by Whit Gibbons

March 2, 2014

The fact that as many as 50 books explain how to find, collect, and prepare wild plants for a meal speaks to the popularity of the endeavor. Whether this is your passion or merely something you might be interested in learning about, check out "The Quick Guide to Wild Edible Plants" by Lytton John Musselman and Harold J. Wiggins.

Recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press, this 133-page hardcover book just might be the cookbook you've been looking for. (It's also available as an ebook.)

The authors' slogan "easy to pick, easy to prepare" refers to the more than 30 types of eastern U.S. plants, some native and some introduced, and the 57 different recipes in the book.

Three principles guided the authors' selection of plant species for the book and the instructions on how to prepare them.

The first is a critically important one. They only included plants that "are easy to identify and do not have any toxic look-alikes." They also have a section on identifying some plants not to eat, because they can be toxic (like poison hemlock), or not to touch, because they can cause dermatitis (such as poison sumac).

A second standard for determining which plant species to include as culinary selections has two parts. They chose plants that are common, which means you are actually likely to find the wild plant you are looking for.

But the authors also have a conservation angle: they want to make sure the species they provide recipes for are neither rare nor endangered to the point that removing them from the wild would be environmentally detrimental.

The third criterion needed for a plant to make the cut is that it can be prepared from a simple recipe with common ingredients.

One plant, along with its recipes, that meets all the selection criteria is the common cattail, which almost everyone is familiar with. Cattails are nontoxic, easily identifiable, and widespread across the country, being found on the margins of lakes, ponds, and other wetlands.

My favorite recipe for this wild edible plant is "cattail corn dogs." Only three ingredients are required: vegetable oil, corn meal, and the female flowers of cattails. I'm not sure why we don't all eat these every year when cattails bloom.

Other edible plants that are themselves common--but for which recipes are not--are orange daylilies, kudzu, and stinging nettle. I am wary of eating wild mushrooms unless I'm with an expert I trust who identifies them as edible.

Only three species of mushrooms (which the authors note are technically fungi, not plants) are featured, each being carefully distinguished from toxic forms by photographs and thorough descriptions. Even I might be able to prepare a meal of "fungus chicken fingers," since the only step in the recipe is "sauté in vegetable oil until tender."

I asked Linda Lee, a colleague at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, what she thought of the book. Linda knows more about collecting and preparing edible wild plants than anyone else I know.

She said, "People who are interested in preparing foraged foods would find the book a worthwhile addition to their collection." In comparing the Musselman and Wiggins book to others, she noted that it "provides useful details that eliminate a lot of the guesswork/trial-and-error that is often required to prepare wild foods and to make them palatable."

She also indicated that numerous sources are available for identifying plants and determining which ones are edible but that "this book was written with the idea that readers will actually try to prepare these foods at home, not just read about them."

Overall, I imagine most of the plant recipes I rely on will use the ordinary items one finds at the grocery store. However, should I ever get a craving for stinging nettle omelet or black locust fritters, I will know exactly which wild edible plant book to look in.

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