If you’re a pet owner like me, you’ve undoubtedly Googled, “is (insert plant name) poisonous to (insert animal)?” more than a handful of times. But have you ever wondered why humans need to be told exactly what we can and can’t eat, while animals seem to just know? Why don’t we ever catch deer asking Alexa if Oregon Grape is edible?

Liz Mayer answers these questions, and many more, in her Wild Foods and Foraging class at Keep it Simple Farm in Redmond. Inspired by work of wild foods-guru Linda Runyon, Mayer designed the class to help humans regain some of knowledge we’ve lost over centuries of eating mass cultivated foods.

“We need to reclaim some of our wild nature,” Mayer said. “People used to just eat food from the ground then someone came and locked it up and made us buy it. This is really a break from society and a way to reclaim some of the things we lost through civilization.”

During a one-hour tour of the farm, Mayer identified and described well over 40 naturally occurring edible plants. Between all the picking, folding, twisting, smelling and chomping, I was only able to scribble 38 of them down. Before you start chewing on any old leaf, check out the rules of foraging from Linda Runyon’s National Field Guide, The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide.

Mayer suggests beginning with dandelions because they are easy to identify and entirely edible. While the yellow flower petals are sweet, the greens and stems tend to be on the bitter side – which is common for wild foods. Try one of these 16 dandelion recipes from The Prairie Homestead.

“Eating dandelions is a great way to weed the garden and try something new at the same time,” Mayer said.

Other wild foods you will likely come across in Pacific Northwest gardens and natural areas include Yarrow flowers and foliage, Bull Thistle root, Big-Leaf Maple leaves, white and red clover, Plantain (one of my favorites from class), Beaked Hazelnuts, Lilac, Stinging Nettle (careful with this one) and – of course – blackberries. Many of these plants grow abundantly in the wild and are packed with nutrients.

Mayer’s goal at Keep it Simple Farm is to increase the frequency of her wild foods class from seasonally to monthly. Her personal goal is to dedicate a chunk of time each year – most likely mid to late spring when leaves are new and fresh – to eating only foods she has hand harvested.

“It’s a big commitment because some of the flavors simply aren’t that great,” Mayer said. “Your body wants sugar and the intense flavors we’ve become used to, but that can be hard to find in wild foods.”

Why should I eat dandelions?

While it takes years of research and experience to take on a commitment like Mayer’s, wild foods can certainly play a role in living an Earth-friendly lifestyle. Foraged wild foods are organic and zero-waste, lessening our dependence on produce grown with chemicals, packaged in plastic and transported across the country.

Further, identifying wild foods can totally change our outlook on the plants around us. Sure, dandelion and plantain are considered garden weeds, but they’re also food and habitat for pollinators. Why spend hours in anger (or worse, chemicals) trying to eradicate them when you can pick them and throw them in a salad?

Here’s how to maintain a chemical-free lawn that’s safe to harvest wild foods from.

Wild foods can also help humans adapt to changing weather patterns. As droughts and floods become more severe, growing the same few crops in the same few places may no longer be viable. Part of adapting to climate change might include cultivating plants that naturally suit the growing conditions. For more on this, read “Eat adventurously to benefit the planet.”

At Emeraldology, we believe that having an appreciation for the natural world is a crucial part of living green. What better way is there to build this appreciation than by learning about the foods Mother Nature has placed right under our noses?

Featured photo: Oxeye Daisies from the edible garden at Keep it Simple Farm. Photo by Sam Wigness.