Friday, August 24, 2012

Foraging With Your Kids

Yummy Wild Carrots!

Gillian tasting maple sap
Given the opportunity, kids love to be out in the woods or in a field, searching for bugs and sticks, flowers and rocks. Showing them that you can eat some of those plants should not be scary, but fun. With a little caution, and plenty of encouragement, the kids will be able to positively identify many common and safe wild edibles. With simple explanations and repetition, children will absorb information without realizing they are learning something, they will just think that eating stuff outside is cool. Eating wild foods like greens and roots is another slightly sneaky way to get your kids to eat their vegetables, too! Give each child their own basket or cloth sack, let the older kids carry a knife, bring a magnifier, and let them collect some wild foods.

Wildman and Gillian
Gillian has always come out foraging with us. When she was small, we had her in the hiking backpack. Now she is seven years old and while she may sometimes be cranky about walking, she still comes with us every time. She can identify many wild edibles with confidence, and has several favorites like wintergreen leaves, dandelion flowers, lemony wood sorrel, cattail shoots, and every berry available. For five years now, we have taken tours with Wildman Steve Brill, and his daughter Violet often accompanies him. She is just a little bit older than Gillian, and that girl really knows her stuff! Wildman is working on a foraging book aimed at parents and kids, possibly an app too.

Black raspberries
Some of the best edibles to teach are the obvious ones without poisonous look-alikes. Berries like blackberries and wineberries are widespread and sweet, great first edibles. There are many different species, like dewberries, Himalayan blackberries, black raspberries, and more regional ones like salmonberries and loganberries. All are edible and tasty to different degrees. While most berry canes have thorns, picking them is generally easy and large quantities can be harvested. Freshly picked blackberries on a bowl of breakfast oatmeal taste way better than any store bought ones. Autumn olives are another berry that offer a taste combination kids love--sweet and sour. Their puckery flavor is a favorite flavor of all kids and most adults we show it to, and they are very abundant in Connecticut. They can be eaten raw, or cooked into a thick sauce and spooned over ice cream, or pureed and dried into fruit leather. Their silvery-speckled appearance is hard to mistake for any other berry.

Autumn olive berries

Gillian with some cattail-on-the-cob
Cattails are another good edible for kids, since the taste is mild and there is always the potential of getting muddy and wet. Gillian loves to eat the heart of the cattail shoots in the spring. It is tender and tastes a lot like raw cucumber, and relatively easy to gather even for a kid. Once you find a stand of cattails about 2' high, you pull apart the outer leaves, grasp the few leaves in the center, and give them a tug. The "heart" will pop out, and the bottom 4" or so is white and the part you want to eat raw. Another great part of the cattail comes later in spring, when the flower stalks come up. They will still be sheathed in one leaf, but are easy to cut from the plant. We then pull the leaf off, check for bugs, and boil up the flower spike and eat it like corn on the cob. The male portion of the flower is the upper section and has much more pulp than the female portion on the bottom of the flower spike, and can be used in a pancake batter and soup. Sometimes for the kids, it is the mature "hotdog" that is seen in summer and fall that is the favorite. While not edible, the mature hotdog is made up of the seeds, and it makes awesome tinder for camping.

Edible flowers are another fun food for kids. Popping off the big, yellow heads of dandelions and munching on the flower petals is great fun, and the kids can't seem to get enough. Violets are pretty and edible, and the taste is very mild. Lilacs are more fragrant, but almost flavorless, it is the thrill of eating a flower that will keep children happy. Black locust flowers are actually tasty, with a flavor and crunch similar to raw peas. Adding colorful edible flowers to a salad will instantly make it more appealing to any kid. We like to make jewel colored jellies from the fragrant flowers.

Sulphur shelf
Gillian is also really good at spotting mushrooms, probably due to her closeness to the forest floor. All mushrooms should be cooked before consuming them, so she knows to never put any mushroom in her mouth. She has a favorite wild mushroom (sulphur shelf) to eat, and can identify several other species already. We used to have a monetary incentive of a quarter for every mushroom she spots, and while it helped fill our basket, it also quickly emptied our pockets. We still try to make mushroom hunting fun by bringing a magnifying glass with us to examine some of the fungi we find. Get your kids outside, and show them a few cool mushrooms, even if they are not edible. Join a local mycological society to really get a great education and to alleviate your fears about poisonous mushrooms.

Gillian's puffball

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