Episode 84 S3-3
Wild Foraging in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
The Walls of Freedom Ch 3
Their captive attacker is interrogated and the family enjoys a meal of wild game and foraged greens, as The Walls of Freedom story continues. Here to discuss wild foraging in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is Abe Lloyd, author of Wild Berries of Washington & Oregon.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California contain about 1/2 of all of California's plant diversity. Foragables range from greens to fruits to nuts and roots.
There are many edible greens in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Miner's lettuce is one of those greens. It got it's name from early miners that figured out it was edible, juicy and yummy. This plant enjoys partial shade for it's broad green leaves to grow. It has a texture much like spinach.
The smaller cousin to miner's lettuce is a plant called chickweed. It also likes to grow in partial shade. It's not quite as juicy but has a similar flavor. Both miner's lettuce and chickweed often grow in off times of the year when other edibles may be hard to find. The stems of the chickweed plant have tiny hairs and it blooms with white flowers.
Another green that you will find is stinging nettle. You should harvest this plant with gloves and use extreme caution. It will sting you but it is not medically threatening. Once you blanch the plant the stingers are rendered ineffective. This plant is just like spinach and can be added to souffles, omelettes, etc. The stalks of the stinging nettle plant are connected under the ground with a system of rhizomes. It has inconspicuous flowers and likes to grow in partial shade. Stinging nettle slightly resembles the milkweed thistle in early growth stages but the milkweed thistle has big purple flowers and the stalks grow from a single taproot. Milkweed thistle's root is edible and natives would cook it until it turned black and then eat it. The taste is similar to that of a parsnip or carrot.
There are also a wide variety of edible berries in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Abe's favorite is the thimble berry. It looks like a raspberry but has a cane that doesn't die after two years. Also it has a singe maple shaped leaf and smaller seeds than raspberries. This plant loves full sunlight and can often be found on the sunny side of a trail or road.
Wild blackberries are another very common berry that you will find in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are similar to Himalayan blackberries. The leaves are great for tea. They are effective at toning the vascular system. The darker the leaves are the more flavor will be packed into them.
Manzanita berries are another common site in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There are over thirty varieties of the species existing in California and all of the berries are edible but some are more flavorful than others. The berries are often sour in flavor and if you make a juice from them the flavor is similar to that of cider.
If you are trying to survive in the wild nuts are going to be a significant source of your caloric intake. Luckily oak trees exist not only in the Sierra Nevada Mountains but across most of the continental United States as well. Acorns are edible and are packed with fats and calories your body is going to need. However, you must learn to leach acorns before you use them. This involves soaking the insides in water, draining the water and re-soaking them again and again for about a week before they are added to your recipe.
Pine Nuts are another important source of calories. The cones from the gray pine have nuts that are large enough to harvest and utilize. North America has about 12 species with pine nuts large enough to harvest so be sure to investigate your local region. In the Southwest you will find the Pinon Pine containing these sizeable nuts as well. Getting through the outer shell of the pine nut is not an easy task. You can wrap the nuts in a towel and hit them with a hammer to break the shells. Before you get the nuts, you have to contend with the pine cone itself. One technique for opening the cone is wrapping it in tinfoil and putting it on the fire. The heat will cause the cone to open. Any pine nuts that fall out in this opening process will be trapped in the tin foil. Opening techniques vary from species to species so be sure to do your homework on what method will work best for your type of cone. Squirrels and birds love to eat pine nuts as well. Look for bird activity by the pines to determine what pines are bearing nuts.
Roots are another great source of calories and vitamins. Cattails grow all over the United States including the Sierra Nevada Mountains and are a calorie dense root vegetable. Also a plant called blue dicks are found all over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This plant has a single flower atop a singular stem. At the bottom you will find a starchy potato. I do not have a picture of it in my collection and I did not want to search the name on my computer so you'll have to learn this one from an expert. Wild Yamas and wild carrots can also be found in the mountain landscape of the Sierra Nevadas.
You have to be careful when you participate in wild foraging. There are many look alike plants out there that are poisonous. Scarlet Pimpernil is one of these plants. It looks similar to chickweed and it wouldn't kill you but it will make you sick. The underside of the leaves have small black spots and chickweed does not. Scarlet Pimpernil has a square stem that is hairless. Chickweed has a slightly hairy more rounded stem.
Poison Hemlock is another plant that is highly poisonous and looks like a wild carrot leaf. It grows taller than a carrot and closely resembles wild fennel as well.
Here are a couple more poisonous species to be on the lookout for: Water Hemlock, Helabore or Corn Lilly.
Death Camas is an additional plant that is very poisonous and can be found frequently in the Sierra Nevadas. It looks like an onion but there is no onion smell. The flowers are white, there is an edible camas but it has purple flowers. When you harvest good camas make sure you follow the stem all the way down to the connecting bulb. Death camas can lie dormant in the soil for a number of years so it is essential that you pick the correct bulb.
Before you have to rely upon the wild foragables found in nature to feed you, you better be proficient at identification of plants. Learning from books is difficult but it is possible. The easier way to learn is to join a group that goes on trips to identify plants. A less expensive way to learn is by joining a local native plant society, go out with them into the environment and ask a lot of questions. Knowledge will give you a better chance at an educated guess when you are in new environments. Once you recognize a plant that is similar to the one that you know, touch the item you want to eat to your tongue. If it is bitter spit it out. Wait a while to see if there are any adverse affects then give the item a slight chew. Wait again to see if there are any adverse affects. If you feel comfortable up to this point ingest a small amount of the plant and wait a whole day. If there have been no negative side affects you can add it to your diet. Use extreme caution!!!!!!
There are many references to help you get started exploring the wild foragables in your area. Wild foragers used to have to carry books into the woods to compare the plants but with digital technology you can now capture photos quite easily and bring them home for further study. Some good books to get you started include:
Abe recommends the app Wild Flowers of Pacific Northwest for use on your digital device if you reside in this area.
Alternatively there are also some useful websites that will help you identify plants.
Useful for all of North America: http://www.bonap.org/
Useful for California Region: http://calflora.org/
Useful for all of North America: https://plants.usda.gov
Useful for all of North America: http://www.audubon.org/native-plants
Remember you have to get out there and start identifying! Remember that neither Abe nor I am a doctor. We do not know your allergies or your medical circumstances. Make sure you always proceed with absolute caution and neither Abe or I am responsible for anything you do with this information. Use it at your own risk! But if you don't learn it, good luck if you need to bug out.
The Changing Earth Series
Abe has a passion for plants and indigenous foods that traces back deep into his childhood. His early aspirations as a botanist led him to Northland College on the south shore of Lake Superior, where he completed a Bachelor’s of Science in Natural Resource Management. Since then, research projects have taken Abe to many corners of the planet, most notably, to Nepal where he served as an ethnobotanist for the Peace Corps with Langtang National Park from 2003-2004, and then to NW Yunnan and back to Nepal, where he worked as a volunteer botanist for the Missouri Botanical Gardens monitoring vegetation changes in the alpine areas during the fall of 2009. More recently, in 2011, Abe completed a Master’s Degree in Ethnoecology at the University of Victoria under the Northwest Coast ethnobotanist, Dr. Nancy J. Turner. For his thesis research, Abe collaborated with Kwakwaka’wakw elder Kwaxsistalla (Clan Chief Adam Dick) to experimentally restore a traditional estuarine salt marsh root garden near the remote First Nation village of Kingcome Inlet on the Central Coast of British Columbia. Abe now lives in his home town of Bellingham and is an active member of the Washington Native Plant Society, the NW Mushroomers, and the Society of Ethnobiology. He is the director of Salal, the Cascadian Food Institute, an Adjunct Professor at Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College, and Royal Roads University, and actively researches, promotes, and eats the indigenous foods of this bountiful bioregion.