Finding and sampling wild edibles at school is something I’m willing to bet very few schools would allow, let alone encourage. I can’t recall exactly how I got started teaching kids about sour grass (oxalis), making acorn pancakes and dandelion fritters, and collecting wineberries; it seems like it was always a part of being and learning outdoors. Actually, they introduced me to wild onions, coming back from recess happily reeking. I didn’t grow up doing this, I am fairly certain. Though I spent a great deal of time playing in woods and fields, my palate was not adventurous. But when I started teaching science, I came across several foraging books that intrigued me, and I began to experiment myself with safe, easily recognized plants. Kids quickly became curious, and when I was confident of my ID’s, I let them try sour grass (“no more than three hearts”), shell and nibble on an acorn, and eat garlic mustard and plantain leaves. Sometimes, the taste would make them spit with disgust (an acorn’s tannic acid, or a spicebush berry’s powerful flavor). Along the way, I provided cautions regarding hazards: location (“Stay away from mowed areas, roads and paths) and plants to avoid (poison ivy, pokeweed, most berries). I was amazed at their accuracy in quickly distinguishing edible and poisonous species.
That spring day when, much to my astonishment, I found a morel mushroom growing in the Jemicy woods, I knew that I would have to draw a line between the kingdoms of plants and fungi in terms of eating wild foods with kids. Mushrooms demand a different order of attention and respect. The kids could see my excitement, and my concern, and seemed unfazed when I explained that they would be unable to eat these – unless their parents requested that they bring some home for them to prepare – but that they held great value for me. For the kids, the pleasure was in the hunt, and the delight of discovering another “brain on a stick” hiding on the hillside. They guarded the site and warned away anyone who seemed likely to trample the mushrooms.
This same protective attitude emerged the next fall when we found a dead log near the stream sprouting a wealth of bright orange sulphur shelf mushrooms: chicken-of-the-woods. Again, I exclaimed over this bounty, and the kids seemed both curious and glad that I would be able to enjoy them. I hope that they will bring this enthusiastic attention to fungi along into their own adulthoods.
When we take hikes specifically to search for plants, “Is it edible?” is almost always the first question asked. Curiosity about which wild plants can be safely eaten would seem to be an inherent trait, essential to survival. It also powerfully supports the notion that every plant can be regarded as affording some sort of human action, further stimulating the desire to know, to learn, to recognize what that affordance might be.