Delicious array of food from nature
You’re not likely to view foliage on the sides of streets and in reserves in quite the same way again if you ever get the chance to go for a stroll with Johanna Knox.
While most of us would see trees, bush and other ‘‘green stuff’’, this Wellingtonian sees potential ingredients for a salad, leaves and seeds to give an interesting twist to a curry, or something to flavour a very different cup of tea.
Those aren’t weeds smorgasbord!
Who knew there were plenty of recipes for pine needle tea, or that savoury pine vinegar was especially tasty. Or that the chickweed fed to budgies is not only a healthy and yummy salad or stir-fry ingredient but it is a bit of a super-food, with vitamins B, C and D and a respectable source of iron, copper, calcium and sodium.
Johanna is a forager, and in-between work as a writer (she’s on the committee of
a the Wellington Children’s Book Association and with designer husband Walter is working on a children’s book series), she moderates the Wild Foragers Aotearoa google group and pens a highly informative blog Wild Picnic – a gallery of edible and useful wild plants in Wellington. It should be a first port of call for anyone interested in the topic.
Foragers should not be confused with freegans. The latter are a different breed, folk who are into all sorts of scrounging and waste use, including asking restaurants for kitchen leftovers and – at the extreme – ‘‘dumpster diving’’.
As she took us on a tour of the culverts and hillsides at McAllister Park in Berhampore, the site of her first foraging adventures before she moved to Karori, Johanna said she can’t quite remember what got her started.
‘‘I’d always been interested in gathering plants and seeing what I could do with them as a child.’’
Doing research for the MORSE Future of Food roadshow was another eye opener and – in common with many other foragers – her interest in the environment and sustainability was part of it too.
‘‘It definitely has links to my values system.’’
That enthusiasm for wild things ‘‘kicked in again’’ when she had her own children. It was good to ‘‘recapture that, get outdoors and do stuff with them’’.
She’s traced a history of ‘‘ups and downs’’ in interest in foraging, with spikes at the time of the 1930s Depression and again during the hard times in the 1970s. She thinks that’s probably why it’s on the increase again now.
‘‘Recessionary times and environmental awareness: foraging speaks to both of those things really.’’
Another driver was that she wasn’t a particularly good gardener and didn’t have Wild fennel doesn’t have the kind of bulbs you’d find in a supermarket, but just about every part of the plant can be used, even the pollen, says Johanna Knox. that much garden space. It’s a perfect pasttime for apartment dwellers who want a connection with the outdoors.
From feedback and questions to her website, it’s clear interest in foraging spans all ages.
‘‘There’s a lot of young people becoming more interested but there’s also a lot of older people who were doing it back in the 70s, and they’ve got interesting things to say,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s like the craft scene that is also going through a revival.
The older people are saying you so long’?’’ Johanna taught herself from books. Two of the ‘‘classics’’ are Andrew Crowe’s A Field Guide to Native Edible Plants and Shelia Natusch’s Wild Fare for Wilderness Foragers.
But there are plenty of others, many of them out of print but able to be picked up secondhand.
She’s learned to ‘‘cross reference’’ a lot.
Even with photographs, it’s sometimes difficult to identify various plants and weeds – unless you can go out with someone who knows what they’re doing. There’s a foraging group in Manawatu, and a Kapiti couple run tours.
Another excellent resource is Lisa Johnston’s web-based Edible Wellington – A Gatherer’s Guide. With Google maps pointing to exact locations and other foragers’ input, people can view entries such as: ‘‘. . . Loads and loads of flatleaf parsley growing wild by the road up to the Brooklyn wind turbine’’, or at another location ‘‘. . . Pear tree in the front yard, owned by an old foreign gentleman, who is happy for them to be taken. Knock on the front door first and ask . . . speaks little English so gesticulate.’’
Johanna’s advice is to go a little bit off the path to find areas that haven’t been sprayed, or where dogs and birds have pooed. Look for lush growth rather than the first crop you come across. What about the dangers? Johanna says people can’t go too far wrong with greens, but if you can’t positively identify it, don’t eat it. Ask council workers what they’re spraying; ‘‘ sometimes it’s just hot water’’.
Even an experienced forager like Johanna steers clear of fungi. A recent case in Britain involved a man putting his entire family in hospital with serious complications after feeding them what he thought were edible wild mushrooms. Do some research and check the Wild Picnic website.
Clover flowers are edible, and when dried make a tasty and medicinal tea. Likewise dandelions. Buttercups are poisonous.
‘‘Most people who start out foraging are very timid about wild carrot; there can be confusion between it and hemlock,’’ Johanna says. ‘‘Once you know what you’re doing it’s fine, you can recognise the difference easily.
Don’t ingest too many wild herbs and show extra caution if you’re pregnant.
But what a great excuse to get more exercise. Getting out for a walk can suddenly double up as food gathering.
Free food: Rob Jones gathers nasturtium from the roadside. He likes the environmental/ no-waste aspect of foraging, and says it’s perfect for cooks who like to experiment.
Dinner is served: Rob Jones’ salad incorporating beach spinach, cheese, strawberries and nasturtium flowers is accompanied by a nasturtium pesto spread on salmon.