The mental health benefits of Wild foods
Mental health is something we need to be talking about more. I’m sure all of us have been directly or indirectly affected by this at some point in our lives. The figures are particularly shocking for men - the sad fact is if you’re a male between 20-49, the most likely thing to kill you these days is yourself. It’s a real crisis.
So how can plants help with that?
I want to share some of my experiences working with plants over the last decade and the benefits it has bought to me and many, many others. Like a lot of us I'm pretty disillusioned with the way society has been heading and have been trying to change my work and lifestyle. To live more simply and become more connected to the natural world. One step at a time. Pretty much everything I’ve done towards this has greatly improved my life, but nothing has had as profound and as immediate an impact on my own wellbeing as learning about wild foods.
As I said in a previous post: something very special happens when we work with plants. I don't know how to explain it, but there are many studies pointing to its benefits and spending time in nature. Without getting all mystical about it, It makes a lot of sense to me. For 99.99% of our history as humans we worked directly with and evolved alongside the plant kingdom. Collecting and processing food, fibres and medicines from plants would have been a part of daily life. It’s only very recently we've lost this connection. It’s a familiar, comforting feeling, like sitting around a campfire.
Just stopping to observe the plants around us can slow us down and bring us into the moment. A sense of beauty and awe. I’m sure all of us have experienced this magic of the plant kingdom at some point in our lives. it’s something we can cultivate and I want to encourage you to do more of it.
It seems like a very simple thing to do and it is.
Gardening and growing your own food are great if you’ve got the time. The downside of a garden is you need access to land. It involves lots of regular work and time and you’re confined to a particular space. If you step away for too long for any reason it can be a lot of work to start again.
Foraging is completely different. It's just learning how to safely and responsibly go about it. You don’t need any land. The whole world becomes a garden: full of amazing foods, fibres and medicines. It’s accessible to everyone, rich or poor. You can go out alone or with friends; you could even take the dog!
There are so many tasty edible plants out there, often the same ingredients that many of the top restaurants in the world are using.
It’s like a treasure hunt for adults. Paths you’ve walked along hundreds of times before are completely transformed. There is so much wonder to experience from the natural world when we take the time to stop and observe. You can have a lot of time or a little and it doesn’t matter if you miss a few weeks or even years. The plants will still grow.
I feel like foraging for food helps us much dive deeper than simply admiring plants. When you’re consuming wild edible plants you need to be 100% confident of what they are and be paying lots of attention to the plant and the environment, the devil is in the details. There are some very poisonous plants out there and it is essential to be cautious.
It's not about simply ‘taking’ from nature. Foraging encourages us to interact with our landscapes and reminds us we are a part of nature. All plants have fascinating stories. Learning them has completely changed my view of the landscape and my place within it.
We’re not all going to be surviving purely off wild foods (I definitely don’t and have no desire to), but there are many positives the increased use of wild foods could bring to our diets, mental health, environment and food systems. If practiced responsibly harvesting wild plants can have very beneficial impacts on local plant communities and ecosystems. For every bit of food we can responsibly harvest from the wild there is less ploughing, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, food miles, and plastic wrapping. All in exchange for a very enjoyable bit of time spent outdoors.
When we learn the names, life cycles, uses and ecological functions of wild plants we tend to have much more respect for them and are also more likely to conserve them. I’m sure there are a few bad eggs as there are in any walks of life, but all the foragers I know have a deep respect for the environment and are very passionate about conservation.
So how to start?
Just go for a short walk. Begin to notice the different plants around you. Get yourself a few books on foraging and local plants or head out on a workshop with a local guide, there's lots of us around the country these days. Focus on one plant at a time and slowly build on your knowledge. Wherever you are there are bound to be many delicious edible species. You don’t need to know everything or hold a degree to get started. Be sceptical. Take your time. You can't poison yourself just by looking.
Almost all of the foraging I’ve done is within an hours walk of my house. The more I've learnt, the less I realise I know; It really is a never ending journey.
People often moan about how we’ve lost this knowledge. But I believe now is the best and easiest time there ever has been to learn this stuff, and if I can learn it anybody can. There is so much free information and help available in books and online and many great teachers throughout the country.
Has working with plants helped you at all? I'd love to hear about other peoples experiences