By Alexandra Schaefers
Hiking is a popular NW adventure that we often treat as a combined exercise regimen and coffee date, cruising down the trail discussing our latest dramas, barely noticing the beauty we drove across town for. A fun way to slow ourselves down is to stop and enjoy wild edibles along the trail. There is a lot of satisfaction in learning a plant intimately enough to identify it, watch it grow along our regular routes, and wait for the perfect edible moment.
While it’s important to know for sure that you are harvesting an edible plant, we need to let go of our fear that nature is out to get us. “People feel spooky about wild plants,” says Don Boucher of Neighborhood Naturalist. “Their first thought is that all wild plants are poisonous.” He points out that there are poisonous plants, like daffodils, in the gardens around our homes, but no one sees gardening as a dangerous activity because we know which plants to eat.
There are poisonous plants in the wild but there are far more edible plants and it only requires a little study and caution to be safe. Boucher recommends knowing three to four characteristics of a plant to identify it positively. It isn’t enough to know the leaf-shape, for instance, you must know other characteristics like texture, the color and size of the blossoms, number of petals, etc.
Here are some of my favorite trail-side edibles that are fairly easy to identify:
* Thimbleberries have broad, five-pointed leaves that are soft and furry. The plants are generally waist high or a little taller. They have large, white blossoms and bright, raspberry-colored berries that are uniquely flat and bowl-shaped.
* Salmonberries are another raspberry-like fruit. The berries are shaped like blackberries but are a light salmon color that sometimes turns dark pink. Their blossoms are also pink. Their stems are prickly and their leaves are serrated, coming to a dramatic point, with two smaller leaves growing across from each other at the top of a larger leaf. They look similar to blackberry bushes.
* Many people find salal berries too pithy to enjoy, but I love their blueberry-like flavor. They grow on evergreen bushes, usually four to five feet high, that have shiny, dark-green, oval leaves. Their blossoms are small white bells, several growing along a single stem. The berries are dark blue and have a deep “x” in the bottom.
* After seeing the familiar Oregon grape listed in wild edible guidebooks I am eager to try it. Bouchon says the berries are very sour but have great flavor and make a wonderful addition to fruit jams and pies. The Oregon grape has prickly, holly-like leaves that grow in neat rows along a central stem forming a larger compound leaf that helps distinguish it from holly. It has bright yellow blossoms in large clusters and produces dusty-looking blueberries. Please do not confuse it with holly. Holly berries are about the same size but are red and not good for people.
There are also a large number of edible, nutritious greens that grow natively or as weeds in our yards and woodlands. John Kallas covers the most common in a wonderful guide for beginners, Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate.
One distinct green that you are likely to see on local hikes is oxalis or wood sorrel. It is a small plant that grows in single sprigs just a few inches tall with three large heart-shaped leaves. The leaves and stems are edible and have a strong, tart taste. True to its name this plant contains oxalic acid which can inhibit calcium absorption, making it unappealing for some people.
If you normally eat organic foods or otherwise avoid chemicals in your diet, it is important not to harvest plants along roadsides or anywhere people may have sprayed. The safest thing is to know the area where you hike and find out if and when they spray and whether or not they post signs when they do. Avoid harvesting near an area where you see a lot of dead plants; it’s probably been sprayed.
Also remember that Corvallis is a poison oak haven; your tasty wild edible may have a poison oak plant growing near it. It’s leaves look like ones you would see on an oak tree, appearing in groups of three, with toothed or lobed edges. In direct sunlight, it grows into a dense shrub, and in shadier areas it grows into a vine. To be extra safe, take a soapy shower and wash your hiking clothes when you get home.
If you want to learn more about wild edibles, John Kallas teaches classes around the state: www.wildfoodadventures.com. Locally you can learn more about plant identification through Don Boucher and Lisa Millbank at Neighborhood Naturalist. They host free monthly walks to teach the community about local plants and wildlife. Their website is also a great resource: www.neighborhood-naturalist.com.