This weekend, I visited a piece of land in Fort Ashby, WV, to assess the property for wild edible plants. This report will help the owners understand what food already grows on their land (and if you’re in the area, what is nearby you as well).
The property itself was on a shale mountainside, which of course impacts what can grow. The land was mostly forested, a mix of hardwoods and evergreens. It had been previously owned by a timber operation, so overall the trees were very young – small in diameter even though they were tall. There were no bodies of water on the site, which meant no ecosystem for moisture-loving plants.
Here is what I found. The last report I wrote, I went alphabetically by plant. This time, I’m following a categorical approach.
I was struck by the overall lack of cane fruit and brambles. No wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) at all, and only sparse examples of blackberries (Rubus spp.) with undersized fruit.
There were some black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) (as indicated by the bluish tint of the stems) but they all appeared to be first year canes so no sign of fruit.
I believe I also found Northern dewberry (Rubus flagellaris), which looks like its raspberry and blackberries cousins, except it trails along the ground instead of growing upright. But again – no fruit.
Even the roses (most likely Rosa multiflora) were bare of fruit.
I’m not sure if this comparative lack is due to the shale and shade, or if the plants were only recently introduced and just hadn’t established a foothold yet. Or perhaps the relative lack of fruit could have been due to the high populations of deer locally, although I would have expected more damage to leaves and steams as well as missing fruit. Perhaps the deer eat enough of the immature plants to keep them from becoming fully established with enough members for cross pollination. Other wildlife could have eaten the fruit already too.
Other fruit – or potential fruit – included lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium). There were several patches of blueberries where breaks in the tree coverage allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor.
Blueberry season had ended, although given the growing conditions I am curious as to how productive these bushes could be. It would be worth checking back in the late spring or earlier in summer next year to see.
At first I was surprised to find no autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) in the area, given how invasive the species is everywhere else. Finally I found a few shrubs, where the property borders the road. One already had some ripe fruit, although the rest were pretty far behind.
One of the most distinguishing features of the local ecosystem was the wild grapes (Vitis spp.) Grapes grew on everything they could. In some places, the weight of the grape canopy actually bent over younger trees.
Many clusters of grapes towered overhead, but some actually grew where they could be easily reached (and photographed!)
The forest was full of hickories of various sorts (Carya spp.), including some that are CLEARLY shagbark (Carya ovata). I have never personally encountered a shagbark hickory before so it was very cool to actually meet one in person.
I am still not an expert at telling the different types of hickory, but trees with especially large nuts would obviously have a higher payoff-to-effort ratio when one shells the nuts.
The forested areas also contained any different kinds of oak (Quercus spp.), which means a lot of acorns available in the fall. Since I haven’t mastered the fine art of leaching acorns yet, I can’t advise them on the best varieties to collect. Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden contains exhaustive information about oaks and acorns, so that is what I usually consult (and recommend to people) since I still have a lot to learn in the acorn department.
I saw one tree that might have been black walnut (Juglans nigra), but it was from a distance and partially blocked by other trees so hard to be sure.
I found a shrubby tree with wide, veined leaves and I was convinced I had found hazelnuts (Corylus americana).
I love hazelnuts – I have even planted three in my own little food forest – so I am always excited to find them in the wild. But I kept puzzling over why these “nuts” didn’t look like the pictures I’d seen before.
Apparently I got exited too soon! These were in fact American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which resembles hazelnuts in both the overall appearance and leaf shape. There is always something new to learn in foraging! And this is why we always make 100% sure of our identification by inspecting multiple parts of the plant (leaves, shrub shape, and fruit).
The only edible green I found in quantity was American burnweed (Erechtites hieracifolia).
I just recently learned about American burnweed from Forage, Harvest, Feast by Marie Viljoen. The book contains a number of tasty-looking recipes for this fragrant annual. While there weren’t very many of these plants, they are generally considered weeds and will probably come back if the property owners decided to eat them all.
I did find a few young broadleaf plantains (Plantago major) although I don’t often forage this particular plant.
I find the leaves very quickly become too tough and stringy to enjoy, although these specimens were young enough the leaves they might have been OK.
There were ferns as well – although fewer than I was expecting in such a wooded area – which means possibly fiddleheads as well in the spring.
A return visit in the spring may be needed to determine if these were ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), and thus a source of fiddleheads worth eating.
Garlic mustard was much less here than I am used to seeing, which is good for the local ecosystem.
Since this is an invasive species that could crowd out native plants if it gets a foothold, the property owners should consider a “search and destroy” campaign to bring it to a tasty end wherever they find it. The garlic mustard will probably still find its way back though, as invasive species tend to do.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) produces pretty pink flowers in the spring which add a colorful touch to spring salads.
There weren’t many of these trees, or at least, they weren’t easy to find. In the spring, the flower clusters on their branches will stand out much more clearly since the other deciduous trees will still be bare.
There were a few black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) trees (which I failed to get any good pictures of) but there will be no missing their fragrant drooping white flowers in the spring.
I discovered white bergamot (Monarda clinopodia) – also known as basil bee balm – which is an interesting contrast to the wild bee balm (Mondarda fistulosa) in my area.
The smell of the crushed leaves is minty aroma, and would probably make a tasty tea. My local bee balm, with its lavender flowers, has more of an oregano smell to it. There wasn’t a lot of the white bergamot though, so the few plants should probably be left alone, or even encouraged to grow by giving them space.
Roots & Tubers
I located both chicory (Cichorium intybu) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) along the driveway but nowhere else on the property. Of course by the time you see the flowers on each, it is too late to harvest the roots which grow bitter and tough. Additionally, neither plant was present in sufficient quantity to be worth harvesting.
On the other hand, Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) were downright abundant. This was a real surprise for me because I am used to Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, growing in fields, along roadsides, or by creeks. Here they were thick under the cover of the young forest.
The property owners could harvest some or all of the tubers after the first frost (or throughout the winter if the ground isn’t too frozen). The cold helps convert the inulin (which can cause fragrant digestive disturbances) to sugar, making it easier to digest. It’s impossible to harvest every single tuber, plus Jerusalem artichokes will grow better if they are thinned out regularly.
Chanterelles (or at least evidence thereof) (Cantharellus spp.) I know this is a terrible photo, but this is where the chanterelles had been. Yes, I’m talking about the orange mushy things in the center and lower right. Maybe not enough for a full meal, but at least a tasty addition to some other dish featuring more conventional mushrooms.
There were also a few specimens of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus). These were somewhat past their prime, so I chose not to harvest them. There were other, older fruiting bodies on the dead tree as well, so a few days after the next good rain it would be worth checking for any new mushrooms.
There were some interesting other wild edibles on nearby roadsides that were worth mentioning.
Elderberry (Sambucus spp). I recognized this plant much more readily now that I have some of my own growing at home! The clusters of berries are slowly turning black, indicating they are ripe. Remember the unripe berries are toxic, and even the ripe berries must be cooked before using to destroy the remaining toxin in their seeds.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca): No photos of this one, since I figure I’ve tortured everyone enough with milkweed in previous posts!
Oh no! Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)! I am constantly on the lookout for this super invasive weed everywhere I go, and I was dismayed to find it just down the road from the property I was surveying.
Knotweed always poses a sticky ecological situation. Do you let it take over and destroy the local ecosystem? Or do you bomb it with glyphosate and destroy the local ecosystem? (That’s a trick question… you eat as much of it as you can, of course!)
Edibles Not Present
In addition to the wild edibles on (or nearby) the property, there were some notable absences. For example, there was no sign of the typical edible weeds that follow for human habitation – amaranth, dandelion, pokeweed, lambsquarter, purslane, wild lettuce etc.
We also didn’t find any spicebush, pawpaw, mayapples or other understory layers that I see regularly in my local woods. Or most kinds of fruit tree: mulberry, persimmon, wild cherries or crab apples.
Interestingly, there was also no sign of prickly pear. Why did I expect to see it? The last property we had looked at with mostly shale ground was covered in prickly pears. I had high hopes for this land as well, but there was not a single cactus to be found.
A Spring Visit
I hope to return in the spring, to see whether spring ephemerals such as trout lily or ramps appear. Given the history of the land as a former timber operation, I am not sure whether the soil would have been disturbed too much in recent history for these delicate plants to have become established.
I consulted the books below for this report. Note: I am not an affiliate marketer and I do not get commissions if you buy these books from Amazon.com. I highly recommend looking for them at your public library.
Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden.
Marie Viljoen, Forage, Harvest, Feast.
Chris Bennett, Southeast Foraging.
Leda Merideth, Northeast Foraging.
I also used the following websites:
Maryland Biodiversity Project (yes, I know Maryland is not West Virginia… but they share a lot creatures and habitats!
If you would like to support my work, you can hire me to perform a wild edibles assessment for property in the northern WV, central MD, northern VA, or southern PA area; hire me to speak or write about foraging, permaculture and sustainability; or consider making a donation.