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In this area of North Carolina, healthful foods and herbs grow wild throughout the year. The Fall is rich with its harvest of fruit, nuts, roots, and greens. Indians and the colonists feasted on acorns, black walnuts, hickories, beechnuts, and pecans; these nuts are a valuable and tasty source of protein and vitamins through cold weather. Several greens, including chickweed, have returned after retreating during the summer’s heat. This is the time of pleasant invigorating walks through our beautiful Fall, collecting plants that will serve you well into the winter. Persimmon, rosehips, and sassafras are three easy to find and easy to collect plants that are abundant.
PERSIMMON, the sugar date tree. (Diospyros virginiana). Ebony family (Ebonaceae).
’Simmon pudding was once typical and delicious fall eating, but I know several people who have yet to taste this Southern dessert. The handsome persimmon tree has dark rough furrowed bark, and simple alternate oval leaves, four to six inches long by two to three inches wide. The fruit vary in size but are usually about one inch in diameter. They are green until early fall to early winter when they ripen into a dark dull orange. Although it is popularly believed that persimmons don’t ripen until after the first frost, Euell Gibbons says “. . . it is time, warmth, and sunlight which bring the persimmon to perfection, and the cold which accompanies a frost only retards the process.” As I write this, frost has not yet come, and I have tasted a few ripe persimmons. The fruit are soft and gooey when ripe; each usually has a few flat seeds. To collect, either pick carefully from the branches and ground, or lay a plastic sheet beneath the tree and shake.
Persimmons can be used to make vinegar, molasses, and liquor. Some Indian tribes ground the dried fruit into a meal that was used in bread; tasty muffins can be made with fresh. A friend from Asheboro introduced me to ’simmon pudding:
3 cups seedless pulp
1 cup honey
½ cup butter
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup whole milk
1 cup flour
1 tsp. cinnamon, vanilla
Cook in oven at 325° for one hour.
The fruit are extremely astringent when unripe (but the mature fruit are not puckery). A tea from the green fruit or inner bark can be drunk for diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhages, and used as a sore throat gargle. Babies’ mouths have been washed with this tea to heal sores on the mouth, lips, and throat. Persimmon leaves are very high in vitamin C and can be collected and dried in the summer. A tea made from the leaves tastes similar to sassafras.
There are many persimmon trees growing in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the nearby countryside. Just one will meet your ’simmon needs this autumn.
ROSE (Rosa spp.), Rosaceae family.
We are blessed with a variety of fragrant and beautiful roses, wild and cultivated. From late spring through the summer, the flowers can be seen bordering fields and city streets. Although the five-petaled flower growing on thorny stems is a delicate and enjoyable food, the fruit, called rose-hips, are the most valuable edible part of the rose. The hips form at the base of each flower and mature in the fall. When ready for collecting, they will be bright red and slightly wrinkled. They should come off the stem easily. Most rose hips that I find around here are about ¼ inch in diameter. Cultivated species usually have large hips but are frequently sprayed with poisons.
Rosehips are exceptionally high in vitamin C, three or four hips having as much as an orange. This vitamin is necessary to maintain healthy body tissues in the skin, gums, teeth, eyes, and bones. During World War II, the people of England and Scandinavia had no citrus fruit available and collected rose hips as an excellent alternative. The hips are much better than an expensive bottle of vitamin C pills.
I collected a quart of rosehips last fall which easily lasted me through cold weather. I dried the fruit for a few weeks in a warm dry dark place and then stored them in a jar. I make a tea by steeping a few hips per cup in just-boiled water for 15 minutes. This is an excellent disease preventative and helps end a cold. A jam can be made by mixing, in a blender, one cup fresh hips, honey, juice of one lemon, two cups water that agar has been boiled in. This jells quickly, tastes good, and can keep for a few months in the refrigerator. I recommend adding this to cereals, sandwiches, and salads.
SASSAFRAS (Sassafras albidum). Laurel family (Lauraceae).
This aromatic relative of the cinnamon and sweetbay trees has played an important role in North American history. Sassafras, a Spanish name, was traded from the Spanish-settled parts of America to England for medicine in the 1500’s. It was known as a universal medicine into the 1600’s with the hope that it would end the venereal disease epidemic in Europe (it did not). During the early 1600’s, sassafras was the major plant export crop, even ahead of tobacco in the South. Sassafras is still used in pharmaceutical and folk remedies, as well as for a flavoring in food and drink (beware, though, that most modern “root beer” has no root or other plant product except in the most synthesized form).
Sassafras has leaves four to eight inches long by two to four inches wide; these vary greatly in shape, usually on the same tree, from elliptical, two-lobed (mitten), to three-lobed (mitten with two fingers). In the fall, the leaves turn bright red and orange before they drop. Next spring, green-yellow flowers and pale blue fruit will emerge on the ends of reddish stalks. Although the sassafras is usually seen only a few feet tall, trees as tall as 50 feet are not rare. The tree grows profusely in local woods, and bordering fields, country, and city roads. Easy to recognize, it is a useful friend.
Sassafras is best known as a spring tonic, its roots steeped in water. I value it as a year-round tonic. The fall is also a good time to harvest the roots (especially after a rain when the ground is soft). The same roots can be boiled several times, the tea being drunk when the water has turned red. Scrape off the outer root bark before using. This beverage is a stimulant, diuretic (causes urine flow), blood purifier, and pain reliever (frequently used for rheumatism). The tea is a good wash for sore eyes and will also relieve gas. It soothes sore throats, and is a good flavoring for less pleasant herbs. I pass on a warning that I have read: an overdose may be narcotic in action, so don’t drink more than a few cups of this delicious tea at a time.
The young leaves are frequently dried and powdered to thicken soups and stews; a gumbo is made with the leaves. The wood is said to repel moths, much as cedar. When hiking, I frequently pinch a young sassafras bud and feel instant refreshment as I chew it.
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.
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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.
For “The Last Free Lunch (Part One)” click here.