There is a popular notion that our Indians in olden times varied their meat diet with nothing but wild roots and herbs. This, in fact, was the case only among those tribes that pursued a roving life and had no settled abodes, such as the "horse Indians" and "diggers" of the Far West—and not all of them. The "forest Indians" east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes, particularly such nations as the Iroquois and Cherokees, lived in villages and cultivated corn, beans, squashes, pumpkins, and tobacco. Still, wild plants and roots often were used by these semi-agricultural peoples, in the same way that garden vegetables are used by us, and, in time of famine, or invasion, they were sometimes almost the sole means of sustenance.
To-day, although our wild lands, such as are left, produce all the native plants that were known to the redmen, there is probably not one white hunt-ter or forester in a thousand who can* pick out half of the edible plants of the wilderness, nor who would know how to cook them if such were given to him. Nor are many of our botanists better informed. Now it is quite as important, in many cases, to know how to cook a wild plant as it is to be able to find it, for, otherwise, one might make as serious a mistake as if he ate the vine of a potato instead of its tuber, or a tomato vine instead of the fruit.
Take, for example, the cassava or manioc, which is still the staple food of most of the inhabitants of tropical America and is largely used elsewhere. The root of the bitter manioc, which is used with the same impunity as other species, contains a milky sap that is charged with prussic acid and is one of the most virulent vegetable poisons known to science. The Indians somehow discovered that this sap is volatile and can be driven off by heat. The root is cleaned, sliced, dried on hot metal plates or stones, grated, powdered, the starch separated from the meal, and the result is the tapioca of commerce, or farina, or Brazilian arrowroot, as may be, which we ourselves eat, and feed to our children and invalids, not knowing, perchance, that if it had not been for the art of a red savage, the stuff taken into our stomachs would have caused sudden death.
Another example, not of a poisonous but of an extremely acrid root that the Indians used for bread, and which really is of delicious flavor when rightly prepared, in the common Indian turnip. Every country schoolboy thinks he knows all about this innocent looking bulb. He remembers when some older boy grudgingly allowed him the tiniest nibble of this sacred vegetable, and how he, the recipent of the favor, started to say "Huh! 'tain't bad"—and then concluded his remark with what we good, grown-up people utter when we jab the black-ink pen into the red-ink bottle!
However, not all of our wild food-plants are acrid or poisonous in a raw state, nor is it dangerous for any one with a rudimentary knowledge of botany to experiment with them. Many are easilv identified by those who know nothing at all of botany. I cannot say that all of them are palatable; but most of them are, when properly prepared for the table. Their taste in a raw state, generally speaking, is no more a criterion than is that of raw beans or asparagus.
It goes without saying that this chapter and the one that follows are not written for average campers—townfolk mostly, who know almost nothing about our wild flora. They are for the more daring sort who go far from the beaten trail, fend for themselves, and owe it to themselves to study matters of this kind before venturing into inhospitable regions. I have in mind more than one example of extreme suffering, and even of tragedy, that might have been averted by such precaution. Besides, there is a great number of people on this continent who spend a good part of their lives far back in the woods, where cultivated vegetables are hard to get. Having myself "lived the life," I know how insistent grows the craving for green stuff to vary the monotonous diet, and how profitable as well as pleasant is a little amateur botanizing with a pocket guide, such as Schuyler Mathews's Field Book of American Wild Flowers, which suffices to identify most of the plants on the following lists.