Plant Profiles

Plantain (Plantago sp.)

DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!).

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Plantain is usually found in riparian (near river) habitats and in shaded areas. This one was found right off a dock

There is a phrase I hear quite often when people discuss foraging, and that is: “Make your food your medicine, and your medicine your food.” Of course, there are variations, but the general sentiment remains. Plantain could not fit this phrase more if it tried. It’s a tasty food, and excellent when it comes to various wound and dermal treatments.

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The elastic strings (sometimes referred to as plant sinew) can be used to make string for various purposes

The plant you see, Plantago major, doesn’t look too appetizing at first. It’s usually a bit ragged (especially late in the year), and doesn’t particularly stand out. However, if it’s prepared right, its use has a respectable place in the foraging chef’s repertoire. More on that and the medicinal value later.

The leaves are the most commonly used edible portion, but the seeds have their merit as well. The seeds are made of soluble fiber and the casings, commonly referred to as psyllium and sold in health food stores (Metamucil is a commonly sold source of psyllium), are primarily insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps prevent or reduce symptoms from diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Insoluble fiber is more typically used to aid in weight loss and constipation, but they both can attach to lipids to prevent absorption helping in weight loss, and both will tend to keep you regular.
Time for the extras.

Identify

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Note the parallel veins with inconspicuous secondary veins interspersed

The leaves form a basal rosette. Many people mistake this plant for a monocot at first, as the primary veins all run parallel to each other. However, upon closer inspection, the leaf does have secondary veins all around. These leaves are often glossy and, in a few uncommon species, finely hirsute (hairy). The flowers form a spike which, depending on the species, can be up to 70cm tall with the spike covered in flowers or only the top centimeter. The flowers give way to small, brown fruits which can be up to 1mm in diameter in most species. The key identifying feature is the elastic that comes from the midrib. You’ve gotta be delicate in pulling it apart, and can’t snap at an angle – it must be more of a pull. It works best with older leaves. Thankfully, this plant is fairly easy to tell apart from other plants and doesn’t typically need this test, but I leave it there to assure the more fearful ones that it is, in fact, plantain.

Usage

The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but the older they are, the more I tend towards cooking. They’re packed with calcium and vitamins A, C, and K. They become tough and fibrous as they age. When they’re very old, remove the elastic from the leaves – it’s the toughest and least appetizing part. Pascal Baudar has a method for cooking it like seaweed – boil 3 minutes for young leaves and 5 for old leaves. As for the fruits and seeds, you can grind them into flour use them in any baked goods you desire. They’ll keep you healthy and regular.

As for medicinal usage, they are the best dermal treatment out there. If you make a poultice (chew the leaves and spit them on wounds, sores, or any superficial ailments) or an ointment (wash and chop the leaves alongside any flowers or fruits and leave in olive oil for a few months), you can rest assured that its aucubin, allantoin, and other chemicals will cause your wound to be painless, free of bacteria, and quick to heal thanks to the analgesic and antimicrobial effects, alongside its ability to hasten cell division.

The plant sinew also has its use in making string, though it takes effort to get all the sinew into a string long enough to be used. It can be good for flossing, should you need.

Have fun foraging!

Side note: Allantoin is also kerolytic, meaning it softens keratin. Because of this, it’s often used in commercial application to treat warts and other skin lesions. Perhaps you could find a use for this yourself.

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Plant Profiles

Sweet Peas (Lathyrus sp.)

DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!).

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Sweet pea is often grown as an ornamental, or simply grows wild as a weed in lawns.

Commonly found in horticultural gardens everywhere, it’s no wonder many people have asked whether sweet peas are considered edible. Unfortunately, the answer most commonly given is: “No, it’s deadly poisonous.” While it’s always good to take multiple trusted sources as likely true, the problem is that people dig no deeper. Does the sweet pea have poisonous qualities? Yes, but the plants that don’t have poisonous qualities whatsoever are few and far between.

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Sweet pea pods can be shaped like bean pods or pea pods, or entirely different. (Image used under creative commons license)

Why is there so much confusion, with some people claiming it to be edible and others to claim it will take your life? There is an amino acid within the plant that, when the plant is consumed in excess quantities over a long period of time (a study found that it takes approximately 30% of your diet comprised of sweet peas over 3 months or more to cause damage), it can cause a neurodegenerative and muscular wasting disease known as lathyrism. However, no fatalities have been directly attributed to sweet peas, and most people are unlikely to subsist solely off of them when there are many other sources of food around.

Identify

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Note how the stems have winged edges. In cross section, the stem will have a shape similar to that of a squinted eye. (Image used under creative commons license)

The winged stems are host to both leaves and tendrils. The leaves can grow in an alternate or opposite pattern and are occasionally succulent. The plants can be hairy or smooth, as can the pea pods, which grow in a variety of shapes. The flowers are like all other plants in the pea or bean family, and can be many colors, ranging from blue to pink to purple. The key feature to ensure you have the right plant is to look for winged stems. While there are a few members of the Lathyrus genus which have round stems, they are few and far between and best avoided by beginner foragers to ensure you don’t consume a toxic lookalike.

Usage

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Sweet peas have the distinctive bisymmetric flower common for plants in the Fabaceae (pea and bean) family.

The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked, and add a colorful garnish to salads and other foods. The tips of the vines and the young shoots, leaves, and tendrils can be eaten cooked. The most nutritious part of the plant, the pods and their seeds, can technically be eaten raw (though they’re usually tough) and are best cooked. Fried in butter with a splash of vinegar and lemon juice and topped with parmesan is the best way to go, but in case you’re in a survival situation they’re still quite tasty plain. The roots of one species, Lathyrus tuberosus, grow tubers which can be eaten cooked.

And, as usual, make sure not to subsist entirely off of these just to be safe. Happy foraging!

Plant Profiles

Blue Mustard (Chorispora tenella)

DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!).

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Chorispora tenella in its preferred habitat: waste ground

When I was growing up, there were these pretty purple flowers all over my back yard. I asked my mom what they were, and her answer was: “They’re a tenacious weed and a pain in my behind.” I know what she would have said if I weren’t 6 at the time. In any case, it turned out that the weed she had been pulling for years was an absolutely delicious edible food! How lucky I was to find that one out.

If you ask anyone what they think of this plant, whether or not they even know the name, they’ll probably tell you it smells terrible. While it does have an off smell which is the trademark of this plant. I, honestly, find it pleasing to smell. Either way, the smell is distinct and can definitely help a beginner forager identify this plant.

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Notice the alternate, spirally arranged leaves and fuzzy look

I enjoy this plant as is raw – though you may not enjoy the texture of the trichomes (small hairs) – or mixed into other foods. Its taste can range from biting to incredibly mild, but it has a distinct flavor which is hard to compare to anything else. It does well in stir fries and omelettes and is surprisingly tasty mixed into dishes such as curries. If the flavor is too strong for you, boiling it for a small while will certainly take care of that (as it will with most mustards).

So let’s go over the details.

Identify

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Flowers are like any other mustard

It’s a small, sprawling herb which forms in clumps or large swaths of ground. It rarely grows over 10cm tall. The leaves, generally growing no longer than 4cm, are arranged alternately and spirally along the stem. The flowers are small (up to 1cm) and purple or blue, with 4 petals and 6 stamens typical of the Brassicaceae (mustard) family. The smell is unlike any other plant, so break open a leaf if you need to confirm its identification.

It arrives in late winter to early spring, and can stay until winter arrives again. It prefers any disturbed or waste ground which are generally not ideal areas for foraging. Hedgerows, old lots, yards, or (best for wild foraging) margin areas of habitats. It can tolerate shade or shine and can even grow in acidic or basic clay soils: it’s a hardy plant.

Usage

You can eat the leaves raw (trichomes can be irritating) or cooked. Their flavor is distinct. The seedpods and flowers are also edible raw or cooked. I haven’t tried the roots, but as with practically any mustard, they are likely edible as well (and I have read that they are).

This plant can be eaten at any stage and any time of year.