Backyard Foraging

Backyard ForagingI found Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos while browsing through Broadway Books. I’ve read many food foraging guides, most with far more detail than this book, so I didn’t expect Backyard Foraging to be as mind-blowing as it turned out to be. It’s not a very traditional foraging guide. Most guides cover wild plants exclusively, some of which are often found in backyards. This book is perfect for the urban foraging because it focuses on common domestics in gardens. Wild weeds are more of an aside.

Sure it talks about the usual dandelions, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, and chickweed, and some frequently touted landscaping features that are native to North America like Oregon grape, prickly pear, and mulberry, but there are some really surprising ornamental edibles (some of which are lesser known natives, some exotic).

Hostas grow well in Maryland, where I was born, and they are even more abundant in Portland. According to Zachos, in Japan hosta is eaten over rice as a dish called urui. She recommends treating the tender spring shoots of this broad-leaved plant like asparagus.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) looks a bit like a cross between a day lily (in the leaves) and an iris  (in the flower). The flowers are edible raw while the leaves and stems make a cooked vegetable suitable for “eggs, soups, pasta or rice.”

The American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) in no way looks edible. The berries are bright freakin’ purple. They look like small gaudy Mardi Gras beads. I would never think to try beautyberry without Zachos’s advice.

Those are only three examples. The greatest surprise for me was that firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) has edible berries. We had a large firethorn bush outside the house I lived in as a very young child. Curious to learn about anything I could put in my mouth, I was disappointed when my mostly knowledgeable parents told me the berries were poisonous and only good for birds. Backyard Foraging tells me that after a frost the berries sweeten and are good for jelly “like a mild, sweet apple preserve.” I was misinformed all these years!

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