Learning To Read Plants: Redefining “Eating Locally”

red mulberry treeThere’s several mulberry trees growing nearby my tent, where I am camping for three months in an effort to approach 100% environmental sustainability for myself. I was wonderfully relieved to discover that the trees near me are in fact Red Mulberry trees, a native species! This is in contrast to Paper Mulberry trees, which are an invasive species in many places, including Western Pennsylvania. I can hardly wait for them to ripen.

Since embarking on this three-month challenge, I have been thrilled to realize that I now know so much more about the plants in my locality. At a glance, I am becoming able to identify which plants are Virginia Creeper, Garlic Mustard and Poison Ivy, whereas I once would have glanced at the forest floor and called it “green.”

Unfortunately, the range of edible berries and other fruits in my neighborhood is slim. No strawberries, raspberries or elderberries for me. Invasive species have ravaged the remaining swathes of Western Pennsylvania wild land. Native species of edible plants, such as Pawpaw and Hackberry, are all but gone in the re-wilded areas of Pittsburgh, lost to the vicious fungi-bearing roots of Garlic Mustard or the insidious growth of Japanese Knotweed.

Especially for someone whose focus is to live sustainably, this ecological disaster is not another headline–it’s my own sustenance. It is personal. It means I will be eating more of my diet from the farmer’s markets and the dumpsters during the summer months than I pictured. Or possibly, than I should. With my increased ability to identify plants comes the burden of a common sadness. For now, I am also able to see how severely our region lacks its original biodiversity.

While there are several aspects of the way I live now that I would choose not to endorse for others, I wholeheartedly encourage others to experience this feeling! By living closer to my basic needs, I have gained an intimacy and connection with the ecosystem around me that is as priceless as the first ripe summer mulberry.

photo credit: Suzanne Long under a Creative Commons License

  1. Green & Clean Mom

    My family has been trying for sometime to eat local. We live where really nothing fresh is grown until summer, s this has been hard. Milk and meat during the winter are about it. Last summer we did a CSA and loved it but it was too much food. The CSA sells their fresh veggies at the farmers market and we’re planning to frequent this. When we did the CSA it was neat to learn about all the plants and what I could do with them.

  2. emmer

    could you plant some salad greens? radishes mature in about 30 days. lettuce and spinach in 45 to 60. sprouted greens and grains? edible flowers? dandelion and other weeds have tasty, nutritious leaves (pick dandelion leaves before flower buds swell to minimize bitterness).it wouldn’t be a lot, but it could be a welcome addition to your meals and it would be another step in the right direction.

  3. Caroline Savery

    I encountered the “too much food” issue with CSAs too. Now, I just make it a point to bike to the different farmer’s markets once or twice a week around Pittsburgh. I prefer doing that.

    Good suggestions, emmer, thanks!

  4. Jim Wolfe

    Perhaps I missed something? 100% sustainability? Tent? Clothing? What are you doing for water? It’s not rocket science, our own nation’s pioneers did it. Read Willa Cather. Read the diaries of the women who settled the plains states. Grow your own is good for everyone who can do so, but forgive me if I seem skeptical about your 100% sustainability yardstick. It seems like there might be an awful lot you’ve taken for granted. The pioneers also had firearms for hunting and protection against the larger predators (four-legged and two-) — what are you doing about that?

  5. FishMan

    yes i have been planning a nice get away i to am in PA not to many plants to eat here u are right i plan to fish legaly and have permit to carry firearm while fishing as well as hunting lisence u cant hunt coyotes 365 days a year in this state but i plan mostly to survive off fish and small game. i also learned how great acorns can be esp during cold months as well as dandelion for coffee and salad. but i mostly plan on smokeing and drying fish as i can catch 100 bluegill a day i belive is the limit with liscense. I have always hunted so i have no prob liveing off small game figure i will stick to low lands in spring and summer and head to mountains in fall and winter to gather. besides legaly not supposed to be camping out without a permit or building fires so i will cook at night mostly on hobo stove makeing sure im well secluded useing a pit for fire if need be and quick shelters so i can leave quickly if need be anyhow hope i can make it cpl years. i would never try it without a firearm thats for sure course u can trap but id rather have those cpl shots just incase! Really dont think this earth has much left in her with all the pollution that has been happening. So i want to enjoy as much of it as i can good luck with your exploration!

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