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Foraging 101: Uses for Plants Found in Nature

Did you know that during the Great Depression many poorer families turned to foraging when they couldn't afford food? That’s right, they went to the original one-stop-shop, Mother Nature!  This blog will review a few common plants that have some interesting uses.

Before we get into the plants themselves, I'd like to go over some things to keep in mind when foraging that concern your safety and being respectful, as well as sustainable! Foraging and plant identification can be highly dense topics, so this will mostly be an overview of the foraging aspect. If you are interested, I highly suggest some research beforehand. Always check ahead of time that the area you are foraging in will be safe and legal for you to enter (Some areas may be public but require a permit for this specific use). Many pesticides and herbicides are dangerous to human health, so know before you go! Additionally, near roads plants can be contaminated with runoff, so you shouldn’t forage less than 75 ft. of open space away from a road in an area that is level to or downslope of a road. Try to avoid areas that may be exposed to animal waste such as areas directly touching trails, or popular community parks. You should always be 100% positive of your plant identification; if you aren’t sure, don’t eat it. Take many pictures from different angles to identify the plant later. Then, note the type of environment you found it in and cross Reference your results to double check; Apps like iNaturalist and Plantsnap aren’t 100% accurate, but they are helpful to get a general idea. A good rule of thumb is to verify the plant species with at least 3 different sources.


On the matter of sustainability and respect for nature, it is important to be cognizant of how much you are taking. You should only take up to one third of what you are harvesting (plant, roots, leaves, berries, etc). ⅓ is left for the wildlife, and ⅓ is left for the plant’s or the population's continued survival. Please take only what you need and don’t take more than what you can use. Be careful and as precise as possible (especially in wild areas), be aware of what’s around you and try not to disturb what you aren’t harvesting, including other plants and their roots. Be sure to gather only a small amount at first, so you can cook it and try it to make sure it is appealing to you. If you plan on eating it raw, soak your harvest in a solution of 1 part white vinegar to 3 parts water for 10 minutes to get rid of bacteria, then rinse in cold water. For dandelions this may affect taste, so you can also do a cold water soak for 5-10 min, agitate, and then rinse.


Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

First up, dandelions! These wildly unpopular plants are actually edible and medicinal. The leaves, roots, and flowers of the plant are edible, and have a variety of benefits people have been taking advantage of for centuries. Dandelions may improve gut health, help manage blood sugar levels, boost your immune system, and fight inflammation. They are also highly nutritious (high in vitamins C, A, and K) and high in antioxidants (beta-carotene and polyphenols). When harvesting leaves you should look for the young ones (the smaller topmost layer of leaves) in early spring or young plants with no flower stalk, pick from those growing in shade for most tender leaves, and when removing the leaves you can either hand pick or use small clipping shears. When harvesting flowers, forage in mid spring to summer, and make sure to pick those that are visibly clean, as they can be hard to wash. When harvesting roots, forage in the spring before the flowers have bloomed for a tastier root. You may need a trowel or a dandelion picker to dig it up, and make sure to scrub it free of dirt in the sink without soap. Dandelion root tea can be helpful for digestion and improved mineral absorption. Dandelion greens can be cooked and used like spinach, as it has a similar flavor. You can also put greens and flowers in salads or sandwiches. The flowers and dried roots can also be dried and used as a tea. There are a plethora of ways to prepare them, the only limit is your imagination!


Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)

Lambsquarters are another edible and highly nutritious plant whose roots can also be used to make soap! The leaves, stem, flower buds, roots, and fruits/seeds can all be eaten. Some people claim that it tastes better than spinach! The whitish residue on the plant hairs is formed from mineral salts and gives it a mild salty flavor. This is also an indicator of how mineral and vitamin rich lambsquarters are. This plant is a great source of B vitamin complex, vitamin A, and C. It also contains all 20 amino acids! Lambsquarters may promote good circulation and reduce inflammation, especially the leaves. The roots are high in saponin, which upon them being mashed, gives it a soapy feel and can be used as a main ingredient in soap! Tea made from the roots can be used as a natural laxative as well. When foraging for leaves, go in the spring for the new leaves on plants that have yet to flower. You can pinch or clip off the top few inches of the plant for the youngest, most tender leaves. The best time to collect the seeds is in the late summer, and these may require more effort to prepare as you will need to remove the outer layers (husks and chaff) from the seeds. For the roots, time of year does not matter as much, though you will need a trowel or shovel depending on the size of the root you want. 


One thing to note is that dandelions and lambsquarters can be high in oxalic acid. The amount of oxalic acid in lambsquarter plants can vary between individuals, so again, please take just a few leaves to start to make sure it is palatable. If there is a slight burning sensation in your throat or mouth, you may want to choose a different individual and/or younger leaves. If you are at risk of kidney stones or kidney disease or have a specific sensitivity to oxalate, you may want to skip them, or boil them in salted water for 10 min and discard the water. This greatly reduces the oxalate content and they can then be added to pasta and soup like cooked spinach. Also, the younger leaves of lambsquarters will have less oxalate than the older leaves.


Cattails (Typha latifolia & Typha angustifolia)

For this muck loving plant, you may need rubber boots or waders to harvest it, as cattails are a common sight in freshwater wetlands. Both broad-leaf (T. latifolia) and narrow-leaf (T. angustifolia) cattails are edible, and the edible parts of these plants include the young stems, new shoots, young flowers, and pollen. Collect the new leaf shoots in early spring with clippers or shears, they can be eaten like asparagus, but take longer to cook to become tender. Flowers and pollen can be collected in the summer. If collecting both you’ll want to put a paper bag over the (young and still green) flower stalk and hold it shut as you snip the stalk off into the bag to prevent the pollen from escaping. The young female (pistillate) flowers can be boiled (for 15-20 min) on the stalk like corn, and eaten with butter in a similar fashion. The male (staminate) flowers can also be eaten when boiled for 10-15 minutes and some like it best sauteed. The pollen can be mixed in with pancake batter or flour for bread. When harvesting the roots, do so in the fall with a spade shovel or similar. The roots will need to be cleaned thoroughly of muck. They then should be cooked, which you can do in a variety of ways including broiling, baking, and boiling, similar to potatoes. Dried roots can also be used to make flour.


Furthermore, not only are cattails edible they can also be used as survival tools! The brown stalk of seeds (that looks like a hotdog on a stick) is highly compressed, so even when it is raining, it remains dry inside, and you will have usable tinder at hand. Additionally, you can even coat it in oil or similar for a make-shift torch. The long, slender, and flat leaves are also great for basket making, or really anything woven, including chairs and sleeping mats. And the seeds are so fluffy! Who wouldn’t want a pillow stuffed with that? Definitely not me.

Blue Flax

Here’s a little bonus if you’ve stuck with me this long; collecting the dried fallen petals of Blue Flax (Linum lewisii) makes for a beautiful and compostable indigo confetti (or whatever your creative little heart desires). I hope this blog was helpful to start your journey into foraging! 


About the Author

Taylor is a recent graduate of Cal Poly Humboldt with a BS in Environmental Science and Management, with a focus in Ecological Restoration. Originally from Southern California, she is an avid explorer of nature who has traveled around North America from Maine to Mazatlán to the Northern tip of Alaska. One of her biggest inspirations is the wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin, and she is determined to pursue a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle. In her off time you can find her surrounded by her many plants, making DIY fertilizer, and propagating herbs. She also enjoys roller skating, song writing, and making art when she has the time. Taylor is excited to gain experience in the hands-on field work of being a Restoration Technician for a good cause, all while getting to admire the beautiful scenery of Reno!

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