By Anastasia Yandulskaya, PhD Candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology
Have you ever picked your food from a bush in a forest? Foraging for edible plants is a time-honored tradition. Our ancestors gathered fruit, seeds, and berries to supplement their diets. Today, foraging lives on as a way to not only connect with nature, but also to stretch money further.
In Syrian cuisine, wild food plants are a staple even during the best of times. But millions of people have been displaced and starved in the ongoing Syrian conflict, which began in 2011. An international team of scientists investigated if the war had led Syrians to forage for edible plants.
Living off the land
In a small study, the scientists interviewed Syrians from 26 villages in the Tartus governorate along the Mediterranean coast. This area has largely remained safe during the conflict. However, its economy has been disrupted by the war and foreign sanctions, which triggered price increases and food shortages.
Most interviewees, both men and women, had foraged for wild plants even before the war. Local flora is traditionally made into food like spice mixtures or side dish salads. But as the armed conflict tore through the country, foraged plants moved to dominate the dinner table.
Out of the 50 interviewees, 64% reported that they had increasingly been relying on wild plants for food since the beginning of the conflict. That included plants that grow around villages, like field eryngo that shines in salads. Plants from remote or mountainous areas, like akkub with its various uses in soups and stews, are now gathered less as traveling became more dangerous during the conflict.
For more than half of the interviewees, eating wild plants was a way to cut down on food costs. The interviewed villagers shared that the most popular foraged plants were the ones making up za’atar, a spice mixture whose popularity has spread beyond the Middle East. Foraged za’atar components included sumac, fennel, and wild pistachios.
Wild plants can also diversify the menu. Most plants named by the interviewees are foraged for their young shoots or leaves, like wild mustard and wild leeks. They can be boiled, steamed, or fried, and then eaten in salads or served with protein like meat or eggs. Other popular edible parts are flowers, which are added to soups, made into tea (like chamomile), or even eaten as snacks, like the beautiful pink flowers of the Judas tree that is indigenous to the Mediterranean coast.
Benefits of foraging
Even in peaceful times, eating wild plants can be a good idea. Going out to pick some wild plants for dinner could increase your daily step count and help you eat more vegetables. As many Americans could use more exercise and better nutrition, foraging for food may be a healthy new habit.
But before you dust off your hiking boots and buy a cute wicker basket to transport your trophies, it is important to keep some things in mind. First, not all wild plants are edible and some are poisonous, like wild parsnip or poison sumac. So it’s paramount to know exactly which plants can be picked and eaten.
Second, states and territories may regulate foraging. In Wisconsin, you can forage in state parks but may have to ask for permission to forage in federal parks or on private land. Make sure you know the rules before going!
Foraging for wild plants is a tradition transcending time and geography. It can be a rewarding and budget-friendly activity, if done in a safe way. Here’s hoping that soon, Syrians will once again forage for wild plants, not because buying food is too expensive, but out of respect for tradition.
Study: Sulaiman, N., Pieroni, A., Sõukand, R., & Polesny, Z. (2022). Food Behavior in Emergency Time: Wild Plant Use for Human Nutrition during the Conflict in Syria. Foods, 11(2), 177.
Peer-edited by: Karen Hock, PhD Candidate in Public Health