Wild foods are one of the nature's bonuses: They come up on their own, like magic, often before gardens are producing anything to eat. They grow without tending and they're free.

In early times a knowledge of wild food was often the difference between survival and starvation. Many early people were nomadic gathers, who roamed great distances to eat wild foods in season, and who took all their food from nature's garden.

Today most of us couldn't or wouldn't take all our food from the wilds, but it's still a pleasure to gather what grows in our backyards and and the surrounding countryside. You can develop a valuable survival skill and grow familiar with nature's ways and cycles.

You learn to watch in spring for dandelions, dock and winter cress, the first green harbingers of a new start. To find them when they first come up is good fortune - because that's when they're mild-flavored and tasty. As they get old, they get bitter.

And then you watch the season's show Sheep sorreland chickweed make early appearances - and good salads. Sheep sorrel has small, lance-shaped leaves and a tart flavor. Sprawling chickweed has a sweet taste, something like peas.

Violet leaves and flowers are edible and high in vitamin C. You have to decide how much the patch can spare for eating, though and how much should be left to beautify the landscape. Most wild foods are common weeds and fruits that birds eat. People don't usually mind if you want to pick the weeds on their property, and they're often delighted. Just try to pick a clean, unsprayed spot.

Lamb's quarters, purslane and burdock are all common - and tasty: Lamb's quarters can be cooked like spinach. Purslane is succulent in salads, and burdock, stalks peeled, parboiled and fried in tempura batter, taste exotic and expensive.

Asparagus grows wild, usually only where it's escaped from cultivation. Young poke shoots are a country substitute for asparagus. The shape is similar, but the flavor can stand on its own.

Nature provides an abundant supply of wild vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and herbs, but to eat them you have to learn their language and habits. Eating wild plants you can't identify is dangerous. A few could kill you, and others could make you sick. Don't let that scare you - just don't pick anything you don't know. Start with easy ones and look for plant people to share their knowledge with you. County extension services, schools and plant clubs are good places to look for local experts. The best wild-foods education combines field experience with book learning.

Euell Gibbons' "Stalking" books are useful, but the pictures aren't clear enough for identification. A little book called "The Farmers Wild Foods Recipe Book" makes a good companion to Gibbon's books for the beginner. It has excellent drawings of common edibles and is available, for $3, from The Farmers' Way, P.O. Box 601, Taylors, S. C. 29687.

Check out libraries and look for books with botanically accurate drawings and local focus. And keep an eye out for good hunting grounds.

Wild food is an interesting satisfying field. There's a lot to learn, but you can pick up enough in a season to have a wild time.