“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
– Wise proverb (often falsely attributed to Hippocrates)
The border between what’s an edible wild plant and a medicinal herb are often blurry, because wild plants tend to have tremendous health benefits. We make wild leafy greens a steady part of our diet, and go foraging for them almost every day.
Humans were foragers ever since we came into existence, so gathering plants is the most natural way to obtain food. It is great fun to go looking for leafy greens both in our garden and in the jungle. For instance, we were delighted to find a handsome specimen of a valuable and beneficial herb called Yaa Nang (ย่านาง; Tiliacora Triandra) in the jungle behind our house, and as the Yaa Nang vines we planted here are not yet big enough to allow regular harvesting, we take a walk through the forest to gather this indispensable ingredient for traditional Thai and Isaan food (like Soop Nor Mai [ซุปหน่อไม้; bamboo shoot salad], or Gaeng Het Pa [แกงเห็ดป่า; jungle mushroom curry]) or detoxifying and tonic drinks.
Our Food Jungle is already teeming with wild edible plants (who mostly didn’t have to be planted, although we introduced a great many species not yet found here), and as long as you have a moderate knowledge of your environment, starving is well nigh impossible – food is literally everywhere. Furthermore, many wild plants are almost invincible, drought-tolerant, and will sprout up again and again even after you chop them down multiple times (e.g. while clearing footpaths), making them the most resilient and reliable food source there is in our environment.
With no intention to brag, it suffices to say that we already are quite proud of our knowledge of wild plants – although we are still young, and we barely scratched the surface when compared to indigenous people’s knowledge. Through merely asking old people (who often know an astonishing number of edible jungle plants), researching on the internet, and occasionally trial and error (which caused Dave a burning throat for half a day once, and severe diarrhea another time), we now have a reputation as “experts in foraging” among our friends.
When we encounter a new species of plant we don’t know yet, we often use a very helpful and extensive (but sadly purely botanical and without information on edibility) Thai guidebook to identify them (ต้นไม้เมืองเหนือ: คู่มือศึกษาพรรณไม้ยืนต้นในป่าภาคเหนือ).
Being able to identify plants has a considerable spiritual impact as well. The forest is no longer a chaotic wall of green, but you are now able to discern individuals that you know by name, elevating them to the status of a person.
You start noticing differences between two trees of the same species. Trees become individuals with names, standing in communities with friends and families, and having close and distant relatives – and on every trip to the jungle you look out for old acquaintances and friends. You see them interacting with each other, each view a snapshot, time standing still for our human eyes, with scenes playing out over years and decades: a vine reaches for the next branch to climb up to the sunlight – will she overshadow the tree or does she merely want to share a spot for sunbathing? A strangling fig starts growing in a branch fork – will the branch rot off and release the parasite before the fig’s roots embrace the whole trunk? Two vigurous adolescent trees are racing to grow taller than the other – who will be the winner?
You learn to appreciate every detail of a given plant, whether the shape or venation of the leaves, or the arrangement of flower petals, since they might give you a hint about whom this plant is related to.
Finally you realize that your perception of plants has changed so dramatically that it is impossible to remember how it was to look at a forest and see merely an Indiscernible ocean of green. It becomes a part of your perception of the world that trees really are living beings, with ambitions, dreams, wishes, hopes, and needs, just like ourselves – although on different time scales.
Karn has extensive knowledge of edible wild mushrooms, so when the season arrives we go collecting mushrooms, too, and make sure to spread some spores in our garden as well – many species of fungi go into symbiotic partnerships (called mycorrhizae) with trees and provide them with nutrients (like phosphorus or nitrogen) in exchange for carbohydrates. This incredible interconnected underground web of mycelial hyphae and tree roots (often called the “Plant Internet”) leads to trees being more hethy and growing more vigorously, and fungi breaking down dead wood, leaf matter, and bedrock, making even more nutrients accessible in the process. Trees communicate with one another over considerable distances using electrochemical signaling transferred by mycorrhizal fungi.
The partnership between fungi and forest trees can last for several centuries, and during that time mushrooms (the “flowers” of fungi) will sprout up every year – so much for ensuring food security for future generations!
(For more information on fungi and how to use them for food and to enhance your garden, check out the books ‘Mycelium Running’ by Paul Staments [Ten Speed Press, 2005], and “Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizal” by Jeff Lowenfels [Timber Press, 2017])
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As of now there is no extensive work in English about foraging for edible plants in Thailand – this is why we thought it might be helpful for others if we compile a few easy-to-find and delicious edible jungle plants.
A few examples of wild plants we eat:
Baya is a grass that grows virtually everywhere in Thailand – yet very few people know that it’s edible. It actually makes a pretty decent basis for a salad!
This pioneer sprouts up everywhere on disturbed soil in dry season, requires no watering, and yields large quantities of tasty leaves and young flowers. The whole plant is edible raw or cooked, and can be fermented into Kimchi.
The heart-shaped leaves are unmistakable, and the aromatic smell and tangy taste make it a delicious snack and valued kitchen ingredient.
The stem of this plant is often added to Gaeng Som Pa (Sour jungle curry) and, while not edible raw (it burns your throat), has a refreshing fruity-sour taste when soft-boiled.
This member of the ginger family is very common, unmistakable for its bright red flowers, and young shoots and inflorescence are edible (and delicious – way milder than ginger) raw and cooked. The Semang hunter-gatherers of Southern Thailand eat this plant regularly.
Also a wild member of the ginger family, the flowers of this otherwise inconspicuous-looking plant are very delicious raw.
The large beans are edible raw, cooked or grilled, spicy, and with a very unique, strong flavor. Difficult to harvest if the trees are tall.
Tao Rang daeng
The “heart” (the inner core and growing bud) of this common palm species is edible raw and cooked, and very easy to eat – sweetish. Some older palms may yield Sago (palm starch) from the trunk, but the extraction is laborious and requires skill. Beware: the black, fine hair on the outer leaf shaft causes itching! Regular part of the diet of the Semang of Southern Thailand and the Penan of Borneo.
Wild snake fruit
The heart of this palm is edible but requires care to extract since the plant is very, very spiky. Edible raw and cooked. The fruit is edible, too, but only pleasant if fully ripe (when they develop a strong sweet odor) – when unripe it is extremely (!!!!!!) sour.
The heart of rattan shoots is edible raw and cooked, although a bit bitter in some species.
Maak Nang Ling
Like almost all palm species, the heart is edible – but requires a good knife and a bit of strength to extract. The leaf shaft can be used to make disposable pots for cooking and knife sheaths.
Bamboo shoots from all species are edible cooked, but some wild varieties might have a bitter taste, which can be avoided by changing the cooking water twice. Just peel off the outer layer and use the soft parts of the inner shoot – be careful, some species have fine hair that cause itchiness on the outside!
The heart of the wild banana plant is edible raw and cooked – rather tasteless, with a hint of cucumber. The flowers are edible, too, as is the ripe fruit – which, although delicious, contains more seeds than flesh.
The young leaves of this tree are edible raw, they are slightly bitter but leave a sweet taste in your mouth. Commonly eaten with spicy food in the South of Thailand.
Fairly common tree, which can be quite tall. Usually there are younger trees underneath an older one, the young leaves have a sour but pleasant taste and can be eaten raw or cooked. Common ingredient in Gaeng Som Pa.
Ta bpaet ta gai
The young leaves and shoots, as well as the ripe fruit (small red berries) are edible raw. Small shrub commonly found in the forest.
A small shrub of the fig family, whose ripe fruit is edible raw and slightly sweet.
This is a wild vegetable that grows as a tree in the jungle. The young leaves are squishy and taste like egg. Edible raw and cooked, and extremely delicious. One of our favorites!
The bark can be used to make strong and durable rope, used for fishing lines in the past.
A relative of Ton Mui (Clausena excavata), leaves are edible raw and cooked
Ton Mui/Mee/Khee Peung/San Sok
Leaves are edible raw and cooked, and are sometimes used as potherb because of the curry-like smell. Fruit edible raw, pleasant taste.
This lesser-known relative of the Jengkol nut (Archidendron jiringa) can be eaten in the exact same way: young leaves and shoots raw, and young fruit raw and cooked.
A common weed in tropical gardens is Mimosa Pudica, also called ‘sensitive plant’, because it folds up its leaves when touched. M. pudica is both friend and foe, since it helps increasing the fertility of the soil but at the same time is very spiky and occasionally makes weeding or walking barefoot a bit painful.
The flowers are edible, and juice from the leaves assists our body’s wound healing activity when applied directly on the injury (it has anti-inflammatory properties as well). Furthermore, an extract or infusion of the leaves and/or roots can be used to treat diabetes. Water extract obtained by cooking the roots of M. pudica was found to be very effective in neutralizing cobra venom – luckily we never had to try that ourselves!
When ingested by women in any form the root acts as a natural contraceptive.
Barleria lupulina is an inconspicuous-looking herb that is useful against bites from various animals, including snakes, dogs, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and other insects. Leaves and roots can be applied as a poultice and have strong anti-inflammatory properties. They are also chewed to bring relief from toothache.