My great grandfather on my mom’s side was, by all accounts, an ornery old cuss. He did know plants, though, in a way I would like to know them and have spent my life learning. I grew up with a bunch of family stories about him but the one story that guided my own life was about my grandfather eating wild food to cure his cancer.
I am not sure if anyone knew his age or birth date but when he was judged to be in his 80s, he was diagnosed with cancer. He lived on the Oregon Coast at the time and like all in our family he had an extensive garden full of European vegetables. He raised chickens and pigs. Also like my entire family, he hunted and fished for wild game. A very good diet for American families, and one that few people today can access.
Instead of placing himself in the hands of the doctor after his diagnosis, my grandfather chose to go out in the woods and only eat wild foods. He lived to 102.
This powerful story informed my entire life. I spent my preschool years looking for wild plants to eat raw. My dad helped me to identify edible wild plants and I searched them out always.
At the same time, I was helping my mom with her large garden, feeding chickens and collecting eggs. My sister and I even helped mom butcher and pluck chickens for the freezer. I admit that after a day of chicken gore we didn’t eat chicken for a month.
I grew to dislike the foods my mom cooked. I supplemented mom’s cooking with wild edibles and drove her crazy worrying about me starving to death because she didn’t know I ate outside. I didn’t talk about it because… I can’t remember. I had a whole secret life outside that mostly included plants and wild animals. I did bring specimens home and mom helped me dry them with paper and books.
Of the many things I ate, one of my favorites were tiny wild strawberries that grew near our house. Smaller than a dime, their flavor was very intense. Nothing like the mammoth red berries available in the market economy. Like many wild foods, they are small and fiddly, but much more intense in flavor than garden varieties.
Another wild food I ate were crabapples which are also much smaller and more intense in flavor than garden varieties.
As I got older I realized that humans have spent centuries breeding these foods for our gardens. What is usually bred for are larger size, sweetness, and starch. Also uniformity and long term storage.
The inadvertent result has been a degradation in nutrient density and increase in sugar and starches. If you take nutrient supplements, I am sure you have read in their advertising the impossibility of getting the nutrition you need from eating several servings of fruits and vegetables. In fact, they claim you would have to eat something like 5 apples to get sufficient nutrients for one serving.
Well, centuries of breeding for sugar and larger size has not bred for an equal increase in nutrient density. Five crabapples is not a huge calorie intake but five red delicious apples is… if you can eat five of them in one sitting, which few people can manage. It also shifts food from being free to all in the circular economy to being part of the market economy. It shifted from spending a glorious fall day outside with family and friends picking crabapples for your own use to the special tree’s owner and his family picking all the fruit and trading it. From there the owner added trees and hired laborers to work with him… Eventually segues into slave labor and disposable people who are supposed to disappear when “unused.”
These new Apple trees can be very delicate. Then it becomes difficult to raise them. You have to buy one instead of just popping a seed in the ground. Books sponsored by big corporate growers get written about how hard it is to grow apples.
Now, almost no one in this United States is willing to drop an apple seed in the soil in their back yard. I do. Most commercial trees are fertilized by crabapples so the children will be smaller fruited and hardier than mom. Think nutrient dense.
Stopped at the library this week and the helper complained about a free bushel of apples from her neighbor. She ate a couple then turned the rest into applesauce. She froze the sauce. I thought how nice, enough applesauce for the winter! Manna from heaven.
Crabapples make delicious sauce and apple juice or cider. I love to eat them too. I like some the bigger ones like Dolgo for eating fresh. The neighbor kids love to pick the tiny apples that look a lot like Christmas ornaments.
This happened without genetic engineering.
What I understand from my grandfather’s story is that food is medicine. That eating food dense in nutrients you feed your body’s own systems thereby allowing them to do their job: keeping you alive and healthy.
I ate many wild foods growing up, from little nibbles to entire meals. It was easy because the northwest had a good selection and we were never far from wild areas.
As an adult I have lived in cities. I could still nibble here and there, wild lettuce, blackberries from an empty lot, daylily buds, and so on, but not the variety or amounts I preferred. That is when I started combining my mom’s gardening with my dad’s wildcraft.
You could not buy those plants in one gallon pots in the nursery, so instead of eating one or two berries I started taking them home to “grow my own.”
A bit of trial and error supplemented with the plant’s desire to live worked well. Demanding work in the market economy with occasional garden neglect had my wild things outperform the European and tropical annuals we rely on.
As my gardens filled up with fruiting shrubs and native greens, I have planted fewer imports. I began to replace old standards like box woods with Sumac, blueberries, wolfberries, and so on. My flowers are more often oregano, onion chives, daylilies, sunflowers, wild violets, echinacea, and so on. Hanging pots are mints and make teas as well as beautiful scents next to doors.
My Texas garden was a marvel, sited at the corner of four ecosystems. My New Mexico garden is a learning experience backed up by plants’ desire to live. All my gardens have food as medicine.