My Wild Food

Foraging for fruit on Chappaquiddick.

If she's hungry during walks on Chappy, Margaret Knight eats fruit along the way: rosehips and beach plums, or apples from a tasty wild tree, or grapes picked from her favorite fox grapevine (the grapes are red rather than purple). — Photo by Lily K. Morris

At the end of summer, our Island turns into a bountiful orchard full of wild apples, pears, and cherries, beach plums, grapes, rosehips, and autumn olives. This year the bushes, trees, and vines on Chappaquiddick, where I live, are especially loaded with fruit. Foraging along the edges of the fields and woods, along paths, dirt roads, and beaches, means finding food that is not only local and sustainable, but also perfectly adapted to take advantage of all the soil and weather conditions of the place in which it grew. In the same way that weeds and self-seeded vegetables in my garden consistently grow better than anything I ever plant, the wild fruit always grows better than anything in my home “orchard.” Sometimes I wonder why I bother planting at all. I may just go back to being a hunter/gatherer.

We keep a couple of goats on our land. It didn’t take them long to eat every living thing in the pen near our house. The pen looked like a barren desert. Since the area was all cleared, we decided to move the goats and plant an orchard there. It had a nice southern exposure, and the sandy soil had been well fertilized by the goats. I had visions of a tidy fenced-in orchard, and I did manage to plant a couple of pear trees there. At the end of the second spring, the pear trees were barely hanging on, but the peach tree that had sprouted on its own, next to the nearby compost pile, looked great and had lots of tiny peaches. Instead of an orchard, the area looked like a wild foods banquet! It was filled with lush green weeds, many of which were new to my yard, and which turned out to be edible and even delicious.

In the past few years, the wild foods movement has opened up the natural world to me in a whole new way. I’ve been learning about which wild plants are good to eat, and I’ve found out there is food everywhere. This means a lot to someone who sometimes gets low blood sugar on a walk, and at age 20, thought she would end up as a homeless bag lady. Now, 45 years later, I have a great home, I work for a committee that gives away money (Community Preservation Committee), and there’s food growing free for the picking everywhere I go. Life is good.

I must have passed on my old scarcity mentality to my son when he was little, because when he could barely talk, he used to ask: “There more?” before he would even take one bite. I still feel like I should pick every bit of ripe fruit out there and preserve it for winter. It makes me anxious to see all that food going to waste — but there really is too much to pick this year. My daughter recently reminded me that it was all right to just enjoy eating the fresh ripe fruit, that I didn’t have rescue it all. She said that in each year since she moved back to Chappy where she grew up, the wild fruit has been more bountiful than the year before.

There are some great guides as to which wild plants are edible or useful. I’ve been particularly excited about a book called The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair. Common weeds like plantain, dock, and mallow have lots of food and medicinal value. Many of those 13 weeds have taken up residence in the old goat pen. Other weeds growing around my yard are ones I’ve been trying to eradicate for years. Evidently, they were just waiting for me to realize their great benefit. This past spring and summer, I started making green smoothies with fresh thistle, dandelion, and plantain leaves blended with an apple, and the fiber strained out, which makes an amazing green smoothie full of vitamins and minerals. I’ve been drying other leaves for green powder to put in smoothies next winter.

This time of year, I always carry a bag with me (a bag lady at heart), and when I come home from a walk or a swim, I’ve collected rosehips and beach plums, or apples from a tasty wild tree, or picked from my favorite fox grapevine (the grapes are red rather than purple). If you’re interested in foraging for fruit, there’s probably a wild apple tree on a path or road near you — look for apples on the ground. The beach plums have been prolific this year, and the wild grapes are ripe. Autumn olive berries will be ripe enough to pick from late September through October. There is lots of variation in the taste of fruit from different trees and bushes, so if one is too tart or astringent, another might taste delicious. Don’t expect perfect wild fruit, although some can be — usually you have to cut up or cull out the wormy ones. It’s worth it, because they have a wild flavor that is tastier than any fruit you can buy. And it’s all free!

What to do with wild fruit

Eat it fresh or snack along a walk.

Juice: Drink fresh, use in smoothies, or put in sparking water. Freeze in jars, or in ice cube trays, and pop the cubes into a freezer bag for use all winter.

Jelly or jam

Fruit butter: Reduce in a slow cooker.

Fruit leather: Dehydrate on a cookie sheet at a low temp in the oven or dehydrator. Use for snacks or to add to granola.

Bake pies, muffins, or crisp — mix and match fruit.

Recipe for Autumn Olive Fruit Leather (thanks to Russ Cohen)

Rinse four or more cups autumn olives and place in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot with a little water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and cook over low heat for about ½ hour, stirring occasionally. Put the berries through a food mill, or press through a sieve, to separate out the seeds. Pour the puréed fruit in a thin layer into a dehydrator tray with a fruit leather liner, or line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Dehydrate in a dehydrator or in the oven at about 125º to 150º until dry, about 12 hours depending on how thickly it’s been poured. It’s dry when you can press a finger into it without finding any liquid fruit. Cut the leather up and store indefinitely in zip-close bags or jars, in a dark place.