Over at Melody Steiner’s site, every Thursday I discuss poisonous plants and how to use them to kill off those unwanted characters in your novel. I’m only three posts into that series, but it sparked an idea for a new short series right here. It’s all those wonderful, edible plants you find in your backyard (should you happen to live in the Pacific Northwest). Our ancestors lived without Safeway for a long time, and with all the modern conveniences at our disposal (like grocery stores), we’ve lost some of those skills our ancestors once possessed. Like finding dinner. How does this apply to writing a novel, you ask? It might not. But if you’re writing a fantasy or a historical, it might be a good idea to know what your characters can scarf down when they’re feeling hungry, and which plants to avoid at all costs.
This is the common dandelion, available almost everywhere. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and the roots can be eaten as a vegetable or dried and ground for use as a coffee substitute. The flowers can be used to make dandelion wine (don’t wait for the flower to go to seed, like this photo–use it when it’s still yellow), and the entire plant can be brewed to make beer. Talk about a versatile weed. I have never eaten a dandelion, but the internet says they taste similar to endive. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten endive, either. Dandelion leaves should be harvested in the early spring before they become bitter. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are a lot of recipes on the internet for dandelion salads, side dishes, and drinks. If you try it, let me know how it comes out.
This is miner’s lettuce, or claytonia perfoliata, and it’s nearly as prevalent as the dandelion, although you might have to trek into the woods a bit to find it. It’s called miner’s lettuce because early miners and settlers used to eat it. It grows during the late months of winter and early months of spring, and therefore was one of the first edible plants to pop up after the long cold spell of winter, saving many a person from starvation or rickets–it’s rich in vitamins A and C. This one I have sampled while taking a home-school class through the woods to try all the edible good stuff, and I agree that it’s juicy and tasty, once you get the spitbug slime off the leaves.
This last early spring treat is wild strawberry (fragaria chiloensis). I used to eat these by the bucket-load when I was a kid, but finding large patches of these is difficult because all the woodland critters like them, too. Unlike the cultivated strawberries we purchase in the grocery stores, wild berries are tiny little things. They’re also high in vitamin C, helping miners and settlers stave off rickets after a long winter with little or no fresh fruit. The berries have a high moisture content, so drying them doesn’t work very well, but they make an excellent pie, or can be eaten right off the vine. The leaves were used medicinally by Native Americans: brewing the leaves as tea creates a delightful drink that can be used to treat diarrhea, and chewing the leaves to create a poultice for burns. This little tidbit might come in handy if your protagonist burned herself getting the soup pot off the flames of her cooking fire.
I’ll cover a few more edible plants in my next post. Stay tuned.