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