For most of us, a walk in the woods is usually nothing more than just that. If we’re fortunate, we arrive home with some pleasant memories and a bit of mud on our boots. If we’re not, we also bring home a case of poison ivy. But, if you join Carriage House Farm’s Native Plant Specialist Abby Artemisia for her weekly “Friday Frolic in the Forest” in LaBoiteaux Woods in Northside, that simple jaunt becomes a combination of culinary wonderland and Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet.
Carriage House Farm, a sixth generation North Bend family farm, focuses on sustainable and creative planting. And Artemisia, a botanist and herbalist, works to help diversify the supply of native plants on the farm. She forages native and wild edibles and propagates these plants at the farm for a lifetime of consumption.
Foraging for wild edibles has become a trend as of late. As the ultimate representation of locavore dining (as well as cheap eating, sustainability and self-sufficiency), many local groups lead foraging forays into the woods similar to Artemisia’s, including the Cincinnati Nature Center, where experts help identify local plants that are safe and tasty to eat and cook. And having a knowledgeable leader guide you on a first foraging trip is incredibly important, especially since some plants can be poisonous or hard to identify.
“Go out and learn from someone who knows how to identify plants,” Artemisia says. “Have 100 percent positive ID. If you’re not sure, don’t eat it!”
You also want to make sure you are foraging somewhere legally and safely. Your own backyard is always a good choice, says Artemisia, but she also has warnings. “Stay away from roadsides or places you know have been sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, etc. or are exposed to runoff from those areas,” she says.
Luckily, her structured walk through LaBoiteaux Woods meets both requirements — expertise in identification and legality.
LaBoiteaux Woods is a gem of a park located just off Hamilton Avenue in College Hill, featuring more than two miles of hiking trails. It’s tucked in the middle of a charming residential neighborhood and it’s been one of Artemisia’s favorite parks for years. It was a natural choice for her hikes due to its proximity to her house and the diversity of plant life, especially the spring ephemerals — perennial woodland wildflowers — you might not see in other Hamilton County parks such as trilliums, trout lilies, violets and the spring beauty. These are, of course, beautiful, but not food (except for the violets).
This time of year, the forest doesn’t disappoint the hungry and is full of edibles, including chickweed, a tiny succulent used as both food and medicine. Artemisia suggests making it into a decoction — a method of extraction by boiling — and using it to treat coughs which seem to be rampant this time of year. In fact, as Artemisia often tells people on her hikes, “Whatever symptoms are going on that time of year there’s usually a plant — or multiple plants — growing that you can use for that symptom.”
Other edibles found in LaBoiteaux include spiceberry, a pioneer substitute for allspice; rose hips, higher in vitamin C than oranges and can be made into a tea; and several types of mushrooms, both culinary and curative.
Artemisia started her hikes as a way to connect or reconnect people with nature; something she feels is her mission in life.
Why? “Because a lot of the problems we have in our society right now with illness, depression and obesity, it comes from our disconnect with nature,” Artemisia says. “We don’t know where our food comes from and people aren’t exercising.”
Hiking and discovering wild, edible plants is Artemisia’s way of combatting these societal woes. She also wants to give people a chance to unwind at the end of the week, create friendship and meditate in the beauty of the woods. And, in keeping in line with her deep reverence for nature, she always remembers to thank the plants for all that they give her.
“Every plant has a use,” Artemisia says on her walk, even so-called weeds. According to her, weeds are actually just “plants somewhere you don’t want them to be.”
Artemisia’s Rules for Foraging:
1. Don’t die. First and foremost, know what you’re eating. Artemisia suggests relying on not one, but at least three reference books; this is imperative as each source might be missing identifying pictures or have different or conflicting information. Multiple reference books allow you to crosscheck your information. When it comes to ascertaining the safety of an edible, you want to be 100-percent certain. These sources are also helpful when it comes to finding a use for your plants, be it culinary or medicinal.
2. Be responsible. Find out if it’s legal to forage in your chosen area. If necessary, get permission from the property owner. Do your due diligence in regards to the plants you’re harvesting. Are they endangered or threatened in any way? Take care in the amount you remove. Remember this generally accepted rule, says Artemisia: “If you see only one or two plants, don’t take any. But if you see a bunch of it, the general rule is not to take more than 20 percent. You want to make sure it can grow and proliferate.”
3. Respect Mother Nature. Be a good citizen and don’t damage the environment. Be careful where you step. Remember those delicate spring ephemerals you came to see? They’re easily trampled. If you’re digging for roots or bulbs, keep it to as small an area as possible. And most of all is to be careful not to erode the trail. Make sure to leave the woods as beautiful as you found it.
Native Spring Edibles
Morels: “Used like most other mushrooms. Tasty cooked with ramps and butter. Extremely hard to find. Best chance of finding them is in undisturbed woods. They’re very finicky! Their ideal growing conditions are when the weather has been 60 degrees during the day and 40 degrees at night and wet for multiple days in a row. They grow in early spring.”
Ramps: “Grow at the same time as morels and like similar conditions. They’re in the onion and garlic (Allium) family and are often called wild leeks or wild garlic. Super tasty! The bulbs can be cooked like onions or leeks. The leaves can be eaten, too, as a milder flavoring in dishes like stir-fries.”
Chickweed: "Grows all year long, unless there’s a hard freeze. Will grow just about anywhere: woods, garden beds, lawns, sidewalk cracks. High protein and mineral content. Delicious raw as a trailside nibble or in salads. Also good lightly sautéed in olive oil.”
Spiceberry: "A beautiful shrub that grows in the understory of the forest. In the Laurel family along with bay, cinnamon and sassafras. The berries are ripe in the fall, when they turn bright red. They were used by early pioneers as an allspice alternative. They are good dried and used in teas or as a spice, as allspice would be used, in applesauce or pumpkin pie.”
Rose Hips: "The hips are the fruit of the rose. You’ll get rose hips if you don’t deadhead your roses (assuming they’re not knockout roses, which deadhead themselves). You can also use wild rose hips. They are mature in the fall, when they turn bright red and are sweeter after the first frost. The hips have lots of vitamin C and the seeds have vitamin E. They can be eaten as a snack, made into tea, syrups and preserves.”
Nettles: "These tend to grow in dark forest understories where it’s wet, like creek banks. Be careful of their stinging hairs when harvesting (wear gloves and long sleeves). Harvest the leaves in spring before they flower or go to seed. Nettles have lots of vitamin A and magnesium. They are good for preventing allergies and as a muscle relaxer. You can dry them and make them into teas or use them fresh in soups and egg dishes or steam them. They lose their sting after being dried or steamed.”Dandelions: "Grow almost everywhere it’s sunny, especially where the soil has been disturbed. Have lots of vitamin A and C, and iron and calcium. Eat the fresh spring and fall greens; they’re less bitter. They are a great liver tonic. Add the leaves to salads or steamed or sautéed greens. Roast the roots for a coffee-like drink or make a tea from fresh or dried roots.”