By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Nature's smorgasbord

If you’re amazed at today’s price for a bag of sugar, if you can’t believe the cost of a single apple, if you’re aghast at what the cash register rings up for a pound of coffee, take a cue from our forefathers.

Don’t grumble about the high cost of groceries. Do as our ancestors did: Live off the land.

They did it. Why can’t you?

You might be surprised at the diverse menu nature offers for free.

But, first a warning: Living off the land requires savvy, much more physicality and considerably more time to gather and prepare food than does walking a supermarket aisle.

And nature’s offerings include the poisonous. Living off the land requires positive identification of unfriendly plants that, if eaten, can cause death. Learn to recognize them by anatomical characteristics, habitat in which they live, the way in which they grow. Some plants also cause discomfort merely when they are touched, such as when you prepare steamed stinging nettles — said to be delicious. Some wild edibles, such as marsh marigolds, must be cooked before they can safely be eaten.

Stay away from poisonous plants such as water hemlock, poison hemlock, bloodroot and white hellebore. Avoid dogbane, spurge, jimson weed, nightshade. Do your homework before starting to live off the land.

In Eastern Oregon, although we were pikers compared to our forebears, we nevertheless had our handouts from nature. Venison from the deer that lived on our land was our major meat source. When we camped in the High Mountains, huckleberries provided us not only with a reason for those vacations, but with fruit, canned over the campfire, for winter pies, dumplings or sauce.

Jelly from Oregon grape was heavenly, as was chokecherry syrup for pancakes.

Elderberries were free for the picking, and some housewives made elderberry jelly and pies — but I was glad that Mother did not make elderberry pie. To me, those hard little berries were like BB pellets. And stay away from the red or white elderberry variety because they have toxic qualities.

We kids chewed the “gum” from pine trees. It was not as satisfactory as Wrigley’s. And on “daring” occasions, we smoked a variety of wild ivy.

In the spring before our garden came to life, and when Boyer’s Cash Grocery offered scant fresh produce, Mother dosed us with dandelion or mustard greens. I would gladly have sacrificed my dosage. I much disliked those cooked greens — although perhaps I would have appreciated the dandelion if Mother had been a vintner. And I have not made it, but dandelion salad, with dandelion greens, tomato chunks, small tidbits of sharp cheddar, crumbled crisp bacon, and a dressing of oil and vinegar, is said to be a gourmet delight. Langdon Cook’s “Fat of the Land,” available at the McMinnville Public Library, offers an intriguing recipe for Dandy Bread that calls for a cup of dandelion petals.

My favorite remembrances of dandelions as a kid pertained to the puff balls that remained after the bright yellow petals of the flowers had faded. We kids then blew the “little airplanes” off the puffball and sent them on their way with the admonition, “Children, go home.” When harvesting dandelions for any purpose, avoid gathering them from along the highway or any other place they may have been sprayed with chemicals.

Just as gathering dandelion petals would be time consuming, so, too, are many of nature’s offerings, such as the wapatos that were harvested by the Native Americans on the Columbia River. Wading out in the shallow waters, they used their feet to unearth the bulbs, which were about the size of a hen’s egg and resembled potatoes in taste and appearance. Wapatos weren’t found in many rivers, and never did my feet discover such when I waded the John Day.

Nor did ranchers in Eastern Oregon eat the jackrabbits or coyotes that were numerous on the ranch. Likewise, porcupine was not on our menu, although I have recipes for such and am assured that, properly prepared, the meat is “very good.” Muskrat and groundhog are said to be excellent table meat, but they did not come to our table. And although the raccoons ate Mother’s chickens, we did not retaliate by eating them.

Bullfrogs’ legs perhaps could have been harvested in considerable quantity at Magone Lake where we sometimes picnicked, but we did not avail ourselves of that offering.

But nature gave oh-so-many other gifts: lamb’s quarters, chicory, watercress (don’t gather from polluted waters), dock, wood sorrel, thistles — and, oh, those yummy cattails.

Think again if you weren’t considering thistles. Christopher Nyerges in “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants” (also at the library), notes that the stalk of thistle lightly cooked or eaten raw is the best food the plant produces, but thistles also have a small heart not unlike that of the artichoke.

The green flower stems of wood sorrel, a plant resembling clover, are more succulent even than the leaf stems, but the entire plant — stems, leaves and flowers — can be used in salads.

The leaves of dock, gathered in the spring, have a vinegary tartness, and wild dock pie is said to be quite tasty. Seeds of the plant can be ground to use as flour.

And put cattails high on your list of fine gifts from Mother Earth. The green spikes of the new flowers, when roasted and buttered, are enjoyed much like corn on the cob. Or gather pollen from the tops of the cattail flower stalks and blend it with regular flour for flavorful yellow-colored bread, muffins and pancakes.

If you’re low in Vitamin D, look to nature for miner’s lettuce. The entire plant can be used in salad. It’s so named because California gold miners ate the plant to prevent vitamin deficiency.

One offering supplied by nature that you may not opt to harvest is rattlesnake flesh. But one Monument woman, who staged rattlesnake hunts so she could cook them and remove the meat from the backbones for making jewelry, declared that the meat tasted much like chicken.

But the Good Earth offers many other options — and rattlesnake flesh is not one of her gifts of which I shall partake.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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