Where the Wild Things Are
On a Saturday in May, I found myself standing in Hidden Lakes State Park, a small splotch of green on a big map of Nashville. I was meeting Alan Powell, expert wild food forager, a man who knows how to pick his poke weed before it’s toxic and how to leech his acorns of their tannin. The woods from the parking lot looked like, well, woods. Little did I realize they were actually a vast, sylvan salad—a bucolic buffet.
In less than two hours and two miles of easy hiking on a fine April day, Alan not only gave us a refresher course on spotting poison ivy, but pointed out some twenty wild edibles: chickweed, wild onion, wood sorrel, wild rose (you can eat the pulp around the seeds!), wild carrot, greenbrier, beaked cornsalad, and—for desert—wild strawberries. There’s even a pawpaw tree, but, alas, no fruit yet. Still, for an early spring day, the little patch of woods just outside Nashville is amazingly abundant. If you know what to look for. “If you’re not one hundred percent sure of what it is,” Alan says as he cuts a small slice from a large mushroom, “don’t eat it.”
The fungus turns out to be a pheasant back or dryad’s saddle, depending on what part of the country you’re in when you first learn to spot it. As I am standing next to Alan in Middle Tennessee, to me, the mushroom will forevermore be a pheasant back. Regardless of its name, the mushroom—when cut—has a very unique scent for a fungus, a sort of cross between a cucumber and a melon. “I’m always grateful when I find something that I can eat from the forest,” Alan admits. “It’s like the earth saying ‘you belong here.’”
So how did he acquire such knowledge? While Alan did attend a camp on Native American medicinal plants, he is largely self-taught, having spent years with field guides in one hand and specimens in the other. “The key is learning plant family traits like the leaf structure and the positioning on the stems,” Alan points out. “That allows a newbie to match the plant with the field guide much more quickly.”
Such know-how matters. The tannin of wild grapes can keep your pickles crisp and the fruit is perfect for wines, jams, and jellies; Canada moonseed, however, a wild grape look-alike, can kill you dead. But, then again, so can a car crash on your way to Kroger’s. The point is to learn an ancient knowledge that so many of us have lost so that, on a foraging hike, we can make confident choices for the consumption of delicious and nutritious wild edible food.
JOIN US FOR A WILD EDIBLE HIKING GAME!
An Official Event of the Bells Bend Park Farm and Fiddle Festival
Saturday, Oct. 1st 9:00 a.m. – noon Beaman Nature Center
Will you spot Hen-of-the-Woods? Persimmons? Wood sorrel? Some type of wild mint? Find out with a wild edible identification game in the beautiful woods of Beaman Nature Center. For $20, you’ll get a wild edible identification game sheet to match pictures and descriptions with a dozen or so wild edibles numbered along 2.3 miles of moderately strenuous trails. When you’re done take your card to The Bells Bend Park Farm & Fiddle Festival to win a CSA basket from Old School Farm. Then head to Old School Farm for a free beer and 10% off lunch.
Proceeds to support three non-profits: Friends of Bells Bend, Friends of Beaman, and Old School Farm.
Old School Farm | oldschoolfarm.org