Hunting and gathering is something that always has been a part of me and my time spent outside. I know of no better way or healthier way to feed yourself and family. To go a field in search of dinner really gives you a perspective of where your food comes from. As I watch people discover this who have not grown up or ever been exposed to hunting and gathering, it's rewarding to see these folks become connected.
A casual walk in the woods on or off the trail becomes a treasure hunt, as you view the landscape with a different set of lenses. This lens can be as narrow or wide as one desires. Learning new edible plants or where your favorites are hiding or new recipes to cook them will add positives to your time outside.
Just the act of eating these all-natural plants is healthy, combining the effort to find and harvest them probably reaches super food category. As the trend now around food seems to be closer the better, "localvore" has emerged as a new buzzword. There is no easier way to eat close to home in Transylvania County than hitting some of the public land we are blessed to have. Let us look at some common edible plants that are now emerging.
Ramps, Allium tricoccum
For early spring foraging, probably no plant has as big a following as the ramp. It has a reputation for extended odor that sometimes outshines this tasty little wild onion. Local legends of if you eat ramps the night before, you cannot go to school the next day was one story I remember. Like many other native edibles timing is everything. Eating small young plants early in the season is best. Older ramps tend to be strong and potent enough to cause dietary issues. These plants tend to best be found above a 3,000 feet elevation in canopy type forest. Ramps mostly grow in patches, and it is important to thin the patches while digging them, leaving serval to reproduce. For cleaning them, hold under running water and remove the outer skin, pushing it down toward the roots. Cut the tip off on the root side. A side note: some success can be had by planting the tip and roots back in the soil. Once cleaned, I follow the stem up toward the leaves, cutting them off, as the red stem goes into the green of the leaves. Use ramps to spice up any meal you use onions in. Fried potatoes, eggs and making ramp pickles are some of my favorites.
This is maybe the Holy Grail of spring foraging. I unfortunately did not see this in my radar until just a few years back. Since my family did not hunt them, I treated them kind of like snakes – just stay away from eating mushrooms. But like a lot of things, finding the right people to show you the difference in mushrooms can open doors. If you like store-bought mushrooms, you are going to love morels. They tend to like to grow under apple trees, so old farms and more semi-open land are preferred habitat. Once harvested, wash them thoroughly in order to get any grit out of their distinct crevasses. Side notes: save the wash water and any trimmings from the butts. Dumping this water around an apple tree, dispersing the spores back on the ground, may help start a new bed. Once washed and dried sautéing them in butter is my favorite.
Pokeweed, Phytolacca decandra (aka poke salad)
With this, like ramps, timing is everything. Once poke salad gets above knee high it can become too potent and should always be cooked. Young leaves are picked from the stalk and washed. I prefer cooking them like kale or greens, just enough to make them tender. Often, pokeweed can be found on the edge of forest service roads or around recent disturbed areas. The fall berries are poisonous.
Our last 3-mile hike brought back some good findings, including some young fiddleheads off some woodland ferns. Getting out and foraging, as your hiking, is a great way to spend a few hours in the evening taking advantage of the longer days. If foraging wild plants interests you, find folks who are experienced in identifying plants. They are also some great books on this topic written for this area. The fear is the unknown. Always double check or ask if you have issues with plant identification.
If the localvore movement interests you, find local farmers or use the local farmers' market to keep your food local. Harvesting fish, game and plants for food locally on public land is available to everyone. Make sure your licensed, if required, and follow sustainable methods of harvest. Buying food from your neighborhood farmer is also a win-win. Not only will you know where your food is from, but how it was grown or raised.
(Whitmire is co-owner of Headwaters Outfitters and is actively involved in local conservation efforts, such as the French Broad River cleanup and wildlife rehabilitation programs. He is also chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council.)