Forget the organic food aisle. Natural goodies are available for the taking in our local wilderness.
For many, the end of summer signals the end of the growing season. Spades and gloves go sadly back into the tool shed, and the green thumbs among us long for spring. As cool weather settles in, and winter gives pause to production and growth, it’s easy to feel separated from our environment. However, life does not stand still after the arrival of the first frost. Quite the contrary, it is a time of continued harvest and discovery, and when I find the greatest affinity with my Blue Ridge Mountain home through wild foraging.
Wild foraging is identifying and collecting the edible plants that grow naturally in the forests and fields around you. For the better part of human history, people relied on their natural environment to sustain them. In many parts of the world, hunter-gatherer societies still exist, and for those folks, foraging for food is just a part of daily living. Here in America, with the advent of grocery stores and DoorDash, foraging for wild edibles is a great way to reconnect with the earth and participate in a tradition with deep roots here in Appalachia. I hope you enjoy going along with me on one of my journeys and, ultimately, are inspired to take one of your own.
Word to the Wise: Before we go on, it’s very important to note that eating plants growing in the wild can be very dangerous if misidentified. If you have even the slightest doubt about whether what you’ve found is edible, complete additional research to ensure proper identification before consuming.
A Walk in the Woods
Early on an autumn morning, when fog still blankets the troughs and peaks of the Blue Ridge and the bitter chill of the night hasn’t yet dissipated, there is a quiet, tender magic over the landscape surrounding my home in the mountains of Bedford County. The scent of wood smoke and loamy earth fills your lungs and charms your senses. This is my favorite time to be out in nature, and one of the best seasons for foraging.
With my leggy hound dog Atlas in tow, we set off first into the forest. Even through the winter, birds chirp and small things scurry, and the dappled sunlit paths are deeply tranquil. This time of year, tree nuts are the stars of the show, and we’re keeping our eyes trained to the both the understory and the ground, where many delicious nuts have fallen. We’re in stiff competition with the birds and rodents who are also looking forward to snacking on these treats.
Hickory nuts are a wild treasure. A cousin to the pecan, they are sweet, meaty, and packed with calories. I love the earthy smell of the hard, outer husks, which by now have turned a tannish brown. The ones we want are partially open, and the husks are easily peeled off. The nuts are then very similar to walnuts and will need to be cracked in order to get to the meat, divided neatly into chambers. I’ve got my heart set on baking an old-fashioned hickory nut cake, so I collect as many as I can find.
As we go, I like to make note of the maple and elderberry trees I spot, which will be tapped for syrup toward the end of winter. But we keep on, because a favorite find of mine waits just down the trail—the Allegheny Chinquapin. A type of chestnut, the Chinquapin is more disease-resistant than the American chestnut, which is now endangered and very difficult to find healthy. The fruit is enclosed in a prickly burr that will stick your fingers if you’re not careful. Gently remove the husk, and the nuts themselves have a smooth, dark shell, and resemble an acorn. Once cracked open, the meat inside is creamy light in color and quite tasty. According to lore, John Smith was the first European to make record of the Chinquapin in 1612, noting that the Native Americans greatly valued the nut. Eat them raw right where you find them, or bring them home for easier processing.
Nuts are a wonderful cold weather snack, but as we near the edge of the woods, we’re on the lookout for the final fruit of the season. Persimmons are sour and astringent when picked early, but if enjoyed after a winter’s frost, they are sweet and sticky, and taste like something right out of summer. They are somewhat easy to identify, as there aren’t many tree fruits available in colder seasons. The tree is relatively small, has a simple leaf, and deep, tightly spaced ridges on the trunk. The uglier the fruit, the sweeter it will taste, so we’re going for the wrinkled, gooey ones, while the ones found on the forest floor are a perfect treat for Atlas. The fruits will be golden-orange in color, and about the size of a golf ball. (Later, I’ll dig out my Foxfire books to find the persimmon bread recipe I’ve dogeared, but you can find great ones on the internet.) These fruits are also made in jams, sliced into salads, and frequently fermented into beer. Or they can simply be eaten raw!
As we near the fields and edge spaces, we’ve got our eyes on a different prize. Now planted with rye, the scrubby field behind my home was once a stand of mixed hardwoods. It was logged 15 years ago, and now it is a gold mine of volunteer species—species that tend to appear first in the process of natural regrowth. I often fuss about the weedy, bushy poplar trees and the wild blackberries that claw my legs, but there are some real treasures to be found here. Among them, rosehips. These can be found on cultivated roses, but the invasive multiflora rose grows wild, and produces them just the same. A small red berry with a crown on top, you’ll want to pick the ones that are soft when squeezed between the fingers. The thick, thorny brambles can be frustrating, but persistence is rewarding, because rose hips are a medicinal foragers dream, packed with Vitamin C. In the old days, they were essential for winter survival and helped to stave off scurvy in mountain communities. Now, they are great for fighting off winter colds and flu. Rosehips are best utilized when dried and worked into tea blends.
As the day slowly warms up and other projects call me home, there’s one more late autumn treasure I’m looking for. The Jerusalem Artichoke is often found in fields and along roadsides. The yellow flower looks like a cross between a sunflower and a daisy and blooms very late in the year. They made beautiful cuttings last month, but now I’m looking for what’s left of the woody, hairy stalk. Dig gently below the base of the stalk, and you’ll find knobby, thick root tubers. These are nature’s free potatoes and can be prepared exactly as such. They are textured more like a sweet potato, and my husband and I love to slice and fry them in a little butter and garlic or bake them for a tender dinner side dish.
Now home we go, with a basket loaded down with a wild, late season harvest. The hemlock and white pines along the way make for nice winter wreaths, and I may cut a few branches. There’s never really any telling what we‘ll find on a foraging outing. Sometimes, the nuts take a back stage to more medicinal roughage—other times, the birds and squirrels have beaten us to the punch. Either way, there are few things more rewarding than a cool, refreshing walk in an autumnal Virginia forest.