Story By: Hunter Haskins
David Bruce Leonard is
holding a weed up to my nose. We’re in a ﬁeld full of weeds not all that
different from the nondescript one in front of my face. “You can eat that?” I
ask. He nods. “It’s medicinal, too,” he says. “Helps digestion.” He ﬁres off
the plant’s names in Hawaiian (pualele), Latin (Sonchus oleraceus L.), English (sow thistle, hare’s lettuce) and, after
a moment, Greek (sonchus). This spiny, dandelion-like weed hardly looks edible,
but if I can trust anyone about wild food, it’s David. And Sunny Savage, who’s
picking weeds from a patch nearby. “Check out these baby amaranth!” she chimes
about a plant you might ﬁnd growing from a crack in the sidewalk. “That’s
medicinal,” David says, and launches into a discourse only an herbalist could
We’re foraging on a farm
in the foothills of Haleakala. It’s fallow, recently plowed and untouched by
chemical sprays for years. Sunny points across the verdant expanse. “These are
agricultural weeds,” she says. “They’re placeholders in the soil when not
cultivated. These just happen to be edible.” This is not what I expected to be
doing when I set out to forage for wild foods. I expected treacherous jungle
hikes or rappelling down a cliff to pluck a single, rare berry. This is more
like a nature stroll you’d take with your grandparents.
Like a lot of Island
residents, I’m concerned about our food security. We import an estimated 85
percent of our food, almost all of it by ship. I’m not alone in imagining
scenarios in which the boats stop coming. What if civilization collapses? What
happens during the zombie apocalypse, when the Mainland is overrun and Hawai‘i
closes its ports? Will we be able to feed our 1.4 million residents? How? Even
with every ﬁeld planted, it might not be enough —commercial agriculture
requires major inputs, most of which also come from beyond the Islands. When
things go south, wild food might be our only hope, and I want to know what and
how much is out there. But it isn’t enough for me merely to survive on boiled
sow thistle and raw amaranth. I want to know: Could we eat well on foraged
food? Could we create a forest-to-fork gourmet cuisine? To ﬁnd out, I recruited
two of the best wild food experts in Hawai‘i, both of whom live on Maui. Sunny
Savage fully lives up to her name when she hacks open a coconut with a machete.
“I stopped carrying a water bottle,” she says matter-of-factly. Sunny is
passionate about wild food; she recently wrote a book on the subject, Wild Food
Plants of Hawaii, just out in April, and gave a talk at TEDxMaui last year.
Sunny feeds her boys (ages 1, 11 and 48) as much wild food “as I can, all the
time,” she says. “It’s local and organic. I do it for taste, variety, nutrients
and gentle medicinal effects.” Not to mention the price, which is hard to beat.
Sunny’s yard is a mix of wild and cultivated plants that keeps her larder
David’s just as passionate
as Sunny, but he’s more interested in medicine than food. I’ve got a dog-eared
copy of his book, Medicine at Your Feet, in my backpack. It’s the result of his
studies at the Earth Medicine Institute, which he founded. His teaching blends
Hawaiian culture, Chinese medicine, Boy Scout ingenuity and what he refers to
as MSU (making s**t up). David is also an acupuncturist, and like many trained
in that tradition, he’s knowledgeable about herbs, both Chinese and Hawaiian.
Hawai‘i’s version of herbal medicine is called la‘au lapa‘au, which uses
fresh-picked herbs and nuts to treat a variety of ailments.
The three of us make our
way through the farmer’s plot to an area where ginger stalks with yellow ﬂowers
explode from a hillside. Yellow ginger is a fast-growing invasive from Asia
that’s common in shady, wet areas of all the islands; it’s pretty and fragrant
but otherwise a nuisance. Without pausing David picks a blossom and pops it in
his mouth. “You can eat that?” I ask for what seems like the umpteenth time.
“You can eat that,” comes the standard reply.
Yellow ginger, I soon
discover, has tender, bland petals, but the stem offers a shot of spicy ginger
essence. Sunny loves to sauté the unopened buds with olive oil and garlic. (I
later use them as a garnish for vodka sodas because, you know, research.) The
fresh roots can be used in stir-fry, for tea and to make candy.
But ginger seems to be the
exception. My nose and mouth are unimpressed by much of what Sunny and David
hand me. Leafy greens taste like leafy greens, never too far in ﬂavor from
spinach or kale. Chayote squash, which looks like a deformed pear growing from
a tangle of vines so dense it could snare an industrial mower, tastes like a
hybrid between a potato and a bland apple. The crunchy yet tender vine tips
taste a bit heartier and can be eaten raw.