2024 Plant Talk 6: Temperate Wild Food Plants

Lambsquarters Chenopodium album Magenta Spreen5.18.24

2024 Plant Talk 6: Temperate Wild Food Plants

Greetings Plant Enthusiasts!

Spring in the blooming sense is rapidly coming to a close… Makes me think of the Celtic worldview of Beltaine on 5/1 being more the start of summer versus the middle of spring.

The photo album linked below represents this time of year from various perspectives around North America. A couple years ago i taught multiple classes at the International Herbal Symposium in Norton, MA and Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. While in Massachusetts i visited the Harvard Arboretum and their world famous Glass flower collection at the Peabody Museum. Bellevue Botanical Gardens and a number of other different botanical gardens in Washington were visited as well. Other places featured include Midwest locales at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and Boener Botanical gardens in Milwaukee en route to a trip out west. Some pictures from the centuries old Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam in the country where my mom lives offer more obscure and unusual plants for the time of year spanning the first couple weeks of June.


Things currently blooming around Asheville, NC or that will be coming out over the next couple weeks include Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa) Avens (Geum spp.), Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Che (Maclura tricuspidata), Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides), Chestnut (Castanea mollissima), Crown Vetch (Securigera varia),  Dianthus (Dianthus spp.), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Gallberry (Ilex glabra), Goat’s Rue (Tephrosia viriginiana), Goldenbanners (Thermopsis spp.), Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), Nipplewort (Lapsana sp.),  Penstemon spp., Persimmon (Diospyros spp.), Poke Leaf Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), Privet (Ligustrum spp.), Redroot (Ceanothus americana) , Roses (Rosa spp.), Sanicle (Sanicula spp.), Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), and Venus’s Looking Glass (Triodanis spp.). 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. The headily fragrant, sweet flowered invasive and medicinal, Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is soon to be in full bloom as well. Winged everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius) has started to bloom too.

Awhile back i went on a high elevation hike this time of year around 4,000 ft above sea level and was treated to a feast of Canada May Flower (Maianthemum canadense), Red Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Painted Trillium (Trillidium undulatum syn Trillium undulatum), Thyme Leaf Blue (Houstonia sp.), Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa), Wake Robin (Trillium erectum) to name a few. This was all thanks to one of my oldest friends in the area, Adam Bigelow who leads hiking tours. To check out more about Adam and possibly support him if local or with plans to travel to the area go to the following website. https://bigelowbotanicalexcursions.com/

Greens of Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.), Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) and Quickweed (Galinsoga) are ready for picking. In the woodland garden Sochane (Rudbeckia laciniata), Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza spp.), Violets (Viola spp.) and Wood Nettle (Laportea candensis) can all be prolifically available.

Early Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), Cherries (Prunus spp.), Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) and Mulberry (Morus spp.) are all some fruits coming online now or soon. One of my favorite fruits known variously as Juneberries/Saskatoon/Serviceberries/Shadbush (Amelanchier spp.) soon to be called Mayberry will be ready soon as well.

What’s going on botanically around you? Without further adieu...

Wild Foods Overview

Below is a modification of a paper written by me in graduate school fifteen 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, especially at the genus level. It is written mostly from a historical perspective as it was originally composed for an Appalachian history class. Important to emphasize that this is a very alive and evolving practice across the world with many groups currently and that this knowledge is core to our potential future sustainability and resilience.

The intention of the current rendition is to weave in ideas picked up from other areas along the way in recent years. Would love to do all of this from a Western and Eastern North American and ultimately Asian/European and beyond perspective blended together. However, the bigger 25 page paper just covering Appalachia, 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. A new series of books coming out soon by Joseph Simcox who is an extraordinary botanical explorer may elucidate more of a global perspective in particular.

i uncovered in my research the documented use of approximately 170 wild edible plant species 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 Indigenous tribes or settlers and could currently be put into use as well. No doubt others exist that were not found in the literature or are beyond my direct experience.

The modern cookbooks of Appalachia that cover wild foods typically fall into two categories. Some local born sons and daughters have written in a way to celebrate their heritage without falling into stereotypes. Four authors that exemplify this style are Joseph Dabney, Sidney Saylor Farr, Susi Gott Seguret and Mark Sohn (Dabney, 1998; Farr, 1983, 1995; Séguret, 2016a; Sohn, 1996, 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). Foxfire just came out with a new book on Women in Appalachia and has a multitude of other publications still in print and available directly from them beyond the typical numbered series that they are so famous for.

The other main 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 always taken literally and out of context.

Even when wild plants are mentioned in contemporary cookbooks diversity is greatly lacking. However, some of the most choice and need to know plants of the area are highlighted understandably. 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) Amaryllidaceae

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) Amaranthaceae

Sassafras (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 in cans commercially through grocery stores. Elvis even had a hit single song about them! Only the early spring greens prior to turning red tend to be COOKED IN MULTIPLE CHANGES OF WATER FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES before being consumed. It is a spring cleaning ritual green that is thought to help detoxify the body in general and the lymph system in particular. The term Poke salad/salat/sallet 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. Here’s an interesting article from Saveur about Poke.

Lots of other plants are used in spring cleaning/detox regimes including Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.), Yellow Dock (Rumex obtusifolius and R. crispus), Burdock (Arctium spp.) and Cleavers (Galium aparine).

Sassafras albidum is more of an eastern U.S. plant also used in spring cleansing around Appalachia (Nordhaus, 2006; Wigginton, 1977). Many species occur in Asia as well. Some controversy arose about the safety of this plant in the 1970s (Segelman AB, 1976). Dr. Jim Duke who worked for the USDA for decades discounted the overall concern around the active ingredient Safrole and the small amounts consumed in the average root beer versus the relative toxicity of many other commonly consumed items such as regular alcohol containing beer. According to the Master’s degree thesis work of Kate Cummings (2012) the form of preparation can also affect the Safrole content in Sassafras tea.

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 the southeast and also affecting the related Sassafras which is of great concern. It is worth noting that the fruits of the California Bay above are consumed after roasting but may be toxic prior to that. Pondspice (Litsea spp.) and the Sweetwoods (Nectandra spp.)/(Ocotea spp.) are some important genera in the neotropics.

Ramps are a special wide leaf member of the formerly classified Onion family (Alliaceae). The Onion family has been subsumed in the newest versions of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group III/IV classification and put into the Amaryllidaceae (Group, 2009; The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, 2016). However, it is still helpful to distinguish this group with its aromatic sulfur based smells from other potentially poisonous monocot look a likes.

Monocots in general have some commonly planted DEADLY poisonous members especially in the Liliales order and I have multiple friends who have poisoned themselves and have even had to go to the hospital due to picking a look alike to Ramps. Look a likes for Ramps include two types of Lily of the Valley of which one is an introduced European native and one is from America (Convallaria majalis and Convallaria majuscula). Pleated Hellebores (Veratrum spp.) are another potential group that may be confused with ramps at a superficial level. i have seen a similar version to Appalachian ramps in Europe (Allium ursinum) and others grow around the world. This European species grows all over the continent and the use in the USA by settlers is an example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) transferred upon the arrival of Scotch, Irish and others in the Appalachia region according to a talk by USDA botanist Jim Chamberlain at a Society for Economic Botany conference in Maryland a few years ago. 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 (Aryal, 2023; Bentrup et al., 2011; Cool, 2013; Facemire, 2009; Facemire & Gray, 2012; Kane, 2013; Lowry, 2014; Nyerges, 2014; Rock et al., 2004). Another species with narrower leaves grows more towards the Midwest/New England and is known as (Allium burdickii). The Plants for a Future website would be a great place to pursue a Rabbit hole of other potential Ramp analogs around the world given the diversity of the genus.

The grass family (Poaceae) is probably the single most important food family in the modern world and typically has very little toxicity. i have heard of the presence of  cyanide in Sorghum  and Bamboos which are notable exceptions. The toxicity of the fungus Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) that can lead to the ailment known as St Anthony’s fire is a notable exception as well in regards to consuming infected members of the grass family.  Aspergillus molds can also affect grains from this family. A lot of wild grains, though small, offer themselves up abundantly all around the world every year and bear mentioning due to the low toxicity in this family in general. 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 (Couplan, 1998b; Sturtevant & Hedrick, 1972). Black Fonio (Digitaria iburua), White Fonio (D. exilis) is one from Africa on the come up in particular though they don’t appear to currently be growing in the wild in North America at least.

The Rose family is the best family that i am aware of in the temperate world for wild and cultivated fruits. The Rubus genus alone provides hundreds of species including Blackberries, Cloudberries, Dewberries, Marionberries, Raspberries, Salmonberries, Wineberries etc... However, many other wild fruit genera occur around the world including: Chokeberries (Aronia spp.), Hawthorn (Crataegus), Juneberries (Amelanchier), Mountain Ash/Rowan (Sorbus), Cherries (Prunus) and many others. Toyon aka Hollywood (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and Oso Berry (Oemleria cerasiformis) are a couple of my favorites from California. Tangentially my birth state of California has a great literature on wild edible plants (Anderson & Lake, 2016; Ballerini & Santis, 2012; Balls, 1962; Baudar, 2016; Clarke, 1978; Collective, 2010; Funk & Kaufman, 2011; Kane, 2013; Long et al., 2017; Lowry, 2014; Nyerges, 2019; Welch, 2013; J. Wiltens, 1999; J. S. Wiltens, 1988). Pascal Baudar in particular is a masterful chef, forager and potter for the SoCal terrain.

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). The same author has generated works on wild edibles of Europe as well both in French, Spanish and German though unfortunately not English that i have found (Couplan, n.d., 1998a, 2003, 2007, 2013a, 2013b).

Much other scholarly work has been done on wild edibles of Europe as well (Cameron, 1917; Hadjichambis et al., 2008; Jman Redzic, 2006; Łuczaj, 2008, 2012; Łuczaj & Pieroni, 2016; Pardo-de-Santayana et al., 2007, 2010; Prendergast & Sanderson, 2004; Rivera et al., 2007; Tardio et al., 2006). An interesting article by European forager Monica Wilde looks into diet diversity of various groups and how that may play a role in the observed longevity of people living close to the land around the world.

In the tropics the palm family (Arecaceae) is another major monocot food group that can sometimes be foraged i.e. Coconuts (Cocos nucifera), Oil Palm (Elaeis oleifera) and Dates (Phoenix spp.). The literature for palms used as food and for various other applications is rather vast as one might imagine given its primacy in most sustainable tropical communities around the world. (Balick & Beck, 1990; Bernal et al., 2010; Bodley, 1979; Craft et al., 2012; Gómez, 1996; Gruca et al., 2014; Haynes & McLaughlin, 2000; Isaza et al., 2017; Paniagua-Zambrana et al., 2015; Sylvester et al., 2012; Sylvester & Avalos, 2009).

i have personally very much enjoyed foraging for coconuts down in South Florida in years past and other places though i hear that now they may be injected with a systemic chemical due to pest issues so beware! Though typically a safe family the Fishtail Palm (Caryota spp.) is one exception i know of that is potentially harmful if consumed although more may exist. Many palms can have some wicked spines that can do some serious damage to the unaware or otherwise unfortunate as well i.e Bactris spp.…

A few other food plants also occur in the monocots but it is important to be sure of positive identification and go slow. Day Lily (Hemerocallis fulva) is another example that has been eaten for thousands of years in Asia but some people seem to be allergic and get digestive distress upon consumption especially of the tubers and greens. It also has many lookalikes when not blooming as well.

The use of many wild plants requires an intimate knowledge of ecotype, plant form (morphology), part to use, method of preparation, time to harvest and other attention to details. One of my theories is that the level of awareness necessary to make effective, safe and sustainable use of wild edibles may have acted as a barrier to inclusion within contemporary source material at the general cookbook level regarding Appalachia. Of course there are a plethora of wild food resources from all over the USA now as well and most of the best of those will be cited through the class below. Many new books apparently using AI are now also flooding the market and are something to be aware of! Inspirational colleague, one of my first teachers and an amazing author in her own right Juliet Blankespoor has been one to speak strongly on this topic.

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. Recently some more thorough and scholarly resources have become available by a few authors (Baudar, 2016, 2018, 2020; Kallas, 2010, 2023; Meredith, 2016; Thayer, 2006, 2010, 2017, 2023). Both Sam Thayer and John Kallas two of the best foragers in the country just came out with new books and please support them directly to whatever degree you are able through their websites which are linked above.

A series of regional guides has been published by Timber press for the Southeast, Northwest, California, Northeast, Southwest and the Mountain States as cited in order following (Bennett, 2015; Deur, 2014; Lowry, 2014; Meredith, 2014; Slattery, 2016; Wiles, 2016).

Many others sources for knowledge can be found under the resources section of the Botany Every Day website including a suggested reading list.

Cherokee and other Indigenous Ethnobotanical Studies

Some writers on the Cherokee allude to primary historic sources but do not cite them directly (Chiltoskey, 1951; Hamel, 1975). Scholars Banks and Perry (1953; 1974) relied on information directly sourced from living Cherokee who had deep historical knowledge. Doctorate level research on Cherokee ethnobotany has been pursued by a few authors as well (Cozzo, 2004; Hall, 2006, 2010; Schafer, 1993; Veteto, 2010). There is 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 (Ophioglossum sp.)? 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 meant for the lay public unfortunately. This can be a problem further exacerbated by the open format of the internet. Would love to compile a database of Appalachian folk names for plants at some point spirit willing!

The Cherokees of the 19th century are listed as having around 800 plants in their repertoire (Mooney, 1992). This from a pool of about 2,400 species of plants to work with represents about a third of the total flora! 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. A newer edition of the work of Banks is available as well (Banks, 2004).

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) and Wanegidun (Ligusticum canadense) are all items not included from other sources. The potential sustainability of any type of large scale harvest of what i call Angelico, Appalachian Osha or Wild Lovage (Ligusticum canadense) locally is doubtful to me from what i have observed of its uncommon distribution around the woods of Western North Carolina. It is a perennial however and possibly the occasional harvest of just leaves and keeping the roots in place may be one method of conservation. Also at the USDA plant site its distribution is listed as rather broad. Sumacade made from the fruits of Rhus glabra and Rhus typhina is another item mentioned. It is important not to confuse the Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) with the edible ones. Poison Sumac has white fruits, different shaped leaves and tends to grow by water. Several other species in the Rhus genus have been used in the western U.S. and the Mediterranean for food. 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 don't know of its toxicity (Barden & Matthews, 2004).

Paul Hamel (1975) published a synthesized compilation of plants used by the Cherokee with assistance from Mary Chilotskey. The authors cover 511 plants in 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 (1992).

The work of Dr. Daniel Moerman titled 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 close to 300 tribal groups of North America. What is the indigenous group of your area? It would be great if you could tell us something that they traditionally consume! Do us all a favor and find this out if you don't know it already. Then access Dr. Moerman's database 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 or in an email to me or conversely on the Facebook page for Botany Every Day.

Myra Jean Perry’s master’s thesis (1974) focused on contemporary food use of wild plants by the Cherokee. 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 for various reasons although some of them are powerful medicines. 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.

It is important to remember that Cherokees are still very much alive and inhabiting mainly now two locales rather than one central homeland and to a growing degree continue to carry out their traditions of old. Putting all reference to them in the past tense is in essence to portray them as extinct and thereby in a certain way enacting a secondary genocide symbolically. i have steadily been trying to move my word choice away from the typical practice of only framing indigenous knowledge historically when teaching, but as i said before this paper came primarily from a history class so there you go.  Here’s an interesting article from the Asheville Citizen Times about the Cherokee efforts to reclaim landmarks of the area. Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a plant i have heard was brought from the coast to the mountains by eastern tribes and is now seeing a growth in interest as documented by the BBC. The New York Times also published a great article featuring some friend from Cherokee.

A number of good book resources also exist for use of western tribal plant use as well. i have found the most diverse resources for groups from California  (Anderson, 2006; Barrett & Gifford, 2011; Bean, 1974; Beck & Strike, 1994; Castetter, 1935; Chestnut, 1974; Dubin & Tolley, 2008; Funk & Kaufman, 2011; Jacknis, 2006; Margolin, 1981; Ortiz & Parker, 1996; Thompson, 1976; Timbrook, 2007; Vizgirdas & Rey-Vizgirdas, 2009; Welch, 2013).

However, Nancy Turner is a total force of nature as an individual who has worked with many students to document traditions of first nations groups in the Pacific Northwest (Armstrong et al., 2018; Deur & Turner, 2006; Ignace et al., 2016; Joseph et al., 2012; Pojar et al., 1994; N. Turner & Hebda, 2012; N. J. Turner, 1973, 1981, 1983, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2014; N. J. Turner, Deur, et al., 2011; N. J. Turner et al., 1982, 2004, 2013; N. J. Turner, Łuczaj, et al., 2011; N. J. Turner & Kuhnlein, 1991; N. J. Turner & Royal British Columbia Museum, 2007; Whereat-Phillips & Turner, 2016).

Various other resources refer to indigenous and others wild food practices in the desert southwest as well (Frank, 1991; Hodgson, 2001; Hughes, 1977; Kane, 2011, 2016; Keegan, 1987; Niethammer, 1999; Salmon, 2012). Dr. Melissa Nelson in particular is a professor at the University of Arizona who has focused work on Indigenous studies related to food and other areas of anthropological interest. Here’s an interesting story from the news show Here and Now from WBUR about the Indigenous quest to keep ethnobotanical traditions related to Eelgrass (Zostera marina) alive in the Sonoran desert.

Categories of Preparation

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 food 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 (Abrams & Nowacki, 2008; Dalgleish & Swihart, 2012; Davis, 2021; Delcourt et al., 1998; Delcourt & Delcourt, 1998).

Nuts were typically ground up and used in baking or in stews. They can also be 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 Finca Mycol in Florida and elsewhere. i also have found a cookbook focused on the use of wild nuts (Jumbalaya, 2006). Osker Brown formerly of Glorious Forest Farm is an inspirational practitioner of sculpting food forests with native Appalachian woodland species. The Nutty Buddy collective based in Asheville is another example and they even have a wild food CSA through the Asheville Nuttery!

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. White Lettuce or Gall of the Earth (Prenanthes syn Nabalus spp.) is one notable exception  (Couplan, 1998b). 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 for Appalachia in regards to “choice” greens include no mention of Honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis), 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 historically to abstain from the use of introduced plants as far as i can tell. 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 study 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! Harvesting rare plants is a genuine concern both for straight species and particularly limited subspecies and varieties. i hope more and more to disabuse folks of overgeneralization at the genus and species level in regards to what is fit and ethical to harvest when such plants may be present. Natureserv and United Plants Savers are excellent resources for assessing what rare plants may be in your area.

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, 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 (Hills, 1976). However, internal use is now often discouraged due to potential liver toxic effects from pyrrolizidine alkaloids (Casado et al., 2022; Prakash et al., 1999).

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. However, numerous species (though not all) of both genera are said to be edible (Couplan, 1998b). 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 first nations Indigenous and settlers at preparing dangerous foods and making them fit to eat safely is admirable. Aspiring foragers are well advised to remember that people who are sometimes considered primitive had skills that should not be taken for granted. Many foods were also not known in the past to contain the harmful chemicals that have now been identified (Cozzo, 1999; Gillespie, 1959). Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an example of a traditionally harvested plant that contains the toxic Aristolochic acid and is also sometimes mistaken for look-alike species of Little brown Jugs (Hexastylis spp.). Some species of the latter are very rare (Jones et al., 2014; Murrell, 2007; Padgett, 2004; Sinn et al., 2018). Some species of Asarum are rare in their own right as well (Kelly, 2001; Sinn, 2015, 2017; Sinn et al., 2015; Vandervort-Sneed, 2008).

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 190 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 already cited sources other than Couplan is the Calycanthaceae (Vick, 2011; Witthoft, 1947). The main member of this family in North America (Calycanthus) occurs in the east and the west. This plant has been used for food but at the same time is known to have poisoned livestock. Caution is advised!

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. The movie Gather speaks to this in a captivating way.

For the next class we will cover major cultivated Plant Food families and it will be posted on Saturday June 1st.

Some families to check out ahead of time include the Apiaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Chenopodiaceae, Fabaceae, Poaceae, Rosaceae and Solanaceae. 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!!!

- Attend a class/workshop either in person or virtually and write up a brief description of plants or information learned.

 - Adam Haritan from Learn Your Land is a newer entrant to a host of online resources.

-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

- What do you think of something as large scale and commercial as the Foraged Market?

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

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

-Explore the incredibly multi-faceted resource of friend and colleague Robin Harford at his Eat Weeds website.

-i was fortunate to do an hours long foraging course with Natalie Bogwalker of Wild Abundance a few years ago that was all put on video as part of the extensive Living Web Farms classes You Tube digital archive.


Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB2dL_FwDYw&list=PLCeA6DzL9P4tnPFtT4RJdIgHKLFr3lb

Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnnALEGy7Xo&list=PLCeA6DzL9P4tnPFtT4RJdIgHKLFr3lbMv&index=2

Part 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dvw70cpg7p4&list=PLCeA6DzL9P4tnPFtT4RJdIgHKLFr3lbMv&index=3

Part 4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ol2JN89_TM&list=PLCeA6DzL9P4tnPFtT4RJdIgHKLFr3lbMv&index=4

Part 5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeT_ePpnGpk&list=PLCeA6DzL9P4tnPFtT4RJdIgHKLFr3lbMv&index=5

Final Part Uncut https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ivyg0CgrRGY&list=PLCeA6DzL9P4tnPFtT4RJdIgHKLFr3lbMv&index=6

- Listen to the podcasts facilitated by my dear friends and colleagues Kelly Moody of Sedge and Salt/Ground Shots and Abby Artemisia of Wander Forage and Wildcraft.

-Look into Sunny Savage both on You Tube and her website for a host of great resources on foraging especially in the tropics!

-Online Foraging programs include The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine and the Herbal Academy both of who i have worked for at various times.

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.

Several PhDs including Peter Gail and John Kallas moderate and substantiate online foraging information that is shared on the internet.

Steve Brill http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/ is another famous American forager who has a host of resources for you.

- Watch the Wild Greens Pesto video i did a few years ago for our weekly independent paper the Mountain Xpress and then make some pesto for you, your family and ideally some to share!

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 a long 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

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