Wild food

There are plenty of ed­i­ble wild plant foods in the NZ coun­try­side, if you know where to look and what to look for.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature -

here are so many rea­sons to add wild foods to your diet, rang­ing from gain­ing sur­vival knowl­edge to in­creas­ing your health and well-be­ing, it seems a shame that in­for­ma­tion about it is so hard to at­tain.

Our an­ces­tors had ex­cel­lent and nec­es­sary knowl­edge on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and prepa­ra­tion of wild plant foods. Sadly, a lot of this knowl­edge and wis­dom has eroded out of ev­ery­day life. Most of us would be hard-pressed to iden­tify even a few ed­i­ble wild plant foods.

Res­ur­rect­ing the old ways and wis­doms, shift­ing back to a sim­pler way of life has to be good for us, body and soul. Veg­eta­bles, fruits, seeds and nuts bought from the shop of­ten have low nu­tri­tional value, and if you add to this con­cerns about food safety, ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion and the ris­ing costs of fresh veg­eta­bles, the won­der­ful di­ver­sity of wild foods be­comes very al­lur­ing.

One way of re­con­nect­ing with our in­nate abil­ity to know what is good for us is to eat nat­u­rally-grow­ing food, lo­cally-sourced, and with the sea­sons. Many plants that grow wild have high nu­tri­tional value, medic­i­nal ben­e­fits and are just more healthy for us. The flavours are of­ten rich and in­tense, and while they are not all scrump­tious, many are de­light­fully tasty.

Iden­ti­fy­ing and pre­par­ing wild foods is a learn­ing process that takes time, ded­i­ca­tion and prac­tice. Hav­ing an in­ter­est in iden­ti­fy­ing and learn­ing about a va­ri­ety of ed­i­ble wild plants al­lows you to en­gage with na­ture in au­then­tic and in­ti­mate ways. When you start in­cor­po­rat­ing wild plant foods into your diet it will be the be­gin­ning of a won­der­ful re­la­tion­ship.

The cul­ti­va­tion of wild plants

Su­per­mar­ket aisles and lo­cal veg­etable stores are brim­ming with beau­ti­fully cul­ti­vated fruit, nuts and veg­eta­bles. Th­ese de­li­cious-look­ing spec­i­mens are

the re­sult of gen­er­a­tions of plant se­lec­tion and breed­ing by hu­mans. We seem to for­get that all the world’s veg­eta­bles, fruits and nuts were once wild plants.

The in­ten­tional cul­ti­va­tion of wild plants dates back to an­tiq­uity. Ce­real crops were first pur­pose­fully planted around 9000BC in the Middle East. The ap­ple tree is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in the south­ern Kaza­khstan re­gion, where the Middle East meets China, and is most likely the ear­li­est tree to be cul­ti­vated. Its wild an­ces­tors still grow there, and cul­ti­vated ap­ple trees have been an im­por­tant food source for thou­sands of years in Asia and Europe, but it didn’t make its way to North Amer­ica un­til the 17th cen­tury.

A more re­cent food cul­ti­vated from its wild an­ces­tor is the ma­cadamia tree, in­dige­nous to Aus­tralia where its nuts have been con­sumed by Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nals for thou­sands of years. It wasn’t un­til the late 1800s that the first cul­ti­vated com­mer­cial plant­ing took place, with mass pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion only start­ing out less than a hun­dred years ago.

The move­ment of wild plants into cul­ti­va­tion is by no means over, and as we learn more and more about the ben­e­fits of wild plants, it is likely we will see an in­crease in ‘weeds’ be­ing mass pro­duced for hu­man con­sump­tion.

The vari­a­tion in diet across the globe has shown us that dif­fer­ent peo­ples cul­ti­vate dif­fer­ent wild plant foods. His­tor­i­cally in Asia, the main sta­ples cen­tred on rice, mil­let and soy. In the Amer­i­cas the fo­cus was on squash, beans and maize. To­day in many places in Asia, par­tic­u­larly China, tiger lily is grown for its ed­i­ble bulb, yet in many other parts of the world this pretty weed has an (un­proven) rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing toxic.

In New Zealand the sweet potato is a com­mon sight, but it is not widely used in Europe. The pop­u­lar­ity of veg­eta­bles such as kale and en­dive is a rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non in New Zealand, but in Europe th­ese veg­eta­bles have been part of their diet for a long time. Com­pared to what our an­ces­tors used to for­age for, we eat a very nar­row range of veg­eta­bles to­day. Mod­ern veg­eta­bles are more palat­able and ap­peal to a wider range of peo­ple in some The ben­e­fits of wild plant foods com­pared to cul­ti­vated plant foods are still be­ing de­bated, with some sound ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing that wild plant foods have bet­ter nu­tri­tional value, a greater range of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, and stronger an­tiox­i­dant prop­er­ties.

It’s hard to deny that the sur­vival rate of wild plants is quite as­ton­ish­ing. No mat­ter how much we have at­tempted to al­ter the en­vi­ron­ment, through ur­ban­i­sa­tion, pol­lu­tion, soil ero­sion and so on, the wild plant foods have sur­vived, adapted and even thrived. Their re­silience and abil­ity to sur­vive less-than-favourable cir­cum­stances seems to sug­gest that they are stronger and health­ier than their cul­ti­vated coun­ter­parts. Ad­di­tion­ally, wild plants have not been ex­posed to pes­ti­cides, trans­porta­tion and pack­ag­ing pres­sures com­pared to store-bought food.

What we so of­ten re­fer to as weeds, can pro­vide us with a whole range of new foods to add to our menus, and for most of us, this free food is grow­ing right out­side our back­door. There are a va­ri­ety of ‘weeds’ that are so easy to add to sal­ads. By adding a few wild plant foods to your next salad you are not only mak­ing the

This is the eas­i­est to find and most de­li­cious weed you can eat. It’s rep­utably one of our most in­va­sive weeds, and one even chil­dren can recog­nise.

No doubt most of you have at some point picked and eaten a wild black­berry, but did you know you can also dry the leaves of a black­berry bush for a de­li­cious tea? If you haven’t picked any black­ber­ries this year, be ready to do so at the end of sum­mer. Black­ber­ries pro­vide us with potas­sium, phos­pho­rus, iron, and cal­cium.

The black­berry bush is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of an es­capee plant. It was brought over to New Zealand by English set­tlers and soon spread; by the early 1900s it had a rep­u­ta­tion among farm­ers as the most ru­inous weed.

MIEKE’S TIP: don’t pick black­ber­ries from the side of the road – they are likely to have been sprayed and as they take a while to die, it may not be ob­vi­ous that they have been sprayed. It is easy for all of us to find dan­de­lion leaves. They’re easy to use, avail­able all year-round and very good for you. One cup of dan­de­lion leaves will pro­vide you with your daily re­quire­ment of Vi­ta­min K and Vi­ta­min A, a large pro­por­tion of cal­cium, Vi­ta­min C, fi­bre and iron. This lit­tle mir­a­cle weed also con­tains Vi­ta­min B6, thi­amine, ri­boflavin and potas­sium, among oth­ers.

Dan­de­lion plants are ver­sa­tile and can be used in many ways. The en­tire plant is ed­i­ble so you can’t go wrong. A sim­ple way is to gather some of the younger leaves and add them to the next salad you make. They could even be the main in­gre­di­ent in your salad: wash and trim them and add lemon juice, olive oil and a hint of gar­lic. For a sweeter salad, add some car­rot and beetroot. For an even health­ier ver­sion add beansprouts and fen­nel. From about Septem­ber keep your eye out for onion weed, some­times known as tri­an­gu­lar gar­lic. This en­chant­ing weed is eas­ily spot­ted and quite a trea­sure. It be­longs to the wider onion fam­ily, and just like them, the prop­er­ties of onion weed are said to be an­tibac­te­rial, plus it pro­vides us with vi­ta­mins B and C. The sul­phur com­pounds in this at­trac­tive lit­tle weed are ben­e­fi­cial to healthy choles­terol lev­els and di­ges­tion.

The taste of onion weed is some­thing be­tween a spring onion and gar­lic. The en­tire plant, leaf, bulb and flower, is ed­i­ble. Be sure to add some flower heads to your next salad. Onion weed is a great re­place­ment for chives, spring onion or gar­lic. Scram­bled eggs with finely chopped onion weed any­one? Or you can add it to sand­wiches, soups, pizza, muffins or savoury tarts. The bulbs can be pick­led as mini pick­led onions. As this weed can be quite in­va­sive, to eat it is a won­der­ful way to con­trol it.

We got into farm­ing al­paca be­cause my wife Heather loves al­paca fi­bre. To the In­cas, it was known as the ‘fi­bre of the gods’ and when you feel it, you can tell why: it is softer than wool, hy­poal­ler­genic (it can be worn next to the skin, even by ba­bies, with­out ir­ri­ta­tion), is finer than most cross-bred wool and on a par with merino for fine­ness, and the hol­low fi­bre traps air, giv­ing it ex­cel­lent in­su­la­tion prop­er­ties. It’s why we called our farm Elysian Al­pacas, af­ter the heav­enly des­tiny of the heroic and the vir­tu­ous in Greek mythol­ogy.

The colour range of nat­u­ral al­paca fi­bre is ex­ten­sive too. The New Zealand Al­paca As­so­ci­a­tion’s colour chart has 16 dif­fer­ent colours of al­paca fi­bre, from white through fawn, to brown, black and grey. Thirty per­cent of the al­paca in New Zealand are white and 31% light fawn or fawn. Light colours are eas­ily dyed.

While we started farm­ing al­paca for the fi­bre, we have grown to ad­mire al­paca as a farm an­i­mal in their own right. They pro­duce heav­enly fi­bre and pelts, but their meat is also ten­der and de­li­cious, a real health food (see the Septem­ber 2015 is­sue of NZ Life­style Block for more info).

All an­i­mals have their pluses and their minuses but if I were to rank al­paca against beef cat­tle, sheep and goats for ease of farm­ing (I can­not in­clude deer be­cause I have never farmed them), I would place beefies first, then al­paca, goats, sheep. Al­paca are light on their feet and don’t cause soil com­paction

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