Sunrise in these parts means it’s time for plant grabbing—and I don’t mean sitting in the garden picking tomatoes. Au contraire: The woodsy maverick travels into unknown thickets of thorny menace to hunt up his pot of grub. Without so much as an ounce of peanut-butter sandwich to stave off the hunger, these tough pickers tumbleweed through the woods, eating what they need along the way.
Don’t call ‘em primitive-living folks or survivalists, either; many are self-described (and at times self-taught) ethnobotanists who study the lore and use of plants to keep in step with Mamma Earth’s beat. Luckily for Asheville, there are a legion of these plant fiends milling around somewhere in the woods nearby. Every once in a while, they stop at the watering hole for a piece to impart their hard-earned wisdom to those who’ll listen. But they don’t stop often, so listen up.
Take Frank Cook, an ethnobotanist who’s traveled in more than 50 countries pondering the ways of the wild. He believes the forest provides what most of us take for granted. “We live in an economy that is based on scarcity, yet nature is about abundance,” notes Cook. “We don’t value it; we have apples rotting on trees. You have to ask, how do we shift our mindset to understand wild edibles as a gift, not a nuisance?”
Cook recommends going on plant walks with experts and reading books to learn basic skills. Make it part of your daily life, he suggests, and after three to five years, you’ll be able to recognize between 50 and 100 edible plants.
Local herbalist Sandi Ford recommends picking up A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory Peterson, and complementing it with Newcomb’s Wild Flower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb, which has good technical keys that the Peterson guide lacks, she notes.
Ready to get your legs moving and your palate ready for a feast without the fancy table settings? Mosey out into your own back yard. Head for the fringes where even the mower is afraid to go and take a look around. It’s not just tall grass. Consider that dandelion over there—the kind everybody blew on as kids to watch the feathery seeds waft in the breeze while they wished for diamonds, toys and superpowers. The deeply lobed leaves grow from the base of the plant; a hollow, almost translucent stalk is topped with a composite flower layered with tiny yellow petals. The whole plant is edible, but the leaves are best when they’re young and tender.
Take a closer look at lamb’s quarters, a perennial that starts from a tender green stalk. It grows up to about 4 feet high with an almost 3-foot spread. The diamond-shaped leaves are plentiful and have a waxy, mealy white underside. One telltale sign is a white dust layer at the top of the plant. Due to its high oxalic-acid content, cook this one: It will taste like Popeye’s favorite friend, spinach (rightfully so, since it’s in the same family).
Wood sorrel is another common backyard green. Don’t confuse it with clover: Although it does have the familiar three leaves, they’re heart-shaped rather than oval like clover’s. In addition, sorrel is a lighter, brighter green.
Two wild plantain species also pop up in the backyard edible jungle: the greater plantain (Plantago major) and narrowleaf plaintain (Plantago lanceolata). Greater plantain has broad, oval, hairless or slightly hairy leaves coming from a ground root with a very seedy stalk from top to bottom. In P. lanceolata, look for longer and slimmer leaves with a wiry stalk topped by a seedy flower head resembling a small, white, fuzzy halo. Both have edible leaves.
Marshall resident Kelly Wilkinson attests to the wealth of green edibles hiding out there. Since her property covers more than 200 acres, she can stay home and harvest everything she needs: Stinging nettles, dandelions, violets, day lilies, rose petals and rose hips, milkweed, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, wineberries, sorrel, lamb’s quarters, burdock, wild grape, sumac shoots and flowers, branch lettuce, ramps, ferns, wild plums, cherries and wild apples.
Once the veggies are plucked, Wilkinson says she steams or stir-fries many of them with a light seasoning. Often, however, she doesn’t cook them at all: They’re delicious and nutritious enough in their raw state.
Keep in mind, though, that “green” doesn’t always mean “safe”: Poisonous plants don’t always taste bad. Or, as plant expert Corey Pine Shane puts it, people wouldn’t have died eating poisonous plants if they were all repulsive. Nonetheless, Shane still experiments with tasting different plants. One to scratch off your list is Virginia creeper, which he said made his mouth feel terrible for about 20 minutes after he spit it out. Stay away from the notorious berries of the poke plant, too: They’re poisonous (though Shane says he’s cultivated a taste for one or two at a time, grinning a scarlet smile after chomping on the juicy orbs). To further complicate matters, the young poke plant is edible when properly prepared.
Keep in mind, too, that while plants do contain such essential nutrients as proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, fats and the like, a few crucial things are missing. To live completely off a wild diet, says Cook, you’d have to make regular journeys to the sea for salt or trade for the mineral, the way folks traditionally did. Or maybe you can find a salt lick.
Lastly, do yourself a favor and keep your wits about you when sampling wild plants. Natives learned this stuff over centuries, not after a couple of plant walks and skimming a field guide.
[Jonathan Poston forages in Asheville when he can.]