Recognising wild food plants and getting in touch with your inner ape

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Posted Feb 26 2013 by Dave Hamilton of Self-sufficientish
Dave Hamilton (left) and an orang-utan

A few summers ago I visited Monkey World, a picturesque Dorset home to mistreated apes and monkeys from across the globe. To my amazement I saw Capuchin monkeys picking blackberries and an Orang-Utan sifting through a lawn of mixed weeds, including noxious creeping buttercups, to pick out harmless clover.

I was particularly astounded by this as Orang-Utans are native to Borneo & Sumatra and the Capuchin to Central or South America, yet they can pick out plants seemingly unfamiliar to them and recognize them as food. Add this to the fact that both the primates in question were in captivity for most of their lives and it begs the question, how do they know what to eat?

Coming from a species of higher ape, more commonly known as human, I have to wonder how I, and my species would fare in the jungles of Borneo? Would I be able to distinguish food plants from poisonous ones?

It is tragic that we seem to have all but lost touch with this ability. At one time we would have perhaps innately known what was food and what might have us running for the nearest toilet, or worse still, the nearest hospital. I have heard rather dubious claims that people are ‘drawn’ to plants, yet I have known people ‘drawn’ to groundsel and ragwort – both highly poisonous! The truth is perhaps has a lot more to do trial and error than it does with a ‘magical’ connection to plants. Picking a little at a time and by this I mean teeny tiny amounts, just enough to taste on the end of the tongue, waiting to see the effects, then building up after a few days, is one way to find if something is edible or not. Even then, it is not foolproof, as mistakes can be made. We must have got it wrong at times – but those who did cut themselves out of the gene pool and wouldn’t have passed that information down to their offspring!

Add this passed on knowledge to the lack of outside distraction – no TV, no internet, magazines or even books – and our ancestors would have been able to be much more ‘in tune’ with their surroundings. Subtle clues plants give us would not have been lost on them. As we fill our heads with the latest celebrity gossip or how to use our mobile phones, theirs would have been buzzing with seasonal knowledge of the plants around them (and no doubt who was sleeping with who in the next tribe!)

So what can we do to regain this lost knowledge? Well the way I learned was to walk around with an expert whose grandfather had taught him. This triggered off more study and I bought myself Richard Mabey’s Food for Free and a few field guides of wild flowers, mushrooms and trees. I would cross reference my finds in as many books as possible and would use websites such Google images as a visual resource and Plants for a Future as a written one. Plants for a Future is a fantastic website – any plant imaginable is on there, it’s where I learned you could eat both Himalayan honeysuckle berries (not to be mistaken with regular honeysuckle!) and fuchsia berries.

I now teach about wild food and run courses all over the UK. For me it is a fascinating subject and when I’m hanging from a tree filling a bag full of fruit I know I’m in touch with my inner monkey!