I recently saw a television report featuring a middle aged man somewhere in Gujranwala, who eats wood. This set me on the trail of wood eaters (other than some known four hoofed herbivores) and their ilk. While I found scanty information on this category of homo-sapiens, I did discover that an early biped hominin species, named by anthropologists as Australopithecus Sediba, had a diet of fruit, leaves, wood and bark.

With my curiosity thoroughly aroused, I now set out to discover as to what members of the wild plant world could be munched upon and ‘amiably’ digested by the human body. I set out on a trek in the nearby hills armed with a pictorial book in my back pack, much to the consternation of my better half, who said I should perhaps go looking for ‘loco weed’ (a plant that grows on the North American Continent and is known to cause hallucinations) since my condition was much like someone, who had ingested some. This remark made this week’s piece all the more imperative as it would be proof that for once, ‘my lady’ was wrong.

Before any attempt is made to eat a wild plant, it would be advisable (in the interest of your love ones) to ascertain if it is poisonous or otherwise. The thumb rule to do this is simple - steer clear from anything that has milky or discolored sap; spines, fine hairs or thorns; beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods; bitter or soapy Taste; dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsley-like leaves; ‘almond’ scent in woody parts and leaves; grain heads with pink, purplish or black spurs and a three-leafed growth pattern. This list is just a ‘very safe’ guideline, since some edible wild plants will exhibit one or more of the above characteristics, but as the saying goes “better safe than sorry”.

It was during one of my ramblings between Thandiani and Nathiagali that I came across a sheepherder’s camp. A tantalising spicy aroma was coming from a steaming pot on the fire, while hot (but gritty) ‘rotis’ were being made on a rough looking steel sheet doubling as a ‘tawa’. Tired and hungry we accepted the offer of what looked like cooked green beans. We were told that these had been harvested from the forest and were safe to eat because their livestock thrived on their succulence. It would therefore be correct to conclude that anything good for the livestock was (perhaps) good for us (please make note of the word ‘perhaps’, which is my escape clause in case someone decides to harvest wild beans and cook them without ascertaining their edibility).

Burdock is a medium to large-sized plant with big leaves and purplish thistle-like flower heads that can be found in the forest land around Islamabad. Very popular in Japan, it has edible leaves and stalk, with the latter eaten after being peeled, much like its root which is boiled and eaten. It is however recommended that the leaves should also be boiled twice and drained to remove their bitterness.

Cattail is found near the edges of freshwater wetlands and most of it (including roots) can be eaten boiled or raw.

Clover characterised by its trefoil leaves, can be spotted in abundance in and around the Federal Capital. It can be eaten raw, but tastes better when boiled.

Dandelion is considered by gardeners to be an invasive weed with yellow flowers and seeds that take to the wind. The entire plant is edible from flower to root. Young leaves can be used in salads, but mature ones need to be boiled to remove bitterness. Roots also need to be boiled before eating.

Prickly Pear Cactus is found in many parts of Pakistan. It is tasty, nutritious and can be a life saver for people stranded in the desert. The fruit of the prickly pear cactus looks like a red or purplish pear - hence the name. It is advisable to remove the small spines and boil the stems before eating it.

White Mustard is a frail looking plant like Yellow Mustard except for the color of its flowers. It can be found growing in almost all areas and can be eaten in its entirety after cooking.

These are, but a few of nature’s gifts that we see growing around us and in most cases callously considered by us as weeds. They are rich in nutrients and in some dire cases can even safe lives. So dear readers, next time when you see an insignificant wild plant, take care – it may be food.