I have long been an admirer of Vandana Shiva. Her work seeks to restore connections, tell the stories of the seeds, and, in the process of saving seeds, save humanity – and much other biodiversity – is inspiring.
Vandana Shiva is the keynote speaker at this year’s Slow Seed Summit, sponsored by Slow Food USA. I was invited to participate in this global, virtual conference where people from across the globe gathered, to listen and discuss the regeneration of our world’s foodways to advance good, clean and fair food for all.
I participated in the panel discussing Seeds in the Wild – Responsible Harvesting as part of the Seed Preservation and Food Security sessions. Fellow panelists were:
Anna Maria Rumińska from Poland – who is a chef forager & reenactor, culinary consultant, gardener, ethnologist, cultural & food anthropologist, architect, designer, educator, founder of the @Chwastozercy brand, convivium leader of Slow Food Dolny Śląsk, member of Polish Ethnological Association, placemaker, architectural educator, universal design consultant, native to Wrocław.
Linda Black Elk from USA – an ethnobotanist and food sovereignty activist specializing in teaching about culturally important plants and their uses as food and medicine. She is eternally grateful for the intergenerationalknowledge of elders and other knowledge holders, who have shared their understandings of the world with her, and she has dedicated her life to giving back to these peoples and their communities. Linda works to build ways of thinking that will promote and protect food sovereignty, traditional plant knowledge, and environmental quality as an extension of the fight against hydraulic fracturing and the fossil fuels industry. Linda and her family have also been spearheading a grassroots effort to provide organic, traditional, shelf-stable food and traditional Indigenous medicines to elders and others in need. She has written numerous articles, book chapters, and papers, and is the author of “Watoto Unyutapi”, a field guide to edible wild plants of the Dakota people. Linda proudly serves as the Food Sovereignty Coordinator at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, where she passes ethnobotanical and food systems knowledge on to her amazing students. When she isn’t teaching, Linda spends her time foraging, hiking, hunting, and fishing on the prairies and waters of the northern Great Plains with her husband and three sons, who are all members of the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota.
Then there was me – forager, locavore, invasivore, and activist, passionate about food, environment and community. So this is what I said:
We have lost many connections.
Most importantly, I believe we have lost our connection to food and, as a result, we are disconnected from our community and the landscape. Foraging for uncultivated food, and saving seeds, are important ways to restore these connections.
While saving seed and working hard to grow food and strengthen food sovereignty is an admirable task, I am beginning to think that perhaps it is a bit too much effort. Why don’t we just eat the food that is freely available beside us? It does not get more local, seasonal, organic than weeds – the food growing right around you, right now. Weeds are well-adapted to disturbed places, so they grow wherever you find humans.
In my town and in other places in South Africa, I host regular Weed Walks. I use these opportunities to surprise tastebuds and inspire people to re-wild their lives – even if only a little. I have observed that once they take a small step, they can’t look back and keep on moving forward to a more connected way of living.
Many South Africans dismiss the weeds as ‘poor people’s food’ quite unaware of the nutritional value of these plants. There is an isiZulu saying, “uyadla imbuya ngothi,” which refers to the fact that you are so poor, you don’t have anything at all and are reduced to relying on wild food, like an animal.
Paying attention to what is growing freely without any inputs, connects you to your neighbourhood in a whole new way. Surely, the plants beside us are offering the exact nutrition that we need if we inhabit the same place? For example: peas/oranges/gooseberries full of Vitamin C are abundant at just the time when we need a bit extra in Winter.
Humans (and animals) have co-evolved with landscapes – learning exactly where to find the food necessary for survival in a given season and developing our palates in harmony with the landscape. Well-known examples are the Mediterranean diet, or the Mexican three sisters – grown together and eaten together. Many species learn about flavour through their mothers’ milk.
For most of our existence, we have eaten according to our needs – influenced by our age, the environment, and the season – so how is it possible that we have lost connection to the food we consume, the ability to eat for optimal health? Nowadays, it seems that we pay almost zero attention to the idea that food is medicine.
I believe that strong community is essential in order to achieve anything, so I have put a lot of effort into building one. In the area where I live, we have an entrenched system of barter and exchange – both of food, goods, seeds and knowledge. We also have access to the best food grown in respectful ways. Our Reko Markets connecting producers and consumers are thriving. There is a strong ethic of environmental care. For many years we have been swapping seeds – in the process celebrating local adaptation and building resilience.
In urban spaces wild plants and weeds are vital for pollinators and any wildlife that manages to carve out an existence beside humans. So even if you do want to grow traditional veggies, remember to leave space for other creatures too. And definitely don’t harvest everything when foraging – be mindful, making sure to leave plenty for other beings. Pioneer weeds are part of the healing process – trying to return the soil to good condition – so for that reason alone, we should keep them.
A few of the Wild Seeds that I use, that are easy to find, nutritious and medicinal are Black Jack, Amaranth and Chenopodium. They are all cosmopolitan weeds – found across the globe.
Amaranthus – imbuya, tepe, misbredie, pigweed
Lambs Quarters –Chenopodium album, imbilikicane, fat hen
Amaranth is a well-known popular vegetable and listed on the Ark of Taste. Seeds are extremely rich in protein and high in lysine, which is unusual in plant food. Ideal to eat in combination with other grains like maize, wheat or sorghum. Sadly, most of the crop grown here in South Africa supplies health food shops, rather than alleviating malnutrition and hunger. It is quite trendy to pop amaranth seeds now – tiny fluffy, nutty ‘popcorn’.
Such a good flavour in these fresh leaves, The underdeveloped seed head is delicious steamed – it tastes like broccoli. This plant is related to quinoa, with plenty of protein in the seeds. It’s lovely cooked as a grain (if you collect enough) or simply stirred into soups.
BlackJack – ucadolo, Bidens pilosa
Blackjack is anti-inflammatory and well known for anti-cancer properties. Different studies have linked blackjack to a dramatically reduced risk of heart disease, cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many other ailments. Here the leaves are cooked as greens, and to make a tea.
For high blood pressure, it is common to make an infusion of the blackjack seeds. Pour boiled water over half a teaspoon of blackjack seeds, infuse for 10 minutes and drink.
An fascinating ice cream maker in Cape Town who focusses on indigenous flavours has used blackjack seeds to infuse ice cream! I have also come across a chef flash-frying them as a garnish.
The growing trend in foraging for wild edibles may be just what we need to set humans back on the right track, rebuilding connections to place and flavour. While restraint is needed when harvesting indigenous edibles, the invasive weeds I have described can probably be gathered in abundance. Perhaps we are even helping control their spread by eating them?
There can be little doubt that a respectful appreciation of the abundant life on Earth will guide us well as we find nourishment in the simplest ways of getting the energy of the sun into our bodies.
This is a recording of my presentation:
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As always, wonderful info and enthusing motivation Nikki! I’m going to try the Black Jack infusion. xxx
- Nikki BrightonChristeenThanks Christeen. It was a pretty stressful experience actually – first time for this sort of thing, and having to video it too because of loadshedding. Still, now i have a YouTube channel – who knows when it will come in handy!
Mbekezeli Phindokuhle Phakathi
Thanks for such an informative article. I so wish that I can preserve these weeds for the winter season. The elders have suggested drying, but I wonder if the taste and nutritional value remains the same. I would really love to explore this next season.
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