South Branch River Wild Edibles Assessment, Week Ending 02/09/2020

I recently had the opportunity to conduct another wild edible assessment, which prompts the question, “But why?” So in this report, I have also included some information about what an assessment is “good for”. As a nod to the work of Daniel Vitalis (about whom I blogged a few weeks ago), this report (and those going forward) will also mention game. Because even if I don’t particularly feel like hunting and trapping, others who read and use these assessments might.

This was the most challenging assessment I have done so far, due to the time of year. In winter many of the wild edibles we may be interested in are dormant. Luckily I’ve been working this year to improve my ability to identify key foraging plants even without leaves or other greenery to go by. I don’t yet know whether I will have a chance to return later in the year, maybe late spring or summer, to check for additional plants that had been hiding in the winter.

The primary reason to conduct a wild edibles assessment is to discover what already exists locally that can be eaten. Often in the more rugged and remote properties, people intend to use the land for homesteading, but it can take years to establish gardens and crops and livestock. Or sometimes these domesticated food sources fail due to their relative fragility compared to their wilder ancestors. Additionally wild food can add flavor and diversity to anyone’s diet, especially when armed with some of the better cookbooks out there. 

The property we were inspecting was divided between open pasture-like ground and mature hardwood forest. In the open, grassy areas we found the following: 

Cattails – multiple stands indicating the open areas are very wet, and downright marshy in a lot of places. Since cattails provide multiple sources of food – roots, stalks and pollen – at different times of the year, this would be an excellent plant to cultivate as a wild “crop”.

Two different stands of cattails - one in the fore right, and the other further back on the left
Two different stands of cattails – one in the fore right, and the other further back on the left

Wild roses – like, everywhere, as standalone bushes rather than as forest undergrowth. They appear to be the non-native Rosa multiflora, and grow singly in the middle of the open grassy area, rather than as dense underbrush in the wooded area.

Wild roses grew extensively
Wild roses grew extensively

Thistles – Although I’m not sure I’d ever be hungry enough to tackle thistles, technically you can eat the leafstalks, flower stalks, and sometimes the roots (depending on growing conditions). Apparently the flower stalks in particular are actually quite tasty. I’ll let you know if I ever feel brave enough to try.

Field garlic – not a very dramatic player on the wild edible scene, but good for seasoning.

Field garlic
Field garlic

The forested part of the property was covered with mature hardwoods. The forest floor was covered with mostly leaf litter and rocks on the ground, with very little underbrush, shrubs or other overgrowth tangling things up. (Although that may have been a factor of the time of year.) The area was also very steeply sloped as it rose to a ridge behind the property. Here’s what we found:

Black walnut – although there were fewer husks than I expected on the ground for so many trees.

Black walnut husk
Black walnut husk

If you can reach a branch, you can confirm it is black walnut because of the “monkey face” leaf scars.

The "monkey face" leaf scars on a black walnut branch
The “monkey face” leaf scars on a black walnut branch

Black locust – OK, the flowers aren’t a major source of calories, obviously; but they are wonderful smelling in the spring, and black locust is a quick growing tree which can be a good source for local timber.

Oaks – appeared to be a mix of red and white oaks; at this point I still need to see the leaves to distinguish the two.

Hickories – Amidst the acorns and leaves, there were also hickory husks.

Hickory husks
Hickory husks

Surveying the trees, I even found the distinctive bark of the shagbark hickory, which is considered by many to produce the best hickory nut because if its size and flavor.

The distinctive "shaggy" bark of a shagbark hickory
The distinctive “shaggy” bark of a shagbark hickory

Hackberry – I only found the warty bark of hackberry on one small tree. I suspect there are others further up in the forest, but didn’t have a chance to confirm.

The warty bark of a hackberry
The warty bark of a hackberry

Pawpaw – Luckily I learned how to tell a pawpaw by its bark a few weeks ago. Note the mottled gray bark, a ring of wood pecker damage as well as the funky eye-looking spot.

Two pawapws
Two pawapws

These two were smushed in a stand with trees of other species. There may have been more pawpaws upslope, so the fruit rolled to this spot. Or bear apparently distribute the seeds in this area as well. A local said only pawpaws along the river (South Branch) actually produced fruit, so only time would tell whether these two, given a bit more attention and some more room to grow, might produce fruit.

Grapes – just a few, unlike the Fort Ashby property where grapes seemed to cover everything. 

Wild grapes growing on a dead tree
Wild grapes growing on a dead tree

Wineberries – very few, and no evidence of raspberries or blackberries or the other undergrowth that I so often see in my own local woods.

A few wineberry canes
A few wineberry canes

I also found spicebush about two miles up the road from the property, although given the time of year there’s no way to know if it is female and would eventually produce edible berries. The twigs and leaves though still could be used for tea.

Spicebush branches budding
Spicebush branches budding

What wasn’t growing: garlic mustard, autumn olive, Japanese knotweed, Japanese barberry (although there is still probably a high population of deer ticks, thanks to the, um, deer). All these invasives do affect West Virginia as much as Maryland, but thankfully did not seem to be present on this piece of property. Vigilance may be needed to keep them out.

The property contained ample evidence of game. We saw both rabbits and squirrels, as well as tadpoles (aka future frogs… I mean, people can and do eat frogs). We also encountered deer tracks, fur, carcasses and scat.

Deer fur indicating recent predation
Deer fur indicating recent predation

Further along we found a fresh partial turkey carcass and feathers, indicating a very recent kill.

Wild turkey feathers, also very fresh
Wild turkey feathers, also very fresh

Not edible, but interesting to note: lots of praying mantis egg sacks. Which suggests lots of bugs, to support lots of predators. Given all the news about the rate at which insects are dying off it was encouraging to see evidence for a healthy insect ecosystem.

Another reason to study the wild edibles in an area is the cues they provide about what domestic crops, livestock or introduced plants may flourish in the location. Or whether additional human effort might be required to protect said crops and livestock.

For example, wild plants can indicate soil moisture conditions. Extensive cattails suggest the ground stays wet for long periods; “too much moisture” may be more of a challenge for gardening and crops, rather than too little. On the other hand, trees and shrubs that don’t mind (or even like) wet feet will do OK, such as elderberries and pawpaws. In fact, one cattail stand grew in so much standing water (we are guessing it was spring-fed), it could be dug out to create a pond for small fish and other aquatic plants.

Cattails in standing water - possible future pond?
Cattails in standing water – possible future pond?

The presence of grapes suggest cultivated varieties (whether for eating or wine) might also grow well. 

So many nut trees (oak, hickory, walnut) may support a large population of nut eating creatures like squirrels. This could cause problems for cultivated crop nut trees, like hazelnuts or chestnuts.

We saw several small birds of prey, suggesting a healthy ecosystem with other small animals around. On the other hand, small animals could be mice, rats or voles which would plague the well-being of a garden.

And of course, the evidence of dead game – turkey and deer specifically – suggests large predators actively hunting. This area is riddled with coyote, bobcats and mountain lions, which could mean bad news for livestock like hens, sheep, goats or even cattle. (And the aforementioned bear, which could have a field day with nut and fruit trees, or blackberries in a garden.)

A third reason to assess the wild edibles in a property is for any money making-opportunities – wild edibles being trendy in some restaurants. OK, maybe not in this area of West Virginia! It could be a market waiting to be developed.

I did not see much evidence for ostrich ferns in the forest leaf litter, so I doubt fiddleheads would be available for harvesting (carefully) later in the spring. Likewise for the spring ephemerals such as ramps, trout lilies, or spring beauties; while they like open forest floor such as we found here, I would expect to find other plants growing on the ground under the canopy and here there were only leaves. And more leaves. And rocks. Possibly the steep slope of the ridge to the back of the property kept soil from accumulating to support this kind of plant growth. Or perhaps everything was dormant because it was winter.

The steeply sloped forest floor might keep some plants from getting a foothold
The steeply sloped forest floor might keep some plants from getting a foothold

Also, in winter it is hard to know whether wild fungus might be available, both to eat and to sell at market or to restaurants. Morels, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane and chicken of the woods are all known to grow in West Virginia so they may be present on this property as well during the correct growing conditions.

Of course, the trick with harvesting wild edibles for sale, is finding a healthy balance that allows the population to continue sustainably rather than being over-harvested. We’ll cover that subject more in a future post … if I ever find wild edibles worthy of selling!

Have you found any new wild edibles lately, or explored new places where nature offers lessons using the wilderness around us?

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