Wise Women: Traditions of Gathering Wild Foods

Wise Women: Traditions of Gathering Wild Foods

By Vesna Plakanis 

Being quarantined is making everyone a little stir crazy as the lovely, delicate watercolors of spring unfurl. Like in a Monet painting, the rich greens of the grasses, the pastels of wildflowers, and the tiny buds of trees and shrubs create ever changing visual delight outside our windows. 

We long to be free, outside, hiking in our mountains, welcoming spring with as much exuberance as that exhibited by our chorus frogs and spring peepers. But, even brief forays into our own backyards and neighborhoods can provide a much-needed respite from the barrage of bad news. 

For myself and my own family, finding and gathering the bounties that nature offers in the fresh air is fulfilling, both physically and spiritually. It’s also boosting our immune systems through nature’s ancient medicines.  

Gathering wild foods in the spring is a ritual I have practiced in my own home for a quarter of a century. It helps to calm me and refocus my attention to the here and the now. I also know that when I incorporate wild foods in our diet, I am giving my family a more nutritious diet that what I could find on a store shelf. Several studies have shown that wild greens contain more dietary fiber, protein, and Vitamin A, C and K than many store-bought foods.

In gathering the beautiful and plentiful foods of our region, I'm continuing a tradition that spans generations of Wise Women. These women have roamed the globe and the centuries, caring for and feeding their families, both during times of scarcity and times of abundance. Here in the Southern Appalachians, these foods were not only a delicacy, they helped bodies recover from months of nutrition deficits after a winter of salt pork and canned goods. 

Before and during gathering, I follow the Rule of Three:

One: Identification. I recommend double checking at least two field guides to make sure you have the right plant.  
Two: Location. Making sure herbicides have not been used in the area and make sure, if the land is not your own, that you have permission from the land owner.
Three: Follow the Cherokee Rule of 4. 

  1. Leave one plant so it seeds for another harvest.
  2. Leave some for the animals and insects.
  3. Leave one for your brother. 
  4. Gather some for yourself.

When I teach my wild edibles class, I use easy-to-identify plants. Dandelion, Chickweed, Wild Onions, Red Buds and Violets are great places to start. Morel and Oyster Mushrooms help turn a meal into a gourmet delight. There is nothing as satisfying as a spring meal incorporating wild foods. Enjoy nature's bounty!

Note: No wild mushroom should be eaten unless its identification is absolutely certain, which usually requires an expert to determine. Many mushrooms are poisonous, some are deadly poisonous, and the responsibility for eating any mushroom or fungus must rest with the individual.

Wild Food Quiche recipe

Premade pie crust
4 farm-fresh eggs
Dash of nutmeg, salt and pepper
Grated Swiss or sharp cheddar cheese

Sauté wild onion, dandelion heads, morels, oyster mushrooms in olive oil. Beat eggs and cream, add nutmeg, salt and pepper. Fill bottom of pie crust with cheese and wild food sauté, and cover with egg mix. Cook at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until knife comes out clean. If crust is browning too quickly, cover with foil.

Serve with wild foods salad:
Purple wild violet flowers and leaves, chickweed, Dandelion greens, wild onions and sprinkle with Red Bud flowers for a delicious and colorful salad.  

Homemade vinegrette dressing:
Wild onions chopped thin, two tablespoons virgin olive oil, one tablespoon red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, dash of Dijon mustard. 

Vesna Plakanis owns A Walk in the Woods, which has helped more than 100,000 people explore the Smokies through direct, positive experiences in nature since 1998. A Walk in the Woods is currently closed due to Coronavirus and will reopen when the Superintendent deems it is safe to reopen the park. Learn more at awalkinthewoods.com.

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