Dining on Nettles, Milkweed and Dandelions

Jul 9, 2013


Forager Adam Hintz said knowing how to find food in nature gives him a sense of food security, knowing that even if a natural catastrophe disrupts the food production chain, he can still feed his family.
Credit Hilary Stohs-Krause / Harvest Public Media

 It’s a humid, windy day in southeast Nebraska, and Adam Hintz is hunting for morels. The mushroom, which kind of looks like a shrunken brain, is known for being elusive, and so far, nothing’s turned up.

But lots of other edibles have.

“This is a common milkweed,” Hintz said, eying a patch of knee-high green plants with veiny leaves. “You can eat it in three different forms throughout the year.”

Lots of attention over the past few years has been given to programs like community gardens or community supported agriculture, where you pay so much money per month for a box of food straight from a nearby farm. But some urban dwellers, like coffee shop owner Hintz, seek out more rogue food sources. Hintz is an avid forager, or someone who harvests uncultivated food – like acorns that fall along the bike path, crabapples on a park tree or dandelions growing in the backyard.

On this particular day, he comes upon Solomon’s seal — a tall, leafy plant with tiny white flowers.

“I’m going to try to eat this, and we’re going to see what happens, because I’ve never tried it before,” he said wryly before popping the white, rounded root into his mouth. “And it tastes good. Tastes kind of like a potato, which would make sense, because it’s a tuber.

And he added a caution: “You just take a little bit. If you feel any numbing, you spit it out right away.”

One of the big risks when it comes to foraging is that you never know how your body will react to something, Hintz said. He recommended trying a tiny amount to start, like the small tuber of the Solomon’s seal, and if everything goes well, a slightly larger amount. Then, wait 24 hours before eating more, just to be sure. You also have to be careful about imitators, he said, poisonous plants that resemble nutritious plants. Hintz advised always bringing an edible food guide along when foraging.

Fellow Lincoln forager Dustin Rymph seconded that advice; he knows from experience what can go wrong, having one time confused edible chestnuts with inedible horse chestnuts.

“(Horse chestnuts) make you puke, and are toxic enough to make you feel bad for quite a long time,” he said. “Never do that.”

At this point, you might be thinking, dandelions? Nettles? Ew.

You’re not alone, Rymph said with a laugh: “Usually, people are pretty grossed out.

“To be fair, I’ve made some really gross meals with the stuff I’ve brought home in my day, and that’s another thing, is learning how to prepare it in a way that’s good, just like you would any other food,” he said. “If you put a raw potato on a plate, people are going to be like, ‘That’s really gross,’ but if you cook up a potato really well, people think it’s delicious.”

Rymph’s goal is to eat one wild thing each day, and even though he lives right near downtown Lincoln, a city of a quarter million people, he said it’s not that hard.

“Oh, I mean, there are all kind of delicious things that grow in sidewalk cracks,” he said. “Anybody in a concrete jungle can find plenty of food.”

That’s one reason so-called foodies are getting into foraging, Hintz said.

“The different flavors that maybe a sunchoke will give you, or a nettle salad will give you, or dandelions.  That expands the colors that you can really paint with in a dish,” he said, adding that there’s plenty to go around, if you know where to look. “It’s kind of like the Willy Wonka thing – everything’s made of candy. Well, a lot of things around us are food, we just do not recognize it because if it’s not in a grocery store, it’s not food.”

That “food is all around us” message resonates with Omaha filmmaker and educator Dan Susman, the director and producer of “Growing Cities,” a soon-to-be-released documentary looking at urban agriculture. He and his crew visited about 20 cities and 80 different urban farmers across the country.

 “I think people are becoming a lot more aware about the connections to food and health,” Susman said. “So there’s been things like Michael Pollen with ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and (documentary) ‘Food, Inc.’ People often cite those types of things that have really reached more of a mainstream group to make people more aware.”

But before you head out to forage, be sure to check your state or local laws. In Kansas, you’re free to take what you want from state parks, and Oregon’s park system actually offers guided tours to foraging. In California, on the other hand, unapproved removal of plants from public land can result in jail time.