Enjoying nature isn't limited to hiking and sightseeing; foraging wild edibles is a rewarding way to find unique and nutritious foods. Woodlands Nature Station naturalist, Shannon Brockway, speaks with Tracy Ross about the best wildlife for beginner foragers and important precautions to follow while harvesting.
Although mushrooms are often associated with wildlife foraging, Brockway advises beginner foragers to wait to forage for mushrooms until they are more familiar with distinguishing wildlife species or if they are with an experienced forager. "So many mushrooms look identical to one another," Brockway says. "They can be a harder one to try and differentiate."
"A really good one to start with is dandelions," she continues. "That's something that even as a little kid, you know exactly what a dandelion is. Every part of the dandelion is edible. The leaves are kind of a bitter green. If you like bitter greens, you can collect the dandelion leaves. I've heard people collect the flowers and dip them in batter to make fritters. Then the root can be collected and dried out. It makes a tea. Some people call it a coffee substitute -- I don't think it tastes at all like coffee, but it can be used to make an herbal drink."
Dandelions can also be used to make dandelion wine. "It's pretty much the same as any wine recipe," Brockway explains. "You're going to take the dandelion blossoms and cut them off so you get rid of all of the green bits because they're going to have a bitter taste like the leaves do. Recipes vary, but then you combine it with sugar, whatever kind of yeast or fermenter you're going to be using, and they often put oranges and lemon in it as well."
Violets are another floral edible that can be harvested throughout the area, but "you do want to be cautious because while the leaves are edible, the roots are poisonous. So just don't pull up the roots and add that to your salad, but the [violet leaves] are a dark, leafy green that's actually pretty high in things like vitamin A and vitamin C."
"A really cool [edible] that is very timely for fall is acorns. With the acorns, you do have to process them. There are a lot of different oak trees found here in Kentucky, and they all produce acorns. Some are really tiny, and some are much larger. They're going to have a different level of tannin in them. Tannin, if you drink tea, that bitter taste there -- think of it much more concentrated in an acorn," Brockway says. By soaking the acorns in cold water over an extended period of time, tannins (and their bitter flavor) can be leached out of the raw acorns.
"You can do this in a variety of ways," she continues. "One way...is [soak the acorns] in water. You can change the water multiple times. You'll see the water turning brown as it's pouring off those tannins. Depending on the type of acorn you have and the concentration of tannins, this can be a long process. Something I've heard of people doing is putting them in a bag in a running stream. The water will continuously wash through and leach the tannins away. Once you get those tannins leached out, you can either dry them on a low setting in the oven [and] eat them whole...like any other nut, or you can grind them up and make acorn flour."
"I try to make a little bit every year. It's really a good flavor. It is a bit nutty, richer...I can make acorn bread with it usually once a year. I actually have one of my coworkers request that for his birthday every year. No butter, nothing, just take a slice of it. He said it doesn't taste like you need to put butter on it. Just a nice, rich taste."
Edible fruits can also be found in Kentucky, including blackberries, persimmons, and pawpaw. "Wild blackberries are everywhere," Brockway says. "That's a great wild edible to start with because it's a familiar fruit that you might've seen in the store before, but you can also find it growing out in the wild. Another really cool one is pawpaw."
"Pawpaw is the largest fruit native to North America. The trees are pretty cool looking. They have these really long leaves. It almost looks like a tropical tree that just got dropped here in the middle of Kentucky. Usually, you'll see multiple pawpaw trees altogether. They have these big, oblong, green fruits on them. When we think of fruit, often we think of an apple, something with kind of a crisp texture. Pawpaw, when it's ripe, is soft as pudding. Very, very sweet. Kind of a tropical, banana-y flavor."
"Persimmons are a fun one...they're going to be ripening up here in the fall. If you've ever seen Asian persimmons in the grocery store, our native ones look a lot like that, but they're smaller. They do get that kind of orangey color on them. They have a nice, sweet flavor, but they are one you want to be careful of," Brockway warns. "If you bite into a green persimmon, your mouth goes completely dry. It's like all of the moisture has just been pulled out. It's an interesting experience. It won't hurt you or anything, but it's not exactly pleasant when they're green. You want them to be kind of like that pawpaw where they're very ripe and almost a little bit mushy before they're edible."
There are necessary precautions to follow before foraging for wild edibles. "Not everyone can eat everything," Brockway says. "Sometimes, people have allergies or intolerances that you might not even be aware of. For example, I had pawpaws for the first time five years ago. Because I had never eaten that item before, I had discovered that I was intolerant to it. That's something to keep in mind. Just like things you get from the store, not everyone can eat everything. Be aware of any allergies and the possibility that you personally might not be able to eat that item."
"There are a lot of edible things out there," she continues. "You always want to be certain about your identification. You want to know what's happening in that area. For example, you don't want to go somewhere that's just been sprayed with pesticide or herbicide. You want to know that you have permission to harvest in that particular area as well."
"That's why I suggest people start in their own backyards. You know exactly what's going on there. You can watch that plant over the course of the season. And just try to enjoy all the goodies you can find out there in nature," Brockway concludes.
For more information on the Land Between the Lakes area or the Woodlands Nature Station, visit their website.