Plant Talk 6 Botany In a Day Online Class Wild Foods

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June 27, 2011

Plant Talk 6

Greetings Plant Enthusiasts!

This class will be a change of pace. i will be going into the woods and away from electronics for the next week and a half. For that reason i am posting this class early. It is not in the normal format now but i will edit it including links later.

Recent Events

Last weekend i attended an epic gathering formerly visited by Frank Cook. i helped facilitate a number of plant walks in the Northern California location and compiled a list of over 40 plant species. The Clarkias (Clarkia spp.) and Monkeyflowers (Mimulus spp.) were especially prominent. Both of these genera reach peak diversity out west.

During the week i went hiking with fellow botanist and also stellar mycologist Daniel Nicholson at around 5600 feet and the current snowline in the Sierras around Nevada City.  Not much blooming but we were treated to a Steer’s head (Dicentra uniflora) and bleeding hearts as well (Dicentra spp.).

Around the city proper a lot of nice landscape plants with not as many invasives as we tend to see in the East. Periwinkle (Vinca sp. ) is an escapee at times. A low creeping St John’s wort is especially popular as a landscape plant. They just started blooming along with other Hypericums fittingly around St John’s Day. This is a big genus. Around four hundred species grow around the world (Hogan, 2003). i have met many of them and only know the Hypericum perforatum and Hypericum punctatum to be used for medicine in the U.S.  A type of Blackberry is especially prolific in the wood to open area interface. It is blooming now with promise of much fruit for later. We recently snacked on Cherries as well.

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 this area but can be extrapolated to other places too. It is written mostly from a historical perspective as it was originally composed for an Appalachian history class.

i would love to do all of this from a Western and Eastern American 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 location direction.

i discovered in my research the use of approximately 165 wild edible plants in Appalachia in the 1800’s 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.

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 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 officinalis) Asteraceae

Persimmon (Diospyros americana) Ebenaceae

Grapes (Vitis spp.) Vitaceae

Poke (Phytolacca americana) Phytolaccaceae

Hickory (Carya spp.) Juglandaceae

Ramps (Allium triocconum) Alliaceae

Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) Chenopodiaceae

Sassafrass (Sassafrass albidum) Lauraceae


Creasie greens which include numerous species in the family Brassicaceae are popular edibles in Appalachia and all over the temperate world. These plants and the families they represent contain some of the prime wild foods of Appalachia and the temperate to sub-tropical 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. Sassafras is more an Eastern US plant also used in Spring cleansing around Appalachia. However, lots of folks have something cool from the Lauraceae around them. Think Cinnamon, Bay Leaf, California Bay, Avocado, and Spice Bush.  Ramps are a special wide leaf member of the Onion family. i have seen a similar version in central Europe and am not sure if others grow around the world. The Onion family is of course a famous for flavoring. It was formerly put in the Liliaceae but is now deservedly given it on home. 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. As can be seen the plants in the box above each have amazing stories some more that are featured throughout the text below. They are a great start if you don’t know them deeply already.

However, the region of Appalachia and most of North America contain hundreds of wild plants that are not only fit for consumption but are choice edibles (Couplan, 1998). The use of many wild plants requires an intimate knowledge of morphology and attention to detail. 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 an 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 especially 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 including (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 during the 1950s. Banks reports occasional radically different uses of certain plants even within the same Eastern band of the Cherokee community.

Mary Ulmer Chilotskey, Goingback Chilotsky 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 of Rhus spp. is another novel item mentioned.

            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. They 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.

            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 sediodes) 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 is 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 often in error.

Perry like Banks recorded Cherokee names for plants but these 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 the foodways and new agricultural methods of European settlers. Native Americans are said to have used more wild plants than both blacks and whites.

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 used as a sauce or dip (Dabney, 1998; Nordhaus, 2006; Tate, 1968). This 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 blight in the 1930’s. Nuts were typically ground up and used in baking or in stews. They we also used to make a type of coffee. Hickories were used to make a type of milk something i have replicated with fellow botanist and good friend Mycol Stevens at his place in Florida.


            The 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 in the primary literature of Appalachia  in regards to “choice” greens include no mention of Honewort (Cryptotainia sp), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Quickweed (Galinsoga sp.), 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) seeds and Trilliums (Trillium spp). Six informants of Banks (1953) stated that there was no food use for Trilliums.

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 officianale), Chickory (Cichorium intybus) and Burdock (Arctium spp.). Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) Apiaceae and Nettles (Urtica dioca) Urticaceae. and various members of the Brassica family were probably used as well.  Comfrey (Symphytum officianale) and Borage (Borago officinale) from the Boraginaceae have been used traditionally in Europe for generations. However, internal use is now sometime discouraged due to potential liver toxic effects from Pyrollizidine alkaloids.

Fruits and nuts were mentioned in the literature throughout. Barberries (Berberis spp.) and (Viburnums 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 (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). 49 out of the roughly 200 plant families occurring in Appalachia 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 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.

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 vegetable food needs (Cunningham, 2007, p. 235). None of these plants include wild edibles. As is often the case, it

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