poetry and prose about place

growing and gathering – barriers to eating wild foods

with 10 comments

One of the themes in the poems I have written for my manuscript on ‘growing and gathering’ local foods concerns the ‘barriers’ to eating local foods, especially wild local foods.  Edible wild plants are everywhere around us… why don’t people make more use of them?

The barriers to gathering and eating wild foods are:

1. knowledge – although most people can recognise and even name a few plants, only a few can identify and name every plant they see with certainty.  It you eat a plant, you need to know you won’t be the victim of mistaken identity.   Sometimes very closely related plants are quite different when it comes to their edibility.  A simple example is the Tomato:  the species we eat is Solanum lycopersicum Lam.; a plant from the same genus is the poisonous Common Nightshade (Solanum ptychanthum L.).  The fear of mis-identification and poisoning oneself is a barrier to eating local wild plants.  Also, people can vary greatly in their sensitivity.  One person can eat a plant without effect while another cannot because arthritis is aggravated.

berries of Common Nightshade are poisonous… later in the season, they are red and quite beautiful… children should be warned that all red berries are NOT good to eat

2. access – in order to eat wild plants, you have to know where they grow, you have to be able to go there, and you must have access.  Many people live in urban or sub-urban areas where some species of wild plants just aren’t found.  Even if you have transportation or live in a rural area, access may be a problem.  There may be a lush field of raspberries just up the road, but if there is a locked gate, better get permission!

3. peril – sometimes picking wild plants for food has an unpleasant or dangerous side.  Some plants are poisonous.  Picking berries may mean avoiding sharp thorns!  Sometimes berry picking takes you on a heads-down journey far from the point where you began… you may get lost!  You can look up and not recognise where you are or how to return to your point of origin!

4. contaminants – some locations may not be suitable for collecting and eating wild plants.  For example, plants along busy highways may have high levels of some contaminants.  Berries or other plants growing along the roadside may carry a burden of dust, making them unpalatable.  I wouldn’t make a cup of Sweet Fern tea from the dusty leaves in this photo!

5. convenience – Sometimes gathering or producing wild foods is too demanding of time and energy.  I love collecting maple sap and boiling maple syrup each spring, but it is hard work and takes days to accomplish.  Sometimes you know there is a patch of berries just down the road, but other demands on time take precedence.

6. competition – Wild animals also like edible wild plants.  You may run into a bear while picking berries, or face a moral dilemma when you realise you are keeping the squirrels from a food source!  My garden is always under attack and the battle often seems to outweigh the benefits of having a garden.  This year the enemies are slugs, bunny rabbits and shadows (too much shade).

7. complacency – Sometimes I think, most of the barriers I’ve listed above could be overcome.  But a barrier not so easy to negotiate is one of separation from nature and the associated complacency.  It has become normal not to seek our food in the natural spaces around us.  We go to the grocery store, pick up what we need, and take the easiest route in our exhausted lives.  Even gardens are not as common as they once were.  In my mother’s generation, gardens were the norm.  This partly came from long traditions of growing food, but also from the concept of the ‘Victory Garden’, begun during World War II in order to conserve resources and boost morale.

World War II poster promoting the Victory Garden (Source: Wikimedia Commons, original art by Morley)


The only way I know to return to a simpler life is to take small steps and take them often, so they become habit.  Here are some suggestions:

  • visit the Farmers Market in your community, to obtain fresh produce and to know the history of your food;
  • stop at those market stands along the road and buy produce in season.  In our area, vendors sell lobster, smelt, fiddleheads, strawberries and apples this way;
  • if you have an apple tree in your yard, or wild raspberries in a field nearby, pick them and enjoy;
  • if your apple tree needs pruning and some TLC, talk to a knowledgable person and find out how to return it to production;
  • dig the fishing tackle from the garage and take the kids fishing;
  • grow a pot of fresh herbs on your back deck;
  • learn about one wild plant, find a place where it grows, be certain of the identification, and use it!   Then find another!
1. never eat any plant if you are not absolutely certain of the identification;
2. never eat any plant if you have personal sensitivities, including allergies, to certain plants or their derivatives;
3. never eat any plant unless you have checked several sources to verify the edibility of the plant.

Written by jane tims

July 16, 2012 at 8:23 am

10 Responses

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  1. I eat the wild berries (blackberries and raspberries) that grow on our property (IF I can get to them before the other residents — birds, etc.), and have tried dandelion and plantain leaves, but the lack of knowledge (fear) is what keeps me from consuming other wild edibles.

    I am really enjoying your series, Jane. The suggestions at the end are great. 🙂



    July 20, 2012 at 8:01 am

    • Hi Robin. Thanks for your input. You have such a good eye, I know you would be good at plant identification. Just from your photos, I can tell you have quite a bit of knowledge. However, being certain is the best policy when it comes to eating wild plants. Jane


      jane tims

      July 20, 2012 at 8:10 am

  2. I do eat some wild foods but don’t get that much opportunity to collect – those I have eaten are berries – blackberries and whinberries, samphire, elderflowers (cordial), cob nuts and some leaves! Maybe more too that I have forgotten about. I have Richard Mabey’s book Food for Free from many years ago which is a classic, but I’m sure there is scope for something new! Love that poster by the way.



    July 18, 2012 at 5:46 am

    • Hi. Thanks! Now I am not familiar with whinberry… I am going to look it up! The poster is great, I agree… bright color and drawn so long ago. Jane


      jane tims

      July 18, 2012 at 6:34 am

  3. Well, in this heat I can’t leave my a/c… (my impaired breathing) … so health and strength have one set of limitations, as well as the encoaching cityscape on our town…. but I do love to explore the small spaces I find and reading blogs like yours help me in identification and understanding what is edible. By the way, you can upset more than your arthritis… many foods make me quite ill….and they are not wild at all… you can buy them in the supermarket. So what you buy in the supermarket is not always the best for your health either!



    July 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    • Hi. You are so correct! We assume that just because it is sold, it is good for you. A friend of mine tells me that if I kept tomatos and potatos out of my diet, my ailments would improve. I do know that many foods cause my migraines. I am glad you don’t let your health problems prevent you from enjoying nature. Jane


      jane tims

      July 18, 2012 at 6:32 am

  4. Hi Jane. This post is a really important addition to your impressive catalogue of individual edible (and edible-ish) plants. Well done. I love the category called Peril! I think all your suggestions at the end are excellent. Bravo.


    Jane Fritz

    July 17, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    • Hi. As I think about the topic, I look at the poems in that category as a group and decide what gaps exist. I now have a poem on getting lost while picking berries and a couple of others. I soon have to stop writing and start revising. Argggh! Jane


      jane tims

      July 17, 2012 at 11:16 pm

  5. Your suggestions are great. My biggest barrier is lack of knowledge. Perhaps your upcoming book will help.


    Carol Steel

    July 16, 2012 at 11:43 am

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