Nettles, Milkweed and Dandelion: It's What's for Dinner for Some Urban Nebraskans

Lincoln, Neb. forager Adam Hintz said knowing how to find food in nature gives him a sense of food security, knowing that even if a natural catastrophe disrupts the food production chain, he can still feed his family. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Lincoln, Neb. forager Adam Hintz describes Solomon's seal, saying the tuber tastes like a potato. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Omaha filmmaker and educator Dan Susman shows children the "Truck Farm," which he and his partners drive across Omaha to educate children on how food is grown. (Courtesy photo)
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June 27, 2013 - 6:30am

Hungry? Just turn to a crack in the sidewalk or that abandoned lot next to the post office. That’s the ethos of some urban Nebraskans, who are taking the term locavore to a new level … or, that is, a really old level.

It’s a humid, windy day in southeast Nebraska, and Adam Hintz is hunting for morels. The mushroom, which kind of looks like a shrunken brain, is known for being elusive, and so far, nothing’s turned up.

But lots of other edibles have.

“This is a common milkweed,” Hintz says, showing me a patch of knee-high green plants with veiny leaves. “You can eat it in three different forms throughout the year.”

Want to learn more?

  • Lincoln forager Dustin Rymph is teaching a foraging workshop on July 19th at 6 p.m. CT for the Do it Ourselves Festival, held at the Lincoln Bike Kitchen (1st and Garfield streets). The workshop will include a preliminary introduction and then an optional walk-around: "Anybody with any level of knowledge on the subject is welcome, though there are many local wild plants whose names I don't know and I like to learn while I teach," he said.
  • Rymph recommends edible food guides by Sam Thayer
  • And, of course, there's an app for that

Common wild foods found in the Midwest

Here's a sampling of edible plants commonly found in the Midwest, according to Nebraska foragers Adam Hintz and Rymph.

Curly dock: The young tender leaves can be used in a salad; juice can counteract the effect of stinging nettles, which came in handy one day when Hintz's daughters accidentally ran through a field of them: “And they started crying about it, so I just ran outside real quick and found dock, and they were fine. And it impressed my in-laws quite a bit, like, ‘Oh, look what you know!” he said with a laugh.

Wild grapes: You can eat the berries or use the grape leaves, like wraps.

Stinging nettles: When the plant is young, they can make a good salad. When a little older, you want to cut just the top four inches off and boil it for a bit, and then you can eat it in stirfry.

Milkweed: Boil the shoots or pods and grill or fry them; you can also pickle them.

Mulberries, wild plums, crabapples: Can eat raw or turn into jellies and jams.

Cress: Use in salad.

Black nightshade: “When it’s fully ripe, it’s very, very good,” Rymph said, warning, “Never eat it when it’s green. That’s bad. No no no. And if you’re not sure that it’s completely ripe … don’t do it.” But when it’s ripe, he said, it has a sweet, cherry tomato taste.

Chinese lantern plants: Similar to wild tomatillos.

Cattail: You can eat this plant year-round; eat the shoots and green heads or use the pollen to create flour.

Dandelions: Flowers can be eaten whole, leaves and flowers can be used in salad, and you can also make dandelion wine.

Lots of attention over the past few years has been given to programs like community gardens or community supported agriculture, where you pay so much money per month for a box of food straight from a nearby farm. But some urban dwellers, like coffee shop owner Hintz, seek out more rogue food sources. Hintz is an avid forager, or someone who harvests uncultivated food – like acorns that fall along the bike path, crabapples on a park tree or dandelions growing in the backyard.

On this particular day, we came upon some Solomon’s seal - a tall, leafy plant with tiny white flowers – and Hintz pulled out the stalk to get to the roots.

“I’m going to try to eat this, and we’re going to see what happens, because I’ve never tried it before,” he said wryly before popping the white, rounded root into his mouth. “And ….. it tastes good. Tastes kind of like a potato, which would make sense, because it’s a tuber.

“You just take a little bit,” he added. “If you feel any numbing, you spit it out right away.”

That’s one of the main risks when it comes to foraging – you never know how your body will react to something, Hintz said. He recommended trying a tiny amount to start, like the small tuber of the Solomon’s seal, and if everything goes well, a slightly larger amount. Then, wait 24 hours before eating more, just to be sure. You also have to be careful about imitators, he said – poisonous plants that resemble nutritious plants. Hintz advised always bringing an edible food guide along when foraging.

Fellow Lincoln forager Dustin Rymph seconded that advice; he knows from experience what can go wrong, having one time confused edible chestnuts with inedible horse chestnuts.

“(Horse chestnuts) make you puke, and are toxic enough to make you feel bad for quite a long time,” he said. “Never do that.”

At this point, you might be thinking, dandelions? Nettles? Ew.

You’re not alone, Rymph said with a laugh: “Usually, people are pretty grossed out.

“To be fair, I’ve made some really gross meals with the stuff I’ve brought home in my day, and that’s another thing, is learning how to prepare it in a way that’s good, just like you would any other food,” he explained. “If you put a raw potato on a plate, people are going to be like, ‘That’s really gross,’ but if you cook up a potato really well, people think it’s delicious.”

Rymph’s goal is to eat one wild thing each day, and even though he lives right near downtown Lincoln, a city of a quarter million people, he said it’s not that hard.

“Oh, I mean, there are all kind of delicious things that grow in sidewalk cracks,” he said. “Anybody in a concrete jungle can find plenty of food.”

Guerrilla gardening

“What the next generation of farming will look like in our state, especially if we’re facing some of the challenges that scientists think we’re facing with drought and climate change and all that, I think farming’s going to look a little bit different 50 years from now than it does today,” said Omahan Dan Susman, director and producer of urban agriculture documentary “Growing Cities.”

One shape that future farm might take? Guerilla.

Guerrilla gardening is cultivating land that doesn't belong to you or is neglected; in the city, it often means planting gardens in abandoned lots. Susman offered the following advice for those who want to garden but don't have available land.

-Be wary of polluted ground - for example, lots of land in Omaha has lead contamintation. One way to get around this is raised beds.

-The best approach? Try to figure out who owns the land and start a conversation. They might be willing to have you care for the land if it's currently in limbo.

-The land use might be free, but be aware of other costs, such as seeds or water.    

Advice on foraging

Here are some tips from foragers Adam Hintz and Dustin Rymph.

  • Don't pick all of one plant; leave enough for it to repopulate.
  • Take note of the sources of wtaer and whether not the plants have been sprayed with pesticide. 
  • Know the poisonous imitators; a good rule of thumb is to memorize three characteristic of plants you like that no either plant has. 
  • Know what poison ivy looks like, and watch for ticks.
  • Foraging is like fishing – you don’t necessarily want to go looking for anything specific, but just see what you can find.
That’s one reason so-called foodies are getting into foraging, Hintz said.

“The different flavors that maybe a sunchoke will give you, or a nettle salad will give you, or dandelions, … that expands the colors that you can really paint with in a dish,” he said, adding that there’s plenty to go around, if you know where to look. “It’s kind of like the Willy Wonka thing – everything’s made of candy. Well, a lot of things around us are food, we just do not recognize it because if it’s not in a grocery store, it’s not food.”

That “food is all around us” message resonates with Omaha filmmaker and educator Dan Susman, the director and producer of “Growing Cities,” a soon-to-be-released documentary looking at urban agriculture. He and his crew visited about 20 cities and 80 different urban farmers across the country.

 “I think people are becoming a lot more aware about the connections to food and health,” Susman said. “So there’s been things like Michael Pollen with ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and (documentary) ‘Food, Inc.’ People often cite those types of things that have really reached more of a mainstream group to make people more aware.”

Apart from health, there’s also a very practical advantage to urban food production and foraging, Susman said: growing your own food – or simply picking it off the ground - can save you a lot of money.

But it depends on the state. Foraging on public land in California, for example, can result in jail time. In Nebraska, it’s perfectly legal to forage at Omaha and Lincoln city parks, according to department representatives.  A legal advisor with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission said it’s also allowed at state parks, though you need to ask the individual park superintendent for permission before collecting fruit or berries, specifically.

In the end, it takes practice, forager Rymph said. Every year, he learns more and more about what tastes good, when and where to find it and how to prepare it.

“I think mulberries are delicious,” he said. “I love using wild plums and crabapples of certain kinds.

“Cress this year! I finally found cress early enough ….”

Rymph continued, listing more than a dozen of his favorite foods to find wild. It might not be for everyone, but for some, it’s a way of life.



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