I recently wrote about the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which I attended in North Carolina earlier this month. One of my favorite workshops was ‘Unusual Vegetables from Mountains to Sea’ by Marc Williams. Marc is an ethnobotanist and the Executive Director of Plants and Healers International based in Asheville, North Carolina. More information about Marc’s work is available on www.plantsandhealers.org, www.botanyeveryday.com, and the Botany Everyday Facebook page.
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What can plant families tell you?
In his presentation, Marc explained that most plants fit into about 20 different families and if you know the plant family then you can tell whether it is edible, poisonous, or invasive, if it has medicinal qualities, insect interactions, and if it includes natural dyes or other aesthetic qualities. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, the Apiaceae plant family includes celery, carrots, parsley, and parsnips but also includes poisonous plants like water hemlock and poison hemlock.
History of Unusual Vegetables
Marc talked about different cultural groups as well as historical and modern leaders in using, researching, and/or teaching about unusual vegetables. For example, important plants for the Cherokee include:
- Nuts: acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, and hickory
- Greens: sochane, osha, and poke
- Fruits: blueberries, pawpaws, persimmons, passionfruit, and sumac
- Mushrooms: Grifola frondosa or “Hen of the Woods”
He discussed the following types of unusual vegetables:
Marc described heirlooms as vegetables which can set you apart or distinguish you from other growers. One example is purple potatoes, which are high in antioxidants and help prevent cancer. In fact, any purple plant (if its edible) is high in antioxidants. Crops with heirloom varieties include lettuce, radishes, beets, beans, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes.
If you’re a commercial farmer, wild vegetables can boost your productivity per acre because they are often already readily available and are free. There are about 4,000 wild edibles in the United States. Some of the prime wild edibles include black locust flowers (note: the seeds are poisonous!), lamb’s quarters, burdock, purslane, pokeweed, amaranth, and Jerusalem artichoke though there are many others.
It’s very important to be able to properly identify and prepare them as some may be toxic. Marc recommends connecting with experienced foragers/local experts and using guidebooks, but he also shared these rules for finding and using wild edibles:
- Know what part to use (e.g., root, shoot, leaf, stem, and/or fruit)
- Know what time of year to harvest
- Don’t harvest from areas which may be contaminated by synthetic chemicals or pollutants such as roadsides, which may have heavy metals (e.g., lead, mercury, or cadmium). Some plants take up more metals than others such as mustard greens, sunflowers, and dandelions.
- Don’t harvest wild edibles from florists or ornamental growers
- Use all of your senses
- Know how to prepare the wild edible
Marc also discussed “wild edible ethics” explaining that you shouldn’t over harvest wild edibles (save some for animals, other people, and other generations!). For example, you should only cut the top off of ramps/wild onions and leave the bottom because it is a perennial which will regrow. You can also replant the roots of some wild edibles if you see someone selling them with the roots on.
Forgotten and Exotic
Most “forgotten” vegetables originated in Europe and Marc described them as ‘ripe for a renewal’ if you’re looking for something unique to distinguish yourself from other growers. Exotic vegetables are often invasive and may pose ecological issues, but also might be turned into a resource. A few examples of forgotten and exotic cultivated vegetables are Good King Henry, yacon, and turmeric. Good King Henry is a perennial, which is in the same plant family as quinoa and lamb’s quarters. Yacon is a root vegetable from South America, which is related to dandelions. And Marc said that turmeric, which is becoming more and more popular, is among the “top ten medicinal plants in the world.”
Nasturtiums are considered the “queen of edible flowers”, but there are many other edible flowers. The mallow, brassica, violet, and pink families include edible flowers.
While mushrooms aren’t technically vegetables, they can provide a significant source of income and are high in protein. Marc discussed three types: surf and turf, cultivated (Shitakes), and wild cultivated mushrooms (Chicken of the Woods, lobster, maitake, morel, and oyster). Morels pull up heavy metals so be sure to be careful of picking morels around old apple orchards. In the early 1900s, many apple orchards were sprayed with pesticides including lead and arsenic to address codling moths.1 You can get the soil tested or take a look at historic land use maps to determine if an area may have been contaminated.
This post only chips the surface of Marc’s very thorough presentation, so certainly check out his website and online classes for more information and to learn about many more unusual vegetables.
- Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel
- Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy
- Cherokee Plants: Their Uses – A 400 Year History by Mary Chiltoskey and Paul Hamel
- The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America by Francois Couplan
- The Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center
- Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide by Elizabeth Schneider
- Where Our Food Comes From by Gary Nabhan
Janie Hynson is an aspiring homesteader in North Carolina. She recently moved back to her hometown after living in Boston for six years and then traveling across the U.S. working on organic farms. Janie works in public health and sustainable agriculture and is interested in how health can be improved through homesteading.