Before agriculture emerged, hunter-gatherers ruled the world. That foraging instinct is kicking in again with the modern-day push toward sustainability inviting us back to nature to love our yard enemies.“Weeds are just a term for plants that people don’t want where they are,” says Constance Ferry, a teacher and master gardener of organic herbs. “Foraging is seeing that all plants are useful.” Instead of cursing the curly dock in your sidewalk cracks, pull it up and use its tender leaves in a salad. Foraging can help you remove those unsightly plants and put them to good use, too.
Ferry lives on 27.5 hilly acres in Hendricks County and has been foraging on her farm, Hobbitt Gardens Erth Gathering Center, for two decades. While she can traipse through woods, ravines, and pastures looking for garlic mustard greens, city folk and suburbanites have to be more discerning.
Fertilizers from a neighbor’s lawn or hard metals and chemical runoff from farmland can taint found foods. Foraging is best practiced along the far edges of kempt neighborhoods, where the ground is tangled and the landscape is in transition.
Once your hunting ground has been mapped out, determine what is edible and what isn’t. Ferry can’t think of any weed around Central Indiana that just a little nibble of would prove to be lethal, but she also recommends reading up on the early Native American diet or Stalking the Wild Asparagus by wild foods sage Euell Gibbons. (There you will find out about Queen Anne’s lace, the common wildflower and precursor to our modern carrot, the medicinal value of juniper, and the proper way to harvest ginseng.)
For the foraging greenhorn, dandelions are a delicious gateway plant. Bob Sander, a professional storyteller who forages near his home in Rocky Ripple, is a fan of the ubiquitous flowers. “We don’t try to get rid of them. We just eat them,” he says. The dandelions’ deeply toothed leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals, and they are easy to find. Harvest them early to get the most tender leaves for spring salads. Oyster mushrooms can be found pretty reliably in Indianapolis’ city parks, Sanders says, though he won’t reveal exactly where. And a Kentucky coffee tree in Holliday Park drops pods whose seeds can be dried in an oven at a very low temperature and ground to make a caffeine-free chicory-like coffee.
Complementing the culinary rewards of foraging is a spiritual one. Sanders says the allure of hunting morels in early spring is strong. “If hunting is an ancient human activity, gathering has got to be right in there,” he says. “When the spirit moves me, it’s a great excuse to go for a walk in the woods.”
In case you need reminding, if you don’t know a coneflower from a conifer, don’t eat it. The Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society is a great resource for getting started identifying plants. Happy hunting.