By April Lauren, Staff Health Coach at Elements Health & Wellness
Did you know that Western North Carolina is home to hundreds of wild edible plants, many of which you can probably find in your own backyard? Wildcrafting – or foraging – for these free and nutrient-rich botanicals is a great way to spend more time in nature and reap benefits for your health and well-being. In this article, I’ll share some of the most popular plants native to our area, which seasons you may find them, and some basic tools and techniques to help you get started in Wildcrafting.
During spring to summer in the mountains and foothills, greens and flowers are top of the menu. Many of these plants make deliciously zesty additions to salads, stir-fries, sandwiches, and more. Look for plants like chickweed (leaves and flowers; traditionally used for skin, digestive, and other complaints), dandelion (leaves, blossoms, and root), eastern redbud (flowers; high in vitamin c), wood sorrel (leaves), wild violets (flowers), wild garlic, ramps, plantain (Ireland, 2020).
From summer into early fall, fruits and nuts join the harvest, and may be helpful as edible or herbal preparations. Look for fruits like blackberries, blueberries, rose hips (excellent as a vitamin C rich tea!), elderberries (elderberries should not be eaten raw!), and wild grapes. Herbs like curly dock, burdock, and mullein can be used in a variety of ways. Later, a bounty can be found in walnuts, hickory, pecans, and even acorns(special preparation required to remove tannins)
Though it can feel intimidating to turn to nature instead of the grocery store, once you’ve learned the basics you can enjoy the immensely rewarding feeling that comes with sourcing your food as locally as it gets. But foraging also puts responsibility for stewardship and conservation squarely on your shoulders, so it’s important to follow some ethical principles.
Be sure to never consume or harvest a plant without being 100% certain of its identity. There are many lookalikes to wild edibles that can be toxic or poisonous, so it’s always a good idea to learn from an expert and also have an excellent field guide. It’s essential to know a plant’s health effects, possible interactions with medications, and safe preparation methods and usable parts. Many plants must be prepared a certain way to be safe, and many others have only certain parts (i.e. leaves, fruit, roots, etc) that are edible, while others may be toxic. A good place to start is the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, which is a great resource with detailed descriptions and photos of over 4,000 plants. Another resource is the Peterson Field Guide To Medicinal Plants & Herbs Of Eastern & Central N. America: Third Edition. There are a few organizations offering herb walks and in person education in our area, such as No Taste Like Home and the NC Arboretum’s Adult and Continuing Education Classes in Asheville.
Once you’ve located and identified the plants you are harvesting, it’s important to think and act like a conservationist. Ensure you use the correct tools, like pruning shears, to harvest with minimal damage. Be mindful of the environment the plant is growing in and don’t over-harvest. A good rule of thumb is to not harvest more than 5% of a patch of any given herb to allow it to replenish itself. Ensure that you do not harvest in contaminated areas, such as within 200 feet of a busy roadway, in or near polluted drainage canals, or in places where chemicals may have been used (Gardiner 2021).
While many of these plants can be used for food, many have been used traditionally as folk medicines. If you are interested in exploring crafting your own herbal preparations, a few fairly simple to start with include herbal teas, topical salves, alcohol or glycerin extracts, and syrups. It’s important to do your research because certain plants lend themselves to specific preparations while others should not be used in certain applications.
My hope is that you’re excited to get out in nature, learn more about the plants around us, and find enjoyment in stewarding the land we call home. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out and I’ll do my best to direct you to an answer or resource.
Keep in mind that this article is for education and entertainment purposes only. Please consult an expert when foraging if you are unsure of a plant’s identity, safety, method of preparation. Always consult a healthcare provider or qualified herbalist before taking herbs for medicinal use.
Gardiner, Barbi. “9 Basic Principles of Ethical Wildcrafting for Beginners.” The Outdoor Apothecary. 14 February 2021. https://www.outdoorapothecary.com/ethical-wildcrafting/
Ireland, Debra. “Foraging for Backyard Edibles.” NC State Extension. 7 May 2020. https://homegrown.extension.ncsu.edu/2020/05/backyard-edibles/