extremely high cost, then being able to harvest edible and medicinal plants might make the difference in how hungry we get.
I know that being able to forage bridged that gulf when my mother was a child in Appalachia, so it surely isn’t inconceivable today. Foraging “smarts” could become a very valuable commodity.
If we learn what plants are available in our individual locales, that’s great… but we must also learn how and when to harvest and ways to prepare the plants so they are not only palatable but delicious.
- If there comes a time when medicines are limited or unavailable what could we do?
- Is our knowledge of local wildcrafting sufficient to help us help our family, neighbors and friends?
Even during the Irish potato famine, there are stories of how foraging added to a below subsistence diet. In the Channel Islands off the coast of England when the Germans occupied the inlands, people used foraging when the going got tough near the end of WWII.
In this autumn article on foraging, we’ll cover 3 wonderful food sources that are available over a fairly wide area of the U.S.
- Hickory nuts (protein)
- Arrowhead plants (vegetable)
Even in the wild, we can enjoy a balanced diet.
1. Pawpaw Shrub/Tree
We love pawpaws! These trees form clonal thickets by sending out suckers. Pruning can keep the suckers under control. Fruit only grows on older growth. Above is a fairly young bush. The larger tree is about 20 yards away but I forgot to photograph a full shot of that one. Pawpaws can be difficult to transplant.
This pawpaw tree is in a friend’s backyard and I was fortunate to be able to pick as many pawpaws as I wanted from the larger tree. This is a late spring photo. The pawpaw tree is native to the Southeast and attracts pollinators including beetles and flies. Their wide native habitat covers 26 U.S. states in varying planting zones.
Never eaten a pawpaw? You’re not alone!
I doubt if anyone has seen pawpaws in grocery markets and there’s a good reason. There are some things about this absolutely delicious fruit that turn merchants off. They bruise easily and when they begin to rot they have an unpleasant smell. They transport badly so grocery stores don’t want bruised, off-putting fruit in their produce isles I guess. Can’t say that I blame them.
I think the reason this lovely fruit has become faded in our food consciousness is because of the rise of huge industrial food chains, heavily processed preserved foods and the reliance on others to grow our food. We just don’t eat the way we used to eat.
Restaurants and fast-food places are always packed with diners. Even the grocery markets cater to fast food at-home cooking with pre-chopped veggies, microwave pop-ins and I have even seen hard boiled eggs in the store. I’m not judging here, just stating why I think fewer people are familiar with wild foods.
As a population, we’ve generally decreased our closeness to the land. There are fewer family garden plots and even fewer foragers who actually forage regularly and year round, although I think there is hope because in the past 8-10 years I have noticed an increasing interest in cleaner more natural whole foods, farmer’s markets and co-ops.
Now when I give weed walks more and more people are interested. So the point is since pawpaws don’t lend themselves to the supermarket scene, they have just become lost and forgotten over time.
Pawpaw’s are regaining a larger following each year. One might even say they are “trending”.
If you get the opportunity, I’d suggest attending a Pawpaw Festival! They are popping up quicker than prairie dogs. It seems more and more states are having them as an annual event. You will meet wonderful people and get to taste something delicious.
You’ll have a good time and will come home with a new appreciation of all things pawpaw! I know there are festivals in Ohio, North Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware and Maryland. You can check for them in your state.
The pawpaw was an important fruit to many Native American groups. The Iroquois are noted as having dried pawpaw’s and cooked them as an ingredient in corn cakes, which is quite interesting, because corn is low in niacin and pawpaw is high in this nutrient. It’s also high in antioxidants.
They are high in vitamins A and C and potassium. These old folkways develop for a reason, and when researched we can often verify the wisdom in them. To the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina pawpaws were an important food source.
We still have some acreage in North Carolina where my mother was born, (down south it’s called “the old home place”) where pawpaw trees grow along the creek bank. They were an important part of her family’s autumn diet and probably the only “sweet” they got as children.
So if you don’t want to miss out on this unusual but yummy fruit, start foraging or look online for sources to buy a sapling or two. They produce a pretty deep red flower. If you study them and decide this is something you’d like to have in your living foraging food storage then make sure you purchase two trees for pollination or buy a grafted tree.
Planting any fruit tree, herb, or weed on your property or a friend’s land nearby (with permission) would be a good strategy for “live” food storage.
The pawpaw is deer resistant and here in the northeast that is a very good thing. They are heat and humidity tolerant as well. They grow in sun or shade and thrive in most soils making them easy to grow. They love growing near rivers and streams but not exclusively. I guess the only soil that could be a challenge for them is clay.
Cultivated pawpaws grow much larger than these. I saw some at a local pawpaw festival a couple of weeks ago that weighted about a pound each. These wild ones generally weight about 5 ounces. The skin is smooth and isn’t very good to eat, although I know some people who do. These will be ripe in a few weeks.
If you are relying on these as part of your survival diet you might want to know that there are about 110 calories in 5 ounces and about 2.5 grams of protein and fat. There are about 20 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber. So they are pretty substantial in the nutrient department. Plus they taste good.
I have heard people say they taste like a cross between and banana and a pineapple or papaya. They remind me more of a cross between a banana and a mango. The texture is smooth like custard. Some people even call it custard fruit. Pawpaw ice cream is luscious. Even as a fruit spread on toast in the morning is satisfying and tasty. It makes a naturally sweet jam or jelly.
Be aware that in some circles the papaya fruit is called a pawpaw. These are two completely different fruits. To me a pawpaw is a pawpaw and is native to the U.S. A papaya is a papaya and is native to southern Mexico and Central America. They look and taste completely different. But just in case you are chatting with someone about a pawpaw, make sure you are on the same page.
It’s easy to tell the difference between this and a native pawpaw as you will see as you read on.
These are small pawpaw “pick-ups” and some of them need to be used quickly because they can become overripe quickly. The skin has a mat finish and pawpaws are distinctly oval. The skins are thin and can be peeled easily with fingers or slipped off with a paring knife, revealing a beautiful yellow creamy pulp and 6-8 large lima bean sized seeds.
This pawpaw is a tad overripe but still quite tasty. Note the large black seeds and creamy texture. I’ll put this one and a couple more in a green/fruit smoothie. Superb! They have a pleasant taste, characteristic of sugar or honey, but not oversweet.
I hope you find the opportunity to experience the luscious pawpaw fruit.
2. Hickory Nuts
This year they are super abundant. When the wind blows, so many nuts fall on the back deck that it sounds like a machine gun! You really must run for cover. The hens run and hide when the wind picks up.
Hickory nuts are high in the B vitamin thiamine, which helps to maintain the heart, nervous system and muscles. They are a great source of protein and good fats that help reduce the risk of heart disease.
The bark identifies this as a Shagbark Hickory tree. It is gray and separates into long, thin shaggy plates that hang loosely, with the ends curving slightly away from the trunk. My husband estimated that this one in our back yard is about 80-90 feet tall and the top spread is about 40-45 feet.
It makes a mess with all of the nuts on the ground like ball-bearings but we are thankful for the bounty. Shagbark and shellbark hickory, along with pecan, are regarded by some as the finest nut trees.
Not only do hickory trees provide a healthy food source but the hickory wood has a broad range of uses.
A bark extract from shagbark hickory is also used in an edible syrup similar to maple syrup, with a slightly bitter, smoky taste. We’ve all heard of hickory smoked hams and bacon. Smoking with hickory wood goes back for centuries and is still used today.
Traditionally, hickory has been used for objects that require strength and must take abuse–tool and implement handles, ladder rungs, and wagon wheels. Dave and I were at an old farmhouse auction last year and saw an absolutely beautiful pitchfork in perfect condition with a hickory handle very much like the one on the left in the image below. It went for $15.00 and will probably last another 75 years! Someone had already purchased it.
As far as sports equipment, hickory became hockey sticks, tennis rackets, bows, golf club shafts, skis, and even fishing rods. Man-made materials have replaced hickory in many of these products today, but the wood still lends itself to chairs, rockers, stools, and tables–and any project requiring bent wood.
Hickory Leaflets: 3-5. The upper three leaflets are quite a bit larger than the lower two. They are pointed at the tip and the margins are not toothed as is the Shagbark hickory. The leaves can get to be 12 to 14 inches long.
I picked these off of the ground because the branches start at about 20 feet. In the late fall the leaves are a bright yellow and when the sun shines through them, they appear almost iridescent. When you go foraging for trees make sure to take a good regional identification book along. If you find a Shagbark Hickory, mark the location in your forging journal and return in early to mid-October to reap the nut harvest.
When the nuts fall from the tree they are ripe. The thick, dark outer shell is loose and frequently comes off completely or at least partially when it hits the ground. The outer shell has four lobes. If you look closely you can spot that outer shell. Here you can see that we have hickory nuts in abundance this year. No going bare foot now. This concentration is spread over 60-70 square feet, which includes our back decks.
This is almost 10 pounds of hickory nuts. I placed the banana there for size perspective. Nuts are so prolific this season that I picked these up in less than 15 minutes and I wasn’t in a hurry. Hickory nuts have a unique flavor that should at least be sampled if you have the chance.
Their inner shells are very hard and usually can’t be cracked with a regular nutcracker or even one of the rocket type screw nutcrackers. We use a hammer and a rock as we do with black walnuts whose shells are equally as hard. I’ve heard people say they just run over them with a truck but we’ve not found that helpful.
True, it is tedious work to extract the nutmeats but I just take my time, sometimes working for only 20 minutes then coming back later. Call me crazy, but to me it’s relaxing to do while listening to a CD or book on tape, or just thinking. Engage your family. Promote conversation.
At this point, if needed, you can crack them a little more to get to the nutmeats better. Using a nut pick makes things easier. It’s an activity that can be shared by someone with limited mobility or with a school aged child.
This year I have found very few nuts with holes bored into them which indicate a fat larva inside. There were few rotten nuts either. Last year about every fourth nut was blackened inside and nuts were small. This is a bonanza year in size, abundance and perfect nutmeats ! Note the thickness of the inner shell.
Adding nuts to your survival diet adds needed fat and calories. In stressful conditions caloric needs may increase, so it’s imperative that we understand which plants provide adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, calories and fats. If we are in a position to hunt or fish for our protein, fat, and calories, that makes it easier to fulfill those requirements.
However that isn’t always the case, so nuts are one of those wild foods that, while it may be time consuming to extract the nutmeat, contain nutrients which sustain us over a longer period.
When I was a child, we cracked hickory and black walnuts every winter, usually in the evening on the hearth of the fireplace we built as a family from river stones we collected. Over time, we accumulated enough nuts to fill a half gallon jar, then when Christmas came we had enough nutmeats for cookies, fudge and cakes for ourselves and to give away to friends. It was a special time and all my siblings remember it with fondness.
Okay, enough reminiscing.
I don’t have the original recipe we used for Hickory Nut Shortbread but the one below is very close. There is really nothing like them. You can substitute pecans…if you must. This dough can made several months ahead, wrapped, frozen then thawed, sliced and baked later.
I think it would be a good exercise to experiment with baking them in our Sun Oven in the winter. The Sun Oven would only need to reach a temperature of 325° so I think it would work with ease.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming so here is delicious cookie recipe for you.
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/4 teaspoon zest from 1 orange (optional)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups (about 10 ounces) all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup (about 2 1/2 ounces) sifted confectioner’s sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup roughly and finely chopped wild hickory nuts (or pecans if you don’t have hickory nuts)
Here are the directions:
- Cream butter in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment at medium-low speed. Alternatively, beat with a wooden spoon in a bowl until creamy and aerated.
- Add the orange zest and salt.
- Next, add sugar and flour, stirring until just combined. Finally, stir in the nuts. The dough should hold together but still be dry.
- Form the cookie dough into 2- by 12-inch log and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or parchment paper. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
- When ready to bake, adjust oven racks to upper and lower middle positions and preheat oven to 325ºF and line two baking sheets with parchment paper
- Slice the cookie dough into 1/4-inch slices. Arrange on cookie sheets leaving 1-inch between cookies.
- Bake until the edges are light golden brown, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom halfway through, 10 to 12 minutes total.
- Let cool slightly and serve.
Fully cooled cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
3. Arrowhead Plant
Arrowhead, otherwise known as duck potato, katniss, swan potato, tule potato, and wapato. There are many varieties of this useful plant. You may recognize the leaf shape because some varieties are used as house plants.
Native Americans called these potato-like roots wapato.
Arrowhead plants grow in shallow water habitats, such as swamps, marshes, meandering rivers, pond edges, and streams throughout most of the southern half of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. They are especially prolific this year and so I am looking forward to collecting from the areas I have already scouted out. They will be ready shortly.
For many native tribes arrowhead tubers were highly valued food sources. Native North Americans consumed them raw, boiled, dried, baked, roasted, mashed, ground into flour, or candied with maple sugar. “The Cheyenne are also known to have gathered the plant stocks below the flower, peeled them and ate them raw” (Moerman 1998: 500). Nice to know that another part of this plant can provide sustenance.
I have only eaten them parboil, then sliced about 1/8” think and fried in coconut oil. They are better than potatoes! A dash of salt and pepper and they are, as my paternal grandfather said, “nectar for the gods.” He was quite dramatic about wild foods.
A number of tribes are known to have used the arrowhead plant for medicinal purposes. The Navajo used them to treat headaches. I have read that other tribes used them as a remedy for indigestion and tuberculosis. It makes me wonder what would be discovered if modern medical science conducted trials on the efficacy of more plants, based on what indigenous tribes used them for.
Be sure to only eat from arrowhead plants growing in unpolluted waters. To gather the tubers, use your hands or feet to follow the rhizomes that extend out from the center of the plant’s roots in the mud and water.
They may be as much as three feet away from the plant’s stem. Remove the tuber growing at the end of each rhizome. Scrub the tubers clean and then boil them in salted water for 15 minutes. Though the skin of arrowhead tubers is edible, I think they are tastier when peeled.
The best times for collecting tubers is in fall or early spring. Tubers are high in starch and phosphorous. Wait until the leaves are brown to harvest the tubers. This assures that the nutrients are back in the root and not being used for leaf food.
When you are identifying the arrowhead… and there are about 30 edible types, look at the leave shape. Make sure the “V” at the leaf base is deeply indented. Also, if you look closely, even on this dying leaf the ribs resemble a spider’s legs. You’ll be able to see it better in the stock photo below.
There are some look-a-like aquatic plants which resemble an arrowhead, so take precautions and take a good field guide manual along and/or a person who has foraged them before and is knowledgeable. These plants are worth the work to harvest in cold, muddy water. They are an excellent high energy survival food.
Every 100 g of fresh arrowhead tubers contains: 103 kcal food energy, 4.7 g protein, 0.2 g fat, 20 g total carbohydrate, 0.8 g crude fiber, 1.60 mg thiamine, 0.25 mg riboflavin, 1.4 mg niacin, 5.0 mg vitamin C, 1.5 mg ash, 12 mg calcium, 165 mg phosphorus, 22 mg sodium, 922 mg potassium, 51 mg magnesium, 0.7 mg zinc, and 6.6 mg iron (Marles et al. 2000: 273).
You can peel these with the back of a spoon like you peel fresh ginger root.
I took this photo about 30 yards from the free flowing icy spring where we collect clear, clean drinking water about once a week. The soil these plants are growing in is a watery thick mud and the day I took this picture the water was very cold even though the air temp was in the 70’s.
These arrowheads are on the farm of a dear elderly couple who live alone. He is a 93 year old WWII Navy vet who served on a battleship. His lovely wife is 89 and is very knowledgeable about all things natural… and they both have sharp minds! Another advantage of foraging is meeting so many wonderful folks and having the opportunity to learn from them. Recently I took my home schooled grandson to visit them and oh the stories this man had to share!
Arrowheads are harvested when the upper part of the plant dies off. These will be ready within the week I think. You can collect in the early spring but I would rather do it in the fall for several reasons. First, they are harder to find in the early spring, even if you have already pre-located the general area where they grow and second, there is already so much to forage in the spring that I may not get to yet another plant. It just seems right to me to collect tubers and root vegetables in the fall.
Wear boots and old clothes because this is a messy, cold process. It crossed my mind to attempt to collect the tubers as the American Indians did….by feeling around with bare toes. But I want to live to enjoy the bounty! Using my hands (and arms) to find and collect the arrowhead plant is about all I can take! It’s good to have a bucket of water (warm if possible) in which to rinse off immediately.
Make sure to leave about 65-75% of the plants untouched in order to maintain a good supply for the next year and others who might come along.
If you want to learn more about the Arrowhead plant here is an excellent book: Edible wild plants of Pennsylvania and neighboring states University Park [Pa.]: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Moerman, Daniel E.
These are only three of the many thousands of edible and medicinal wild plants on this earth. Once you have hunted, found, harvested, prepared and eaten a wild edible plant that you have been searching for, you may want to do it again and again until, faster than you might think, you have developed a survival skill that many of our ancestors took as a way of life. Some of them truly did live off the land for periods of their lives.
If in the past you have had an experience in foraging, I encourage you to take it up again. If you have never made the attempt you might want to try it. Maybe ask a friend or relative to join you.
Remember Venezuela and other areas around the world that have food shortages and famine. It is real. Here in North America, we live in abundance and plenty. That’s a perfect time to prepare for times of scarcity.
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