Eat your greens
Learn how to prepare and forage for wild edible plants while living a sustainable lifestyle.
While walking along the Wildflower trail at T.C. Steele, a state historic site tucked away in Nashville, Lucille Bertuccio stops to cradle a smilax plant. As she delicately trails her fingers over the elongated oval leaves she explains to her class how to identify the plant and what it tastes like. The smilax plant grows in huge groups and has thorns that protrude from the stem. It also has tendrils that wrap around the plant haphazardly, and its young leaves taste lemony. The 10 students continue on the trail taking in their surroundings as they go.
The trail is surrounded by young trees on either side, the majority around 100 years old. The sound of a distant woodpecker echoes through the forest. Land that has been cut by water creates dissected terrain that leaves behind steep hills and deep valleys. This trail is a perfect backdrop for a day of seeking wild edible plants
Eating and foraging for wild edible plants is part of a much larger movement - how to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Bloomington realized a growing interest in wild edible plants and many companies now offer classes.
Bloomington Parks and Recreation offers a 13-week class (requires a low enrollment fee) called the Go Organic Education Series that teaches people how to grow organic gardens. Hundreds have already graduated and can now educate people on growing organically.
As the Garden and Nutrition Coordinator for Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, Stephanie Solomon started a class solely dedicated to the proper identification and preparation of wild edible plants. The annual class generally has around 15 to 25 attendees. Solomon believes this class is essential because it gives people a chance to be self-sufficient and find fresh food that you wouldn't normally come across in your grocery store or pantry.
Self-proclaimed "Wildman" Steve Brill resides in New York where he gives tours during which he teaches people about the wild edible plants they walk by every day. In 1982 he started with only one or two people on his tour, but it has steadily increased over the years. During mid-fall and spring Brill sees upwards of 70 people attending his tours.
Thousands of years ago, dating back to the hunter-gatherers, people lived off the land. Men hunted and women foraged, collecting fruits and cooking plants. The Europeans also brought over many plants, such as the teasal. They would use the teasal's prickly stem to comb through wool. The Native Americans often found medicinal uses for plants as well. For example, the Creek Indians moistened the smilax plant and rubbed it on their faces to remain young-looking.
Lucille recalls her Italian ancestors' love for dandelions. Every part of the dandelion is edible, but its leaves are what are mainly used in salads and soups. The leaves are tender and not as bitter when they first come up.
After reading the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus in 1972, Lucille was inspired to start living a sustainable lifestyle. She was working for Washington State Crossing Park in New Jersey at the time, and her supervisor wanted her to create a program that would get people involved but that she also loved.
Lucille describes her discovery of this book as a "marriage made in heaven" because it combined her love of food, nature and plants. The easy-to-follow illustrations and recipes helped to solidify Lucille's future with wild edibles.
She brought her zest for wild edible plants back to Bloomington. Each semester Lucille teaches a class on wild edible plants at Indiana University, and says that the 15 to 20 students that enroll in her class have a sense of curiosity about all the local plants and are often surprised about all the open space that Bloomington has to offer.
Freshman Aaron Ferguson enrolled in Lucille's class because he was inspired by the book and movie, Into the Wild. Ferguson also plans on working in a national park in the future and knew that the ability to identify wild edible plants would be a good skill to have.
Wild edibles can be found nearly everywhere from disturbed ground, where lamb's quarters resides, or damp ground, home to jewelweed (see sidebar for more information on these plants). Because identifying wild edibles can be a daunting task for first-timers, Lucille suggests purchasing the book, Newcomb's Wildflower Guide and to accompany someone with a knowledgeable background on where to find these plants and have them teach you the identification process.
The next step is to figure out what a park's policy is about picking flowers. On the wildflower trail at T.C. Steele they have a sign that reads, "Please take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints." If the park does allow for flowers to be picked make sure to take only one-third of what you find. This is mainly for the spring ephemerals that only live from once the cold weather ends to the start of the leaves forming on the trees. The one-third rule helps to ensure that the plants will be able to replenish themselves the following year.
Brill suggests starting to identify the easier plants without poisonous look-alikes, such as dandelions, common plantain and day lilies. Not only do some plants have poisonous look-alikes but some wild edibles also have parts of them that aren't edible and parts that need to be prepared before being eaten. A good thing to do is to try a little bit of the edible part of the plant first to make sure that you don't have an allergic reaction to it.
Nestled in what many would consider an overgrown unkempt yard lays Lucille's house. She considers her yard, that is home to a plethora of local plants, to be a prairie meadow and is her favorite place to be.
"They think this is messy, but nature is chaotic," Lucille says. "I love my yard. It is a sanctuary for birds, bees and butterflies. I'm not always digging things up and making it look matriculated, so it is relaxing, and I don't get tired."
As for the future, Lucille plans on continuing with her current lifestyle and volunteering in the community to help spread the word of sustainability.
"My desire to live a more sustainable life is predicated on the fact that if I provide some motivation and people say, 'Oh that's not that hard, I think I can do that,' then I've helped out in some way," Lucille says.