Foraging With Plant Aficionado Tom Elpel

Four years ago someone recommended that I check out a book called "Botany In A Day" by Tom Elpel.  I bought the book and it quickly became one of my favorites in regards to plant identification. In a nutshell, Tom Elpel, describes how certain attributes of plants can be used to identify other plants (in the same family) no matter where you may be in the world. Even without reading the book, it's easy to understand how a concept like this is fascinating. That's why I jumped at the chance to do some foraging with Tom (and a bunch of other cool cats) at the annual Rabbitstick event in Idaho.

Elpel shows off a thistle leaf near the pond

Elpel shows off a thistle leaf near the pond

We set out with a goal to make a salad, mustard paste, and a few other wild snacks. After walking for a couple of minutes we came across a field that was full of salad greens. These greens were very similar to what I use for salads in Nebraska.

One special thing about Elpel is that he's always studying to further his knowledge of plants, that is, when he's not hiking, canoeing, instructing or otherwise exploring the outdoors. Like all good instructors he's easy going, and quick to admit when he hasn't fully researched a certain plant. He's probably best defined as a botanical geek, which I say as a compliment.

The Field

In the open field we came across mallow, clover, purslane and dandelion for our salad.

As Elpel remarked,"Most things that people pull out of their gardens are probably more useful than what's growing in the garden." I couldn't agree more with his statement. Everything that we harvested in Idaho (and almost everything that we harvest in my neck of the woods) have edible and medicinal properties, but this doesn't stop our society for classifying them as "weeds."

Author's note: Tom Elpel's primary job is writing books. He has written some real gems, and I'll be the first to admit that some of my favorite books have Elpel's name on the cover. I'd encourage you to check them out!

I've been searching all my life for a four leaf clover and Tom found one in 15 seconds...

I've been searching all my life for a four leaf clover and Tom found one in 15 seconds...

On the outskirts of the field we found some wild mustard. In these photos Elpel shows us how to collect the seeds and separate them from the other plant debris. Everyone in the group pitched in and we soon had enough to make a mustard paste. 

It was incredible to see how much food can be gathered from an open field. I'm constantly learning just how incredible "weeds" can be. In most fields (even in city parks) anyone with a basic knowledge of wild edibles can gather a large salad within a couple of minutes.

Blowing the debris away from the mustard seeds

Blowing the debris away from the mustard seeds

Collecting mustard seeds in a metal bowl

Collecting mustard seeds in a metal bowl

Showing off some mustard. It's... less yellow than the stuff at the store

Showing off some mustard. It's... less yellow than the stuff at the store

The Pond

When we were finished gathering out salad greens from the field we made a b-line for a small pond That was surrounded by cattails.

Author's note: It may be surprising to some, but cattail is actually an excellent survival food! You can eat the bulbs (found at the bottom, near the roots), the roots (carbs galore) and the white portion at the bottom of the plant. Other parts of the cattail can also be used for weaving, cordage, and tinder.

Although cattail is probably the most useful plant we gathered from around the pond, we also grabbed some thistles. All thistles are considered edible, although some are more pleasant than others. There's also a bit of technique involved when it comes to preparing them for consumption. I pulled off the edges of the leaves because as Elpel said, "it's like eating a hornet."

Photo courtesy of HOPS Press

Photo courtesy of HOPS Press

After everything was gathered it was time to cook and eat! I took the cattail roots over to the communal fire and roasted them over the coals for about 10 minutes to soften them up (think potatoes). The purslane was fried in a cast iron skillet with cocoanut oil and the salad was topped with a paste that we made by grinding the mustard seeds down and adding olive oil and vinegar.

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About The Author

Sam is a writer, adventurer, and founder of Woodsong who is best known for being runner-up on season 1 of HISTORY's hit survival series ALONE.  In 2011 his practical experiences over many nights in remote wilderness areas inspired him to start this blog! Sam’s adventures have lead him throughout North America where he has had the opportunity to learn from world-class outdoorsmen, and perhaps the greatest teacher of all, the natural world.

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