Take a walk in your neighborhood and think about the plants you see. If you made a list, it would probably look something like this: trees, flowers, weeds.
Go on the same walk with a naturalist and you’ll see something totally different: food, medicine and maybe even clothing.
Ila Hatter, a wildcrafter, gourmet cook and descendant of Pocahontas who lives in Bryson City, North Carolina, is an expert in the culinary and medicinal use of native plants. To demonstrate the practical uses of plants that might be found in many neighborhoods, she led a group attending the 2014 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference on a short walk outside the sports complex at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Known as the Lady of the Forest, Hatter pointed out numerous plants — both those commonly grown and those found literally underfoot that some might view as noxious weeds — and explained how they can be used in cooking, to heal aches and pains or even to mend clothing. Some that you might find near you are listed below.
If the idea of using what nature provides appeals to you, be aware of the three rules of foraging:
Identification. Be absolutely sure you know what you are picking.
Location. Be certain that the area where you are harvesting has not been sprayed with pesticides.
Multiplication. Bypass the first three plants and pick only the fourth one to ensure that this population of plants will be there in the future.
Photo: Thomas's pics/flickr
Blackberries (Rubus species)
You might not think about this if you happen upon blackberry bushes with ripe berries, but the fruit has strong antiviral properties. It’s not as powerful as elderberries in this regard (see below), but it’s the next best thing. During the Civil War, Hatter said, doctors and nurses boiled the roots to make a tea as an antidiarrheal to stop dysentery. Today, as then, blackberries are easier to find and harvest than elderberries. Delicious right off the bush as a sweet snack, blackberries can be used in jams, jellies, preserves, cobblers, pies and even wine.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)
Welcome to the “weed” even teenagers will eat! Many recipes use dandelions — those weedy-looking plants with the pompom flower heads that ruin your otherwise-perfect lawn. Raw dandelions are said to be more nutritious than any seed you can sow in your vegetable garden. They have more vitamin A than carrots as well as other nutrients such as calcium, protein and magnesium. The chopped greens can be used in salads, on pizzas, on sandwiches, in sweet-sour gravy over home fries or in numerous other ways. They can even be turned into dandelion wine, also known as “summer in a bottle.” The stems supposedly remove warts. Don’t give dandelions to a bed wetter, though. The plant is considered a diuretic when used for medicinal purposes. An additional benefit is that dandelions are high in lecithin, which is said to lower triglycerides and help people suffering from diabetes.
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
One of the most ornate and beautiful of America’s spring flowering trees, dogwoods are historically famous for their therapeutic value. You no doubt are familiar with the expression “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Hatter explained that a Civil War doctor coined the phrase while treating malarial patients with dogwood bark tea and said some fever reducing properties were present in the dried berries. Both the berries and the bark have been used as a substitute for quinine as a relief for fevers, though the berries are said to be more potent. Now if you hear someone referring to a “fever tree” you’ll know they are referring to the dogwood by its well-earned nickname.
Grapevine (Vitis species)
Not only are ripe grapes good as nibbles, but wild grapevines will produce drinkable water when cut. If you’re unsure whether water from a stream or other source is safe, water from grapevines is said to be reliable. Simply make a slanted cut in the vine, place the cut end in a container, and let the water flow into it. The Cherokees used water from wild grapevines as a tonic to make their hair shiny, Hatter said.
Wild cherries (Prunus serotina)
The fruit is juicy and can be used to make jelly, jam, preserves, pies and, of course, cough syrup. The fruit will ferment and can be used to make an alcoholic drink called “cherry bounce.” It can be dangerous to livestock, though, because it contains cyanide. Foals eating grass infected by tent caterpillars that have eaten wild cherry leaves are believed to have died from the cyanide that the caterpillars passed from the trees to the grass. Because bears will gorge on the fruit and aren’t eager to share the bounty, the National Park Service closes trails in federal parklands that pass wild cherry trees when the fruit is ripe.
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Blueberries (various Vaccinium species and hybrids)
Blueberries are high in pectin. When picked while still green, the berries can be used as a substitute for pectin when making jellies and jams. Pectin helps jellies and jams set up. If the jelly or jam still doesn’t set up and stays in a syrupy stage, no worries. Just use the syrup on pancakes or ice cream!
Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium species)
Gravel root, also called kidney root, comes by its common name honestly. It can grow in gravel, and the Cherokee learned long ago that the roots were a remedy for kidney disorders because they can help pass kidney stones. The name Joe-Pye weed comes from the Indian name for another ailment it was said to treat effectively, “jopi,” or typhoid fever.
Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major)
The admonition not to judge a book by its cover applies to common plantain. It ooks like a roadside or meadow weed, but it actually has practical medicinal uses. When the leaves are chewed or pounded into a pulp, they make a very effective poultice that will reduce inflammation and pain associated with sprained ankles, poison ivy, wounds, bruises or insect bites. For sprains, secure the poultice with plastic wrap or a cloth bandage and change the dressing every hour. The leaves also can be used as a mouthwash to treat gingivitis. A spoonful of the seeds a day are effective as a laxative.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
Naturalists look forward to spring because pokeweed is one of the first wild edibles that can be harvested. It comes with a warning, though. Mature plants, the roots and the seeds are highly toxic. Pokeweed should be picked while the plants are young, no taller than knee high at most, and before the plant flowers. A good rule of thumb to remove the toxins is to parboil the leaves three times, changing the water each time. Very small plants are not as toxic as larger ones, and some people boil these leaves only once. A Southern tradition is to add molasses or fatback to the water during the parboiling process. Poke sallet, as Southerners like to call the cooked greens, can be used as you might use cooked spinach — alone or in quiches and soufflés. Poke sallet also can be canned or pickled for later enjoyment. Uncooked stems can be fried like okra. The juice from the berries can be used as ink, which helped the plant earn the common name of inkberry. Be careful, though: The juice will not wash out of silk or wool, which makes it an excellent dye for those fabrics.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Native Americans quickly taught the colonists about sassafras's health benefits, one of which is preventing scurvy. Colonists were so impressed with the versatility of sassafras — leaves can be ground into powder for gumbo, oil from the bark keeps flies away — that it was the first export they sent from the New World back to England. The roots can be used to make a tea with a flavor similar to root beer, while young leaves harvested in the spring can make a tea with a lemony flavor.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus glabra or typhina)
Although staghorn sumac is a poison ivy relative, its ripe red berries are quite safe to consume. Perhaps the most common use is to make a sun tea or fruit drink from the berries. Be aware, though, that the berries contain the same kind of malic acid that makes apples tart. To reduce the tartness, use four times the amount of water as berries to make tea or “lemonade.” Even then, depending on your taste, you may still need to add a sweetener. The drink can also be used hot as a gargle for a sore throat. During the holidays, some people like to turn sumac into a holiday punch by adding grenadine. A harvesting tip is to pick the berries on a dry day because rain dilutes the acid in the berries. Dried sumac also can be used as a seasoning for meats, fish and chowders. To make the seasoning, put the seeds in a blender. The pulp will stick to the sides and the unusable portion will drop to the bottom. Scrape away the pulp and let it dry before using.
Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora)
The leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dried to make tea. Simply put them in hot water and leave them for 10 minutes. The result is a tea with the flavor of anise. To dispel a common rumor: Goldenrod does not cause allergies. Ragweed, which blooms at the same time, is the culprit.
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Seeds can be used for temporary buttons to repair a shirt that’s missing one, Hatter said. In the fall or winter, find a seed ball on the ground with the long stem still attached. Rub the seed down to the hard core. You can then make a slit for the “button” and pass the stem through the buttonhole and loop it around the “button” to close the shirt.
Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota)
The next time you are on a walk and see Queen Anne’s lace, consider picking some flowers (with permission, of course, if they are not in your yard). They can be used to make a jelly with a delicious carrotlike flavor. Be careful, though, in what you pick. Poison hemlock is a dangerous look-alike.
Walnuts (Juglans nigra)
Maybe there’s a reason the shell of a walnut looks like the exterior of the brain. A not-so-well-known health benefit of the walnut tree is that a teaspoon of the sap can help cure migraines. The best time to harvest the sap is in the spring when the sap is rising. Like the seeds of sycamore trees, the nut can be made into a button when sliced crosswise.
Wild peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum)
The entire plant is edible and can be used in a salad or made into a wild mustard (place it in a food processor with turmeric, vinegar, miso, garlic and salt). You can also toss a couple of handfuls of leaves into a quart of water to make a tea that is useful as a diuretic to flush the kidneys.
For more information about plant nutrition, chemical properties and ethnobotany, visit Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases.
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