Special Guest Contribution from longtime BackdoorSurvival reader Donna
Have you heard of the great new grocery market where all of the food is fresh, organic and free? This survival food does not come with fancy packaging nor is it advertised in weekly flyers. There is one open very close by your home. This is not a gimmick or a joke. It’s too good to be true you say?
By now you have probably figured it out. This is your “backdoor grocery”, your foraging specialty market and it is packed full of healthy, luscious, tasty food, ripe for the picking, especially at this time of year when you can literally step into the land around your home, whether city, suburb or country and find the makings of a meal. The trick is learning how to shop. In this article we will discover the very basics of how to become a foraging gourmet.
If you put a bit of time and effort into learning this delightful and perhaps live-saving skill you may be surprised at the wide variety of meals you will eventually be able to create or even the foods you will be able to preserve for later use when commercial food may not be as abundant, or shelves may be bare as they are now in Venezuela.
If you are hesitant or afraid, please remember that gaining knowledge and skill takes the fear out of eating from the bounty around us…or for using that bounty as your medicine cabinet.
Let me share with you a little about how I began my wild foods quest quite a few years ago.
When I was a small child my family would take long walks in the woods together at least once a week. I assumed that every mother knew the names of plants and how to use them for food and/or medicine or toothbrushes or fiber. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned that wasn’t so.
My mother, along with her brother, sisters and widowed mother, grew up in the mountains of North Carolina…a tiny place called Wolf Creek in the shadow of Wolf Mountain. The six of them lived in a small log cabin, hand built but sturdy, with a dirt floor and a stone fireplace for heating and cooking. There were no grocery stores nearby. Their mode of transportation was two plough oxen and a wagon. They ate what they could grow in the bottom land and what plants they could forage from the fields and mountains. They ate rabbit, squirrel, deer and an occasional wild turkey and eggs. Foraging was a matter of survival.
One Christmas season mother asked what I wanted for Christmas. I thought about our walks of long-ago and the knowledge that would be lost when she passed. This was my answer to her. “I want you to write down the way you lived as a child and as a youth. I want to know what you ate, what plants you used and how you used them for food or medicine.” That was one of the most cherished gifts I have ever received. I have been building on her hard-earned knowledge ever since that day.
The hard work and wild foods must have been good for my dear mother who is alive and well at age 96! Here she is at her home in Georgia having ice cream and a pedicure!
This is a list of “weeds” that are close to my backdoor. Milkweed, (young pod, bud podagraria (Bishop’s weed or Gout weed) red clover, spiderwort, lemon balm, catnip mint, violets (leaves and flowers) plantain, (leaves, flower spikes, seeds) grapes and grape leaves, dandelion (leaves, flower, stem and root) mullein, mulberry, oaks, sassafras, (root and leaf), burdock, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, chickweed, purslane, cleavers, gill-over-the-ground, (ground ivy), day lily (buds, petals, shoots and tubers), roses, hickory nuts, hosta (young shoots) fiddlehead ferns, lilac, wild garlic, sheep sorrel (yum), maple (seeds, young leaves, sap) huckleberries, wineberries, boneset, smartweed (lady’s thumbprint), sow thistle.
In case you are thinking that there are no free groceries near your backdoor, take a look, you may be surprised. True, if you are a city dweller there may be less of a selection and you may have to go further afield to eat wild. Don’t give up!
If you are in a suburb there are plants you can add to your landscape that no one would ever think of as food. (Take a look at the flowers and trees listed above.) Make your backyard tasty. Don’t use a weed-eater, instead become a weed-eater!
Before we consider specific edible plants here are a few basic rules that absolutely must be followed to give you a safe and productive foraging wild food experience so before we tackle anything else let’s briefly cover these “must” rules.
- You MUST pick only what you’re sure of. Take an experienced forager along. Don’t rely solely on a book or what you read or see in the internet! The internet can be wrong…dead wrong!
- Stay away from fields or area’s that have been sprayed, this includes along well traveled roads where there are many plant temptations. The vehicle exhaust pollutes the plants. Even washing won’t remove all of it. If it is a less travelled back road and the plant is well back from the edge of the road then go for it. Stay away from chemically treated lawns.
- Don’t over harvest. We want the plants to return next year.
- Don’t trespass and absolutely don’t go on federal lands. They’re heavily enforced areas and the fines are large.
- Always ask permission on private property. Most folks are great and will gladly allow you to forage. Once you have established a good relationship with a local farmer or landowner they will probably allow you to return year after year if you are a good steward. Maybe take them a jar of jam and make a friend.
- There are look-alike plants, one edible, one deadly. If in doubt don’t even nibble!
So let’s tackle three of the 30+ edible plants easily harvested just outside my kitchen’s backdoor.
1. Wild Grapes and Grapes Leaves
Of course we want food that will give us the nutrients our bodies need. Grape leaves abound in good things including vitamins A,C,E, K and B6. They also provide calcium, niacin, iron, folate, fiber, calcium, magnesium, copper, maganese and riboflavin…I’ll have a few grape leaves please!
Lest you think grape leaves are dull, bland or otherwise tasteless let’s dispel that idea right away. Have you ever heard of Dolma’s…stuffed grape leaves? If so you know how scrumptious they are. We will even learn how to easily preserve grape leaves for future use. Smaller leaves (shown in photo) can be chopped and added to soups and stews for a tasty vitamin and mineral boost.
The leaf on the left is the size needed to make dolma’s or dolmades…about the size of a man’s fist. The leaves should be free of blemishes or yellowing. They are usually the first larger leaf on the branch with a duller appearance than the ones on the right. The stem is tough to it needs to be clipped off with a pair of kitchen shears. Look closely to notice the area where the stem was attached. Cut that small red tough spot out as well, just a small snip.
Wash the leaves in cool water or spray.
This wild grape vine is just 40’ from my backdoor.
The vine and several others nearby provide enough grape leaves to can for making Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) so that we have enough for the winter. Buying these already canned per jar plus S&H. It takes me a little over an hour to make 4 jars! It’s free healthy food! What could be better?
The new peeps like to hide under this canopy of leaves away from the older hens.
The stem is tough so it needs to be clipped off with a pair of kitchen shears or a hole punch can work if it is sharp. Look closely and notice the area where the stem was attached. Cut that small red tough spot out as well, just a small snip.
Wash the leaves in cool water or spray.
Blanche the grape leaves for 30 seconds in simmering water. Remove from water immediately and plunge into ice water. At this point you can chose to make the stuffed grape leaves or you can proceed to canning them.
Grape leaves in ice water.
Roll 6-7 blanched grape leaves into a cigar shape. The lighting make these grape rolls appear more brown that they actually are. Roll from side to side. Not top to bottom. Do this until you have enough to fill as many jars as you desire. Pack in jars vertically until full. Follow recipe below.
Since grape leaves are not high enough in acid to can safely, be sure to add 1/2 teaspoon Real Lemon to each pint jar or 1 teaspoon citric acid to each qt. of the brine liquid that is poured over the wrapped leaves after they are packed in jars. Don’t use lemon juice straight from the lemon. It isn’t uniform in acidity.
Grape Leaf Canning Recipe (Recipe Source: Food.com)
Yield: 3 quarts or 6 pints
Pick grape leaves that are young, tender, and light green in color.
- Cut off stems and wash in cold water.
- In a large pot (6 quart or larger) bring water to a boil.
- Drop in leaves 12 at a time.
- Cook for 30 seconds, remove and plunge in ice cold water.
- Pat dry and stack 6 in each pile.
- Roll stack and tie with string.
- Bring the 1 quart water to a full rolling boil with the salt.
- Boil 5 minutes.
- Pack rolls of leaves in sterile, hot quart jars. (About 6 rolls per jar-and I remove the string)
- Pour hot brine over leaves, removing bubbles and leaving 1/8 inch head space.
- Seal and process in a boiling water bath 15 minutes at altitudes up to 1000 feet sea level.
- To use open jar, remove rolls needed, rinse leaves in cold water and use.
- Store remaining leaves with their brine in the fridge.
Sorry, we ate the dolmades before I remembered I needed to take a photo…so I guess you’ll have to try them yourself.
Dolmades can be vegetarian, rice based or made with various meats mixed with feta as the filling. Ground lamb with foraged mint is over-the- moon good! With herbed sour cream and cucumber topping they are heavenly.
Recipe for Dolmades – this is one of many available on the Internet!
Four jars ready for next winter. That’s 144 Dolmade’s!
Immature Fox or Wild Grapes
When these ripen they make a sour juice or they can be made into jelly (with loads of sweetener) if that is something you want in your food storage. However be aware that male vines produce tiny seeds that don’t mature. Don’t ever expect wild grapes to grow to the size of the ones in stores. Those are hybridized to grow larger. I think the huge store bought grapes are often bland. Like those pithy strawberries that are so large they take 3 bites to consume – relatively tasteless. In my opinion the smaller homegrown berries seem to have a sweeter more concentrated flavor.
Grapes contain resveratrol, antioxidants and the wild grape also has potassium, vitamins B1, B6, and C. Using the grape skin provides the richest concentration of antioxidants. If you can glean old cultivated arbor grapes from friend’s who don’t use them they are usually more abundant and sweeter than wild grapes. Don’t be afraid to ask. Grape juice is so easy to make and can. I was able to glean enough grapes last year to can 30 quarts. When Christmas rolls around and the weather is frosty those rows of Mason jars filled with ambrosial flavor are a welcome treat.
There are some negatives to consider before putting time and effort into wild grapes. As these wild grapes mature the bee’s are everywhere. So if you are allergic to bee’s take special caution. There are also an abundance of spider’s competing for these succulent little morsels. If the weather is dry it is easy for these small grapes to wither on the vine. Each vine seems to be different. If you forage a juicy grapevine mark it in your foraging journal which is a must if you are going to be a bountiful forager. Keep good records of what, when, where along with the phone number, if you need one, of the person who allowed you to forage on their land. Often you can forage the same plant at various times of the year. ie: Spring: shoots and leaves; Summer: fruit and berries; Fall: fruit, seeds and roots; Winter is always a surprise!
2. Common Mullein
This is a first year biannual mullein plant.
It’s low to the ground and the center is a basal rosette. The leaves of the mullein plant are very soft and furry. Perhaps that is why one of the names for this in the western U.S. is “cowboy toilet paper”.
Second Year Common Mullein
The plant in this photo does not yet have the spike with yellow flower.
It will be shooting very shortly, in fact if you look closely you can see the spike head peeping out almost ready to bolt.
Here is a photo (not one I took) showing a few yellow flowers popping out. It takes a few days for all of them to appear on the spike head.
The second year plant is very recognizable with it’s tall central spike with tiny yellow flowers at the top. As I said it’s a bit too early in the year for this mullein plant to have spiked so I don’t have a photo of the flowers. The plant with spike can be up to 6 feet high but I imagine that you are already familiar with it’s distinctive appearance. And have seen it along the roadside and in fields.
I keep a half gallon in the fridge for my husband and I sometimes sip on a small glass of cold mullein tea throughout the day. It’s taste to me is grass-like. Not unpleasant but not tasty either.
Can be sipped hot or cold.
On the right in glass ½ gallon jar is what is left from last years foraging. You can see that it is a little darker than the first collection Spring 2017 bag on the left. Both are still good.
I remember one late evening about three years ago two coughing friends called separately and asked if I had any of the “good stuff for coughs” that I’d given them last year. They both came right over for a cup of strong mullein tea and a bag to take home.
The mullein plant grows in disturbed soils and in fields. The first year plants often over winter and you can find them even under the snow. Look for a dead tall second year plant and the first year plant won’t be far away. There is a field near me that is owned by an Amish friend and there must be 50-60 plants there. The cows don’t bother them and the field isn’t sprayed so this has become a wonderful resource for my foraging of common mullein and it makes it especially easy to gather the flowers when there are many plants together.
Mullein is one of my favorite herbal remedies because of it’s variety medicinal uses. My husband and one of our daughters are prone to ear infections so an infusion of mullein is something we have on-hand to relive this painful condition.
Let me share a personal experience in using this infusion.
When I apply the oil infusion the patient (my husband or daughter) is positioned on their unaffected side and made comfortable. I barely warm the oil and test it on my wrist as if testing the temperature of a baby’s bottle. I apply 1-2 drops into the ear canal while holding the outer rim of the ear to widen the canal and allow the oil to slowly drain down into the ear. After the oil is applied I sometimes I cover the ear with a warm washcloth, just because it is soothing. I have found that my husband and daughter would doze off after this treatment. Both have had amazing results and I’ve never had to apply the drops a second time. For us it was wonderful to stay home and not have to go traipsing off to the doctor while in such discomfort and usually in winter weather. It has worked for us every time and there are none of the digestive side effects of taking an antibiotic.
This is the way I make the infusion:
Pick about 1 to 1 ¼ cup of the yellow flowers.They are tiny so this takes some time. You will need to use 4-7 spikes depending on the number of flowers available per spike. I use a pint jar and fill ¾ full.
Spread out the flowers on a flat surface or a screen to increase air circulation for a few hours allowing then to dry out a little. Put the flowers back into the pint jar and fill to the top with a good oil like organic EV olive oil, almond or grapeseed oil. Place the lid on tightly. I use those white plastic one piece lids rather than the canning jar 2 piece metal lids but that’s just my preference.
On the second day the oil may have settled into the airspaces between the flowers and so the jar may need to be topped off with a bit more oil. After that, leave the filled jar in a sunny window or outside in the sun for 6-8 weeks to allow for the infusion of the medicinal properties of the flowers to release into the oil. Oh yes, I also add a whole bulb of peeled garlic or 5-6 bulbs of wild garlic because they are antiviral as well as antibiotic.
We also use mullein as a strong tea for dry cough’s which for some reason this year have been rampant in our little community, sometimes lasting for 3-4 weeks. You may have experienced this yourself and know how it just wears you out after a few days/weeks with little sleep. Mullein acts as an expectorant to loosen the phelgm in the bronchioles and lungs and allows the cough to be effective in expelling that phelgm. Once that process of a really productive cough starts and the lungs are clearing you can get more sleep and the body begins it’s repair. A secondary effect of using a mullein tea is that it soothes the bladder and urinary system…a great thing when you’ve been plaqued with a dry hacking cough for an extended period…if you know what I mean!
The wonderful healing properties of mullein could fill a book. It has been studied scientifically and many of the “folk uses” of this valuable herb have been confirmed. Not that I need that confirmation when I know from experience how beneficial it is for our family and over a long period of time…actually for generations in my family. It is anti-inflamatory, pain relieving, the root is wound healing, it’s an antispasmotic, is used on skin rashes, cold sores, hemorroids, arthritic joints, swollen prostate, also found to be “antitumor and antifungal” by the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland. This is one of my all time favorite herbs for it’s safety and broad coverage of medical conditions. It is also readily available and grows prolifically.
Think for a minute about survival and what this herb and others could mean to you and your loved ones if medical help was unavailable. Antiviral, antibiotic and analgesic!
My hope is that you will be inspired to at least get a book out of the library about foraging, search through the many useful articles on this subject at backdoorsurvival.com and learn how to increase your knowledge a little (or a lot) each day. Set a goal to become more self-reliant in food and medicine. Learn what is available just outside your backdoor and set out to incorporate that knowledge into your everyday life so that if it becomes a necessity you are already prepared help yourself and others.
One last weed. So many from which to choose! Okay, let’s do Podagraria otherwise known as Gout Weed or Bishop’s Weed. Maybe you are thinking that you have never heard of this but you may recognise this a a border or ground plant you saw at the local nursery.
Here are two types. The solid and the variegated variety.
Podagraria, Bishop’s Weed, Gout Weed or Ground Elder
This delicate plant actually came to me. There was no searching or foraging at all. About 20 years ago we had a serpentine brick walled flower garden built at the front of our house. We filled it with wonderfully fertile soil but it was too late in the year to plant.
The next Spring we were too involved with 4-H and homeschool to make the time to fill that lovely garden area. But we did notice that little plants (weeds we thought) were quickly sprouting up and within the week the entire garden was purple with violets, which are completely edible and something else we didn’t recognise, of course it was this beautiful hardy Podagraria.
I went right to my herbal, wild foods books and finally found that this is a plant of ancient origin.
It was said to be used by kings and appparently bishops during medieval times because their rich diets caused gout, a kind of inflammatory arthritis usually in the big toe, which can be quite painful. The gout weed alleviated their pain. (I put this claim to the test…more later on that.) This has come to be one of my favorite vegetables. It is used exactly the way you use spinach. Using it saves a ton of money from early April through late June or early July. It loves partial shade and along about mid summer the entire patch of podagraria implodes. So use it while it is abundant.
I make podagraria quiches when the hens are at their busiest and I have lots of extra eggs. I pop them into the freezer (the quiches, not the hens) and months later they can be thawed and steamed in individual slices. I am not a fan of the microwave as they make the quiches (and many other things) rubbery and tough.
Raw Ingredients of the Quiche – Eggs and Goutweed
This plant has become more popular and can be purchased at nurseries. I have only seen the varigated variety there. So although this veggie garden is out in the open for all to see on one knows that everything in it is edible. We call it our secret garden! For the past two years we have planted sweet potatoes as a second crop but success had been limited. I think they need more hours of sun. Not sure what we will do this year with that fertile spot. Any suggestions?
So I had the opportunity to test the claim that this plant was effective in relieving gout pain.
One day while visiting a neighbor I noticed she was limping and there was a cane by her backdoor. She was quick to lament the suffering and pain of gout that plagued her and limited her mobility. The medication the doctor had prescribed was causing digestive issues and so far had not been effective.
Okay, so here was an opportunity to put goutweed to the real test! (Metaphorically I was rubbing my hands together!) Would this spinach-like, lovely-to-look-at vegetable be helpful in reliving her pain as the name implied?
That was my hypothesis.
I hurried right home and picked a grocery bag full then returned and told her how to prepare it and instructed her to eat a huge serving 3 times a day. I waited 2 days then visited her again to check for improvement.
When I entered her home she had a big smile on her face and the cane was no where in sight. She was one happy lady. The next spring she again experienced gout, again another big bag of goutweed with the same success!
Another weed to add to the healing and helping arsenal. One more tasty plant to add to food storage. One more plant to rely on to feed my family if needed.
One more step towards self-reliance. That’s the way it happens. One new discovery at a time.
There is a satisfaction that comes as we increase our knowledge of the natural world around us. I hope this little peek into what might be just outside your backdoor will inspire action.
No matter what comes in the future we will be better off if we have made plans today and have learned survival skills, not just learned them but practice them and share them with others.
Discovering what is in the bountiful treasure chest of the earth is an exciting thing. There is something new to learn no matter how long or briefly you have been discovering. Happy foraging.
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