Wild Edibles Foraging: Don’t Knock It Until You’ve Nibbled It

Damn near every street corner and alley is a buffet for 34-year-old Sergei Boutenko. He’s a wild edibles forager who is all kinds of excited about sharing his passion for incorporating things we often consider weeds into an everyday diet.

This past May a group of eager-to-learn Tacomans joined Sergei on a stroll through the North End, beginning at 6th Ave’s Expand Yoga. They quickly learned two things:

  1. There’s more to eat on the average street than most would assume.
  2. Sergei had an interesting childhood.

“In 1998, my mom, dad, sister, cousin from Russia, and I hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail. We started in Mexico in April and finished the trail in Canada in late September,” he explained. It’s not an unheard of feat, but Sergei’s family had no clue what they were getting into when the hit the trail. They’d never hiked more than a day before.

Perhaps somewhat conveniently, they were raw food vegans at the time. So, when they ran out of food days before they reached a resupply point, they improvised and started foraging.

The curious are invited to check out more on that in the beginning of this video of the entire walking tour:

Just looking for the basics? We asked Sergei what three edible plants he suggests Tacomans forage for in town and incorporate into their diet. Here’s what he had to say…

1. Dandelions—Dark green toothy leaves with smooth main vein. Stems contain milky sap. Yellow flowers turn into puffballs in late summer. Rich in vitamins A, B, and C. Great for liver purification.

Add young leaves and flowers to salads, smoothies, sandwiches, wraps, and soups. Dandelion greens are also delicious in pesto! Add a generous amount of leaves to your favorite pesto recipe and prepare to be wowed!

2. Miner’s Lettuce—Round, disc-like leaves with a stem that grows directly through the center of the leaf. Tiny white flowers grow at the top of the plant. Rich in vitamins A and C. Greens and flowers are juicy and mild to the taste. Eat as trailside nibble or add to salads, sandwiches, and wraps.

These greens even taste good when you pile them on top of your favorite pizza. Miner’s lettuce is a great beginner wild edible. Even kids and picky husbands like its flavor. For this reason, I always tell my foraging students to cram it into their diet any way they can.

3. Douglas Fir Needles—Coniferous evergreen tree. Needles are flat and short. Rich in vitamins A and C. Doug fir needles help get mucus and phlegm out of the body. Eat light green tips in salads. Steep dark green needles in boiling water for a 2-3 minutes and enjoy as a flavorful tea on your next forest outing.

There is one must-know rule: “Don’t eat something if you don’t know what it is!

Sergei has screwed it up before. More than once.

“In the beginning, when I was less meticulous about researching what I ate, I had several instances when I poisoned myself mildly,” he told us. “Nothing too crazy, I either puked or broke out in hives. Minor as they were, I don’t care to repeat either of these states again.”

Before we parted ways I had to inquire about the cleanliness of food foraged around town, because, you know, dog pee.

“In short, I tell folks to use their best judgment when selecting an area to forage in,” Sergei shared.

“Basically, you want to try to find the cleanest area possible. Use your senses to determine whether an area is highly trafficked, sprayed, etc. It’s also a good idea to call your local parks office to determine if chemical sprays are being used, and if so, what types. Finally, there are a few no-no areas from which you should never harvest. These areas are: golf courses, apartment complexes, busy roadways (such as major interstates and highways), corporate offices, railroads, shipping docks, and super high-trafficked public spaces.

“That being said, if you’re too careful, it’s all too easy to go hungry because the truth is we live in a polluted world. So, we arrive back at the beginning…

Use your best judgement, but don’t go crazy beyond that. After all, most of the food we buy from the grocery store is either grown near a roadway or sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides.

“We eat store-bought food everyday and don’t get sick, most of the time. Our bodies are equipped with a liver and kidneys to account for small amounts of toxic substances. Thus, if you mitigate how much bad stuff you ingest, you will be just fine. Make sense?”

I dare say it does.

You’re welcome to connect with Sergei via his site, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

Photos by Nicole Slater.

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