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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015


You Can Eat That? 
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 love. 

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 green.

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.