Kids and Plants

My favorite time of year is slowly making itself known and before I know it so many plants will be popping up that I can’t keep track!  I have already eaten a delicious wild plant salad made up of: wild onion, cleavers, chickweed, dandelion, and lots of miner’s lettuce.  And tonight I am adding the young tops of stinging nettle to my chili dinner.

Other than stuffing my face with tasty green plants this time of year is a wonderful excuse to teach kids to appreciate and eat(!) the plants.  When I tell people that I teach kids to indentify, eat, and use plants as medicine many folks are pumped, some don’t get it, and the rest are horrified.  “You tell kids to eat plants?! They will kill themselves!!”

Yes, eating plants can be risky if you don’t know what you are doing or are not paying attention.  And so often I see the (somewhat misguided) schoolyard lore of certain plants and flowers having honey inside being passed down even from the time I was in elementary school.  Luckily those plants are generally harmless.  As instructors we do need to be very careful with how we are dispensing the knowledge of edible plants and making sure that if the information does get passed on at recess that it will be met with respect and care.

My biggest rule for teaching kids about plants?  Stun them with reality!  I say outright that some plants could KILL you with one bite.  And I am not even exaggerating.  Poison hemlock grows all over town and looks frighteningly similar to wild carrot and so we simply avoid any Parsley family plant in our programs.  This proclamation certainly gets their attention and makes them wary enough to view plant eating with respect.

Secondly we use a simple rule:  Ask First!  First ask an instructor or if not at camp then an adult who knows before a plant enters a mouth.  Then ask the plant.  And sure, you can actually ask the plant!  But also we are getting kids to pay attention to what the plant is telling them.  Does it look healthy?  Are there poisonous plants around?  Is it too close to a road?  Is it the right plant?  Does it feel right to harvest it?  I always encourage kids to give the plant an offering such as a hair plucked from their head in thanks.

Most kids are more than happy to put a plant in their mouth.  It is wonderful to see kids facial expressions of the more bitter plants like dandelions or hazel flowers since bitter is unfortunately a flavor our culture tries to hide.  Plants such as chickweed (Stellaria media), candy flower or Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytonia sibirica), dandelion flowers, big-leaf maple flowers (Acer macrophyllum), and lawn daisy flowers (Bellis perennis) are examples of some of the more favorite plants that kids enjoy.

I leave you with a video of one of our Spring Coyote Kids! programs from a couple years ago with kids enjoying their wild plant feast!

Coyote Kids Sample Some Wild Plants from Whole Earth Nature School on Vimeo.