Each autumn, early Ohio settlers took advantage of wild edibles found in nearby forests and fields. Gathering everything from nuts and berries to roots and barks, they used this harvest to stretch their food supply during the long, cold winter months.
Today, while we no longer need to gather these wild delicacies, it can be fun to discover their value and natural taste. By following a few safety tips and keeping an open mind, you can immediately begin exploring the possibilities of how nature’s goodness can add a new taste at your dinner table.
First thing to remember is, if you can’t positively identify a plant as edible, leave it alone! Approach wild food foraging with great care and use a reliable plant field guide. Good guides will describe the best season for gathering, help locate particular species and identify plants that are not safe to consume. The old adage “better safe than sorry” definitely applies when deciding whether or not a plant is edible.
With that said, there are several wild edibles that lend themselves to easy identification – the trick may come in getting to them before the birds and the beasts.
Nuts are simple edibles to recognize and generally good tasting, such as those from the shagbark hickory. In late September and early October it’s a race against the squirrels for these delicious tasting nuts. Long, peeling strips of light gray bark, make the shagbark hickory tree highly identifiable even in winter.
How about some shagbark hickory syrup! This can be made by breaking up a couple strips of bark into a medium-size saucepan. Cover the bark with water and boil for 20 minutes. Strain out the bark and return the amber colored liquid to the saucepan. Over medium heat, gradually add ordinary table sugar, stirring continuously until it dissolves and the mixture reaches a consistency you desire.
Another common and easily identifiable native plant is sumac. Sumacs producing red fruits are harmless to touch. The shrub-like red-berry sumacs – including staghorn and smooth – can be found growing along the edges of meadows and fields. Poison sumac, which bears white fruits, has the same effect as poison ivy and should be strictly avoided. Fortunately, the poison variety grows in bogs and is uncommon in Ohio.
Native Americans used red sumac to make a type of lemonade. Red sumac berries are covered in velvet-like fuzz. It’s this “fuzz” that produces the tartness to make the lemonade. Gather several cones of berries (about one cone per cup of water) and remove each small cluster from the main stem. In a bowl, barely cover with cold water and crush the berries with a spoon for about 10 minutes. Strain and sweeten the liquid to taste.
One of our most exotic fruits is the pawpaw. Right at home in Ohio, this truly tropical plant requires a winter chill to produce an elongated, greenish-brown fruit in the fall. A taste and texture similar to the banana makes harvesting pawpaws a challenge, since wildlife is also very fond of these delicious fruits. Pawpaw trees prefer moist soils and can be found in river valleys and near springs.
Boiling bark from the roots of the sassafras tree makes a tea once known as the spring tonic of Appalachia because it was believed to thin the blood. Ever hear of a filé (pronounced fee-lay) gumbo? Made from dried and ground sassafras leaves, filé powder is used to flavor and thicken Creole and Cajun dishes. Sassafras trees grow to a height of 10-40 feet, and can be found along roadways and in abandoned fields.
These are just a few of the many wild edibles to be found in Ohio’s outdoors. Mushrooms and other fungi, though delicious, are difficult to identify, and many are highly toxic. Therefore, aside from the popular spring morels, leave mushroom gathering to the experts.
In most cases, wild fruits, berries and nuts can be collected on public lands, though not in state or local nature preserves. Your best bet is to check local regulations before foraging in a nearby outdoor area. It’s also important to seek permission from landowners before rummaging around their fields and woodlands. Lastly, be careful about collecting along roadways and other areas where pollution and runoff might be a problem, and wash your find before preparing it.
Put a new twist into your next outdoor adventure and explore the world of Ohio’s wild edibles.