Edible wild plants

Edible wild plants and their role in nutrition

All sources of modern cultivated food once grew in the wild. About 10,000 years ago humans first began domesticating plants and animals. This so-called Neolithic Revolution resulted in a significant shift in human history.  Humans slowly abandoned the hunter-gatherer way of life for a more settled agrarian-based one. These new richer food sources gradually supplanted those found in the wild. However, even nowadays hunter-gatherer peoples or their direct descendants still exist in some parts of the world. Rather than resorting to agriculture, they take advantage of the gifts of the untamed nature.

Edible wild plants still thrive everywhere. We literally tread on them. One might wonder: in the age of (over)abundance, why should we still eat thistle and weeds? The answer is precisely because of the industrially processed foods, which lack nutritional value.  Even home-grown food is nutritionally weaker and blander in taste compared to edible wild plants. It is thus highly recommended to introduce edible wild plants to our plates on a daily basis, so as to enrich our healthy and balanced diet, and improve well-being. It is not necessary to exclusively or primarily eat wild-grown food, as even conventional dishes with added wild ingredients can open up a whole new nutritional universe. The satisfaction felt when one re-establishes the long-lost, but never forgotten, bond with nature and feels the increase in physical and mental strength is unparalleled.  The same can be said for getting to know, exploring, and using edible wild plants.

Approximately 3500 species of plants grow in Slovenia, most of which (about two thirds) can be used for consumption or medicinal purposes. They can be used as vegetables, spices, or harvested for their fruits. With some plants even their underground parts and seeds are useful. 

Useful parts of edible wild plants

Different parts of all edible plants, not just wild ones, can be used, each in their own season. For example, within the same species young leaves and shoots will be harvested first, followed by younger stem leaves, sprigs, buds, and flowers. Later in the year seeds and fruits will be picked, and, lastly, the underground parts in the winter. For instance, dandelion and wild garlic can be enjoyed all year round: young leaves are harvested in springtime and mature ones later in the season. Dandelion leaves can be harvested up to the beginning of winter. The buds are excellent in salads and for pickling, while the flowers are a tasty decorative addition to salads and other dishes. After the leaves of wild garlic have withered, we can harvest its bulbs provided that we are able to positively identify them. Dandelion roots can be used for various purposes from autumn to spring.

Harvesting seasons

In the spring, especially in the first half, an abundance of young plant leaves and shoots is available, which can be consumed as wild vegetables. The summer season is ideal for harvesting wild herbs. Certain vegetable species also thrive, especially weeds. In autumn new leaves of certain meadow plant species sprout. Fruits are picked in the summer and autumn, while in the winter it is harvesting season for edible roots, rhizomes, and tubers. Only harvest plants that you are able to recognise with certainty. This includes their underground parts.

Nutritional and health benefits

Edible wild plants on average contain three to four times higher concentrations of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and other bioactive compounds compared to cultivated plants.  They have an invigorating effect on the body and help to even out nutritional imbalances caused by the consumption of ‘civilised’ food, which is nutritionally poorer due to intensive farming and processing. They improve well-being and, depending on the strength of their healing properties, can even be used to treat ailments. They are ‘wild superfoods’ enriching our regular diet. Additionally, fruits, seeds, and underground parts are a source of sugars, starch, fats, and proteins.

Food preparation

Wild vegetables, fruits, and, most of all, wild herbs with their strong and hitherto unexplored aromas will introduce you to a whole new culinary world.  Some plants can form the base of dishes comprised completely of wild foods, such as a chickweed salad. However, wild plants are typically used to prepare ‘semi-civilised’ dishes, which also contain conventionally produced plant- and animal-based ingredients. It is recommended to use only basic, plain ingredients (rice, potatoes, cultivated vegetables, legumes, bacon, eggs...) so that the wild plants stand out in the dish both in terms of appearance and taste. The addition of fats and/or proteins is often necessary to tone down their natural bitterness and/or tartness.

Young vegetables can be eaten raw in salads or added to smoothies. Mature vegetables can be cooked just like chard or prepared in the same way as spinach.  Wild vegetables are also excellent in soups, stews, and risottos.  Aromatic and bitter plants can be added to frittatas and other egg-based dishes.  Nearly all wild plants pair well with dishes containing potatoes or legumes. They can also be used to prepare spreads and vegetable rolls. Wild herbs can be used in the same way as their cultivated counterparts.

Mature wild fruit can be enjoyed right off the plant (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, juneberries, etc.); some species, however, taste better processed (Cornelian cherries, whitebeam berries, hawthorn berries, etc.), or can only be consumed processed and preserved (sloe berries, barberries, rowan berries, elderberries, rose hips, European wild pears).

They can be used to make juices, cooked fruit sauces, jams and preserves, jellies, fruit cheeses, compotes, wild fruit wines and vinegars, liqueurs... They can also be preserved in vinegar or alcohol.  Dried wild fruits are perfect for teas and compotes. Fruits with a high sugar content are also suitable for producing distilled spirits.