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Ozarks Edible Wild Harvested Plants

Posts: 126
Location: Ava, Mo, USA, Earth
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Corn Salad (Valerianella spp.) is a common weed that most people toss in the compost pile when they find it in their lettuce patch.  It's better than most lettuces.  The ones I used to pick “back east” had blue flowers.  The ones I find here are white flowered.  They taste the same.  This is one of my favorite salad greens and one I plan to plant in the garden.

Grapes (Vitis spp.) are good for more than just their fruit.  Any part that is tender enough to eat is good.  Right now, new sprouts and leaves are nice and tender.  Make sure you are eating real grapes.  There is a vine called moonseed that looks a lot like grape, but is potentially deadly.  Moonseed does not have true tendrils that wrap around things to support the vine.  Before the buds form though, the early growth of the flowering part can look like a tendril.  Make sure you can see old tendrils from last year before nibbling.   

Mints and allies.  I've had people argue with me when I call things like bee-balm (Monarda spp) “mints.”  Some say that the term mint should only be applied to “true mints” of the Mentha genus.  I'll use the term “mint” to refer to any member of the Labiatae family.  With some experience you can learn to recognize any member of this family.  Most are mainly used for flavorings, but some are mild and tender enough to use in a salad or with cooked greens.  Many people, and too many wild food books, seem to limit mints to teas.  This is too bad.  They can also be used as a cooking herb.  Any member of the Monarda genus, dittany (Cunila origanoides) and others can be substituted for oregano in most recipes.  Others can be used for basil or other Labiatae herbs.  One word of caution though, some people have become ill with excessive consumption of mints, especially if they are using the concentrated essential oils.  There will be mints of one type or other available from now (or a few weeks ago) until heavy frosts in the fall.  There are people who claim, sometimes in books, that any plant with a square stem and opposite leaves is a mint.  This is false.  If it doesn't have a mint-like smell, you may need to wait until it comes in bloom to check the flowers to be sure.

Bellwort (Uvularia sessilfolia) is sometimes called “wild oats,” though I have no idea why.  It's not close to being an oat and is no more wild than any other forest plant.  It is delicious if picked young enough.  By the time the flower or leaves appear, it is getting bitter.  If it is only slightly bitter, cooking will help.  Cook like asparagus.  Like asparagus, I eat most of what I pick raw.  I should have mentioned these before.  They'll be past their prime now, but if you're lucky you might still find some.

Pineapple Weed (Matricaria matricarioides) is our native camomile.  Its leaves and flowers have a strong pineapple scent and flavor.  It's not something to fill your belly with, but is an interesting tea.  The tea is supposed to be mildly sedative and sleep inducing.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)is making the list for the second time.  The flowers are gone, but the small bean-like seedpods are forming.  Right now they are tender and sweet enough to make a good raw nibble.  Soon they will start getting tougher and bitter and will need to be cooked.  By the time the seeds start getting noticeably large, they will be beyond cooking.  This is a remarkably productive plant, but with a very short season.

Gooseberries and Currents (Ribes spp) are another plant I'm going to list again.  The leaves are still tender enough to nibble, but the flowers have been replaced by tiny fruits.  As a kid I ate far more green gooseberries than I did ripe ones.  The ones I found today were still small and completely green, but were a refreshingly tart nibble.  BTW: I often get asked what the difference is between gooseberries and currents.  In theory, if neither the plant nor fruit have spines or thorns then it is a current.  If the berry itself has spines, it is a gooseberry.  If the plant has spines, but the berry is smooth it probably should be called a current, but are often called gooseberries.  Having said that, when it comes to common names there are almost as many exceptions as there are ones that follow the rules.  Moreover, the same plant can be called a current in one location and a gooseberry someplace else.

Cheeses, (Malva neglecta) also known as Common Mallow lives up to it's species name in that it is, unfortunately often neglected.  It is this area's most common member of the mallow or hibiscus family.  Tender leaves can be eaten raw.  Older ones need a bit of cooking.  The flowers can be tossed onto almost anything you want to dress up a bit.  They are particularly good on salads.  Older leaves can be dried, crushed and the longer fibers sifted out.  The resulting “flour” can be used to thicken stews or added to regular flour for making nutritious and tasty breads and muffins.  Try anywhere between one part powdered leaves to three to ten parts flour for breads and biscuits.  I've also heard that it is a good addition to homemade noodles, but haven't tried that.  It gets the name “Cheeses” because the seedpods look like tiny old-fashioned cheese wheels.  When young, they are a good nibble or add to soups and such.  Although the seedpods are much smaller and do not look like it, this plant is a close kin to okra and has a similar flavor.  I haven't noticed any seedpods yet this year, but they are in flower so the seeds will be there soon.  Marshmallows can be made from this plant, but I've never done it and don't have a recipe at hand.  It looked like it would be a lot of work.

All native willows (Salix spp) are nontoxic.  Some are more bitter than others.  The young leaves right after they open and new shoots are sometimes almost sweet.  If they are too tough or bitter raw, boiling may help.  I'm sure you're getting tired of hearing that, but that is the way of many wild foods.  All Salix spp contain some amount of salicin, the substance aspirin was originally derived from.  If you are allergic to aspirin, best leave these leaves alone.

I've had a couple of questions that I'll answer here.  When I talk about new shoots, I do not mean sprouted seeds.  I mean new growth of the stems.  Many herbaceous plants make a very rapid flush of growth first thing in the spring.  Think asparagus.  Also many woody plants have a similar spurt of new limbs or new growth at the end of old limbs.  In many plants this new growth is both tender enough and healthy to eat.  Of course, not all shoots are edible.

Somebody also asked what spp means.  When it follows the name of a genera, it means more than one species in that genera.  For example, if I was talking about mints and I said Mentha spp, I mean peppermint (Mentha piperita), spearmint (Mentha spicata) or any other plant who's botanical name starts with Mentha.  Once you know I'm talking about a specific genus, I can abbreviate the genus to just its initial:  M. piperita or M. spicata, for example. 

I'm not trying to turn this into an advertisement, but if anybody happens to be going to Baker Creek Seed's (rareseeds.com) Spring Planting Festival this weekend (May 1st and 2nd) I'll have a booth in one of the tents.  I'll be selling Azomite.  Stop by and say hello.
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Thank you for posting this! Even though I live in the Ohio Appalachians with a different climate and different species, it is still quite informative, useful and inspirational. Perhaps one day such guides will be posted locally for every region of the planet on a timely basis, much as meteorologists do with their weather reports.
Posts: 126
Location: Ava, Mo, USA, Earth
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I grew up in Western Penna and lived in MD and VA before moving here.  Most of what I forage here is stuff I learned back east.  I did meet a few new friends and miss a few old ones, but I'm sure most of what I mention can be found in Ohio.

I'll be posting my latest list sometime this weekend.  There's not as much new stuff coming on and I haven't had much time for hunting.
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