2013 Plant Talk 6 Temperate Wild Food Plants

Plant Talk  6                                   

Greetings Plant Enthusiasts!

Spring is in full swing…Recently i went to the Society of Ethnobiology Conference in Denton, TX for a week and came back to Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Clammy Locust (Robinia hispida), Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Irises (Iris spp.), and Roses (Rosa spp.) in full bloom. Rugosa Rose (Rosa rugosa) is one of my favorites for its lovely smell and big hips though it can be a bit invasive at times. Scarlet Hibiscus  (Hibiscus coccineus) from the immenently edible Malvaceae like the one to the right will soon be starting bloom. Enough to make one swoon. i edited this class from the home of Alan Dehmer and Beth Robinson who are two of Frank Cook’s best friends down near Chapel Hill, NC. i as down there for the premier the Frank Cook tribute film commissioned by Plants and Healers International at Pickard’s Mountain last Saturday evening www.pickardsmountain.org

So many great events are coming up in the region for me and many other awesome teachers  including Food for Life, Medicine’s from the Earth, an Ethnobotany Intensive i will be co-teaching with Mycol Stevens at the Hostel in the Forest, the amazing Firefly Gathering with over 200 classes and its own ethnobotany intensive and finally rounding out the month with the annual Society of Economic Botany conference this year in England where i will be presenting about this class and website. Whew, what a whirlwind!

Well without further adieu...

Wild Foods Overview

Below is a modification of a paper i wrote in graduate school a few years ago about wild plant food use in Appalachia. The information is mostly germane to the eastern U.S. but can often be extrapolated to other temperate places too. It is written mostly from a historical perspective as it was originally composed for an Appalachian history class. However, i intend in this current rendition to weave in ideas i have picked up from other areas along the way in recent years.

i would love to do all of this from a Western and Eastern American and ultimately European and beyond perspective blended together. However, the bigger 25 page paper of which this is a distillation below took me around 70 hours of research and writing. So i will defer to occasional commentary from a western and also other locational direction.

i discovered in my research the use of approximately 165 wild edible plants in Appalachia in the 1800s and early 1900s. Approximately 175 additional wild edible plants were found to occur within the region that may have been used at some point in time by natives or settlers and could currently be put into use.

The modern cookbooks of Appalachia that cover wild foods typically fall into two categories. Some native sons and daughters have written in a way to celebrate their heritage without falling into stereotypes. The three authors that exemplify this style are Sidney Saylor Farr, Mark Sohn and Joseph Dabney (Dabney, 1998; Farr, 1983, 1995; Sohn, 1996, 1998, 2005). These writers provide a wealth of knowledge about Appalachian cooking in general sprinkled with oral history from their own experiences and also extensive interviews with elders. The famous Foxfire books provide further direct insight into wild food use in Appalachia (Page & Wigginton, 1992; Wigginton, 1972, 1973, 1973). The other type of Appalachian Cookbook that features wild edibles plays into stereotypical hillbilly conceptions using vernacular terms for recipes and ingredients while proposing to honor hundreds of years of heritage (Ozark Maid Candies (Osaage Beach, Mo.), 1966; Ryan, 1966; Shelton, 1964, 1973; Tate, 1968). These books are still available in gas stations and other touristic places today and offer interesting cultural insights if not taken literally and out of context.

Even when wild plants are mentioned in contemporary cookbooks diversity is greatly lacking. The prevailing plants are included in a table below

Blackberry (Rubus spp.) Rosaceae

Paw paw (Asimina triloba) Annonaceae

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Asteraceae

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) Ebenaceae

Grapes (Vitis spp.) Vitaceae

Poke (Phytolacca americana) Phytolaccaceae

Hickory (Carya spp.) Juglandaceae

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) Alliaceae

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) Chenopodiaceae

Sassafrass (Sassafras albidum) Lauraceae

 Creasie greens which include a number of genera and species in the Brassicaceae (Barbarea spp., Cardamine spp.,) are popular and nutritious edibles in Appalachia and all over the temperate world.

Poke in the Phytolaccaceae is an outlier in that it is a small mostly tropical American family and can be poisonous if used improperly. The greens are an incredible food that was once even sold commercially. Only the early spring greens prior to turning red can be COOKED IN MULTIPLE CHANGES OF WATER FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES before being consumed. It is a spring ritual cleaning green that helps detoxify the body in particular the lymph system. The term Poke salad or salat is confusing as we often think of salad as a raw preparation. Rarely were greens historically eaten raw in Appalachia and salad was most often wilted with some kind of grease before consumption.

Sassafras is more of an eastern U.S. plant also used in spring cleansing around Appalachia (Nordhaus, 2006; Wigginton, 1977). Some controversy arose about the safety of this plant in the 1970s (Segelman AB, 1976). Dr. Jim Duke discounts the overall concern around the active ingredient Safrole and the small amounts consumed in the average root beer versus many other commonly consumed items such as regular alcohol containing beer. Safrole is also a compound apparently used in the manufacture of Ecstasy and therefore is looked down upon for that reason too. However i have heard that it is a sub-tropical plant that i call the Sassafras Piper (Piper auritum) that is used for these purposes.Interesting that these two genera from different families that seem so different physically come from two ancient and related orders of plants (Piperales and Laurales) and are linked on a separate early branch of the flowering plant family tree along with the Magnoliales.

Sassafras aside, lots of folks have something cool from the Lauraceae around them. Think Cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.), Bay Leaf (Laurus nobilis), California Bay (Umbellularia californica), Avocado (Persea americana), Red Bay (Persea spp.) and Spice Bush (Lindera benzoin).  The Ambrosia beetle Xyleborus glabratus is taking down some species of the Persea genus in Florida which is of great concern.

Ramps are a special wide leaf member of the formerly classified Onion family (Alliaceae). To my dismay the onion family has been subsumed in the newest version of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III classification Amaryllidaceae (Chase & Reveal, 2009; Group, 2009; Haston, Richardson, Stevens, Chase, & Harris, 2009).

However it is still helpful to distinguish this group with its aromatic sulfur based smells that distinguish it for other monot cots look alikes.

i have seen a similar version to Appalachian ramps in central Europe (Allium ursinum) and am not sure if others grow around the world. According to a talk by USDA botanist Jim Chamberlain at last year’s SEB conference this European species grows all over the continent and use here by settlers is an example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) transferred upon the arrival of Scotch, Irish and other settlers upon in the Appalachia region. Whole festivals and large parts of volunteer firefighter budgets are supported by the ramp tradition of Appalachia. However, these plants can grow slow in their upper elevation habitats and sustainable harvest and propagation is a growing concern.

Monocots in general have a lot of deadly poisonous members especially in the Liliales order. Look alikes for ramps include two types of  Lily of the Valley one European and one an American native (Convallaria majalis and Convallaria majuscula).

The grass family (Poaceae) is probably the single most important food family in the modern world and has very little toxicity if any at all. Therefore a lot of wild grains though small offer themselves up abundantly all around the world every year. Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) and Foxtail millet (Setaria spp.) are two weedy and wild grass species that have served as grains for humans in times past.

The palm family (Arecaceae) is another major monocot food group i.e. Coconuts (Cocos nucifera), Oil Palm (Elaeis oleifera) and Dates (Phoenix spp.). i have personally very much enjoyed foraging for coconuts down in South Florida and other places. The Fishtail Palm is one exception i know of that is not edible although more may exist. A few other food plants also occur in the monocots but it is important to be sure of positive identification.

The Rose family is the best family in the temperate world for fruit that i am aware of. The Rubus genus alone provides hundreds of species including Blackberries, Raspberries, Cloudberries, WIneberries, Salmonberries, Marionberries etc... However many other wild fruit genera occur around the world including Hawthorn (Crataegus), Juneberries (Amelanchier), Mountain Ash (Sorbus spp.), Cherries and many others. Toyon or Hollywood (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is one of my favorites from California.

The plants in the box above each have amazing stories of which i am glad to have shared a few along with associated inter/intrafamilial connections. More of these plants are featured throughout in the text below. The plants above are a great start to foraging if you don’t know them already.

Most regions of the world contain hundreds of wild plants species that are not only fit for consumption but are choice edibles. North America alone has over 4,000 edible species in total (Couplan, 1998). However, the use of many wild plants requires an intimate knowledge of plant form (morphology), part to use, method of preparation, time to harvest and other attention to details. One idea i have is that the level of awareness necessary to make effective and safe use of wild edibles may have acted as a barrier to inclusion within contemporary source material.

Many books have been written in the last 40 years about the edibility of wild plants. Most of these books are published in the popular press by lay writers with few citations (Angier, 1974; Fernald & Kinsey, 1996; Hatfield, 1974; Peterson, 1978). Few put the edibility of wild plants within a historical context.

Cherokee Ethnobotanical Studies

Some writers on the Cherokee allude to primary sources but do not cite them directly (Chiltoskey, 1951; Hamel, 1975). Banks and Perry (1953; 1974) relied on information directly gleaned from living Cherokee who had historical knowledge. There seems to be little doubt that both the Cherokee and early settlers relied heavily upon wild plant foods for sustenance. This was especially the case in the spring time.

Contemporary Cherokee cookbooks tend to include many more wild edibles than other cookbooks from or about Appalachia. Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) wood tea is one example (Sharpe, 1973). Sharpe includes information about 38 other wild edibles in this small volume. Surprisingly, they include flowers of Adder’s Tongue and Rue Anemone (Thalictrum sp.). None of these plants have been mentioned by other sources and some of them are toxic if the wrong part is used. No details are given that warn people away from inappropriate and dangerous preparation. Inadequate information is a common occurrence in the modern literature. Some authors are striving to change that (Kallas, 2010; Thayer, 2006).

The Cherokees of the 19th century are listed as having around 800 plants in their repertoire (Mooney, 1992). William Banks (1953) used this list as a spring board to study Cherokee plant use more in depth. Banks occasionally reports radically different uses of certain plants even within the same Eastern band of the Cherokee community.

Mary Ulmer Chilotskey, Goingback Chilotskey and Samuel Beck provided a great service by taking the recipes of Cherokee elders and writing them down. Swamp potato, Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), Sochani (Rudbeckia laciniata), Wanegidun (Ligusticum canadense) are all items not included from other sources. Sumacade made from the fruit Rhus glabra  and Rhus typhina is another novel item mentioned. It is important not to confuse the Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) with the edible ones. Poison Sumac has white fruits and tends to grow by water. Several other species have been used in the western U.S. and Mediterranean. The edible ones all have red fruits. There is a plant called False Poison Sumac (Rhus michauxii) which is endangered and apparently makes red fruits from a quick Google image search but i have never met it and don't know of its toxicity.

Paul Hamel (1975) published a synthesized compilation of plants used by the Cherokee with assistance from Mary Chilotskey. The authors cover 511 plants total of which 86 wild plants are said to have edible uses. The authors used various sources to compile their list. The previously mentioned studies of Banks and Core (1967) were used as well as writings by Timberlake (2007) and Mooney.

The work of Dr. Daniel Moerman Native American Ethnobotany (1998) relies mostly on the primary resources mentioned here for the Cherokee section. However, Dr. Moerman offers in depth ethnobotanical treatments both in his book and online for over 100 tribes of North America. What is the Native American tribe for your area or other indigenous group if you live somewhere else? Do us all a favor and find this out if you don't know it already. Then access Dr. Moerman's site if you live in North America to look up a few major wild edibles from that group and include them in the comment box below http://herb.umd.umich.edu/.

Myra Jean Perry’s master’s thesis (1974) focused on contemporary food use of wild plants by Cherokee Indians. Interesting wild edible plants that Perry includes which had not been mentioned in literature previous to hers include; Deer tongue (Chelone sp.), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis), “Wild Turnip” (Penthorum sedoides) and Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). i would not recommend the use of any of these plants for food although some of them are powerful medicine. Other novel information includes the use of Poke berries for wine and as a colorant for food products. Poke berries are considered toxic in most literature but it may be just the seeds. As an aside Perry’s spelling of scientific names is sometimes in error.

Perry like Banks recorded Cherokee names for plants. However, these names often seem to vary greatly both in actual use amongst the tribe and in visual representation. Perry confirms that the main seasons of wild plant use were during times when agricultural productivity was low i.e. winter into early spring. She states that wild plant food use remained ingrained with the Cherokee despite introduction of European foodways and new agricultural methods. Native Americans are said to have used more wild plants than both blacks and whites.

A number of good book resources also exist for use of western US wild edible plants and western tribes plant use as well (Clarke, 1978; Funk & Kaufman, 2011; Kirk, 1975; Marrone, 2004; Nyerges, 1999; Sweet, 2011; M. Thompson, 1977; S. Thompson, 1976; Vizgirdas & Rey-Vizgirdas, 2009).

Categories of Preparation

Most greens are cooked. Often in Appalachia the process of cooking traditionally included boiling and then frying in grease. When greens were boiled the left over liquid was often used as a sauce or dip (Dabney, 1998; Nordhaus, 2006; Tate, 1968). This practice makes the most of water soluble minerals. The left over liquid was most commonly referred to as “pot likker.” Many different types of greens were eaten in combination with each other. Greens were also used in tea preparations either for hydration or with medicinal purposes.

Nuts make up a prime category of wild plants. Hickories (Carya spp.) and Chestnuts (Castanea spp.) are mentioned the most frequently. Acorns are mentioned more in contemporary literature. Chestnuts are more choice than acorns and were a dominant species in Appalachia in much of the Eastern US until the advent of the Chestnut blight in the 1930’s. Nuts were typically ground up and used in baking or in stews. They can also used to make a type of coffee. Hickories were used to make a type of milk. This practice is something i have replicated with fellow botanist and good friend Mycol Stevens at his place in Florida.

Wild Edibles Conclusion

Wild foods in the diets of Appalachian settlers and natives alike largely consisted of meat, nuts, and fruits. Greens, when mentioned were almost always cooked. Many wild greens were consumed mostly in the early spring. The concept of a raw salad seems largely foreign to the diet of people in early North America in general. The term salad is often applied to a wilted or cooked greens dish (Hamel, 1975).

Surprising omissions of wild edible plants in the primary literature surveyed of Appalachia in regards to “choice” greens include no mention of Honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis sp.), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Quickweed (Galinsoga spp.), Violets (Viola spp.), Beggar’s ticks (Bidens spp.) and Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis). Only a few of these vegetables are mentioned later in the literature including Violets (Banks, 1953; Perry, 1974). The Cherokee tended to abstain from the use of introduced plants. Only seven out of 55 introduced wild edible plants were shown to be used by them in the sources above.

Many plants that were in use have no doubt not been discovered in my research and/or not noticed or reported by early travelers/researchers in Appalachia. The Native Americans seem to have made much more extensive use of wild plants than settlers. Studies of personal histories by settlers might turn up more plants. However, understanding the plants referred to by settlers might be hampered by reliance on varied common names only. Trained scholars with knowledge of scientific names have not published studies of settler diets to the degree that Cherokee diets have been covered.

Many more plants that have not been mentioned are also used regularly by contemporary foragers (Couplan, 1998; Gillespie, 1959). Gillespie lists 185 different plants total as wild foods of Appalachia. Most of all the plants mentioned formerly by others are included. In addition he lists unusual plants such as Clearweed (Pilea pumila), Crab Grass (Digitaria sanguinalis), Quackgrass (Agropyron repens syn Elymus repens) seeds and Trilliums (Trillium spp.). Six informants of Banks (1953) stated that there was no food use for Trilliums. Trilliums are often rare and special wildflowers and i personally eschew and encourage you to never use them for food or anything else for that matter!

The uses of widely naturalized plants from Eurasia with long held traditions might be assumed to have continued with the settlers that came from there (Erichsen-Brown, 1989; Gillespie, 1986; Lovelock, 1973). Some of these plants include Asteraceae members Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.), Chickory (Cichorium intybus) and Burdock (Arctium spp.). Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) Apiaceae and Nettles (Urtica dioica) Urticaceae. and various members of the Brassica family were probably used as well. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Borage (Borago officinalis) from the Boraginaceae have been used traditionally in Europe for generations. However, internal use is now often discouraged due to potential liver toxic effects from pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

Fruits and nuts were mentioned in the literature throughout. Barberries (Berberis spp.) and (Viburnum spp.) are notable exceptions that are not mentioned possibly due to their somewhat sour and slightly bitter nature. Fruits and nuts also offer the most return on investment of time and energy. Nonetheless, greens are an important source of vitamins and minerals. When greens are mentioned they are often associated with their anti-scurvy properties due to the presence of vitamin C and medicinal value.

Throughout the contemporary literature references are made to plant use that is potentially harmful (Kavasch, 2005; Lovelock, 1973; Nordhaus, 2006; Sharpe, 1973). The skill and ability of Native Americans and settlers at preparing dangerous foods and making them fit to eat is admirable. Many foods were also not known in the past to contain the harmful chemicals that have now been identified (Cozzo, 1999; Gillespie, 1959). Aspiring foragers are well advised to remember that people who are sometimes considered primitive had skills that should not be taken for granted.

The thorough literature review in this study turned up a vast array of plants used by both natives and settlers. Around 170 wild edible plants were mentioned as having use in the primary literature for Appalachia in the 1800s and early 1900s. Gillespie (1959, 1986) mentions an additional 125 wild edible plants. Around 50 other wild plants are known to have food uses from other contemporary literature (Couplan, 1998). Out of the roughly 200 plant families occurring in Appalachia 49 are shown in the primary literature to have provided food. Gillespie includes an additional 27 families. One family that is conspicuously missing from all sources other than Couplan is the Calycanthaceae. The main member of this family in North America (Calycanthus) occurs in the east and the west. The stems have been used for flavoring but the seeds are DEADLY poisonous! The main wild food families in terms of number of species are shown in the table below. The page number in Elpel (2004) and his approximations of world and continental (NA) diversity for each family follow. However, i have found wide ranging totals of family diversity in the current literature (Judd, Campbell, Kellog, Stevens, & Donahue, 2008; Mabberley, 2008; Raven, Evert, & Eichhorn, 2004; Simpson, 2010; Spears, 2006).

Dock/Knotweed (Polygonaceae) Pg 75

40 genera 800 spp. 15 genera NA

Mustard (Brassicaceae) Pg 86

375 genera 3,200 spp. 55 genera NA

Grape (Vitaceae) Pg 121

12 genera 700 spp. 4 genera NA

Oak/Chestnut (Fagaceae) Pg 64

8 genera 900 spp. 5 genera NA

Grass (Poaceae) Pg 179

600 genera 10,000 spp. 230 genera 1000+ spp. NA

Rose/Apple/Cherry (Rosaceae) Pg 100

100 genera 3,000 spp. 50 genera NA

Lily (Liliaceae) Pg 185 (Since Vastly Redefined)

250 genera 3,700 species 75 genera NA

Walnut/Hickory (Juglandaceae) Pg 63

6 genera 60 spp. 2 genera NA

Mint (Lamiaceae) Pg 147

180 genera 3,500 spp. 50 genera NA


Proof that the traditional diet was much more diverse than the modern one and rich in wild edible plants is clearly supported. Most people in the modern world depend on around 35 plants for all their plant food needs (Cunningham, 2007, p. 235). None of these plants include wild edibles. It seems we could stand to learn a lot from history and our elders.

For the next class we will cover major cultivated Plant Food families and it will be posted around Saturday June 8th.

Some families to check out ahead of time include the Apiaceae, Apocynaceae, Fabaceae, Liliaceae, Ranunculaceae, Solanaceae and the Loganiaceae.

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary under this class. i would really love to hear what you have to say!!!

- Check out more under the entries for any of the families mentioned above as wild edibles.

-Check out the website of Green Deane and start viewing some videos of the most prolifically filmed wild food forager on the web http://www.eattheweeds.com i finally got to meet and walk with Deane at the Florida Earthskills Gathering last year and am very impressed by his extensive knowledge base. Steve Brill http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/ is another famous American forager with a host of resources online.

-Join over a thousand people from around the world on the Forage Ahead listserv at Yahoo if you are really interested in the nitty gritty of foraging and want almost daily reports of what is going on around the country. Several PhDs moderate this site to substantiate the information shared.

- Attend a workshop or a class and write up a brief description of plants or information learned.

- Continue to make a photo album of a certain nature spot as the seasons progress.

- Post any CLEAR photos of question plants to Facebook or send in an email. make sure to include location, time of year and any other relevant information i.e. site, height, etc that might aid identification. Multiple photos per plant of leaves, flowers, fruit etc can also help.

- Praises to all that have donated to the cause. i encourage everyone to donate as they are able financially, commentarialy, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. However, smiles, hugs words of encouragement and empathy go along way to help as well. More than anything i would love to see more comments of a botanical nature on the website!

Please let me know your thoughts in general and anyway i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

Literature Cited

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Clarke, C. B. (1978). Edible and Useful Plants of California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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