Doesn’t thistle lasagna just sound sooooooo appetizing. Most of us have memories of getting pricked and poked by this plant, so the thought of actually eating it conjures up a lot of skepticism. All of the ‘true’ thistles are of the genus Cirsium are edible (along with others). Many people like artichokes, spiny lobster, and tequila, so just think of those thorns as protecting a very good food source. Once you remove the thorns you can eat the leaves, peel the stalks for a crispy raw vegetable, or use the roots as you would other root vegetables. Of course all thistles vary in taste and palatability.
Common/ smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) is not a ‘true’ thistle. It does have very small thorns, but young leaves can easily be eaten raw or lightly cooked. Although the photo is poor, below you can see a full grown plant, it looks like a large overgrown dandelion. Click here to see more detailed photos of the plant.
Common sow thistle is a nutritional superstar. Click here to read a 2002 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found the plant to be high in lutein. Click here to read a study published in Food Chemistry in 2000 showing Mediterranean green pies, which contain Sonchus oleraceus , to have 12 times more quercetin than a glass of red wine and 3 times more quercetin than a cup of black tea. Click here to read a study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition in 2004 showing its high content of flavonols.
Sow Thistle Lasagna
one large onion, chopped
dried basil & oregano
7 medium cloves garlic
1 quart jar of canned whole tomatoes
9 lasagna noodles, pre-cooked
6 cups chopped sow thistle greens
15 oz. ricotta cheese
shredded mozarella cheese
salt and pepper to taste
The best is to take your favorite lasagna recipe and add this delicious chopped green to your recipe. Otherwise, give this one a try. Saute onions in well oiled pan until translucent. Add garlic, dried basil and oregano, drained tomatoes, salt and pepper. Mash tomatoes and let simmer for roughly 5-10 minutes. Cook lasagna noodles, strain and place a layer on the bottom of a 14 × 9 × 2 1/2” pan. Then put a layer of ricotta cheese, layer of onion/tomato mix, and a layer of chopped sow thistle greens. Repeat this layer and cover generously with shredded mozzarella cheese. Cover with foil and place into preheated oven at 350° for 45 minutes. Take out of oven and remove foil. Place back into the oven for 5 minutes. Remove and enjoy!
Sam Thayer Price is one of the most inspirational people I know. His words are so deep, as if his roots have grown to the absolute core of the earth and pulled out all that essential, meaningful goodness and wisdom that we need at this time. Sam’s recently published book The Forager’s Harvest is THE BEST book I have on wild foods.
Click here to listen to an interview of Sam by Mark Helpsmeet, on Northern Spirit Radio (click on the microphone symbol half way down the page). Here’s a taste of the interview.
Mark: My understanding is that agriculture evolved because it gave us more control. It meant we could increase the food supply, it meant that we could prevent the seasons of famines and abundance, both of which enriched and dessimated humanity throughout the ages. Why would we want to go back to that which leads to such vulnerability on the part of our race?
Sam: One of the misconceptions in that statement, which is very prevalent in our society, is that cultivating plants/agriculture made our food sources more stable and more reliable. The archeological evidence and ethnographical evidence is pretty emphatic that the opposite was the case; that as subsistence cultures around the world moved from hunting and gathering economies to an agricultural economy, they had less stability, they were more poorly nourished, people’s overall body size became smaller….society tends to rely on a very small number of foods, maybe 6 or 7 plant foods comprising most of their diet, whereas those people who were living off wild food would have a larger number of foods that would compose their diet, so they could spread their risk out over a larger number of plant species.
Turn it on while you’re cooking dinner, cleaning the house, putting the kids to bed….just turn it on and hear the clarity in Sam’s words.
Traveling the Wild Food Road will lead you to places you never thought you would go. On my journey from Arizona back to my home in Topanga Canyon, CA I decided to take a detour into farm country. About half way between Phoenix and Los Angeles, sitting on the Lower Colorado River border between the two states, sits Blythe. I have always known this as the town where I need to be sure all my citrus that I’ve picked from Grandma’s backyard trees in Phoenix are well covered so they don’t get confiscated.
I couldn’t find any organic farmers in the area, but was able to find a small family farmer who is still hanging on amid the big guys in the area. Joe Van Dyke has been farming in Blythe since 1970. He is not organic, instead he is of the school that responsible use of chemicals leads to better land management. Although I personally prefer organic, I would rather support local small-scale farmers who use small amounts of chemicals when needed, to the large scale organic farmers who are still out of touch with the land.
Joe very happily let me pick his weeds. I found it interesting that he actually drives a refrigerated truck down to Phoenix once a week to buy wild salad mixes for Quizno’s. This sandwich shop actually markets wild greens as ‘spring greens’ in their stores. Hmmmmm, makes you think. Although mallow (Malva neglecta) was by far the most common wild green I saw growing in the desert, I mainly harvested the sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) from his farm.
The photo below shows the difference between the common lambsquarters/goosefoot (Chenopodium album) leaf on the left and the nettle leaf goosefoot/lambsquarters (Chenopodium murale) on the right. You should NOT eat the nettle leaf goosefoot raw, as advised by the Mexican worker at Joe Van Dyke’s farm, as well as in Linda Runyon’s book (see previous post), so be sure to know the difference before harvesting this plant.
Click here to visit the Crooked Sky Farm website in Phoenix, AZ. They are also ‘friendlies’ to those wanting to harvest wild food plants on their property. The Indio/Coachella area near Palm Springs has many many organic farms, which I will save for a future visit. Consider finding a small farm near you to harvest wild food plants.
Last Thursday I was lucky to be part of an awesome teleconference call with Linda Runyon. She is a published author, has been eating wild foods as the majority of her diet for the majority of her life, has taught extensively to the military on survival using wild foods, and was a consultant on the biosphere project. The interview was facilitated by John Gallager of Learning Herbs, and I really thank John for hosting the call.
Did you know that 10 dandelion leaves contains more calcium than a glass of milk? That 1/2 cup of lambsquarter (Chenopodium sp.) seeds has 19.6 grams of protein, compared to just 9 or 10 grams found in a steak? That same 1/2 cup of seeds contains 1,036 mg of calcium, comparable to 8 glasses of milk. This is the kind of quality nutritional information found in Linda’s book From Crabgrass Muffins to Pine Needle Tea. The book is part field guide, part cookbook, part environmental lifestyle guide. She paired up with Dr. James Duke to have the nutritional analysis done on the wild food plants highlighted in her book – you can click here to visit Dr. Duke’s phytochemical and ethnobotanical database.
Click here to listen to the taped teleconference call. It will only be online for a short time, so LISTEN NOW!
Things are looking up for Patty West. She loves wild foods, wants to celebrate them, be respectful of them, and to get the communities who want to become more involved with them together. Patty is committed to helping with this and says, “We want to have a way to buy it, produce it, pick it from our backyards, and bring it to the community.”
Patty calls herself a free-range botanist. She remembers her grandfather, a farmer, taking her out into the woods in upstate New York to harvest wild foods. Her love of plants continued from there. When I asked her why people should be eating wild foods, she said she doesn’t necessarily think they should unless they want to. “For me it’s like a sacrament…I think people can benefit from it, but I don’t think everyone should do it if they don’t want to. Some people don’t like the taste of different things and that’s ok.”
I asked Patty about global climate change. She says, “In our state climate change is a big issue, but for us it’s gonna be more immediate because we don’t have any farmers because all the places that were good to farm are built up. Climate change is happening fast, but not that fast. Basically all the places that grow food are being bulldozed.” Click here to visit the American Farmland Trust. This website has online maps which show all the areas that would be good to farm, alongside those showing areas which are also in areas good for development. Securing these hot zones for food security are part of American Farmland Trust’s work.
Pictured are some of Patty’s dried wild foods. In the center is mesquite flour, clockwise from the wild greens in the front are dried prickly pear cactus fruit skins (good for making tea), yarrow, wild rose petals and dried saguaro fruits. I asked Patty how she felt about cultivating wild foods. She says, “I think it’s necessary in some cases because if you collect everything that grows wild, you’re going to decimate the populations. Lots of plants grow in the moisture runoff from the roads. If we could create these disturbed soil conditions with just a slight amount of moisture, we could grow these foods out away from the toxins in the road runoff.”
There are lots of wild food plant activities going on in Arizona. Here are just a few, which you might want to check out. Click here to visit Happy Oasis’ website. She is the founder of the Raw Spirit Festival in Sedona, and has organized people to offer wild food plant hikes during that Festival in October. She also leads wild food plant hikes from her retreat center in Prescott, AZ. Click here to visit Feather Jones’ website. She offers regular guided hikes, focusing on wild edibles and medicinal plants, through the famous Sedona vortexes. Click here to visit Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization working to protect Native American traditional crops. Wild food crops such as cholla cactus buds, saguaro fruit, prickly pear pads and fruit, mesquite flour, desert chia and tepary beans are even available for purchase on their site. And finally, Click here to visit the Reevis Mountain School, which teaches regular wild food plant classes.
Photo courtesy of Gary’s personal website
I’m traveling in Arizona right now, and was fortunate enough to meet up with Gary Paul Nabhan at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is the director of the Center for Sustainable Environments (CSE), founder of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Project, acclaimed author, and an inspiring champion for biodiversity. Gary is a focused man, who found a few minutes last Friday to sit down and talk with me about wild foods.
Sunny: Are there specific policy recommendations you would make to ensure a secure future of wild foods?
Gary: Wild foods are in danger due to habitat loss and cities usurping our water supplies. The policies should be to safeguard a proportion of each watershed’s water for wild habitats and agricultural lands, so that there’s local food security as one of the highest priorities for water uses.
Sunny: What are the most commonly available (those already found in their own yards) wild plants available to the urban Sonoran desert dweller ?
Gary: Most people in urban areas think the carrying capacity of metropolitan areas is too much to support wild harvesting without driving some plants into extinction. I would say that it’s the opposite, that there’s thousands of pounds of wild foods being wasted in cities because they’re being neglected.
Wild foods commonly available in urban areas of the Sonoran desert:
3. Mesquite Pods
4. Barrel cactus fruit & seeds
5. Prickly pear pads & fruits
Wild foods commonly available in wild spaces of the Sonoran desert:
1. Mesquite pods
2. Ironwood seeds
3. Prickly pear pads & fruits
4. Saguaro fruits
5. Cholla buds
Sunny: Why are you no longer offering the Flagstaff Community Wild Food Foraging Project, which was the first community supported wild foraging project –similar to a CSA- in the country?
Gary: Three years ago we offered about 50 wild foods to between 15-20 households in the Flagstaff area. We found that the interest was there, but that people still don’t have the familiarity with the foods. The following year we focused on providing those foods to caterers and restaurants, and demonstrated how to use them at Farmer’s Markets. Education has to be a part of any future program. Providing those foods to the restaurants and caterer’s, where they won’t be wasted, is what I recommend for those interested in developing similar projects.
Gary is hopeful because we’re moving into the post-fossil fuel age. We will have to give up our addiction to the exotic and learn more about the world right out our own back doorstep. He has been working on a book, to be released soon through the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum Press, called ‘Renewing the Food Traditions of Chili Pepper Nation.’ Click here to visit Gary’s website and to purchase his already-published books.
Click here to read more about the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Project (RAFT), which brings seven of the country’s most prominent education, conservation, and food organizations together to identify and restore America’s endangered heritage foods.
Nothing like a magic ball to lift your spirits! Over Christmas I took a trip to visit family in Durango, CO. Shopping in the local co-op I had an ecstatic moment when I saw a local company selling wild food products. I immediately called them on the phone and was greeted by a lovely woman named Katrina Blair. Katrina is a Durango native, and the founder and visionary of Turtle Lake Refuge. She has been teaching people the benefits of eating wild, locally grown and living/raw foods since Turtle Lake’s inception in 1998.
Katrina runs a restaurant called Local Wild Life, which serves meals from 11:11am-2:22pm every Tuesday and Friday. These meals serve up seasonally available wild, local and living foods. Unfortunately I missed out on what I can only imagine as a divine meal, but I did make a new friend in this wild food world. Click here to visit her website, and to learn more about wild food activities in the Durango area.
Katrina makes absolutely dynamite Wild Mint Magic balls, which inspired me to create a recipe using Toyon berries. I am still playing around with this recipe, and will share how it evolves over time, but it has passed the test with friends. I think I will add more dates to my next batch.
Magic Toyon Balls
2 c raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds
1 c orange juice
1 c dates
1 c dry roasted Toyon berries
1 c water
unhulled sesame seeds
Soak pumpkin seeds in orange juice overnight, or for roughly 8 hours. Remove pits from dates and place the date fruits, along with soaked pumpkin seeds, roasted Toyon berries (see previous posts for information on Toyon and how to process it) and water into a blender or food processor. Blend until you have a smooth paste, adding additional water or orange juice as necessary. Roll paste into small balls, roughly quarter size, and then roll the balls in sesame seeds. Makes about 50 magic balls.
What better wild food plant to highlight for Valentine’s than Toyon berries! Their luscious red berries are just screaming to be noticed. It’s the middle of winter and there they are yelling, “Look at me, look at me.” They’re the wildly flirtatious side of Valentine’s that I think of.
Toyon berries are edible raw, but not very palatable. Pick the berries from their stems and wash well. Place onto a cookie sheet and place into a preheated oven at 250°. It takes roughly 1/2 to one hour for them to dry roast at this temperature. Be sure to turn the berries in the pan occasionally. You want them to have some give between your fingers, so that they are a bit chewy, but not enough moisture that they will mold when you store them.
These heart cakes were covered with roasted Toyon berries. I put the roasted berries into a small cast iron skillet with some honey and a splash of Kirsch. Kirsch is a cherry liqueur which compliments the apple/cherry flavor of the Toyon.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is apparently the plant that Hollywood was named after. No one knows for sure, but when the settlers came to the Hollywood area, they apparently thought this shrub/small tree looked like the holly plants back home in Europe….hence the name Hollywood.
Toyon is also called Christmas Berry because its little red berries usually ripen right around Christmas time. Because of their beautiful oblong, serrated, and glossy leaves, which stay green all year round, and those beautiful red berries, everyone in the Hollywood Hills wanted them as Christmas decorations. They began to become extremely over-harvested until the 1920’s, when Ms. Bertha Rice and her son Roland campaigned to protect them. They published a small book, with the final chapter devoted entirely to Toyon, which eventually led to a law making it illegal to harvest wild plants.
We certainly don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, but we also don’t want to forget how to use this plant in a sustainable way. The California Native Plant Society has a nice write-up on the toyon.
Make sure the berries are fully ripe when you harvest them, as they have a natural defense mechanism of releasing toxic cyanide gas if nibbled on too early. Being that everyone is drooling at the mouth, just waiting for them to ripen, this chemical is present until they ripen to a bright reddish/orange. Once the berries have ripened, the cyanide retracts back into the trunk and poses no danger to the hungry omnivore.
To harvest, bring a paper bag and a pair of clippers. Clip them as shown in the picture. Can’t you just see the ladies of Hollywood climbing up on ladders in thier daisy dukes, to harvest wild food growing in their own backyards. A new Hollywood health craze I hope to see some day!
Camellia goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farm, Crottin goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farm and Cyprus Grove Chevre goat cheese are nice, locally produced cheeses to compliment these curly dock (Rumex crispus) seed crackers.
Producing up to 40,000 seeds per plant, curly dock (Rumex crispus) seeds can be harvested anytime after they have dried on their stalks. They turn a dark brown and contain a papery sheath around their seeds. If you want to increase the number of plants in an area, put your hand near the base stem of the plant and pull up to get the seeds off. If you are trying to manage the plant, cut off the stalk and place into a large garbage bag. Strip the plant of its seeds at home, and be sure to account for all seeds that may have fallen to the floor.
Iron deficiency is considered by the World Health Organization as the number one nutritional disorder in the world. Curly dock contains exceptionally high levels of iron. It is my understanding that not only do the seeds contain iron, but they also allow the liver to absorb more of that iron and release it back into the body. Curly dock is found on every continent except for Antarctica. Considered a noxious weed by many, its use could be incorporated into a global food strategy to increase iron intake, particularly in developing nations facing 3.5 billion people afflicted with iron deficiency.
Curly Dock Seed Crackers
1 c curly dock seed flour
1 c unbleached white flour, or flour of your choice
1 t salt
1 c water
grapeseed oil, or oil of your choice
Mix dry ingredients in mixing bowl. Add water until you have a pliable dough. Roll thinly on well floured surface. Cut into shapes…this is where you can have fun and get creative. Place onto well oiled cookie sheet and bake for 5 minutes at 375°, take out and turn them and bake for roughly 5 more minutes until crisp.
This recipe comes from Rosalee Dotson’s article in NatureSkills.com. Click here to see the full recipe, photos of the plant, and more detailed photos of preparing the crackers.