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WILD PLANTS USED AS FOOD.
The habitual use of wild plants as food belongs to a state in which man lives either amidst a very luxuriant or a very scanty vegetation. In both cases, in which the spontaneous produce of the earth contributes in any great degree to the support of families and tribes, civilization is very slightly advanced. In Europe, even in the countries least favoured by nature, and least improved by cultivation, wild plants are seldom resorted to, except in times of scarcity; and these visitations are becoming fewer and fewer wherever the arts of life, whose perfection chiefly results from the division of labour, are understood and practised. It will be desirable to notice very briefly the expedients which men resort to for the supply of their daily wants, in places where agriculture and gardening, whether from the injurious effects of an inclement climate, or particular circumstances of situation, or, what is more depressing, from bad government, are very far below the perfection which they are capable of attaining in countries possessing a moderately favourable soil called into fertility by free institutions.
Couch-GRASS, one of the greatest pests with which the farmer has to contend, -whose growth is so spreading and rapid, and whose vitality under the extremest drought is equally remarkable, contains a portion of nutritious matter in its roots. In the earlier periods of British history, when, from insuffi
cient modes of husbandry, arising out of insecurity of property, dearths were by no means of uncommon occurrence, the roots of this weed were devoured as one of the substitutes for bread.
In Africa, in those constantly recurring seasons of scarcity produced by the want of rain, the people apply themselves to gathering seeds borne by grassplants that have grown without moisture, of which they make a wretched bread.
• These people,” says
Bruce,“ appear perfect skeletons, and no wonder, as they live upon such fare *.” Denham describes a grass, whose seeds are eaten by the natives, that would appear the most forbidding of all vegetables capable of producing even the most scanty food. “ The whole surface of the country,” he says, been covered with a grass which produced a calyx so full of prickles as to annoy us almost to misery: these prickles were of the finest and most penetrating sharpness that can be imagined ; they attached to every part of our dress; and so small were the points that it was impossible to extract them without their breaking and leaving a part behind. If we walked, at every step we were obliged to clear them from our feet;-mats, blankets, trowsers, were filled with these irritating annoyances, so that there was no getting rid of them by day or night. In short, no part of the body was free from them. The seed from this grass is called kaschia, and is eaten t."
Wild pulse have furnished food even to the inhabitants of England in times of scarcity. The SEAPEA is a native of this country, and differs from the other esculent peas in being a perennial, the root penetrating deeply into the ground among stones and sands by the sea-shores. During a famine in the year 1555, the application of the seeds of this plant as an article of food was most extensively and efficaciously practised; according to Turner, thousands of families were preserved in consequence. It was found at that time growing in large quantities on the coast of Suffolk; and in the superstitious spirit of the age this seasonable relief was ascribed to the interposition of a saint: the holy man must, however, have been but an indifferent judge of vegetables, as the sea-pea is small, hard, and indigestible,
* Travels, vol. iv. 511.
and probably not more nutritious than the tare, or than many of the vegetables with which the woods and way-sides abound.
Whenever we picture to ourselves a single man or tribes of men living in a condition where cultivation is not practised, we fancy that they derive their principal support from wild roots. And this fancy is true, to some extent; although most of the edible roots which grow spontaneously are of little value. Many are acrid and some poisonous. Necessity, however, compels men to resort to this food under particular circumstances. Linnæus thus describes a very prevalent food of Norwegian Lapland.
Missen-bread is inade of the WATER-DRAGON (Calla palustris). The roots of this plant are taken up in spring, before the leaves come forth, and, after being extremely well washed, are dried either in the sun or in the house. The fibrous parts are then taken away, and the remainder dried in an oven. Afterwards it is bruised in a hollow vessel or tub, made of fir-wood, about three feet deep; as is also practised occasionally with the fir-bark. The dried roots are chopped in this vessel with a kind of spade, like cabbage for making sour kale (sour-crout), till they become as small as peas or oatmeal, when they acquire a pleasant sweetish smell ; after which they are ground. The meal is boiled slowly in water, being continually kept stirring, till it grows as thick as flummery. In this state it is left standing in the pot for three or four days and nights. Some persons let it remain for twenty-four hours: but the longer the better, for if used immediately it is bitter and acrid; both which qualities go off by keeping. It is mixed for use either with the meal made of fir-bark, or with some other kind of flour, not being usually to be had in sufficient quantity by itself: for the plant is in many places very scarce, though here (Tordjör
fen) in such abundance that cart-loads of it are collected at a time. This kind of flummery, being mixed with flour, as I have just mentioned, is baked into bread, which proves as tough as rye-bread, but is perfectly sweet and white *.
In Lapland, when the crops are injured by severe frost, the missen-bread is a seasonable aid ; happy is the peasant that has a store, to prevent
his resorting to the coarser food made of the bark of the spruce-fir.
A species of SILVER-WEED-Potentilla Anserina -commonly growing in some parts of Scotland, is held in much esteem by the inhabitants of the islands of Tiras and Col, where the roots are in times of scarcity made a substitute for bread, and have been known to form the chief subsistence of the inhabitants for several consecutive months. They are found most abundant in poor and exhausted soils, thus affording a most seasonable supply when, through the failure of other crops, there is a dearth of the ordinary provisions. These roots are similar to pars. nips in flavour; and are frequently eaten in Scotland, either roasted or boiled t.
In a cultivated state the CARROT is a nutritious vegetable. The root of a wild species is small, stringy, and hard, of a pale colour and a strong flavour, but without succulence or nourishment. It is indigenous to Britain, where it grows about hedges and way-sides; and, from its flowering head when the seeds are ripening, is in some places popularly known by the name of “the bird's nest." The PARSNIP, again, which belongs to the same family of plants as the carrot (Umbellifere), is a native of Britain, but its root is harsh and of an unpleasant flavour. Other plants of the same family, growing wild in this country, may on emergency
be * Linnæus's Tour, p. 351. + Lightfoot's FI, Scot,