Right now my studio is cluttered with racks and baskets of drying leaves, flowers, mushrooms, and roots I gathered in Tennessee. I was interested in foraging before, but now I'm absolutely enamored. I spent the weekend in the Smoky Mountains with friends celebrating a birthday with singing, hiking, yoga, fire… and a lot of foraging. At one point on a hike with the 7 others I realized I had stopped to dig up a plant without telling anyone. I had been trying to ease an entire root up with just my pocket knife and 10 minutes passed without me noticing. I stopped and listened for my friends, but heard nothing and so just continued digging. I wondered if I'd be able to follow their trail but I wasn't curious enough to let up on the root.
One of my friends at the cabin is a plant lover who has been working with and studying plants for about a decade longer than me. He actually helps people turn their yards into edible landscapes in Nashville, TN. I'm really lucky to know him.
The first morning I was drinking a cup of tea (nettles, naturally) on the back deck overlooking the mountains and saw Jeremy down below, getting himself acquainted with the plants around the cabin. I grabbed my sandals and ran down around the house, slowing just before I turned the corner so as not to seem crazed when Jeremy noticed me. I walked calmly up to Jeremy and stood beside him, asking him what he was looking at and what he had found between quiet gulps of air. He pointed in front of us and introduced me to poke root (Phytolacca)-- a incredible root to use for cleansing the lymphatic system, but also a potentially dangerous medicine. I believe the leaves are downright toxic. I made note of what it looked like but I'll stick with cleavers for now. Beside the poke root was boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum. We found two types of humble plantain (Plantago) in the grass-- we only have one growing around our building in Columbus. I chewed and stuck the leaves on my bug bites after I was bitten at the fire that night.
Jeremy gave me the leaf of a plant that looked like clover to try. It had an incredibly familiar tart taste, but I couldn't guess what it was. He said it was wood sorrel-- Oxalis. I jumped up from the plant where I was crouched, excited. That's what it tasted like-- sorrel. I know and love the big, wrinkly-leaved salad green that wood sorrel is related to. When I was growing up my mom had sorrel in her raised beds and my brother and I would grab a handful every time we walked past. We knew it by its Hungarian name, sóska. I only learned that it was called sorrel this year when I found it popping up in the community garden in March and asked my neighbors.
Jeremy showed me what the leaves of red clover (Trifolium pratense) look like, and I later gathered some of thousands growing along the dirt road. He said that beside the house was wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and sassafras (Sassafras album) growing together, ready to be made into a root beer tea.
I was thrilled- wintergreen was the one ingredient I couldn't get at the apothecary for my root beer tonic. At the end of our impromptu plant walk Jeremy pointed to a little three leaved plant and asked if I could identify it. I had done pretty well up until that point, recognizing wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca), wild grape (Vitaceae), sassafras, sumac (Rhus), and plantain. I had no idea what I was looking at, though. He clearly expected me to recognize the plant, but I just couldn't. It was poison ivy, which I never bothered to learn because despite growing up in the woods I haven't ever gotten it (yet).
As a group we went on a couple of hikes in the national park and in the woods around the cabin. Jeremy introduced us to Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) and Blood Root (Sanguinaria).
Brad and I, to our utter disbelief, found beautiful reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucid) growing out of an 8 foot high hemlock stump. While we were looking at the mushrooms, trying to decide whether or not they were reishi, a group of chinese students walked by and joined us around the dead tree. They called the mushroom lingzhi and said it was good for …everything. The mushrooms sounded and looked like reishi so we took them back with us to positively identify them, thrilled by our find.
We dug up small sassafras trees with our friends making sure not to take more than 20% of what we saw in each area. On a hike back to the cabin I found an enormous patch of cleavers and tugged a handful out, ending up with a bunch the size and circumference of my arm. Spring is definitely further along in Tennessee than it is in Ohio. I spent about an hour gathering a quarter of that earlier in the week while camping near Athens, Ohio. On our drive off of the property we were staying I saw two beautiful fuzzy mullein plants (Verbascum) bedside the road and jumped out of the car to pick a few leaves for lung medicine before totally leaving the area. My trips from now on are all going to be pretty plant focused, I think...