Garden Detective: 'Hunger Games' foraging at home

Dandelions are a tasty addition to salads. Dandelions are a tasty addition to salads. Photo Credit: MorgueFile

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

OK -- a quick show of hands: Who hasn't heard of "The Hunger Games"?

The popular Suzanne Collins teen-novel-turned-blockbuster-film about life in an anti-utopia, post-apocalyptic America seems to be everywhere, infiltrating fashion, library events around Long Island and radio waves. And I'm about to use it to influence your gardening.

In a nutshell, the story, set in the dark and distant future, centers around the tradition of ripping children away from their families, thrusting them into the wild and forcing them to fight to the death until only one survives. (This is no Neverland.) So what place does this have in a gardening column?

One of the main characters is named Primrose, yes, but more important, the children of this society are trained to survive these "games" at an early age, learning survival skills, self-defense techniques and foraging, which involves identifying which plants are edible and which will sicken or kill you if ingested.

There are plenty of plants and weeds likely growing in your garden right now that can be eaten safely. Dandelion, lamb's quarters and chickweed leaves, for instance, make a tasty salad. Burdock leaves and roots can be added to soups and stews (cooking with baking soda helps break down tough fibers). Wild garlic grass can be sauteed. Young, tender plantain leaves can be blanched or sauteed with great results. And wild violets can be added to salads or dipped in egg whites, coated with fine sugar, allowed to dry and used to decorate cakes and confections, or snacked on as is.

Getting it right is key

If you want to forage through your property for edibles, you must be very careful about identifying them. Confusion with poisonous look-alikes is a real danger. For example, don't mistake lily of the valley for bear's garlic, because the former can prove lethal, which is why it's a good thing those fictitious kids were well-educated -- and why you should be, too, if you're going to put weeds on your table.

And unless specifically noted above for use in salads, be sure to cook them, as some plants can make you sick if eaten raw but not when cooked.

If you can't be absolutely certain you are correctly identifying a weed before eating it, pass it up. Better to find a substitute than to visit the emergency room, or worse.

Never eat any part of a plant unless you are sure the specific part is edible. Many plants -- even some commonly consumed ones -- have only one edible part. For instance, did you know tomato leaves are toxic?

Avoid picking weeds that grow in an area where animal droppings are found, and don't eat weeds found growing in areas that have been treated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, or near the side of the road, where exhaust fumes from cars are readily absorbed into nearby plants.

And unless you are a weed scientist or a well-educated kid from the 12th district, bring along an illustrated reference book, such as the 2000 book "Handbook of Edible Weeds," by James A. Duke (CRC Press, $107.95).

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