I was walking through the Durban Botanic Gardens recently with my 8-year-old cousin. We walked through a spot where one might find edible plants. Without thinking, I grabbed a few leaves off a Tulsi bush, most might know it as holy or Indian basil, part of the mint family.
My cousin looked at me in disbelief. “Did you just take leaves off a bush and eat them?” Yes, child, I did. He was utterly shocked that I would eat something straight off a bush, not bought from a store or even from the garden at home. Just some random leaf in a public place.
Granted, I do need to start at least washing things before tossing them in my mouth, but, I’m still alive, so it can’t be that bad. The child’s reaction did make me think, though, what happened along the way that made eating something off a bush outside come across as taboo? Is it strange to go for a walk in the forest and think of plucking an edible leaf or flower to eat?
Our earliest ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Their food came from the plants and animals they hunted and foraged rather than from animals they raised or plants they farmed. When they began to domesticate animals and grow food in the first primitive gardens, they made choices about how to feed their livestock and what to plant.
While there are toxic plants, we should certainly be mindful of, experts say that perhaps the missing link in our nutritional health could be that we aren’t eating wild vegetables and fruit anymore.
How is eating wild veggies and fruit important?
In her book titled, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, author Jo Robinson states that changes made to wild foods have led present-day fruit and vegetables to have fewer phytonutrients than those that grow freely in the wild.
US non-profit health organisation, Produce for Better Health Foundation, defines phytonutrients (also called antioxidants) as essential compounds found in fruit, vegetables, grains, and legumes whose benefits contribute to our overall health.
In an interview with clinician and author Chris Kesser, Robinson shares that some varieties of wild apples are smaller, some the size of cherries, than commercially produced varieties. She notes that these wild apples have higher antioxidants than those we currently eat.
According to nutrition scientist Atli Arnarson, PhD, in an article for Healthline, antioxidants help protect our bodies against cell damage from free radicals, which can cause cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Could we benefit from eating wild dandelions?
Finding wild foods to eat that naturally grow from woody vegetation may prove difficult if you live in the city. There is, however, one wild plant (or rapid-growing weed) that is easily identifiable, which you can grow and incorporate into your meals: dandelions.
The dandelion plant is a herb with small yellow flowers. As noted by registered dietitian, Nancy Geib, in an article for the Cleveland Clinic, dandelion leaves, roots, and flowers offer many different health benefits.
An additional Healthline article and Medical News Today list dandelions as highly nutritious, packed with iron, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, and filled with essential vitamins such as Vitamins A, C, E, and B, possess antioxidant properties and have been proven to reduce cholesterol and inflammation in the body.
If you consider dandelions a pesky weed in your garden, why not pluck them, rinse them, and include them in your salads the next time you find them in your backyard.
If you want to incorporate dandelions into your diet, consider sectioning off a part of your garden or using a flowerpot to grow dandelions from seeds. Once they have sprouted, you can then harvest them.
Dandelion leaves are a delicious accompaniment to any salad, stew, broth, or mixed veggies.
Geib suggests brewing them into a tea with a sweeter additive like rosebuds or jasmine to enhance the taste. Decorate a birthday cake with edible yellow flowers for something more creative.
Geib cautions that when picking a dandelion from unfamiliar surroundings, you should ensure it’s not treated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals before use.
Be sure to consult with your primary health-care provider if you have any concerns about introducing wild foods into your diet.