Last time I spoke with Mountain Xpress, I was only 135 miles into my 950-mile journey across the state of North Carolina on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. We didn’t discuss the typical thru-hiker’s story of stunning views, 20-mile days and wildlife encounters but rather we talked plants.
I chose this trail because I wanted to I chronicle the edible/medicinal plants found on high mountaintops and isolated hollers, through the flat farmland of the Piedmont, into the marshes and swamps of the Croatan, to the sandy beaches of the Outer Banks. I created daily lists of the plants I encountered, supplemented my meals with choice edibles, and healed injury with medicinals. Along the way I kept a blog, using a small lightweight laptop so that I could prove info on the plants and my use of them, as well as tales of the adventure.
Though I met with useful plants through every part of my trip, Asheville and the region west of the Smoky Mountains offered the greatest abundance and diversity of plant life, as well as the greatest number of edible/medicinals. Here I did short miles and typed up plant lists pages long. I kept a ziplock bag handy while hiking, and where appropriate, picked that day’s offering of greens to go with dinner and sometimes a tea for the evening, nibbling here and there as I hiked. Wood nettle, smilax shoots, various waterleaf, wild onion and violets were often on the menu, all pairing excellent either raw with cheese wraps or cooked up along with macaroni and cheese. Trailside nibbles included sassafras leaves, stoneroot, and wood Sorrel. The mountains made for a well-fed happy hiker.
My most prized medicinal on the trail was yarrow. This plant grew largely throughout our mountains and into the beginning of the Piedmont. Early on in my hike, when I thought I had injured my Achilles tendon, I made a yarrow oil, using with fresh leaves, flowering tops and olive oil, twice daily massaging the concoction onto my Achilles and sore feet. My alleged injury soon resolved itself and other potential issues were kept at bay. When I impaled myself with a hawthorn spire, I applied a spit poultice of the fresh leaves to the wound to decrease inflammation, prevent infection and reduce bleeding. After too many sweet and chewy granola bars left me with sore gums, I chewed the leaves, reducing pain and swelling on the spot. This plant I dubbed the “hiker’s wound wort.”
When compared with the Piedmont and Coastal Plains, which each offer their own valuable edible/medicinals but in lesser numbers and subject to more pollution, I realized that by living so closely with the trail in Asheville through daily hikes and trail runs prior to leaving, I had taken for granted the wide spectrum of plants living in pristine conditions in our region. And while I came to see the beauty in both farmland, marsh and beach, there wasn’t a day that passed that I didn’t think to myself, “I am a mountain girl,” and long for the peaks, dense woods, rich soil and cooler temps of the Blue Ridge. It’s good to be home.
And so now I begin on giving back to both the plants and the people, in honor of those who helped me along the way. I plan to publish a guide to the edible/medicinal plants of the trail with detailed descriptions for identification and suggestions for use in backpacking and at home. I do not advocate using the trail as a place for regular harvest of edible/medicinals but rather as a classroom for learning about them and as an avenue for fostering relationship with the plants. In addition, I plan to publish my personal journal, which chronicles the adventure and the more “human” aspects, so that I may share with others the ever-constant kindness of strangers and inspire folks to not only explore the trail, but get out and live their dream.