The Art of Grazing: Wild Onions

It's only a little dirty . . . .

It's only a little dirty . . . .

At what point in a survival emergency would you begin to forage for wild food? Is it when you first understand that you’re lost or would you wait until you were hungry? How hungry would you have to be?

If you’ve answered anything but that you’d eat when you first suspected trouble, you have a survival attitude that will create serious problems if you ever do get into a critical situation. You can’t wait until you run out of food and begin to starve. You have to do like any wild animal would do, and eat whatever is available when you find it.

I happen to like wild food, especially wild plant food. It’s the easy way to eat. You don’t have to know everything out there, you just have to know what is available in the area where you live. If that’s the same area where you hike, you’re probably an unusual person. Wilderness areas vary considerably in food quantity and type, so learning about the places you’ll visit on vacation is a really smart thing to do, and taking along a guide book for that region’s plants may be a worthwhile investment of weight.

In other times, people knew the lay of the land a lot better than they do now and could forage for plant food even in the winter. You can sometimes spot the dead stalks of edibles like dandelion and wild carrot, and with some strong tools worry the roots out of frozen ground, but the invisibles won’t be found unless you already know where they are. Winter is not a good time to get lost, because in unknown country you’ll be living off tree buds until you find your way home.

This time of year, though, if I got lost in this part of the country I’d be doing fine. Food might be a little monotonous but it wouldn’t run short. We did lose our jobs last year, and work has been come and go since then, but it does give us the time and the reason to go out and forage. We’ve been eating wild onions since they first sprouted in early March. That first pot of vegetable stew, with wild onion bulbs and tops, irish potato and a few seasonings, still sticks in my mind as delicious. Right now in late May the plants are mature and beginning to bloom. The tops are tough now, and the bulbs have gotten a little bitter, but they still add flavor and nourishment to a stir fry or a soup. As the bulblets swell on the flower stems they make a convenient roadside snack and a distinctive addition to a salad.

Wild onions are hard to mistake for anything dangerous. If you have any doubts, crush a leaf or a bulb in your fingers and sniff it. If you smell onion, you’re ok. If you eat enough of them, you’ll smell like onion, too.

Around here, onions grow wild by the ton, along roadsides, in fields despite the plowing and the herbicides, and even in the shade of woodlands. They are one of the first plants up in the Spring and one of the last plants to die down in winter. Changes are that even in the coldest month you could chop open a block of frozen ground and find some.

That’s just one. Walk a few miles around here and you’ll find dozens of plants you can eat. Some of them are delicious, some of them are the sort you’d only eat for education, but there’s always something close to hand.

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