Wild Plants for Dinner

Wild Sources of Fat and Oil

Paleobotanical evidence shows that hazelnuts (Cornus avellana), which contain up to 60 percent fat, served as a vital source of oil (so much so that it was even possible to pay taxes with them through the Middle Ages). The nuts of European beech (Fagus sylvatica) were also popular; the highest-quality oil was the one cold-pressed from peeled beech nuts.

During World War I, it was forbidden to feed beech nuts to cattle, as the nuts had to be kept for oil production. It is also likely that seeds of English walnut (Juglans regia), false flax (Camelina alyssum alyssum) or hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) were used to make oil. There is also evidence that flax (Linum usitatissimum) and opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) oils were being produced as far back as Neolithic times.

Cannabis sativa was also widely grown, as was rapeseed (Brassica napus) and elderberry fruits (Sambucus nigra), which poor families used to make butter. Ripe elderberry fruits could be boiled to release oily substances which were then collected from the surface. When the oily substances stiffened, they could be used as grease.

Wild Species of Fruit

In the early Neolithic era, mixed oak forests provided a natural supply of food. Many forest berries like strawberries and blueberries (Vaccinium mytrillus) are still being picked to this day. They were used to make a dense sauce with milk and honey, known in Central and Eastern Europe as “žahúr.” There are also raspberries (Rubus idaeus), blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) and cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus).

From today’s commonly cultivated species, there were mainly wild apples, plum species, and prunes growing in the forest. Cultivars appear first at the end of the La Tène period (about 500 to 1 BC), when the territory of Central Europe was inhabited by Celtic tribes. The transition from wildly growing species to orchards had probably begun when people were clearing forests and decided not to take down fruit trees and other useful kinds of trees.

Examples of picked (not grown) fruit, based on findings from the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze eras include European crab apple (Malus sylvestris), pear (Pyrus sp.), wild cherry (Cerasus avium), sour cherry (Cerasus fruticosa), common hazel (Corylus avellana), cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), elderberry (Sambucus nigra), danewort (Sambucus ebulus), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), rowan berry (Sorbus sp.), currant (Ribes sp.), common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), bladder cherry (Physalis alkekengi), hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) and bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara).


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