Foraging is one of my favorite activities besides farming itself. Picking Mushrooms, Chestnuts and Blackberries is very rewarding for nearly zero effort. But how come you never walk across a Potato plant or some nice tomatoes in the wild? Doesn’t it seem odd that you never walk across some commonly produced veggies in a forest?
Why are there no vegetables growing in the wild? Technically there are, we just don’t recognize them a such. Wild Veggies look quite a bit different from their domesticated Counterpart. They are generally a lot smaller and are often snacked on by animals. Lastly, common vegetables require quite a bit of sun and water on a consistent base, which makes it hard for them to survive in a forest. Wild veggies, on the other hand, evolved in these conditions.
Let’s start by comparing typical modern vegetables with wild ones.
Domesticated and wild Veggies
Unlike normal Eggplants you can pick up at any store now, their ancestors were quite small. Modern Eggplants have almost no noticeable seed and no spines. Furthermore, the typical purple-black color was also not guaranteed – white, yellow, blue were not uncommon in the wild version.
You can’t say Carrot without thinking about the color orange. Nonetheless, their ancestors were white/ivory colored roots. The earliest -cultivated-Carrots being domesticated in Central Asia (ca. 900CE), usually of purple or yellow color. Modern Carrots likely derived from the hybridization of wild Mediterranean and domesticated Eastern Carrots.
Cabbage, Kale, Broccoli, Cauliflower and Brussel Sprouts once were all the same plant. Their common Ancestor is called Brassica oleracea – a type of wild mustard. Isn’t it amazing how one plant can be domestication in so many different ways?
Corn was domesticated from a type of wild grass called teosinte more than 7000 years ago in Mexico. It’s hard to imagine how this grass became the modern corn plant. I always find it amazing to see, how far we’ve come with agriculture over time. We literally modified some grass to produce one of the most important modern food crops.
How did this difference come to be?
It’s all about efficiency. Why should we put a lot of effort into growing crops, when we can barely feed a few people with it?
Sometimes we got lucky, by random chance some plants mutated. Now they yield more fruits, are more resilient or easier to harvest. So we keep them around, try to reproduce them and make all of our plants into this newer, better version. Keep that up for thousands of years, and you end up with something that doesn’t look quite like what you started with. However, this new plant is way more efficient in feeding us.
Sadly sometimes good traits get lost as well, just because they are less important than the traits gained. Modern Veggies are not as robust when it comes to growing in the wild, simply because it wasn’t a priority in the process of domestication.
This is the main reason why you probably never see them growing in the forest. Still, Vegetables can be found growing in the wild, they simply resemble their ancestor more closely. We’ll take a look at a couple of Veggies you can spot in the wild later on, but let’s first look at another important factor.
Snacks for wild Animals
We’re not the only ones looking for better ways to feed themselves. Modern Vegetables are like a Jackpot for any wild Animals. You still wouldn’t see lots of Veggies during your next hike, even if modern Food Crops became adapted to these conditions.
Wild Animals usually don’t wait for their food to ripen as we do. If they see something edible and are hungry, then they go for it.
A lot of factors prevent domesticated Vegetables from growing in the wild, but wild edibles are still not uncommon.
Easy-to-identify wild Edibles
Wild Garlic: Is also a great edible present in many forests. All Parts of this plant can be used. Crushed wild Garlic leaves smell like onion and can easily identify that way.
When: Spring // Where: Damp woodlands, near water
Asparagus: Can also be found in the wild. Usually, the stalked of this variety are thinner, but can still be eaten. This plant is a good example of how cultivated plants can also sometimes survive in the wild.
When: Spring // Where: Open Areas, ditches and along country roadsides
Pigweed: Most gardeners really don’t like this plant. But it’s eaten all around the world. Leaves and Seeds are commonly used, as a nutritious alternative to spinach or grains.
When: Spring-Summer // Where: Open Areas, Garden Beds 🙂
White Mustard: can also often be spotted in the wild. Seeds and Leaves of this plant make for a nice meal. Just be careful not to eat too much of this plant, as sometimes digestive problems might arise.
When: Spring-Summer // Where: Next to Roads, Ditches
All the Berries: It’s not hard to stumble across wild edible Berries. They come in many different forms, namely: Strawberries, Elderberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, etc. They are a bit more tedious to pick compared to the domesticated plant but still work for a great snack.
When: Summer-Autumn // Where: Forest, Next to Paths
Can I just eat the wild version of domesticated Vegetables? No, sometimes the wild Counterpart to domesticated Vegetables can be poisonous. Be sure to identify any Plant before eating it, just because something looks similar doesn’t mean it’s also edible.
Are Heirloom Plants domesticated or wild? Heirloom Plants are still domesticated. Ever since industrialization, the diversity of cultivated plants took a large dip. Heirloom plants are a way to keep diversity higher and go against monocultural practices. So in short: These plants are not wild but tend to be less domesticated (or modified).