Grampa Fed Me Nettles

The following is a guest blog post by Lytton John Musselman, co-author of Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas: A Forager’s Companion. With Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas, Lytton John Musselman and Peter W. Schafran offer a full-color guide for the everyday forager. Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas is designed to help anyone enjoy the many wild plants found in the biodiverse Carolinas.

Happy Book Birthday to Edible Wild Plants of the Carolinas: A Forager’s Companion, officially on sale today!

Edible wild plants have interested me my entire life starting with family foraging in southern Wisconsin collecting walnuts, hickories, raspberries, blackberries, and grapes.  As a result, I always felt I never really knew a plant unless I was aware how it was used, especially for food.  This prompted a lifetime pursuing edible wild plants, teaching and learning about them in a variety of places.

This included field botany courses in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, and Virginia for university students, the general public, and military personnel. Working through Fort Bragg, my wife and I wrote the edible plants portion of a U S Army survival manual. Further afield, I was privileged to teach field botany as a Visiting Professor in Sudan, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Brunei Darussalam.  The most unusual venue was being the botanist on Prairie Home Companion cruises. Coming to the end of more than fifty years promoting these plants, I wanted to share some of what I had learned.

That time span allows for an overview of foraging from an era when there were still typewriters and rational political discourse. This book is one of the outcomes of that perspective which I was privileged to write with an enthusiastic capable forager from a different generation, Peter Schafran. 

How edibility is determined fascinates me.  A passion for plants and a temerity for tasting new and different things are important as well as familiarity with the literature. This information is in books, brochures, “grey literature”, blogs, and websites. It is surprisingly vast and increasingly easily accessed.  Earlier authors mainly used the words “edible plants” while the newer, more yuppified treatments favor the word “foraging”.  That term is a more inclusive, more millennial term embracing a wider community than just botanists. Perhaps it is reflective of a return to local foods, part of the locavore movement –selecting foods deemed healthier because they are collected in nature.

Another way to learn new edible plants is to find their kin eaten in other parts of the world.  Here are two examples.  When visiting the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania I saw an edible shrub called chaya, a relative of the spurge nettle found in sandy woods of the Coastal Plain. This conflicted with my understanding of this group of plantsI had presumptuously assumed spurge nettle was toxic, like many members of the spurge family. But chaya was being promoted for small holders because of its exceptional nutrition.  What about spurge nettle?  Gingerly– because of the stinging hairs—I collected and steamed it.  Tasty. The seeds, though small, have a nut-like flavor. This spring I collected leaves, cooked them, and served them when my granddaughter was visiting. She thought they were good and now enjoys telling her friends her grandfather fed her nettles.

The second experience of beneficial botanical kinship was a visit to the labyrinthic market in Miri, Malaysia where one of the warrens sold greens, including sessile joyweed, Alternanthera sessilis. Could alligator weed, A. philoxeroides, an invasive weed clogging canals in the Southeastern United States, be edible? I steamed some. The taste was underwhelming and the texture slimy but the experience informative.  

A new and salutary aspect of harvesting wild plants is ethical foraging. This stresses the importance of conservation, respect for the cultures using wild plants, adherence to collecting permits, as well as other ethical concerns.

Lytton John Musselman is the Mary Payne Hogan Distinguished Professor of Botany at Old Dominion University.