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Everywhere out of doors that I go — city streets, roadsides, country fields, dense forests, wherever there is water and soil and sunlight (and these can be in the smallest quantities or poorest qualities) — I see plant life of such great beauty and uniqueness that I am dazzled with appreciation and wonder.
I have not always been aware of the bounty. My awareness is still frequently casual and careless, but, as I begin this process of seeing and learning, I am filled with enthusiasm and excitement. Many of the plants that I am familiar with are not only pleasing to my senses but are valuable as food and medicine. Wild plant foods are frequently high in vitamins and minerals, and provide a different and free addition to your diet. Some tastes are easily enjoyed; others may require getting used to.
American colonists called all of their foods “herbs,” referring to the fact that food is medicinal (or poison). Many Indian tribes fed themselves exclusively from wild food, and herbs were a significant part of their medicinal treatment. Until the beginning of this century, most Western medicines were plant derived. Today, symptomatic treatment with synthetic-based medicines (pills) is the primary method with which American doctors respond to ailments and diseases. Although pills may temporarily relieve pain and discomfort, I do not find them any more potent than natural herbal teas, and the immediate and residual side effects of most herbs are nonexistent as contrasted to laboratory produced medicine. Most herbal medicines are purer, milder, more revitalizing than pharmaceutical concoctions, and they are free.
This article is designed as an introduction to some wild foods and herbs that are common in the Chapel Hill area. All of these may be readily found in Chapel Hill and most are more plentiful in the nearby countryside. I invite you to experience the joy and healthful benefits of discovering and using wild foods and herbs.
Some useful advice:
POSITIVELY IDENTIFY any plant that you plan to ingest. Make sure the plant you see fits all of its described characteristics. Use another field guide or a knowledgeable friend to help.
PLEASE DON’T DEPLETE an area of any one type of plant. Don’t rob the environment of a species of plants: you can find more elsewhere. The ecosystem is delicate. Gather modest amounts until you learn how much you need, a little may serve you well.
GET PERMISSION before taking plants from anyone’s property. Someone may appreciate the beauty of the plant that you collect.
BLACKBERRY (Rubus spp.). Rose Family (Rosareae).
Most people who live in North Carolina are familiar with the delicious juicy blackberry. The fruit, which ripens from red to black in early summer, grow on thorny canes which grow 6 feet long. The flowers are white and about one inch across; the leaves are compound with three leaflets. These perennial plants often grow roots at the tips of the canes, forming dense thickets.
Don’t pull at the berries; the sweetest are those that almost drop into your hand. The fresh berries are high in vitamin C. Young tender peeled sprouts and twigs are also an agreeable food.
Blackberry juice is known to stop diarrhea. The root bark is an astringent (causes tissues to contract) and can be boiled in water and drunk to stop diarrhea and dysentery. Leaves that have been gathered and dried make a decent tea that is also astringent.
LAMB’S-QUARTERS, Pigweed, Goosefoot. (Chenopodium album). Goosefoot Family (Chenopodiaceae).
This relative of wild spinach is common and seems to grow vigorously in gardens and cultivated soil. Let it be for it is one of the mildest of wild greens. Growing from early spring through frost, the grey-green leaves are somewhat diamond-shaped, broadly toothed and have water-repellent whitish mealiness, especially on the underside. The branching stalks of older plants may be red-streaked.
The young leaves may be eaten raw or steamed. These are very high in vitamin A (11,600 iv/100 grams) and calcium (309 mg/100 gms). The ripened brown-black seeds, which develop from clumps of green flowers, can be ground into a meal and used as or with flour.
MULLEIN, Rabbit Ears, Flannet Plant (Verbascum thapsus). Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae).
This pale green biennial has wool-textured leaves 10 to 20 inches long that form a rosette close to the ground during its first year, and a spike that grows up to seven feet tall during its second year. This spike randomly fills up with fragrant yellow flowers during the summer.
Mullein has been used as a demulient (soothing to internal membranes) and emollient (soothing to skin) for centuries. A traditional tea to relieve coughs is one ounce of dried mullein boiled in one pint of milk for ten minutes, strained, sweetened with honey and drunk in small quantities as needed. To relieve nasal, sinus, and respiratory congestion, a tea is made by steeping fresh or dried leaves (the vapors may also be inhaled). People of many nationalities smoke the dried leaves in cigarettes or pipes to relieve coughs, asthma, and bronchial disorder. Friends of mine have used it as a soothing tobacco substitute. Mullein flowers, steeped in olive oil for 21 days, is reputed to be an effective antibiotin and a pain killer for earaches and hemorrhoids (I have not tried this).
PLANTAIN (Plantago major). Plantain Family (Plantaginocere).
Plantain grows almost everywhere, and I have been glad to find it in big cities when I yearned for some fresh greens. It is a short stemless perennial with strongly ribbed green leaves and trough-like stems. There are 19 varieties and all are usable. It flowers with small dull white blooms on a central (or several) spike. This is a very common “weed.”
I eat the small young leaves raw, adding them to salads or sandwiches. The older leaves need to be cooked because of their toughness. The plant is high in vitamins A and C and many minerals.
The crushed fresh leaves are effective in relieving pain and healing bruises, burns, sores, stings, and wounds (a poultice can be made and the leaves bound to the body). Plantain is renown as a vulnerary (wound plant).
A tea made by steeping fresh or dried plantain for half an hour is excellent for intestinal pains and diarrhea. It relieves colds and nasal congestion. The tea is also soothing to ulcers.
The seeds can be eaten or drunk as a bulk laxative.
RED CLOVER (Trifolium pratense). Pea Family [?] (Legum inosae).
Red clover has been a valuable farm crop for centuries (it improves soil by taking nitrogen into its roots). The flower is round and purple-red. Leaves consist of 3 leaflets and often show faint chevrons. The plant grows to 2 feet high.
The flowers and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked although too many will cause gas. Some Indian tribes dipped the raw plants in salty water before eating.
As a medicine, clover is renown as a blood purifier, a tonic, and a demulient. A tea made from the flowers and steeped in just-boiled water is excellent for fasting, colds, coughs, and ulcers. Apply the tea to external sores. I drink a tea of mint, mullein, and clover to ease my way into a new day after an indulgent night.
Gather clover before the end of the summer and dry in a shady place (no herb should be dried in direct sunlight). When thoroughly dry, store in an airtight container.
White clover can be used for or with red.
YARROW, Millfoil (Achillea millefolium). Composite Family (Compositae).
This very aromatic perennial can be identified by the soft, lacy, fernlike leaves. It grows up to 3 feet tall with large clusters of tight white flowers. Naturalized from Europe, yarrow has been used by American Indians since the 1700’s.
Known as herba militaris in ancient classifications, yarrow is a good vulnerary (wound medicine) and can be applied directly to cuts and sores. A tea made by pouring just boiled water on the flowers and leaves causes sweating, flushes the kidneys, and will help end a cold or fever. This tea has been widely used for disordered stomachs and urinary tract disorders. Balding hair will supposedly be stopped or slowed down by washing the scalp with the tea. The florets have been burned and used as a fumigant.
This is a partial bibliography of wild plant and herb books. There are hundreds of such books; those listed here are the ones that I use the most.
Angier, Bradford. Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Books, 1974. Excellent illustrations.
Gibbons, Euell. Stalking the Healthful Herbs. New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1966.
Gibbons. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. 1962. Both are excellent and amusing field guides.
Kloss, Jethro. Back to Eden. New York, Lancer Books, Inc., 1972. Truly a classic; another publisher’s edition is Kloss family endorsed.
Justice, William S. and Bell, C. Ritchie. Wild Flowers of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968. Expensive ($8.95) with 400 color photographs of native flowers.
Peterson, Roger Tory and McKenny, Margaret. A Field Guide to Wildflowers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968. An orderly and comprehensive guide for identification.
Vogel, Virgil J. American Indian Medicine. New York, Ballantine Books, Inc., 1970. Includes a 150-page appendix of Indian contributions to pharmacology; I highly recommend this book.
For “The Last Free Lunch (Part Two)” click here.