Thursday, April 23, 2015

Eating Wild: Identifying the Wild Edible Plants in Your Own Backyard

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of plant and people faces! Mother Earth News Fair had an incredible turn-out of 18,000 people, welcoming folks from throughout the Southeast as well as a good number from up North who traveled all the way down to Asheville for the event. In Hot Springs, I had the pleasure of greeting a good smattering of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who had journeyed 275 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia and walked into their first town sitting literally on the trail.

Since the Mother Earth News Fair, I've had some requests for a recap of my presentation, Eating Wild: Identifying the Wild Edible Plants in Your Own Backyard. Here is that to follow. Please know that this summary is not complete with edible, inedible, and poisonous look-a-like information. Therefore, do not rely upon this summary alone before you go out picking in your yard. This is meant only as a recap. Thank you to all who attended!

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) - This species now includes several species once thought to be distinct. As a result, the flower color can range from purple to purple and white to pure white. Leaves will be long-stalked and basal.
The Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) with a purple and white coloration
Violets can be identified by their irregular, spurred flowers and can range in color from purple, purple and white, white, cream, to yellow. Many Violets will bear only long-stalked basal leaves, although some will have alternate. Leaves are almost always heart-shaped, with a few of our mountain species possessing rounded bases, and palmately veined. Leaves will most often be toothed, although some species will be lobed.

Typical heart shaped leaves of the Violet
The lobed leaves of the Early Blue Violet (Viola palmata)
There are nearly 600 species of Violet in the world, with as many as 30 in our North Carolina mountains and piedmont regions.

Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucllata) - look for this species beside streams, rivers, and seepage areas. The flower perches atop a particularly long stalk reaching above its still long-stalked basal leaves.
Canadian Violet (Viola Canadensis) - Look for this species at higher elevation, in woods, oftentimes amidst thick vegetation. This Violet will bear alternate leaves and can grow particularly tall, reaching 8" in height
Look for Violets in grassy areas such as on lawns or trailside, residing in partial sun to full sun.

All species of Violet (Viola spp.), except for those that bear yellow flowers, are edible. Even these may sometimes be consumed, but they cause some folks nausea and I find them to be more rare, so simply better to be left alone.

Viola sororia adorning deviled eggs with paprika and dill

Violet flowers can range in flavor from sweet to spicy to minty and are best eaten raw. They make a  fresh decoration to cakes, pasta dishes, salads, or as you can see here, deviled eggs. You may coat them in egg wash and sugar them for candied Violet. They look lovely frozen in ice cubes and added to lemon water or an herbal iced tea.

Leaves may be eaten raw or cooked (this is preferable later in the season when they become more fibrous), and have a spinach-like quality. Steam or sauté and add them to pasta, eggs, stir-frys, or bake in lasagna, quiche, or croissants. If you are picking leaves without the presence of a flower, worry not about discerning the yellow Violets from the other species. The 3 species in our region have very distinct leaves that look less desirable anyway, being hairy, rounded, or mottled, and simply tough.

The basal rosette of Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis)
Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis) will begin in its first year as a basal rosette sitting close to the ground. However in its second year it can grow up to 3 feet tall with leaves alternate on the stem. Leaves are heart-shaped, long-stalked with spidery looking palmate veins, and scalloped margins.

Flower buds of Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis)
 Being that Garlic Mustard is a member of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae), the same family as say, Broccoli, its parts bear a certain resemblance to its relatives. The flowering buds can look like little broccoli florets before opening up into small 4-petaled white flowers.

As many of the gardeners probably already know all too well, Garlic Mustard is highly invasive, taking over the edges of lawns, lining hedges or fence-lines, and lining roadsides. Originally from Europe, there are no insects here that naturally feed on it. It also produces a chemical that suppresses the mycorrhizal fungi that other plants require for health. This chemical of course does not affect native fungi. Deer also have no interest in this plant and do a good job of trampling the soil while eating all the plants surrounding it, and planting the seeds that the plant has flung.

Orzo pasta salad with Garlic Mustard pesto, cherry tomatoes, and black olives
The good news is that all parts of this plant are edible! The flowers, flowerbuds (which I find to be tastiest), and leaves all impart a flavor you would expect, that of garlic with a hint of mustard. Add the leaves, flowers and buds raw or cooked leaves to anything you wish to impart that flavor to such as eggs, chili, veggie stews,  salads and wraps. They also make any excellent pesto when pureed raw with your typical pesto ingredients (see my post: for a recipe). The roots have a strong horseradish-like flavor and may be used to impart heat to any dish.

Creeping Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia)
Bluets (Houstonia) are weak-stemmed tiny plants with proportionately tiny opposite leaves. Flowers are 4-petaled, white to blue, and only 1/4 - 1/2" wide. There are two species in our region, Creeping Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia) and simply the Bluet ( Houstonia caerulea) that are very difficult to discern from one another, however it matters not as far as edibility.

Look for Bluets amongst grassy areas, such as meadows, lawns, grassy trails, or amongst tufts of grass at the bases of trees. I tend to use these like sprouts, and it is easy to harvest a clump of them, given that they will often grow in mats or at least abundance. All above grounds parts are edible. Simply grab a handful and with a sharp knife, slice at base of stems. They are best added raw to salads or sandwiches, as they will not hold up to cooking.

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweeds consist of 2 genus, Stellaria and Cerastium, with Stellaria being the tastiest of the two. Flowers can grow from 3" to a couple feet tall. Leaves are opposite, stems are succulent with a clear juice when broken. Flowers are 5-petaled and so deeply cleft that they appear to be 10-petaled. Stamen are conspicuous, being brown-tipped, numbering 5-10. These are one of the first plants to flower in spring.

Great Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) - found in woods, oftentimes at higher elevations.
Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) - this species is best consumed cooked unless you don't mind a mouthful of fine fur, which covers the plant.
All of the above ground parts of Chickweed are edible and are best raw before the plant has gone to seed, and better cooked afterwards. The entire plant is sweet and crisp. Chickweed is a nutritional powerhouse containing Vit. C, B6, D, A, rutin, biotin, choline, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphate, and manganese. It is also considered a traditional spring cleanser, increasing the efficiency of the entire glandular system. Add to salads, sandwiches, wraps, or stir-frys, or simply make a tea using 1 large handful of plant to 12 oz of water for nutritional benefits.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Cleavers (Galium aparine) is an all-over prickly plant due to its tiny rough hairs. Its stem is square and leaves are whorled, 6-8, and evenly spaced along stem. Two flowering stalks arise from each leaf axil, 2-3 flowers to a stalk. Flowers are white, 4-petaled, and less than 1/8" wide, and turn to bristly seeds come summer and fall.

Find this plant along the edges of your lawn or garden, and in thickets of weeds. Cleavers will create tall-standing carpets.

All above ground parts of edible and should be cooked so as to not irritate the throat. However, they may be eaten raw if rolled into a tight pill-ball first and then eaten. Otherwise, sauté or steam and add to eggs, stir-frys, oats or grits. Ol' timers considered it a spring cleanser as well and would stew it in oats to "increase lankness."

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion, the common sunny flower of our lawns and roadsides. Flowers are made up of a collection ray florets cupped by green bracts. Each plant produces just one non-branching hollow stem with one flower. The stem arises from a basal rosette of deeply lobed leaves, lobes downward pointing.

Dandelion leaves
Although this may be another loathsome weed, the good news again is that all parts are edible! As well as highly medicinal, however I will save that for another blog post.

Roots may be sautéed, boiled, or roasted and served with sweet veggies to balance their inherent bitterness. They possess inulin, a pre-biotic, when harvested in the fall.

Leaves may be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches when young or sautéed, steamed, or boiled as they age and become a bit tougher. They will become more bitter after the plant has flowered, however boiling in a couple changes of water will decrease this flavor, although you will also sacrifice its nutritional value. Dandelion leaves possesses Vit. C, B, E, D, biotin, inositol, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

Veggie quiche with Dandelion leaves, florets, and Violet leaves
The flowers may be battered and deep-fried or used to adorn salads or baked goods raw. The florets pulled from the bracts are a nice addition to baked goods as well such as breads, cookies, and pancakes.

Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
Last but not least, there is Wood Nettle (Laportea Canadensis), not to be confused with the also edible, but also medicinal and non-native, Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocia). Although not at part of its common name, Wood Nettle is still distinguished by its many needle-like translucent stinging hairs. Leaves are alternate and egg-shaped, with toothed margins. Male and female flowers are on separate plants and gathered along racemes.

Fine needle-like hairs of Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) 
Look for this plant in your wooded yards or along the edges of woods, as well as streamside and trailside.

The leaves of this plant are incredibly edible once cooked rendering them harmless. Sautee, steam, or boil the leaves adding them to stews, stir-frys, eggs, casseroles, or croissants. Use as you would cooked spinach. They have a very mild green pleasant taste. They possess calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, silica, iodine, sodium, sulfur, Vit. C, A, and B.

The trick to harvesting Wood Nettle is to pluck with confidence! Or wear gloves. Check out my post: for more information on Wood Nettle.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hot Springs Trail Fest

The Appalachian Trail along the French Broad River and a portion of the plant walk I'll be leading on Sunday.
What's better than springtime in the mountains? Why, it's springtime along the Appalachian Trail in the mountains ... complete with a hot springs spa, delicious food, foot stomping music, and a thru-hiker parade!

Come join me this weekend, April 18th and 19th, beginning at 10 am, for the Hot Springs Trailfest!

This festival has been created to celebrate the Appalachian Trail that runs literally though the center of town. The town will most certainly be filled with thru-hikers making their journey to Maine and having a rip-roaring good time as they stop and rest for a spell. Besides the hiker talent show, parade, and camp-stove cook-off, you can expect yoga, hula hooping, live music, local food, an evening bonfire, oh and a duck race...I'm not sure if this literally involving waterfowl competing for a finish line but I do hope so!

On Sunday at 10 am, I'll be leading a plant walk along the Appalachian Trail, identifying our edible and medicinal plants located along the trail, and providing plenty of information on how to identify, harvest, and utilize them while out on your own hike or meanderings. The hike will begin at the Silvermine Trailhead parking area, travel 1 mile up to Lover's Leap (there is a 500ft elevation gain here as we climb from the river to the overlook at 1800 feet, however there are lots of switchbacks and we will be stopping frequently to examine the plants), and descend the mountain for about 1/2 a mile on the Lover's Leap Loop Trail, ending up back to the parking area. Duration is expected to be about 2 hours. All ages are welcome!

If a plant walk is more than you can muster and you'd rather spend your day eating, dancing, and soaking in the hot springs, then by all means, do! But come on by anytime Saturday or Sunday (except the hours of the plant walk of course), talk trail, talk plants, and grab a signed copy of my book, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail.

Me and Harvey atop Lover's Leap - this handsome fella may be joining us as well!
For a full schedule of weekend events, directions, and more info, please visit:
See y'all there!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Mother Earth News Fair Comes to Asheville

 Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)
This week has been packed full of wild plant goodness. On Wednesday I filmed a clip on WLOS Asheville offering a demonstration on how to make Purple Dead Nettle Pesto and on Thursday I had the pleasure of leading an enthusiastic group of ladies Diamond Brand's Diva Day for a midday plant walk and book signing in the evening.

Now I would like to invite you all to join me at the Mother Earth News Fair Saturday and Sunday here in Asheville. You can find more info on speakers, workshops, and vendors at this link It will be a full weekend offering rain barrels, truck loads, and wheel barrels of information on homesteading, herbal medicine, livestock, and all things to do with natural living.

On Saturday, 4/11, at 2:30 you can find me in at the Ingles Real Food Stage giving a talk titled, Eating Wild: Identifying the Wild Edible Plants in your own Backyard. Then from 3:30 - 4:30 I will be conducting a book signing at the Mother Earth News Bookstore. If you can't make it for the talk, I'll be in the bookstore all day Saturday and Sunday (except for when I am presenting of course) as well.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Calling all Divas!

This is a shout out to all divas that this Thursday, April 9th, you can join Diamond Brand in their Outdoor Diva Day! This attire is not mandatory, but I had to get your attention somehow, and by all means if you feel like getting done up, then please do. A diva can certainly still be a diva in her hiking boots and yoga pants. This event will take place at the store on Hendersonville Road. The festivities will be as follows:

8:15 am - Yoga with Happy Body Pilates
12:00 noon - Guided hike on the MST led by Hannah and Greg of Diamond Brand, and myself identifying the edible medicinal plants along the way
2:30 pm- A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail - book signing and time to chat trail and plants
6-8 pm - A presentation from AT record-holder Jennifer Pharr Davis, and Outdoor Expo with lots of info, fun, and clinics from various outdoor nonprofits and gear makers.
All parts of this event are FREE. Come for part or all!
For more info check out this link from Diamond Brand:

Presto, Garlic Mustard Pesto!

Cleavers (Galium aparine) and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis)
It is official...the wild edible greens are growing! Each day, a new shoot seems to emerge from the cold soil and a fresh flower face opens to greet the sun. I greet each warmly and then grab a pair of garden clippers. Now is the time to cut back on buying the salad greens and herbs that have traveled from across the country packaged in so much plastic your recycling bin is filled in minutes, to rather, opening your back door and wandering out into the backyard to harvest some green morsels.

Harvested Garlic Mustard laying in wait for the blender
I've been particularly busy this week preparing for a clip on Carolina Kitchen to promote my talk "Eat Local: Identifying the Wild Edible Plants in Your Own Backyard" and book signing at the Mother Earth News Fair this coming weekend 4/11. It will be airing at noon on April 8th, so be sure to catch it (I'll also be posting a link here after airing) for a demonstration on how to make your own Purple Dead Nettle Pesto. However this pesto recipe also works well with Garlic Mustard, a well known, often times loathed, weed.

Garlic Mustard begins as a basal rosette in its first year, growing just 6-8" tall, however in its second year it can grow up to 3 feet with stalked, alternate, heart-shaped leaves with scalloped margins and four-petaled white flowers. Before the flowers open they resemble little heads of broccoli , which is not surprising given that Garlic Mustard and Broccoli share the same family, Brassicaceae.

Garlic Mustard flower buds
 Garlic Mustard is so invasive for the same reason as most other invasives, it is non-native, introduced from Europe, and therefore does not have its native insects or fungi that would normally go to work keeping its populations in check. However, it also has another advantage in its ability to produce allelochemicals, which suppress mycorrhizal fungi that other plants require for optimal growth (fungi help to break down and transport nutrients to the roots of most plants). Interestingly enough, these same chemicals do not affect the mycorrhizal fungi that would be in Garlic Mustard's native habitat. Also, although deer like a whole lotta greens, they are picky eaters when it comes to Garlic Mustard. Instead they happily mow down or trample every other plant, carefully eating around Garlic Mustard, giving it not only more space to proliferate but also working its seeds into the freshly "tilled" soil.

However instead of making enemies with Garlic Mustard which is certainly not going anywhere, why not make pesto with it? Or add it to your eggs, or salads, or wraps, or gazpacho for that matter?

Garlic Mustard Pesto tossed with orzo pasta, cherry tomatoes, and black olives
As you would expect, its greens, flowers, and flower buds taste of both garlic and mustard, but with a hint of bitter, which increases after it flowers and with age. Garlic Mustard's roots are also edible, tasting strongly of horseradish. Archeological digs show evidence that this pest was actually a beloved food plant in Europe for thousands of years before we decided we needed to kick it out of our gardens to make room for less hardy plants, so lets at least make use of it since its laid its claim on our lawns.

Garlic Mustard Pesto
3 c of packed Garlic Mustard Greens
3-4 Garlic Mustard roots diced (optional)
3/4 c of olive oil
3/4 c walnuts
3 cloves garlic
1/2 c parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Combine greens, roots, walnuts, and garlic in a blender or food processor to combine, gradually adding olive oil to desired consistency. Add parmesan cheese to combine and, salt and pepper to taste.
Yield: 2 c pesto
Toss with your favorite pasta, spread atop a pizza, or smear on a wrap with veggies and cheese.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Upcoming Spring Events

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum):
Interestingly enough, not actually a Nettle but rather a member of the Mint Family, although it is mildly sweet and possesses no minty flavor. Look for this wild edible along garden edges or even in the garden, grassy embankments, trailside, around the bases of trees in partial shade, or dappling your lawn. Eat raw or sautéed, using as you would any other member of the mint family such as an addition to a dish rather than a main course.  

Welcome back to sun and wet and long days of light, Purple Dead Nettle, Hoary Bittercress, Cleavers, Garlic Mustard, Forsythia, Wild Onion, Redbud, and Dandelion! This is to name just a few of the first to send up their shoots and peek their flower faces out from the muddy ground and tiny tufts of quick-growing grass. These are the wild plants that make my day a lil brighter, almost as if they alone can harken back the light of spring.

As you have seen from my posts, I have been in hibernation along with the buds and seeds, dreaming up and crafting a slew of events to share with you for the coming spring. And now that the snow has stopped falling, the ice has melted, and the birds have returned, it's time to start hiking and studying, and gathering. So of course the posts will start popping up again, so stay tuned here...but more importantly, I hope you can join me at one of my many upcoming plant walks, workshops, or presentations!

Spring Events
March 25th  -  Diamond Brand Outdoor Book Event 6-7 pm (Asheville, NC)
Book signing and open chat with outdoors authors
April 11-12  -  Mother Earth News Fair (Asheville, NC)
4/11 @ 2:30 - 3:30 Eating Wild: Identifying the Wild Edible in Your Own Backyard (presentation)
Book Signing and open chat in the fair bookstore all weekend
April 18-19  -  Hot Springs Trail Fest (Hot Springs, NC)
4/ 18 Visit me at my booth for a signed copy of the guide and to talk trail and plants
4/19 Plant Walk on the Appalachian Trail (time to be determined - free to public)
May 1-3  -  Spring Herb Fest at WNC Farmer's Market (Asheville, NC)
Visit me at my booth for a signed copy of the guide and to talk trail and plants
May 9th - Eat Local: Cooking with Backyard Wild Edibles
@ Trout Lily Market (Fairview, NC) 1 - 3 pm
Hands-On workshop creating a meal incorporating wild edibles foraged locally, beverages including wine, tea, and coffee provided by Trout Lily ($15 - $20 per person)
May 10th  -  Eat Local: Identifying the Edible and Medicinal Plants in Your Own Backyard @ The Villagers (West Asheville) 5 - 7 pm
Presentation followed by a plant walk around town, wild edible snacks and tea will be available to sample ($15-25 per person) 
May 15-17  -   Trail Days (Damascus, VA)
5/15 @ 2:30  The Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Appalachian Trail (slideshow - no cost)
3:45 - 5:15 Guided plant walk along the Appalachian Trail (no cost)
Visit me in the author's tent all weekend to talk trail and purchase a signed copy of the guide
More Details to come soon!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Crafting Trail with the CMC

The view from Hornbuckle Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
So I have been getting settled in well here in Asheville, enjoying some of the very things that make this city what it is: morning trail runs, afternoon trail runs, and mid-day hikes on the MST (this is easy considering one can access it rather easily from just about anywhere in the city), workshops on harvesting wild nuts and plant walks with some of my favorite herbal instructors, and breath-taking views at the most unexpected moments such as when driving down the highway when heading into work. I've also reveled in the non-nature related perks as well:  delicious vegetarian fare, quality coffee, local stouts and porters, yoga classes,  eclectic bookstores abounding with nature musings and eastern philosophy, and weekly costume parties (planned and impromptu) as well as lots and lots of laughter with friends. Ah...Asheville, thank you for welcoming me back into your mountains.

However, most recently, I had the opportunity to step into the Mountains with the Carolina Mountain Club. Although I have walked a lot of trail, I must admit, I have built next to none. This past Saturday I got to meet some of the folks that not only build and maintain approximately 100 miles of the MST , but also many miles of the AT and various smaller trails throughout the surrounding region. Walking the trail may require physical strength, commitment, and presence of mind, but building one requires all this and a hazel hoe!

Janet - a volunteer with the Carolina Mountain Club holding just a small handful of the foot-deep duff we encountered. She showed this trail building novice the ropes!
Les Love and Piet lead the regional crew and guide the Saturday outings with volunteers, making sure all feel welcome and are fitted with the proper tools and the instruction on how to use them. On this day, the last Saturday work day on the MST of the year until March, they led 19 of us up a steep, bushwhacked path, at times resembling that of a deer trail, to the work-in-progress path that will be the MST.

Standing on my 20 feet of trail that Janet and I hacked away at for 4 hours
Now I had it easy with just my hazel hoe and clippers, some of these folks were carrying far more gear such as buckets, rakes, and or even a chainsaw or two. We all chatted on the way up and I had the pleasure of talking for a good while with Bob. Bob is on the weekly Friday work crew and although twice my age kept a strong pace and by the looks of his of gear and dirt-coated backpack implied he was going to give that trail some real workin'. Bob is just one example of the many folks that dedicate significant chunks of their time to steadily building and maintaining the trail that brings so many of us so much joy.

Becky and Linda - these ladies made some awesome progress just above where Janet and I were working. Becky leads a wilderness trail crew that will be heading out again this Saturday.
Our job on this day was to continue cutting into the mountainside with sharp hazel hoes and scraping away the upper layer of duff. Duff is decaying vegetation, basically roots, leaves, and fallen trees that are slowly turning to dirt. Once this layer is removed, along with the rocks therein (small rocks are simply thrown off-trail, however large rocks are reserved to support the newly exposed soil), rich black soil is revealed. This will be the basis for a long-lasting trail, along with proper ditches made for draining and necessary stepping stones. We did a good deal of hard manual labor on this day but we shared a good deal of stories with one another and laughter as well.

Just one view from Waterrock Knob - elevation 5820 feet
 When finished, this trail will lead from the top of Waterrock Knob that sits at 5820 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway down to Soco Gap. When I came through here on my last thru-hike I followed trail a ways pass Balsam Gap and then walked the parkway to its peak. It had been blustery and cold and spitting rain with fog so thick I could barely see the road before me...a long cry from the sunny, blue-skied day that I had encountered on this work day, so lovely that I actually felt nostalgic for that difficult day. Once at Waterrock Knob I had followed the Black Rock Trail down to my campsite within Pinnacle Park. This put me on course for the River Valley Route where I then picked up road walking until I hit the Smokies. However, this new trail has the potential to lead the hiker along the into the Smokies without having to road-walk.

I strongly encourage any of my fellow hikers to get out and volunteer with your local trail crews. If it weren't for these folks, the trail would quite literally not exist. If you can't get out to lend a literal hand, then thank these people as you pass them on trail. Trail building is slow and steady and their commitment to the larger vision and hard work is remarkable. If you'd like to get in contact with this Asheville crew, please drop me a line and I will pass along contact information to you. If you'd like to get in contact with this crew or any other crew along the MST or learn how you can help in other ways, visit the FMST webpage at

Larry, Rich, and Rob - hardworking trail guys!!
Thank you for the opportunity to give back, Les, Piet, and crew! All of you were so friendly and welcoming and it felt so good to get my hands in the dirt. I will certainly be joining you again!