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What's for Dinner?

An Introductory Guide to Edible Plants
in an Oak-Hickory Forest

By S J Freeman
Copyright 2008 by S J Freeman, All Rights Reserved


What if your characters choose to or are forced to "live off the land" in an oak-hickory forest?  What are these characters going to eat?  Since spring is in the air, we'll start the march through the seasons there.

I'll begin with one of my favorites, poke salet.  Salet is an Old English word meaning "cooked greens," which refers to the fact that this plant should never be eaten raw.  All parts of this plant are toxic when raw.  As few as 10 of the ripe berries can cause death.  Improperly prepared leaves and stalks can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, and nonfatal doses of the root and berries can cause the same.  The toxins become more concentrated as the plants get older.  The primary toxin in poke salet is a lectin, the same type as the world's most toxic seeds, the castor bean and the prayer bead.  Why would people eat poke salet if it has such potential to be harmful?  It's one of the first green things that can be eaten in spring.  Before the age of supermarkets, these extremely tasty early greens provided a source of vitamins A and C to people who had had very few vegetables and fruits during the winter.

Poke salet grows along the edges of clearings, in fencerows, under power lines, in any place that has sunlight and a perch for birds.  It has large dark green leaves, which are broken off the stems when the plant is no more than 18 inches high.  Usually the stalk is then snapped off at ground level, forcing the plant to start again.  This allows the same plants to be harvested for several weeks.  However, the stalk will eventually begin to come back with a reddish tinge that indicates that it is maturing.  This is the end of the poke salet season.  When mature, plants reach a height of 9-10 feet and have long, loose clusters of red to deep purple berries.  The berries can be used as dye.

Proper cooking involves boiling the leaves, then pouring off the water, rinsing, adding new water, and boiling again.  After this, the greens are safe and can be cooked any way that spinach is cooked.  Some popular methods involve draining the greens and then frying them, either in bacon grease or with scrambled eggs.  The taste is unique and strong, though not as strong as spinach.

Dandelion leaves, in very early spring, are tasty, though bitter.  Do not eat the root.  It is extremely toxic.  The greens of violets can be eaten in salads, though care should be taken to be sure that the greens come from violets and not poisonous weeds with similar flowers.  The flowers of the violet can be candied or boiled to make jelly.  The jelly comes out the same color as the flowers, though it has very little natural flavor, and needs some colorless flavoring mixed with it.  Don't worry about hurting the plant's reproduction -- the violet flowers are fakes; the real fruiting flowers of this plant are green and don't appear until fall.  Wild mustard, wild lettuce, wild onions, sour dock, crow's foot, and many other types of greens are edible. Most can be eaten raw, but they are not necessarily easily identifiable.

As the seasons march on, the greens will become bitter or even toxic.  What can your characters find to eat in the late spring and summer months?  The answer is a wide variety of berries: blackberries, wild raspberries, dewberries, boysenberries, elderberries, wild strawberries, hackberries, mulberries, and huckleberries.  Blackberries, wild raspberries, dewberries, and boysenberries all are very similar plants.  All are thorny brambles or bushes, and even the leaves are covered with hairs that irritate the skin.  The wild varieties taste very similar to the tame varieties, but the berries are smaller with larger seeds.  Huckleberries are bushes with small berries that are similar in appearance and taste to blueberries.  Hackberries and mulberries both grow on large trees.  The fruits often do not survive the birds and insects long enough to fall to the ground, and can be very difficult to collect from the treetops.  Walking under a mulberry tree in late spring is a good way to begin turning purple.  The berries stain everything they touch.  Elderberries grow on large, tall bushes.  They are purplish-black berries that grow in loose clusters.  Be careful with elderberries as the stems, roots, and leaves are poisonous, and there are some varieties that have poisonous berries as well.

Summer grapes, also known as possum grapes, are a fall delicacy.  These have the potential to be involved in a humorous scene, if an unsuspecting character can be duped into eating one raw.  They resemble small darkly colored blueberries, but they are sour enough to make it feel like your mouth has turned inside out.  They are highly desired for making jelly.  Muscadines are also a popular late berry.  Muscadines come in several colors from bronze to green to purple.  They have very thick skin and up to 5 seeds per fruit.  The fruits grow in loose clusters that don't always ripen at the same time.  Their texture is similar to European grapes, but they have a unique flavor.  Muscadines have been bred for cultivation and domesticated varieties can be trellised. 

Both wild muscadines and possum grapes grow as woody, supple, climbing vines up to 100 feet tall.  They can smother their host tree to death, but do create a habitat and food for wildlife.  If they are cut off at the base, they can be used as a rope swing -- for a time.  When my mother was a child, she and her siblings cut off a grape vine and used it to swing out over a rocky branch (small seasonal stream) all fall.  When they went back in the spring, my mother swung out and the now-brittle vine broke, dropping her 15 feet into a pile of rocks.  She broke her leg very badly, and when they got to the hospital the doctor, a recent immigrant from India who had only seen vineyard grape vines, almost called the police on them for child abuse.  His nurse did finally manage to convince him that they were talking about a rope swing.

Persimmons are another fall fruit, though they are sour or bitter until the first frost.  After the first hard frost they are juicy, sweet, and mellow.  The small scrubby trees grow along fencerows and spread heartily.  Trees can be much larger if cultivated or in very rich soil.  The fruits are orange when ripe.  Pawpaws are the largest fruit native to North America.  They are usually found in moist areas, and the trees seldom get above 20 feet tall.  They have long, lobe-shaped leaves, which in some varieties are evergreen.  They grow in large clusters and spread through the root system.  The large, heavy berries ripen from a bright green to a yellow or brown in September or October.  They have a texture that can be described as custard-like and a very sweet flavor, reminiscent of bananas.  They do not store well, so are primarily for immediate eating.

Nuts begin to be a factor at this time of year.  One native nut that is rare in modern times is the American chestnut, the chinkapin.  These trees were common until the mid 1940s, when Asian chestnuts spread a deadly blight, which they have been bred to resist.  Chinkapins produce nuts in spine covered hulls that often have 2-3 lobes, each containing a nut.  The inside of the shell is covered with a soft downy fur that feels like velvet.  The nut tastes similar to other chestnuts.

If your characters are lucky, they might come across a black walnut tree.  These trees grow very tall -- up to 150 feet.  They have dark brown, almost black, rough bark.  The leaves are composites of small, pointed ovals evenly spaced along each twig.  The space under this tree will be clear, because black walnuts emit a chemical that is toxic to almost all other plants -- even most grasses.  The nuts begin encased in green fruits about the size of a tennis ball.  These fall to the ground with some force, and create loud crashing sounds.  The skin of the fruit is tough and leathery and bright green.  Some sources say to pick the nuts up at this stage and hull them.  This seems a messy waste of time to me.  Once on the ground, the fruit immediately begins to rot.  In just a few weeks, the skin will begin to crack and shrivel, revealing a slimy black goo covering the nut.  These hulls were once considered an excellent source of permanent dark brown dye. 

Nuts can be gathered at this stage, or in a few more weeks when most of the gunk will have largely dried up.  Even then it is best to wear old clothing and gloves, and to expect stains to your skin through them.  The nuts are roughly heart shaped and the point can be sharp.  They are black in color and deeply grooved.  It would not be hard to fill a 50 gallon barrel from under a single mature tree (though moving it after it was full would be an adventure!).  These nuts are very hard to crack.  One method for cracking them en masse for storage is to spread them in the driveway and allow them to dry in the sun for a few days to get rid of the last of the goo.  Then run over them with a large vehicle.  Hitting them with a hammer or rock on a hard surface is possible, though they are roundish and hard, and will skitter away without a direct hit.  Any method requires care, because of the potential for flying debris.  The nut wall is very thick.  The meat of the nuts is generally smaller than English walnuts and is absolutely not similar in taste or appearance.  The black walnuts have a unique strong flavor and aftertaste, and a more chewy texture. 

I have purposefully left mushrooms out of this article, though I have provided a link to a detailed paper.  The best advice relative to mushrooms is avoid them at all costs, unless you are with an experienced mushroom hunter.  I also have not talked about plants that are primarily used to make tea or for medicinal purposes.  These are too numerous to begin counting, though I will mention two of the most popular -- American ginseng and sassafras.

I've already mentioned several plants or plant parts to avoid, but one that might be useful to know about is the Jack in the Pulpit.  This plant grows on a short stalk with one large leaf opening at the top of the stem.  This leaf curls over forward, forming a little stage for the upright "jack."  It is quite pretty, and distinctive.  Pulling it up by the root reveals a small turnip shape.  Do not attempt to eat it.  I don't know what it would do if it were actually swallowed, because no one in my knowledge has ever accomplished that monumental task.  Just touching the tip of your tongue to this root will instantly cause the sensation that thousands of needles are puncturing your entire tongue.  This extremely painful reaction will last for over an hour.  I have found some sources that label this plant as potentially edible if the root is dried, but that seems to be advice to take at your own risk.

It should be clear by now that it isn't easy to find a free lunch in a wild forest environment.  The edible plants either require a lot of processing, or are hard to get to.  If you really want your characters to live off the land, a lot of research would be required to prevent their death, either by poisoning or starvation.  A good place to begin would be finding a trail guide to edible plants, though care must be taken to be sure that the plants described actually grow in the specific environment you are writing about.  Most field guides describe plants from a broad region, frequently including plants that won't be found within 100 miles of each other, and on foot that is a huge distance.  Also, remember that while field guides might include common names for plants, local names for plants can be quite colorful.  My grandparents have mentioned eating a plant they called deer's tongue.  My sister has a Master's degree in forest ecology, with a bachelor's in wildlife biology.  She has years of experience in oak-hickory forest plants, including common names, and she still hasn't been able to figure out what plant they are talking about.  Also, calling a plant by its proper name or one not used locally will quickly label your character as an outsider, even if they have managed to blend to that point.

http://www.wildpantry.com/wildgreens.htm  (poke salet)

http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ecoph24.htm   (poke salet)

http://mdc.mo.gov/nathis/mushrooms/mushroom/edible.htm

http://www.treetrail.net/diospyros.html  (persimmons)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pawpaw  (pawpaws)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitis_aestivalis   (possum grapes)

http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/vine/vitaes/all.html  (possum grapes)

http://ostermiller.org/tree/blackwalnut.html  (black walnut)

http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/doc/pg_capu9.doc  (chinkapin)

http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/clay79.html  (acorns)

http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/muscadinegrape.html  (muscadines)

http://wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Violets.html  (violets)

http://wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Plants.html  (This is an index to a variety of wild edibles, though not all are specific to the discussed environment.  All pages have great pictures)

http://www.nps.gov/archive/hocu/html/plants.html  (This is another index of edibles.  The pictures are line drawings)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arisaema_triphyllum  (jack in the pulpit)

http://home.okstate.edu/tools/webtools.nsf/Images/hortext/$FILE/poisonousplants.pdf  (An index of poisonous plants-many of which you probably never suspected!)