Forgotten Foods

by Inga Yandell

Did you know the world has almost 1000 varieties of banana? My grocery only stocks one, occasionally two when cooking shows inspire ‘specialty ingredients’. This mono-cultivation of food has lead to a loss of diversity in flavor, texture, color, and nutrients—a multitude of varieties simply forgotten. Our guest post is by food author Rebecca Wood, her seminal book The New Whole Foods Encyclopaedia is a mighty tome of original superfoods. Humble, mostly forgotten foods which are under-utilised on today’s table, here are a few of her favourites.

Three Energizing Foods to Forage or Grow

Simply put our nearly forgotten foods have greater biodiversity, flavor, medicinal properties and nutrients than cultivated varieties.* They impart more oomph! Foraging for freely given food, humanities oldest profession, is satisfying. Look close and you’ll find a multiplicity of edibles such as dandelion greens from a grassy area, wild rose hips along a trail or mussels from a clean beach. There’s the intrigue of the hunt, the thrill of the find and the pleasure of returning home with booty. Plus there’s the feasting.

Foraging with my grandparents was always an adventure and we’d haul in ample meadow mushrooms, elderberries or asparagus to feed the clan. Seventy years later, I’m still at it and often with my grandchildren. Wild blackberries are a given in Oregon, miners lettuce features in our first spring salads and we collect sea lettuce from the coast. We also know which alleys have mulberry branches extending over a fence and into our fingertips.

I’ll detail three forageable foods that you may also grow in your garden. Either buy the seed or, better yet, transplant it from the wild. But here are rules for foraging our overlooked foodstuffs.

Identify plants carefully, since some varieties—especially mushrooms—are toxic. There are numerous regional guides available that help not only with identification but also, in rare cases, have local ordinances regarding harvest restrictions.

Gather only in areas that you are confident are free from chemical contamination. Do not gather along heavily traveled roadsides. Do not over forage. Always leave enough healthy specimens to assure their propagation.

Among the hundreds of nearly forgotten foods, here are three that are easily foraged and/or will thrive in your own garden.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)

That angelica is called “women’s ginseng” in Asia gives some indication of its oomph. In the west, it’s equally valued. As the medieval story goes, when the Archangel Raphael saw the suffering caused by the Black Plague, he revealed angelica’s effectiveness as an antidote, and so it was named on his behalf.

Though plague prevention may not be your concern, the odds are that many of us can use immune, energy, heart and digestive support. Angelica is a go to tonic for these concerns. While it’s especially good for women, children and the elderly and it’s also beneficial for men.

This carrot relative is a common weed found in moist ground throughout temperate and subarctic regions of the world. You can easily spot large and dense stretches of angelica towering among other weeds. It reaches a majestic 10 feet tall in mid-summer and its large, sparkling, starburst flowers are greenish white.

Despite its remarkable medicinal properties, there is not much culinary use of angelica outside of Asia. I invite you to be among the first of us to change that. For an early spring tonic, peel the young stems and cook like asparagus. Or use the stems and fronds as a flavoring agent for liquor. In the fall or the following spring, harvest the thick root for use in soups and stir-fries. Include the seeds and leaves in your herbal repertory (but discard the spent leaves as you would a bay leaf).

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

As I write this, our third snow of the year has cloaked my yard save for a vibrantly green stand of nettles. Unless there’s a hard freeze, all winter long I’ll be harvesting them and adding them to sautéed dishes, soups and teas. Nettles are that resilient. It’s no wonder that throughout temperate regions of the world nettles are valued for building vitality. They’re also tasty and—if you’re in a moist area—free for the grabbing. But grab with a gloved hand!

Stiff, bristly hairs protrude from the leaves and stems of nettles that can inject a stinging fluid into your skin causing temporary burning and irritation. This injection, which, like an ant’s bite, contains formic acid, increases circulation and provides external treatment for arthritic pain, gout, sciatica and neuralgia. Heat and drying destroy nettles’ sting. Nettles are a great tonic food that dispel toxins and have diuretic properties. They afford allergy relief, enrich the blood, and ameliorate high blood pressure.

Although nettles at first glance look similar to spearmint, they’re not related and are essentially the best known plant of their genus. This herbaceous perennial can reach waist high. Collect young shoots before they flower and set seed. Or dig a spadesful of their shallow roots and transplant to a moist, but confined, area of your garden, as they can be invasive.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

A near relative of the garden flower portulaca, or moss rose, purslane is valued throughout temperate regions of the world both as a potherb and as a medicinal herb. Give it room to expand and this annual herb with numerous branches and plump succulent leaves will quickly cover the ground. For my father, this “water weed” was the bane of his garden; it’s never reached weed status in my garden, as my and my chickens’ appetite for purslane keeps it well-trimmed.

It is an excellent source (and the highest vegetable source) of omega-3 fatty acids. Purslane supports digestive function and helps disperse toxins. It is a kitchen remedy for dysentery, constipation, urinary infections, hemorrhoids, and postpartum bleeding.

Purslane leaves and their stems have a slightly sour and salty taste. I add their flower buds, leaves, and stems—raw or blanched—to salads or simmer or stir-fry them in any vegetable dish. Their mucilaginous quality makes them an excellent addition to a soup or stew. Or pickle purslane seeds in vinegar or brine for “poor woman’s capers.”

Dandelion Greens (1 cup raw)
Vit A 2712 IU (54%), Vit K 151 mcg (188%), Calcium 103 mg (10%), Iron 1.7 mg (9%)

Broccoli (1 cup raw)
Vit A 581 IU (
12%), Vit K 89.4
1 mcg (12%), Calcium 41.4 mg (
4%), Iron 0.6 mg (4%)

Rebecca Wood lives and forages in the mountains near Ashland, Oregon. Author of The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia, she hosts a popular blog,

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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