Brother Simon created a stir when he appeared at farmer Farrin’s market stand to buy some crusty bread and sharp cheese. The whole marketplace erupted in sound. Word quickly spread, and it seemed the whole town had already spilled into the streets when the mayor arrived.
“Simon! Is it really you? At our last town council meeting we discussed holding a memorial service for you.
“When we had not seen you for so many years, we concluded that no one could live that long without the necessities of life.”
Overwhelmed by the concern of his fellow citizens, Simon’s voice broke as he began.
“When I left seven years ago, I never knew you would care about one old man. I am deeply moved by your affection.
When God created the world, He made it flourish with beautiful and edible plants. To survive, I used the knowledge of our wilderness which I learned from my father. He was a prize hunter and woodsman nearly a century ago, and would stay out hunting game for weeks, even months at a time. As I grew older, he taught me how to survive in the wild.
My vow was to eat only edible roots. The past seven years have tested my understanding of my father’s lessons.”
The next day ten youths came to Simon with a request.
“You have said that you learned to survive alone in the wilderness from your father. Your present health after seven years of application proves your mastery of this knowledge. Will you teach us what you know?”
Thoughtfully Simon nodded.
“Yes, boys, I will teach you, but first you must each promise that you will one day teach these skills to your children.
Let us begin with the roots which the good Lord created for our food. I will begin by showing you one edible root for each of you.”
Eagerly the youths set out to begin their lessons on nature.
Simon knew the woods like the back of his hand. Skillfully he guided his pupils to a marshy area deep in the forest. The boys couldn’t see anything but bulrushes in the area of the swamp where Simon led them. But, while they were looking around for something remarkable, he called their attention.
“Though they may be so common to you that you scarcely notice them, here you see one of the blessings of the wilderness. These plants, called cattail or bulrush, grow near wetlands. Many parts of the cattail are edible, but today we will focus on the rootstalk which grows underground. It is very mild, and has almost no smell.
After washing this rootstock or rhizome, it can be eaten raw or boiled. Or, you can dry them and grate the starch off the fibers to use as flour. Another way to prepare them is to crush the roots in water, after the starch has settled you can pour off the water and use the starch. If you roast the roots until they are black and peel off the black layer, the inside is enjoyable.”
The next plant Simon showed them was a small plant growing in a few inches of water nearby. The plants varied in height from a couple of feet to three or more and had loose clusters of green and pink flowers. He pulled a plant out, and showed them a thick, fleshy rootstalk which had been hidden underground.
“If you peel this rootstalk,” he explained, “you can boil it like a potato. The plant is called a flowering rush, and is found across North America near rivers and by lakes, ponds, and marshes.”
One the other side of the marsh where it was sandy, Simon bent down and pulled out a plant with a whole mass of roots with little half to one inch balls on the ends.
“This is nut grass, or nut sage, and it grows in temperate and tropical climates. You can tell it apart from yard grass by looking for its triangular stem (which differentiates it from toxic verbane), leaves in groups of three, and these little underground tubers that grow from the roots.
To get these little root tubers, loosen the dirt around the plant so they won’t break off when you pull on the stem. These nuts can be eaten raw, but are best when boiled and peeled.”
After this, Simon led the youths even deeper into the woodland to a place of dappled shade where there was evidence of frequent moisture.
“While many bulbs are edible, one type that is very easily identified is the wild onion. There are several varieties, but all have a distinct ‘onion’ odor – if it smells like an onion it’s safe. If it looks like an onion but doesn’t smell like one, it may be toxic.
The bulbs of wild onions can be buried from three to ten inches below the surface, and can have wide or narrow leaves. The flowers may be white, slightly reddish, or blue. Wild onions can be eaten raw or cooked with or without the leaves which are also edible.”
Nearby he pointed out a patch of garlic mustard to his rapt audience.
“In the spring and fall, when there aren’t any flower stalks, you can harvest the roots of this prolific plant.
They are spicy, and taste something like horseradish. You can recognize garlic mustard by its large heart-shaped leaves and onion or garlic-like odor.”
In the same vicinity was another plant Simon had eaten during his time as a hermit.
“This is a delicious plant. You can pick it out by its tall gangly stalks and bright yellow flowers. The Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, has many edible parts.
The root, or tuber, is best harvested two weeks after the flowers fade. This nutritious meal can be enjoyed raw or cooked, but is easily overcooked and is not very pleasant mushy.
Perhaps my favorite way to eat Jerusalem artichokes is to cut up the tuber and use it in soup. It is one of the world’s best soup vegetables.”
Near the edge of the woods, Simon directed the boys’ attention to a patch of little flowering plants with white and slightly blue flowers.
“This is chicory, a scavenger’s dream. The whole plant is edible – flowers, leaves and roots. The roots are tasty after they have been boiled. You can snack on the flowers while you wait.”
Related: 79 Edible Flowers in North America (with Pictures)
Simon directed them further east. As they approached a beautiful river singing on its way through the landscape, Simon pointed to a plant growing in the mud with arrow-shaped leaves. The youths were shocked by the size of the rootstock he dug up – over a foot long!
“This is the arrowroot. The roots can be yellowish or white, and resemble a parsnip but with constricted rings down its length. These tubers contain high quality, delicious starch. Wash the roots making sure to remove all the edible but unpleasant paper-thin scales.
Boil and eat, or chew the raw root and spit out the fibers. They are refreshing and healthy – and the younger roots will be easier to eat.”
Simon pointed out the common milk thistle next.
“The roots may be eaten raw, boiled, or baked. They have a purple flower, and unique leaves with milky-white veins snaking through them.”
On the way back to town, the boys realized that Simon had only shown them nine roots. But before they had time to ask him about it, he stopped and announced:
“Today’s lesson is almost complete. But perhaps you have noticed that I have only shown you nine of the promised ten roots.”
The youths nodded their agreement before Simon continued.
“The tenth root comes from a plant you know very well. In fact, most of you have probably had mothers who asked you to remove this plant from her flower beds at one time or another. But in reality, the flower of this plant is quite beautiful in its own wild way.
The dandelion is a forager’s delight. Like chicory, the whole plant is edible – flowers, leaves, and roots. A big plus is that the dandelion doesn’t have any poisonous look-alikes.
The roots are best harvested between fall and spring when the plant is dormant. Dig deep when harvesting to make sure you get the whole root. After cleaning, boil it to yield a delicious and highly nutritious food.”
Simon promised to take them out the next day to show them 10 edible flowers if they could name all ten roots he had helped them identify as the ten edible roots which kept him alive.