Some Plants Are For Eating

Happy Earth Day!  Before I get to my main topic, I’ve got some special offers to tell you about…

  • First, instead of buying anything, check out the beautiful photographs in the Capture Conservation photo contest sponsored by the Student Conservation Association!
  • UPDATE: The sale on PlanetBox stainless steel lunchboxes has ended, but check out our review of PlanetBox–Nicholas is now finishing fifth grade and still using the same PlanetBox he got at the beginning of kindergarten!
  • Grove Collaborative is having a one-day sale on 42 different Earth-friendly cleaning and hygiene products.  UPDATE: The sale is over, but if you’re new to Grove (formerly ePantry), you still can start your order here to get an additional $10 discount, and I’ll also get a bonus!  Here’s my article explaining what Grove Collaborative is all about, with reviews of many of the fine products they carry.
  • GreenLine Paper Company will donate ALL profits from today’s orders for paper products toward the planting of trees.  UPDATE: That special is over, but still, check out their wide selection of office paper, household paper products, and janitorial paper products.  Buy by the case and save!  (If you live in Pennsylvania, like I do, or nearby, note that GreenLine is in York, PA, so the shipping distance is short–better for the environment than shipping a long distance.)

As spring settles in and you begin to spend more time outdoors, you may have access to some edible plants.  It’s fun to graze on fresh food that happens to be growing right there in your yard!  But if there’s a young child with you, doesn’t that set a bad example?  You don’t want the kid to think that we can just grab parts off of random plants and eat them–he might eat some nightshade berries or poison ivy and get sick or poisoned or itchy!

P1020014Here’s my daughter Lydia on her first birthday, last spring.  Our yard was at just about the stage it is now, with spearmint poking up through the mulch of autumn leaves as the tulips, lilacs, and dandelions are blooming.  Lydia was very interested in all the new, colorful things, and once she had seen me break off some mint leaves and eat them, she wanted to do that, too!

I was surprised how easy it was to teach her that some plants are For Eating while other plants are Not For Eating.  In our yard, spearmint, chives, sourgrass (yellow oxalis/wood sorrel), dill, and purslane come up every year.  Lydia was very pleased with the mint and chives, which are abundant, and within a month was showing us that she recognized “mihtt” and “hifes” as she named them while picking them.  She was rarely incorrect in her identifications, even at first.  Apparently recognizing a particular leaf shape is not so difficult a skill as we might think.

Being able to recognize some plants that are For Eating didn’t stop her from wanting to experiment with others, though!  We did have to watch her carefully and redirect her many times.  It’s a lot like learning to stay out of the street–which has required surprisingly fewer reminders than I expected, actually.

P1020445As spring turned into summer, we grew two tomato plants in planter-bags…and a third one came up from the ground, apparently from a seed in the compost we’d spread on the yard!  Lydia was enthralled with picking her own tomatoes and eating them right away!

This brought us to another lesson, which proved more difficult: Just because a plant is For Eating and you understand which part of it is the edible part doesn’t mean that that part is ready to eat now.  We spent a lot of time restraining Lydia while saying patiently, “Red or yellow tomatoes are ready to eat.”  By 15 months old, she was showing us in many contexts that she understood the names of colors, so that wasn’t the problem–she just couldn’t resist the impulse to pick those little green tomatoes and pop them into her mouth!  We hoped that letting her discover that green tomatoes are hard and sour would deter her, but it didn’t, much.

Another plant in our yard is Not For Eating but is great for touching!  Lamb’s ear is soft and fuzzy.  Because it grows so well in our yard, we let the kids pick the leaves.  Did this teach Lydia that she can just snap the leaves off any old plant and rub them all over her face?

P1020205Not at all!  We also practiced Gentle Touches with plants.  At left, you see Lydia exploring a neighbor’s plants that are not only Not For Eating but also not to be plucked, smashed, bent, folded, spindled, or mutilated.  She did very well with them.

One of the most fascinating things about children one and two years old is long-term memory: Sometimes they forget all about things they knew a year ago or last month or even yesterday, yet other things stick with them through many months without being seen or mentioned.  When the first sprigs of spearmint were visible a few weeks ago, my almost-two-year-old Lydia exclaimed, “Mihtt!” and ran over to pick a leaf and put it in her mouth.  “I go in my garden, eat a mihtt,” she explained happily.

She recognized the chives as For Eating, too, but didn’t seem to recall their name at first…and when we walk around the neighborhood, she sometimes identifies other, similar-looking plants as chives and wants to eat them.  Usually, she’ll say, “Chive?” in a questioning tone as she plucks a piece of tall grass, and that alerts us to look closely and tell her if it’s Not For Eating.

Her older brother Nicholas wasn’t quite so interested in plants when he was little (and our yard was different then, with no mint at all) but I remember that he was very good at resisting the allure of the nightshade that used to grow along the sidewalk edge of our next-door neighbor’s yard.  The berries are so red and shiny…but we called them “poisonberries” and explained that we must never eat or even touch them because they will make us very sick.  Nicholas always stayed away from them.

I grew up grazing on spearmint, tomatoes, snow peas, scarlet runner beans, lettuce, green onions, parsley, and nasturtiums in my mother’s huge garden.  My kids are growing up with a much smaller yard, but I’m glad we can grow some edible plants and glad that Lydia is so readily learning about them.

Helping my kids learn about edible plants works for me!  Visit Real Food Friday and the Hearth & Soul Hop for more thoughts on how to get everybody eating what’s good for us!  Visit Simply Natural Saturday for more articles on a variety of natural-living topics!

17 thoughts on “Some Plants Are For Eating

  1. HI Becca,
    Excellent article. Your little girl is so cute and sweet – you must be very proud of her. It wonderful that you are teaching your children to appreciate and honor Nature – I wish everyone would. Thanks for sharing on Real Food Fridays. Pinned & tweeted!

    • Thanks! The pictures are from last spring/summer; she has much longer hair now and has changed in so many ways! Yes, I am very proud of how much she’s learned and her amazing cuteness. 🙂

  2. I think that this post was wonderful! It is so nice to be able to teach children where food comes from and grow your own food. It is something that you hear a lot about, teaching children about growing food and being able to eat what you grow, but I have never seen an article include teaching your children about things that grow in the yard and world around them that are not for eating and could hurt, injure, sicken or even kill them if they ate it. I think this was a great way to teach both your son and daughter about growing your own food and making sure you teach them things that grown that you should not eat.

    • Thanks! I remember seeing a film in elementary school about poisonous plants (and also poisonous snakes and spiders) and how to recognize them, but I think such education needs to start earlier. Also, that was about only the plants that are dangerous even to touch and the ones whose berries look appealing but are truly poisonous–it didn’t teach about how to distinguish food plants from plants you can eat without dying but they might give you a stomachache. I love being able to recognize mulberries and so forth.

  3. It’s terrific that you’re teaching your children to respect the plants and ways to recognize them and their uses–and tastes. I did much the same with my little ones. Sadly, here in the city, we daren’t eat even edible plants we might find in the parks as we never know what–or who–might have used them as a potty. No sucking the sweetness from the bottom of a blade of grass here! Lucky, your children, getting to grow up in a clean yard undefiled by critters or people.

    • Oh, it’s not as idyllic as you are picturing! We live in Pittsburgh in a row house with a front yard about 12 feet deep. Dog-walkers pass sometimes, so there is a possibility that our mint near the street is peed on. All the plants are probably coated in a light layer of filth from air pollution–our street is not busy, but no part of the yard is very far from the street, and we are one block from a main street used by diesel buses and half a mile from an interstate highway! I just try not to worry about it….

      We do avoid eating plants in parks or other people’s yards, but I am thinking more about pesticides. When I was in elementary school, one day at recess kids started to eat mulberries from a tree we thought was on school proprty, but it actually was in an unfenced yard adjoining the school. When the homeowner looked out a window, she came racing out to tell us the tree had been sprayed. After she put the school in contact with the spraying company, we all were taken to the ER for a laxative to get the poison out of our systems rapidly! Scary…and yet, when my daily walk to work used to take me under a mulberry tree, I would eat one berry a day in season, because it looked to me like the sort of apartment building whose landlord would not bother to spray the trees, and as far as I could tell I was right about that. Mmm, mulberries….

  4. I’m so glad you shared this post with us at the Hearth and Soul Hop. It’s so important to make our children comfortable in the garden and with plants but equally to make sure they are cautious and understand that some plants are not for eating. I’ll be featuring your post at this week’s hop! Look forward to seeing you there!

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