Wildly prolific: Cooking with WNC’s native spring perennials

SPRING INTO ACTION: Diana McCall, manager of the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden, harvests nettles, which is just one of the area’s abundant wild edibles.
SPRING INTO ACTION: Diana McCall, manager of the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden, harvests nettles, which is just one of the area’s abundant wild edibles. Photo by Morgan Ford

I often refer to myself as a lazy gardener with a messy but somehow incredibly productive yard full of things to eat. I let plants go to seed when they are done actively producing food. I may collect the seeds, but more often than not, I shake the flowering stalks that lettuce and arugula send up, scattering seed and ensuring that “volunteer” plants will sprout the following season with relatively little effort on my part.

In the springtime, my lazy side especially appreciates perennial fruits and vegetables, which return year after year without needing to be reseeded. Think berry bushes, mint, asparagus, daylilies and fruit trees. Seemingly unbidden, these plants emerge from dormancy and begin producing their edible gifts.

Humans have a long history of domesticating perennial plants like rhubarb and blueberries, taking them out of the wild, selecting for characteristics like sweetness or prolific production, and fencing them off to protect from other animals. I do my fair share of protecting blueberry bushes from birds and raccoons, but I also love the multitude of wild perennial edibles. Chickweed, dandelion, lamb’s quarters and spring onions make it to my table on a regular basis this time of year.

Cherokee greens

I recently learned about a perennial the Cherokee call sochani or sochan (ᏐᏣᏂ in the Cherokee syllabary). On a tour of the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain, garden manager Diana McCall led me down a path to the edge of the Swannanoa River. Lifting some brush, she pointed out the emerging green shoots of this native plant, noting, “These leaves will get to be dinner plate-sized.”

She describes the flavor as earthy and spinachlike with a tender texture. As a matter of fact, she once used sochan leaves in place of spinach to make palak paneer for an entire wedding party. “It was delicious,” she says. “People thought it was made with spinach.”

The garden helps fulfill its mission by growing produce for the nonprofit Bounty and Soul to distribute to local food-insecure families. Each plot-holding family or individual gives 10 percent or more of their harvest to Bounty and Soul. McCall also harvests nettles, sochan, dandelion, daylily greens, Jerusalem artichoke and violets in the springtime for donation. All of these edibles are incredibly prolific, so much so that they are sometimes thought of as invasive weeds.

“Because Bounty and Soul provides education with the food, the community garden can donate things like nettles and Jerusalem artichoke,” she explains. “They have built trust by building a relationship and showing people how to process and cook foods they may not be familiar with.”

Prolific native plants like sochan enable the organization to give out even more fresh produce than if it were just using cultivated crops. Often native plants survive disease and drought while domesticated plants succumb to insect invasions and unexpected harsh conditions.

There are many perennial edibles like these that humans have gathered from stream banks and woodlands for thousands of years, but often knowledge and taste for them are lost from generation to generation. Tyson Sampson, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has collected, consumed and shared these plants since he first followed his mother and grandmother into the floodplain near their house at age 12.

“From my cultural perception, we cultivate plants like sochani by expressing gratitude as we harvest it in the early springtime when it’s young and tender,” he explains. “I could never imagine viewing it as an invader.”

Back on that floodplain, he and the other kids watched and learned while the women would gather a big brown bag of greens. “That bag was enough to feed our large family for one meal,” he says. “We cook sochani in a big pot. There is nothing like it boiling on mama’s stove. It permeates, it’s got its own smell — kind of piney.”

Sampson still picks from the same spot. “We don’t harm the plants. We don’t pull them up, just pick the leaves, and the more we pick, the more it grows,” he says. He also learned to identify, harvest and process many other varieties of native plants under the tutelage of his aunts, mother and grandmother. He describes learning to boil poke leaves in several changes of water to reveal their unique and delicious flavor and remove toxins.

He warns that plants like sochani and poke must be correctly identified, and care must be taken in their preparation to avoid potential toxic effects. He also notes the deep cultural significance of cooking these wild greens. “Sochan is a gastronomic pleasure, and eating it the specific way that my mother prepares it honors our past and current generations and keeps the Cherokee Indian culture alive,” he says.

Gateway plant

Rhubarb and The Rhu chef and owner John Fleer has been instrumental in creating a market for lesser-known edible plants and making them part of a mainstream regional food culture.  He describes the wild garlic known as ramps as a gateway plant. “Ramps are fun. I’ve been using them for years, and they are part of the fabric of learning about Appalachia,” he says.

He cautions that when buying wild ramps at local tailgate markets, be sure they do not have their roots attached. In order to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy their pungent flavor, the roots must be left in the ground at harvest so the plants can continue to propagate.

And while Fleer says ramps are “easy and prevalent,” Asheville’s foraging culture has introduced him to many other springtime favorites, such as wild rapini. “Wild rapini looks like broccoli rabe, but it’s in the mustard family,” he explains. “It’s got thick stems and leaves that are broccoli rabe-esque. It starts coming in early March.”

Other wild spring vegetables appearing on Fleer’s menus this season include nettles, creasy greens, morels, sochan and a variety of wild mustard greens. “When I begin working with something new, I do a little research and then start experimenting with pairing flavors,” he says. Like Sampson, he notes the importance of doing your homework, because some edible plants should only be consumed in small amounts and others need special treatment to remove harmful elements or make them palatable.

As the appetite for these flavorful perennials is whetted by creative chefs like Fleer, it is important to bear in mind Sampson’s and his family’s dedication to not harming the plants. Just like any other resource, wild plants like ramps can be overharvested. Doing research and harvesting sustainably ensures a future filled with flavor.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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