Wildcrafting and foraging, acts of gathering wild edibles, as opposed to harvesting cultivated crops, are used interchangeably. While wildcrafting refers to collecting herbs for medicinal purposes, foraging suggests grazing or eating on the go.
While grabbing a coffee at Jack’s in Amagansett Square the other day, I stepped on a round, spiny, brown shell and a shiny chestnut rolled out. I was immediately taken back to my grandparents’ living room, where chestnuts were cooked over the proverbial fire — the start to a long, satisfying Italian meal.
The more I looked, the more I saw, the more I threw in my purse. My suburban foraging triggered memories of wild edibles of years past.
The pungent smell of spring onions sprouting on the edges of the lawn, searching for tiny ripened strawberries and, as the summer grew hotter, plucking plump berries from thick mulberry bushes. The scent of wild grapes is forever embedded in my mind with the start of school.
My grandfather, Vito, foraged for mushrooms and plucked young dandelion leaves to eat with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. The greens contain over 500 times the recommended daily value of Vitamin K, which protects the bones and brain. Coffee can be made from the roots, which helps clean the liver and kidneys. I’m sure Vito made dandelion wine, from the flowers, and kept the jars in the basement closet with a winter’s worth of canned tomatoes.
Nowadays, it’s harder to come by nature’s wild offerings of fruits and vegetables. There is a wild asparagus patch near my home, but I would not take them due to the small numbers.
Beach plummers are loath to tell another where their patch is located. Cranberry bog locations are out of the question.
There is good news. Wildcrafting can be done in most yards. If you stay away from chemicals, chances are an abundance of wild herbs and greens will flourish. They may be called “weeds,” but most are nutrient dense and delicious, raw or cooked.
Dried for teas, tinctures, pills and capsules, many wild herbs have medicinal properties. Resveratrol, touted as an anti-aging supplement, can be derived from Japanese knotweed.
The invasive weed can be found along roadsides, and used to treat Lyme disease, but be careful where you wildcraft. You don’t want any type of contamination.
Lamb’s quarters has more protein than spinach. Tiny, succulent purslane leaves are high in omega-3 fats and stinging nettle is a blood cleanser. The white flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace hide the root of the white “wild carrot.” They all grow in my yard.
Unfortunately, I won’t be roasting my chestnuts on the beach. They are poisonous horse chestnuts. A fungus on Asian chestnuts, imported to Long Island, wiped out more than four billion American chestnut trees at the turn of the 20th century.
American chestnuts grew centuries old and six feet wide up and down the East Coast along the Appalachians. With some effort, they are gradually making a comeback. And now that I think about it, my grandparents got their chestnuts from Italy.