Wild Harvest: Useful and Edible Plants | Wisconsin Public Television

Wild Harvest: Useful and Edible Plants

Wild Harvest: Useful and Edible Plants

Record date: Feb 10, 2018

David Eagan, Former Honorary Fellow in the Department of Botany at UW-Madison, explains how to harvest and prepare Wisconsin’s wild plants and garden plants for food, fire, crafts, magic and more. Eagan focuses on plants in the forests, prairies and woodlands.

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Episode Transcript

- Thanks for coming.

Welcome to the field trip.

We're going on a hike today.

Going to take you on

a hike with pictures

and in your imagination.

I am an avocational botanist.

I'm a plant person from day one. Well, day high school anyway.

And always looking at plants

and interested in them.

Any other plant nerds out there? Okay.

Not so much garden

nerds but wild plants

and that sort of thing.

Well, as you can see from

our friend Charles Darwin,

if you are a botanist or

a plant-oriented person,

you always have something to

look at, which I find wonderful.

One of the teachings of many

tribes, probably all tribes,

is that all plants have a use, literally all plants.

And among the Chippewa,

the Ojibwe,

as discovered by

Frances Densmore,

who wrote a book about that,

literally every plant as

some kind of use as a food,

as a medicine, as firewood,

as a magic love charm,

that sort of thing.

So I explore that topic,

and I have picked up a ton

of information over the years,

largely through a

collection of books.

One of the earliest ones

was Euell Gibbons.

I have a little clipping

tucked in this book of mine

that says he died

of natural causes,

which I thought was

very appropriate.

And, of course, he was famous

for advertising Grape-Nuts.

He said they tasted like what? - Wild hickory.

- Wild hickory nuts.

And he also said that

ever eat a pine tree?

Many parts of edible.

So here's a little joke

of a kid pictured

with a pine tree in her mouth.

But once you know what is

edible, what is useful,

a whole world opens up

and it's quite fun.

Many of you may know Sam Thayer,

who's Wisconsin's wild food and

foraging expert and has written

these three wonderful books.

The very first one, on the left,

has a chapter on wild parsnip,

which I have explored and

written about, and he wrote

to me and said, "You made a

mistake in your article."

So Sam and I have been in

touch for a long time,

and he's a great guy.

He knows this stuff in and out.

So books and people

are the teachers.

I think I have one more.

Yeah, this guy,

Ellsworth Jaeger,

who wrote "Wildwood Wisdom."

The book is full of these

wonderful panels of uses

of plants and animal skins

and how to build a

shelter and many things.

And here's "Lost," how to keep

yourself from getting lost

by knowing which plants tell

you which way is north.

And that's actually a topic

we'll get to later.

It happens to have

been reprinted.

So it's an old book,

but you can get it through Shelter Publications.

And I encourage you to

buy a case of them,

you'll get a nice discount,

and give them to your

family and friends.

I would buy a case for

the Boy Scout troop I

was Scoutmaster for

and make sure every kid had one,

and they're a treasure.

I've had this one since

my high school days.

Oh, and a recent book,

this is by Misty Cook.

She's Stockbridge-Munsee tribe.

Lives up where I do near

Shawano, Wisconsin.

And she has interviewed the

elders in her tribe and other

elders and written a book,

a fairly recent book

about medicines of her people.

And we'll discover one of those.

This is how she hangs

and dries many of them.

I met her up there.

Well, so the field trip idea.

We're going off on

a little journey.

You have to kind of pretend

you're with me in the field,

and I'm leading a field trip.

And that's often how

I explore the woods

and the fields with people.

And I have a certain

way I go about it,

and you're going to have to

experience that in a second,

because we're going to pretend

you're with me in the field

on some kind of a hike.

Which plants can

be used for what?

Well, I say it's complicated

because think of

stinging nettle.

It's a food.

It's a twine plant.

It's also a little hazardous,

and you have to know about it.

So they're useful, they're

interesting, they're memorable.

Plants have many features,

not just one thing.

Not just edible

or something else.

So we're going to explore

some of those uses.

And here's what I

do in the field.

I say, "What is that?"

I spend my life,

especially in the green season,

trying to identify

every plant I can,

and that's kind of my

modus operandi when I'm out.

So I practice the names

very year all over again,

even the common ones.

And the minute I see

something I don't recognize,

then I stop and I try

to figure it out.

What is this? All right,

a very common plant.

Just about everybody in this

room knows it. Common milkweed.

Well, what can you do

with common milkweed?

Besides feed it to the monarchs?

It is a food plant,

a twine plant, insulation.

You can use it for fire

starting, the fluffy part.

It's used as a glue because

that sap is very sticky.

Magic writing, monarch

butterflies, and more.

And I'm just going to,

I'll show you in a sec.

Here's a couple of uses.

The picture on the right is

the young shoots coming up.

And if you know milkweed and you

recognize it well and your

confident in your ID, you can

boil it briefly and eat it.

It's quite tasty, and it doesn't

have to be boiled three times

like Euell Gibbons

will say in his book.

So things have been changing

in what we know about

some of the edibility

of wild plants.

It's actually very mild tasting.

You just eat it a

little bit as it is

and it wouldn't taste that bad.

But it's better to cook it.

In fact, you should cook it.

Sort of denatures some

of the chemicals in it.

The flower buds, same thing.

You can eat those,

boil them lightly,

and they're just like

eating a kind of broccoli.

The flavor is very mild.

If you're an aphid,

you love milkweed.

And you see them

colonizing many plants.

And so milkweed we could go

quite a long time on just that

one plant because there are

many uses of it by nature,

by wildlife and insects.

And what are the ants doing

on that milkweed leaf?

There's all these wonderful

ecological stories

happening out there.

They're taking

care of the aphids.

They're basically farming the

aphids as livestock for an ant.

Aphids eat plants, plant juices.

They have to suck in a lot of

plant juice to get any protein

because it's sugar water,


And so out the back end comes a

lot of sugar water.

That's the sticky spots

you find on your cars

if you park under a basswood

tree in the summer.

But the ants harvest that

and take it back down

to their nest.

They also protect the aphids.

So it's a little sort

of protection racket

going on there.

Okay, so these are the stories

that are out there and it's fun.

Another thing that's

fun with milkweed

is something I call

magic writing.

And I've taken a leaf and its

dripping sap and I'm dabbling it

on my hand and it dries

invisibly so there's nothing to

see until I take some powdered,

some fine dirt or some charcoal

and it shows the magic

writing on your hand.

So try that with

some kids sometime.

It's a lot of fun,

a little bit of magic.

And milkweed fluff.

The seed pods were

collected in World War II.

Anybody have a family member or

yourself collecting milkweed.

There's one back there.

When Japan made the island of

Java off limits where they had

the kapok tree, which has this

fluffy stuff they would stuff

into life jackets, the call

went out to this country

to collect the fluff

from milkweed.

And over the course

of World War II,

they collected

eleven million pounds of it,

according to the records.

It's lightweight.

It's waterproof so it's perfect

for that sort of purpose.

This is milkweed fluff,

a little bag.

If you take it and ball

it up on your hands,

you can make it stay put.

Otherwise, you know,

it flies everywhere.

But 11 million pounds of this?

I can't fathom

how they go there.

But I use this for stuffing

little pillows, or else it's a

great fire starter when you're

doing fire by friction.

We'll talk about that in a bit.

It's one of the additions

to the tinder bundle

to help the fire catch.

And what's this?

We're now on our field trip

in a little wetter place.

All right, most of

you know the cattail.

And it's another one

that has many, many uses.

And between food and

crafts and ceremony,

they once called it the supermarket of the swamp.

And so it's a useful plant

in many, many ways.

One of the things you can

collect is the pollen off

the male part of the plant,

which is at the top of the

stalk when it's flowering,

and this is an Apache girl,

for their sunrise ceremony.

So it's used by Native

Americans for various thing.

You can use it as a flower.

Sam Thayer's books and Euell

Gibbons, go read up on milkweed

and you'll find out many

fun ways to eat it.

The leaves, though, are quite

useful for mats.

Indians in the area

where cattail grew,

and in this case the Ojibwe,

would string leaves

together to use as a covering

on the side of their lodges,

their summer homes,

just as a rain preventer

to keep the rain out.

And how you put them together

is you lace the leaves,

hang them on a string down,

and you use basswood twine

or some other twine

on a deer rib needle and

string them together.

Simple enough.

The deer rib needle, I made

one quite like that one.

That's not me, but it's

one like I made.

It was then polished with that

little stick that you all

are holding in your hands,

or most of you are.

So I'll explain that in a bit.

But just to kind of tie some

of these things together.

Next plant.

The basswood or linden.

Another one of my trademarks.

If you're on a

field trip with me,

we would up next to the plants,

and we would see

how big they are.

But I try, in most

of my pictures,

to put a scale of

some sort in there,

which is a trick I learned

from my botany professor

back in college.

His motto was,

"a penny for scale."

So all of his slides would

have a penny or a coin

or something in there for scale, so that's what you'll see.

If it's my picture, it probably

has a hand or a pencil

or a coin or something in there.

The flowers are a

favorite of the honeybees.

It's one of the three primary

honey-making plants

in the country.

I named my child

after this tree.

His middle name anyway.

It's Linden.

So it's a tree of

great importance to me

for many, many reasons.

For edibility, one of the

great things in the spring

when it's just making

puffs of leaves at the

tips of the branches,

we call it basswood salad,

and you can just eat that

right off the branch.

It's delicious.

All right, here's another one. We're going to move on.

We'll come back to

basswood in a bit.

It's in the carrot family.

Wild parsnip.

How many know of its hazard?

All right, you've heard of it,

but you may not be as good

at recognizing it in the field,


But it's a good one to get to

know so you can avoid it.

It's an alien plant.

I mean a non-native.

It's spreading quite

a bit in Wisconsin

and all over the country really.

It's in every county

in Wisconsin.

But I got interested in this

plant 20 years ago and wrote

some articles for the DNR

magazine about it and got to

learn about it and spread

the word about its hazard.

But, yeah, wild parsnip.

The juice from the green

plant on bare skin

exposed to sunlight,

so it's ultraviolet light,

causes essentially

a second-degree burn.

And it'll blister like that

and leave a discoloration.

How many have been

burned by wild parsnip?

All right, so you're

outdoors people,

that's a good sign, right?

If you've been burned by it,

once you've been burned

you try to avoid it more.

The picture on the left is me.

I call that a controlled burn.

Just like when I burn prairies, this is a controlled burn,

because I needed a time sequence

of the burn development

or the blister development

for the magazine.

So I sacrificed my arm.

It hurts like a burn.

That's how you know it's

different than poison ivy,

which itches.

And you also don't need

to be allergic to it.

Everybody can be

burned by parsnip

and pretty much is if you

get the right exposure.

The articles ask for people to

send me stories and send me

pictures, and I have the best

collection of horrible looking

burn pictures you could imagine.

This is one of them, this is

one of my more popular ones

because it shows the

need for sunlight.

Look at the sock line

on this picture.

So you've got a guy who was out

weed whipping with a sickle

and he burned his legs,

but the socks protected

him from the sun.

It takes two days to develop,

or a day-and-a-half at least.

So you don't even know you

have it until a while later.

Anyway, long story, read

about it if you want more.

It is also the same plant

as the garden parsnip.

Pretty much exactly

the same plant.

Anybody grow parsnip?

Anybody been burned by

the plant you grew?

You can be. Usually you

harvest it at times

when it's less

likely to burn you.

But any green plant will do it.

Any part of the green parsnip.

This is one of Sam

Thayer's lessons.

He's the wild foods guy.

He wrote and said, "No, no,

I wrote in my article

"that it was a wild

type of parsnip."

But no, it was the

exact same plant.

It just happens to be winter

hearty and gets away.

And people from all over

the world, literally,

have written to me saying

where parsnip grows

and that they've

been burned by it.

Sweden, Australia, pretty much

most of the states on the east

wrote to me over the years.

But in the spring, which is

that lower left picture,

or in the fall is when you

normally harvest parsnip,

kind of when the roots

have been formed

by that first year of growth,

and that's when

you harvest it.

A topic of interest to me

over the years has been twine

and fire, and I kind of combined

the two together in many ways.

Back to the basswood tree, it is

one of the best twine plants,

probably the main one

used by Indian tribes

anywhere where basswood grew.

And this is what the bundle

looks like when you take the

inner bark, when you've rotted

it away from the outer bark,

and you get these

wonderful ribbons,

a whole tree full of them

when you harvest it properly.

And the picture on the

right shows the bark

and the fiber together.

Essentially, you strip a tree in

the springtime, late spring,

when the bark on all trees

peels off of trees,

kind of like the

skin off a banana,

tie it up, put it in water,

wild water somewhere,

for three weeks and

then you take it out

and wash it in some more water.

It gets kind of slimy, but what

happens is it rots the inner

bark away from the outer

bark and into ribbons.

So each of these ribbons

is an annual layer

of inner bark as the tree grows.

So the bigger the tree, the more

of that inner bark you get.

And the basic idea for twine

making is you twist--

I'm going to

demonstrate with this.

But you twist it together, and

you bring, the top picture shows

how you twist the fibers,

bring them together,

and you get a kink

in the middle.

And then you keep twisting

and the magic happens.

And you can literally make

anything with, make twine from

anything that has

any kind of fiber.

So here's just a, when I

demonstrate at a distance,

I use a big piece of

sheet or rag or something.

But you take the fibers

and you twist them together

and you start getting

that twine.

And then you can hook that up

on something and keep twisting.

The native women would

roll it on their thigh

and back twist it.

So you get that kind of

twist one way, roll the

other, and you get the twine.

So I encourage you to try

that with any fibrous thing,

and see if you can make it turn

into that two-stranded twine.

For extra credit, figure out how

to do three-stranded twine.

This is easy once you

figure out the two-stranded.

This is a--

I'll show the plant later--

but this is a rope

I made from the--

In the case of this plant,

it's the fibers on the

outside of the stem,

which I show a picture of,

and it's 100 stems

of wood nettle.

And if we're on our

field trip, where does

wood nettle like to be?

Besides in the woods.

It loves river bottoms.

It likes wet.

And so the best plants are found

along the Mississippi bottoms

and the Wisconsin River.

And these plants

will be this tall,

and this is 100 stems of

the best ones I could find.

It's 30 some feet.

And this is strong enough

to rappel on.

Over the years, I would

experiment with plants,

which ones make fiber.

And so here's a sampling

from paper birch

and an agave from Florida.

Mayapple has a

fiber in the stem.

Who knew, but I tinkered with

it and out comes the fiber.

Corn husks, if you

do them right,

the lower edge of a

cattail plant, cattail leave,

has a skinny little fiber,

and you can take that.

It's about a

foot-and-a-half long.

And there's the best fiber in a

cattail, but you have to tinker,

you have to mess with it.

And some more twine plants.

Which one is this?

- Marsh milkweed.

- Marsh milkweed or

swamp or red milkweed.

So we're wandering

in the wet again,

or near wet, to get this plant.

A wonderful garden plant,

but it has one of the

best fibers in it too.

Also a common monarch plant.

I found many a

caterpillar on that.

And this shows you how the

fiber comes off plants

like nettles and

like the milkweeds.

It's on the outside.

So when the plant is dead,

or even if it's green,

you can peel the fiber on a

mature plant off the outside.

Often best after its winter

killed, so when it's dry.

And these fibers then can be

kind of rubbed in the hand and

may lose some of that chaff on

the outside and then twined.

Another one.

This is maybe a

little less common.

The plant is very common,

but you may not recognize it.

It looks a little like

milkweed but it's not.

It's dogbane or Indian hemp.

There's a couple

different plants, and

they all have the fiber.

So they're one of the

better fiber plants.

Not edible.

And they can be a

lookalike to milkweed

in that spring shoot stage,

so you want to be careful

if you're going to be trying

to eat these things.

Twine is okay.

And here is the wood

nettle in its woodsy form.

That's the way you eat

it in the spring when

it's young like that.

It's delicious cooked,

boiled just a little

bit as a spring food.

And, again, you wait until

the fall for that tall stem

to be ready for harvest.

If ever you are told nettle

is a good fiber plant,

this is the one you want

because the fibers

stay together in the full strip.

Whereas the stinging nettle

they tend to break

into smaller pieces.

All right, thinking of fire,

shifting gears a bit.

Actually, this is

fire and twine,

now that I think about it, first, what plant is it?

Does it grow in Wisconsin?

It does.

It grows in gardens beautifully,

but there's a few places

where it's gone wild.

Although, we think it's

not native here.

It's native in Illinois,

this particular one.

Where it grows, it seeds itself,

and you get lots of leaves,

which are wonderful for fiber.

And the stems then are

usable for fire-making.

Fire by friction.

The bow drill, you've

probably seen the idea.

You have a piece of wood down

there in a camp and a drill

and then the bow makes

the spindles spin around.

And the old books will say

yucca is one of the

more common firewoods.

But what do you use on a yucca?

They never explained

it in the books.

More modern people

have explained it,

but some of the

old books didn't.

But it's the stem.

I'll go over here and get one.

This is what the

stems look like.

And they are hard

and woody in there.

And I'm going to show you...

how to make fire with yucca.

I would normally

use a bow drill,

but it's very hard to demonstrate standing up.

So I put a piece of yucca

in the tip of this drill,

and I'm going to spin

it on this spindle,

or on the board down below,

and see what happens. Okay?

[drill whirring]

Can you all see

what's happening?

[drill whirring]

And pretty soon you all

be smelling it too.

It's a very nice woodsy smell.

What's falling onto my paper

is black powder

as the two woods

grind each other into powder.

And that powder gains

enough heat to catch,

to make a spark, to ignite.

And then that spark

you put into tinder,

blow that into a flame.

Anybody done that? The old

fire by friction trick?

Yes, my fellow who was

helping me set up,

we're both Eagle Scouts and

we learned it back in the day.

But it's a great skill to learn.

It's really reaching back into

time to know how to make fire

with what you have available.

This is yucca.

This is basswood.

Which is that wood again

we were talking about,

so it's a great base wood.

We often use the same wood for

the spindle as the hearth.

Yucca tends to be like cheating

because it makes fire the best,

and now we know why and why the

books talked about it.

Here's another fire story.

Who knows what this is?

Found on dead birch trees.

Sometimes living ones

or aspens.

I found it on beech.

Up by where I live

there's beech trees.

Does it look a little like

a horse hoof to you?


And that is one of

its common names then

and is the horse hoof fungus;

it's very hard and woody.

Here is an example off the tree.

It grows on the dead wood, so it

grows a little bit every year.

So this is sort of an older one.

And what's the fire story?

I have one more slide to show

what it's like on the inside.

It's very sort of fibrous

with tubes but hard.

Here's what it can do for fire.

I've got a piece of it cut

and a lighter

and I'm going to see

if I can get it going.

All right, can you see that

little bit of red in there?

It may be hard to see. You can see the smoke, but it's lit now.

It's like a punk, and it will

burn until this is gone.

And it will not go

out very easily.

And I've got to be careful

now, because what am I

going to do with it?

But this was a way,

it was called the fire tinder

or the tinder fungus,

because mushrooms and

fungi are spore-bearing.

It has traveled the world

on the winds,

and so this fire is found in

the north of the whole world.

So in Sweden and in Russia,

this is well-known

by the tribes there

as the fire

carrying fungus.

And if you move from camp to

camp, it's a lot easier to bring

one of these along, to light

one and put it in a basket

or a pot or something

and just let it smolder.

And you take your tinder and

you blow it into a new flame.

So it just saves you a

lot of time, but it's a

wonderful little trick.

So on our field trip I would

knock one off the birch

or have a piece in my pocket

and light it to show you.

It's one of the many fire

stories that are out there.

All right, where are we going to go next on our field trip?

Oh, here we are.

We're back on dry land.

Who knows what this one is?

It's a non-native weed.

- Mullein.

- Mullein.

And a beautiful yellow

flower on a spike.

A couple uses.

One is for insulation.

Because it's fuzzy, you

can put it inside a shoe,

they say, I've actually

never done this,

but you read about it being

used as an insulation

as it kind of traps air.

But the other is that

stalk in the fall.

You can harvest that, strip it

down, kind of peel it, and you

get a long stalk that then you

can use for fire this way.

You kind of roll your hands

down into the board.

So it sits on the board,

and you use your hands

to spindle it down

on that board.

And if you're good enough and

it's harder than the drill,

the bow drill,

you can make a fire.

So it's a useful weed.

And now a little section on

just wild edibles for variety.

Who knows this one? We're now walking through my garden.

- Lamb's quarter.

- Lamb's quarter, yeah.

A common garden weed.

Edible raw, the leaves.

Edible cooked like a spinach.

Very, super nutritious.

In fact, most of

these wild greens are

high in vitamins A and D

and many with C, K,

so they're vitamin rich,

many wild edibles.

So, they actually can make

a good addition to a diet.

You can read about

each one online

and find out which are particularly good.

The seeds too, these seed heads

make a million tiny seeds

and you can cook

them into a mush.

But they're just microscopic

and they're hard to process

but it's doable.

A non-native, it

came from Europe.

As did this one.

Purslane. Yeah.

What's it like when you eat it? Crunchy, you said?

It's also a little

on the slimy side.

It's mucilaginous, which

is just it's character,

but that's how it is.

I mean, it doesn't

taste bad or anything,

but that's how you know

for sure it's purslane.

And you can this raw in a salad,

eat the whole plant,

or cook it down, again

just like most greens.

How about this one?

All right, this is well-known to people as a meadow plant.

Again, it's a non-native.

Queen Anne's lace or this indeed

is the wild type of carrot.

So if you dig one of these

up, what do you get?

A little carrot.

A little tiny carrot.

But not when it's flowering.

Of course, by the time it's

flowering, it turns to wood.

So if you want to get

your little carrots,

you have to dig it up

when it's a rosette of

leaves on the ground,

just like a carrot

in the garden.

Little red circle.

What is that?

It's a little red floret in the middle of a Queen Anne's lace,

and hence the name,

that bit of royal blood

in the middle of a Queen

Anne's lace flower,

not on every flower but

most of them, is the

sign of a Queen Anne.

It shows the sign of the

royal blood on that flower.

So, again, one of those little

stories you tell in the field

when you're exploring the plants

and trying to make

them memorable.

And all plants not

only are useful

but they're memorable

for their own features.

I had a chance to dig some up

last year in a garden that had

seeded in with them, and they

were in nice, deep soil.

So I got a wonderful pot full

and had a nice meal out of them.

And what do they taste like? Carrots.

And that's how you know.

Just as a caution, those of you

that know the carrot family,

it has members like

poison hemlock,

which is an invasive weed which is coming into Wisconsin

which will kill

you in a hurry.

It has water hemlock,

which is a native

which can also do you damage

and do you in.

And some other ones too,

so you really have to know

your carrot family plants.

As a rule, I should have

said this at the beginning,

but whenever you're talking

wild edibles, first rule is?

Know what you're eating.

Really know what you're eating.

Don't say maybe

this is wild carrot.

The beauty of wild carrot is it

smells just like a garden carrot

and nothing else does.

Here's an obscure one, a vine. Hopniss.

And that's a name that's

getting around these days.

Apios, did I hear

someone say that?

That's it's genus name,

but also called ground nut.

We're now in the wetlands

or in a wetter area,

maybe on a stream bank,

on our field trip.

And so I have my spade along.

And out of the ground will

come this string of tubers

or swellings along the

rhizome or the root.

I'm not quite sure what

botanically you would call that.

Cut them open and there's

this beautiful little

potato in there,

white and not even

stringy at all.

Well, a little bit stringy.

And that's the batch cooked.

So I peeled them and cooked them

and they taste very mild, like

potatoes, and they're four times

the protein of regular potatoes.

And they're grown in

Japan as a farm crop.

You know, they're

probably cultivars

that have nice, big tubers,

but they're so productive

that they're actually grown

in some countries.

Our plant in other

countries being grown.

Now, here's a controversial one.

What is this?

- [inaudible]

- Nightshade. Which one?

- [inaudible]

- There's a couple of them.

I heard the word "deadly."

That's what we're

going to talk about.

This one is the

black nightshade.

Very, very common garden weed.

Classic tomato family

flower and fruit.

So your kind of at home when

you see a plant like that.

You recognize it pretty well.

The berries turn

black like that.

They start green and

then they turn black.

Edible or not?

Very edible but people call any

nightshade deadly nightshade.

None of them are deadly,

by the way, even the other one that has the red berries.

It'll just make you

throw up maybe,

if you eat enough of them,

but they won't kill you.

But they've got that name, and part of it came from the fact

there's a plant in Europe called

belladonna which will kill you,

but it's not here heartily, maybe in some parts of the east.

And the berries look a

little like black nightshade

but not much.

So, again, if you know

enough about the plants

you think you're eating

that are okay,

you can be pretty

confident eating this.

And the berries, some people

call them garden huckleberries.

So what would be in a name,

if we had a name change on this

plant, what would that tell you?

That this plant is as edible as

anything like a huckleberry.

And so it's a plant that's

gotten a bad rap over the years.

But the greens are

edible, cooked.

Sam Thayer goes on and on

in his books about it.

And it's eaten by millions

of people worldwide.

It's actually a worldwide plant.

It's a weed that I think

is native here, in part,

but it's also native to Eurasia.

And, again, eaten by

millions of people.

And yet, in this country,

it got the name nightshade,

it got the name deadly

attached to it. Uh-uh, it's not.

- What part do you eat, and

what does it taste like?

- Well, what part do we eat,

and what does it taste like?

The greens taste like a cooked

spinachy, greeny thing.

I found them just fine.

Nothing bitter about them.

And the berries

have a sweet taste,

like a little ground cherry.

If you know ground cherries,

that's what they're most like.

So they're sweet.

But eat them only when

they're ripe, says Sam.

So I only ate them ripe.

And depending on your garden

and if you let the weeds go,

you can get a lot of them. [laughter]

So here was my

backyard last summer.

All right, moving on to a whole

different kind of plant,

although a cousin

of the fire fungus.

If you're lucky to find patches

where a whole bunch are together like that, you're in luck.

So these are the morels,

morel mushroom,

which is one of the

more popular ones.

I have a picture with

lilac in it to show

how I use other plants to tell

me when things are ready.

So when I see lilacs blooming,

then I know it's time to go to

my morel area and

start looking there.

And that's true of many kinds of

plants and harvest schedules.

When I hear the toads sing, then

I know it's also morel season.

When the first toads

begin singing.

So I connect different

parts of nature

to help me know what's

happening where.

Get too many?

You have to dry them.

So they dry well.

They're delicious.

Feed them to your friends.

Another very

popular wild edible,

we're back in the woods

on our field trip.

- [audience murmuring]

- Often called ramps.

Another name is?

Wild leek.

The leek tells you they

are the onion family,

and if you rub a leaf

and taste it,

you've got a very

oniony kind of thing.

Anything that tastes like an

onion out there probably is one,

in the family, and all

of them are edible.

The lower right picture shows

what happens in the summer.

The plant disappears

into the ground.

The leaves dry up and

go back to their bulbs.

You can see the bulb

in the upper right.

And then the flower

stalks appear later.

So you don't even know you have

wild leek or ramps in your

woods, if you happen to catch it

in the later summer like this.

So getting to know plants

in all seasons

lets you know them better

and harvest them better.

Wild leeks and ramps,

one of those plants

that if you take them all, there'll be none left.

So you need, like with many wild

foods, is to harvest selectively

so you don't clear

the population.

And put the seeds back,

only take a few plants.

We don't need them to live,

so it's better to have them

out in the woods.

A few other caution plants

or hazard plants.

Which one is this?

Okay, this is back to our

friend stinging nettle,

which is the most common

of the nettles.

And the stingers

are quite obvious

on that picture on the right.

But it's also a wonderful food

to eat when it's young

in the spring and

covered with needles.

So what happens?

How does that work?

Well, if you take, if you cut

them a couple inches to a foot,

depending on your tolerance for

a little bit of stringiness,

you put them in a

little boiling water,

just enough to soften them,

then they're edible and

you won't get stung

because those needles

are not like thorns.

They're not woody.

They're not hard.

They're essentially a

cell full of poison,

or at least an irritant,

and they're like a

little hypodermic needle

that they just jab into you,

and that injects the fluid

and you've got it.

That doesn't last that long.

When I teach about wild

plants in the field,

or poisonous plants,

I'll actually pick one

of those and say,

"Who hasn't been stung by a stinging nettle yet?"

And rap them on the hand

a couple of times until

they feel the sting.

And then we watch the little red

bump come up and the itch and,

you know, about an hour

later it's gone.

I always do myself too at the

same time just to be fair.

But it's one of those plants

that is harmless enough,

unless you're running

through it in shorts.

Probably a couple of

you have a good story

about way too many nettles. [laughter]

But that happens.

Again, it's got fiber

in the stem.

It's not as easy to get at

as some of the other ones.

How many are allergic to

this one? I am. Okay.

But first, what is it?

- [inaudible]

- This is one of the two poison

ivies we have in Wisconsin.

One of them is kind of low and

viny, the other one can climb

to the tops of a tree and

make bushes, essentially.

They're a head high.

White berries is one of

the indications of it.

If you see something that

white berries, be careful.

And, again, it's an allergy.

You have to have

touched this plant once,

and then you touch

it the next time is when

you develop the allergy.

About 50% of people get

it on that second touch.

And the lucky 15% of you out

there who will never get it

no matter how many times you

touch it, you are the lucky few.

But it's part of our genetics

that only so many

people will get it.

Allergies are like that.

And this plant?

Yeah, this is a plant

called jewelweed.


Very fleshy stem.

There's two kinds in Wisconsin:

yellow and then

this orange kind.

The word down there

says the antidote.

How many people have used that

as an antidote to poison ivy?

Does it work?

- Yes.

- How do you know?

- [inaudible]

- And it worked for stinging

nettle he said, yes.

So this is an antidote used for

stinging nettle and poison ivy.

What I challenge you is

if you've ever tested,

done a controlled test.

Meaning nettle on both hands

and juice one side or the other,

or poison ivy the same thing.

The scientist in me

has to experiment that.

It's like that parsnip,

I had to test it on myself.

But seriously, I'm just

wondering if you could use water

or you could use

anything that's juicy.

This plant happens to be easily

crushed into a little poultice

because it's very fleshy

and full of juice.

But I digress.

There are often antidotes

to help with the problems

that you encounter in nature.

And native tribes were

really good at that.

They knew what was usable

for healing things.

And now just kind

of to close out,

I've got a bunch

of odds and ends.

On our field trip

we'll stumble across things.

We may not have been

looking for wild foods,

or we may have been but

we'll come upon other things.

I'll ask you what these are.

Who knows this one?

It's in a wooded area.

It's a forest floor,

deciduous woods.

It's large-leafed

or big-leafed aster. Okay?

How many folks have

been in the woods

and didn't have

an outhouse nearby

and needed a little TP? [laughter]

All right, anybody

ever use this one?

My Eagle Scout back

there says yes.

So when you don't have

what you need out there,

you look for the plants that are

the kind that are good for you.

And this one then, because

of its usefulness,

those nice big leaves,

has a wonderful name.


A wonderful folk name.

Here's a little bit

of folklore for you.

So next time you go in the

woods and see this plant,

remember it's the wipe aster.

Okay? In case

you need such a thing.

Here's a bit of magic.

First, what is this plant?

It's a shrub.

You said doll's eyes,

but it's a woody shrub.

Similar to the

doll's eyes plant,

which is a poisonous plant.

It's a dogwood.

I don't, it's gray dogwood,

but immaterial

because of what I'm

going to say next.

So dogwoods have pairs of

leaves, opposite leaves,

beautiful venations in the fall.

But if you know the magic, you

can take a leaf and break it

in half and it levitates.

The bottom half will levitate

and stay close to the

top half by magic.

You can see that. Okay.

I heard somebody say fibers.

Well, if you look closely, you

will see these little white

strings that come out

of a dogwood leaf.

But if you pull it just the

right way carefully,

you don't break the strings

and you hold it up against

a white background

and you amaze your friends. [laughter]

All right, so this is

what's cool about nature.

Here's a common plant.

Who knows?

Heard the word bee balm,

but it's also the bergamot.

This is the native.

Monarda is the genus

of both of them.

But it's the wild

bergamot in this case.

Our prairie, one of

our prairie plants.

What family? It's a mint.

Square stem.

We talk about that

on our field trip.

We'd show that.

You'd roll it in your fingers.

What is this used for? Tea.

Oh, you could use

it as tea as it is.

But what about Earl Gray tea?


All right? So I'm going to

make sure all of you get this.

It is not the flavoring

for Earl Grey tea.

Same name, you'll read

it on the package.

It says bergamot, but

it's a citrus plant.

The bergamot of the common, it's

a problem with common names.

Bergamot means this citrus

and it also means this

wild plant we have here.

So the flavoring in Earl Grey

is a citrus. Okay?

So next time somebody says

here's the bergamot plant

for Earl Grey tea,

you set them straight.


All right, I'm counting on you.

It's also a widely used

medicinal in many tribes.

In this case, I live in Shawano,

right at the bottom of

the Menominee reservation,

and there's another

tribe next to it, the


and that woman who wrote

the medicine generations book,

this is one of her pages.

They call it number six.

Everybody up there

calls it number six.

They don't call it bergamot.

So here's one of the

common name things.

Her elders say either it has six

uses or it was the sixth plant

their people discovered as

they learned the medicines.

But she cuts it when it's in

full flower, hangs it to dry,

and uses it all year

for coughs, colds, flus.

The dried stems can be smoked

to help clear the lungs

and nasal passages.

I don't know how smoke can do

that, but I guess it does.

I mean, that's part of their

folk wisdom on medicine,

so I have to go with that.

In her book, one of her elders,

Dave Besaw, said,

"Number six will

make you feel better

"and take the aches

and pain out of you.

"It has aspirin effects.

Good for pain relief.

"You take number six, you go

to bed and cover up,

"and when you wake up,

you'll be feeling better."

That's probably true no matter what you do if you're sick.

But, again, the elders have the

knowledge, that ancient

knowledge that they teach,

and not as often as we like,

that teach the younger people

about these wild plants

and what they can do for us.

Another odd plant, so to speak,

or odd use.

This is balsam fir.

It has these

flat needles,

especially down low

where it's shady.

Christmas trees, wreaths,

that sort of thing.

But on the bark are

these blisters.

What's inside of those blisters? Anybody ever pop one?

Full of sap, a very

clear but sticky sap.

It's the only tree

that does that.

And it was used in old times as

a sealant for microscope slides.

It would like seal them down

on a piece of glass,

the coverslip on the glass,

so it had that historical use.

Misty Cook, as a medicine

of her tribe,

uses it to pull slivers out.

So she puts it on there, covers

it with a bandage, and you

repeat that process until the

sliver comes out, she says.

It's also good for like

a natural ChapStick.

And it kind of

seals like Vaseline.

You know, Vaseline is a

wonderful healing thing

for keeping wounds closed;

this stuff could do the same.

But you poke it a little bit

and the sap comes out.

In the summer, it

really runs out, but you

can get this any time.

I've been using it lately to

make little scented packets,

sachets or sachets.

That's the Christmas

tree this year

after I'd had at it

with my nippers.


And I dried the balsam

and let them dry out,

and then you strip them

and your friends can help

you strip them too.

I taught a class in this,

and we stuffed these little

bags with this stuff,

with these needles, and used a

little funnel to fill them.

I made the bags ahead of time, then we sewed up the edges.

And they smell like

balsam for decades.

They really are wonderful

smelling things.

It's an old-timey kind of folk

craft for having nice smelling

things in the house,

but a great use.

Ah, now we're finally getting

to the sticks in your hands.

This is what you're holding, if

you can still have your piece.

What is it?

Horsetail or scouring rush.

In this case, this one is more

commonly called scouring rush because it's the big one.

There are other kinds

of horsetail

in that same group of Equisetum.

Equi for horse, setum for hair.

So the horse hair or horse tail.

And the outside of that,

and this is what I

want you to do now with it,

is it has silicate on--.

Somebody is trying

to blow on it.

Yes, you could make

a little whistle.

I never thought about that.

[whistling sound]

Thank you, you taught me something. [laughter]

But what I want you

to do with it

is take it and rub it

on a fingernail.

Now those of you who

have painted fingernails,

it might be easier.

But you'll notice the silicate.

It's like a little

bit of sandpaper.

And you will see little white

powder build up on that.

If you have, I see you

have a watch on your hand.

If you take that watch

and rub a little bit,

like on the back side

where you won't see it,

it'll polish that

to a fine polish.

This was used, these bundles

of rushes, as a scouring pad

for pots and pans and

for polishing things.

And back to those cattails mats

where you make that bone

needle out of a deer rib.

I've made one.

Shines it up beautifully.

Here's a, I have a

picture up there,

but this is my letter opener

made from a deer leg bone.

And the shine is completely

polished with horsetail.

And it's just that

fine of a sand.

It's like the 400 grit or

better sandpaper you could buy.

And it makes things shine.

Racing toward the end here.

What have we got here?

The plant or the leaves and

the berries on the right

will give you a clue,

a pretty good clue.

It's in the cherry group.

This one happens to

be chokecherry.

Black cherry and chokecherry are

a couple of the wild cherries.

And they develop this fungus

on the branches.

It's a native fungus called?

Poop on a stick.


Or black knot, yeah, that's another more boring name.

But here's poop on a stick.

So you tell that to kids,

they'll never forget it.

But they will also

remember that's a cherry.

So it's a good field ID thing.

Cherry has a beautiful smell

if you scratch the bark.

It's also poisonous.

You're not supposed to cook

hot dogs and marshmallows

on a fresh green stick;

there's arsenic in there.

If you cut your cherry, pruning

it, throw it in the cow pasture,

and the cow eats the wilted

leaves, it will die.

And that's documented a lot.

So cherry has its issues,

but it's also an edible fruit,

a wonderful, beautiful wood.

So, very useful.

What are these?

I'm going to go quick here. Stickseed.

These are the things you

get all over your clothes

in the fall, or even now.

Favorite plant.

Extra credit.

The one on the left

is white aven.

So many hitchhiker seeds,

and it's kind of fun

to get to know them so

in the fall or whenever,

you come home with

all these things, you

wonder what they are,

you can identify the plants from

what you took home with you.

But you can also make

some fun with it,

and you can use it

to write stuff.

So there's an example of

stickseed writing.

What's this?

This is the wild or the bushy

juniper that we have.

It's a native bush in Wisconsin. Grows, likes dry places.

Used for?


It's one of the flavorings

of gin, grown in Door County,

or actually Washington Island

where these plants are.

They harvest it there and use it

for the Death's Door Distillery

for gin and other things.

Favorite of many people,

what's this?

- Catnip.

- Catnip.

What's cool about that?

Makes cats nuts.


I love putting catnip by cats.

All right, the last

slides are these.

These are some aspen trees

up north in the winter.

You know the old you can find

north from mossy trees?

Well, in this case, these

were particularly good

tree compasses, as I

was calling them.

The north side, the right side,

the band of moss goes way up high, then on the south side.

And you can see with the compass

due north and due south,

where the bottom of the

V is the driest part,

the top of the green

for north-facing.

And dead center on the slant

line is east, or west,

depending on what side

of the tree you're on.

But I just find that

fascinating; I got to know

those trees better and better.

Not every tree, in fact very few

were this good, but enough trees

now have moss in just the right

sort of way that I can tell

where I am, more or less, which

way is north on a cloudy day

with the right moss

and the right trees.

Good thing to know.

And my last fun and games

project of my life

these days is sticks.

I've been doing a lot of things

with natural shapes of sticks.

I won't have time to have

somebody throw these rings

at me, but this is

rustic ring toss.


You can throw it on there.

You can put a stick in

the ground and throw it.

I'm working on an educational

project of plant willows

and other things that

you can grow and cut and

regrow in schoolyards,

kind of as a way to

extend the school farm idea, school garden idea.

And then all the things

you can make with sticks.

And a couple ideas there.

Sam Thayer, a little quote

from his latest book,

"Earth's wish to be clothed

and rambunctious greenery

"and to know that greenery

as a friend

"makes either place

look more like home."

And I'm just encouraging

you to remember that

plants are your friends,

and getting to know them

is like getting to know people.

Everybody here looks

a little different,

has different characteristics.

You wouldn't be happy just

to know names of people.

You want to know more.

And sort of that's what this

is all about in my mind,

is learning about

that more on plants

and all the things

they have to offer.

You then, you people and me are

the keepers of these traditions

of how plants can be used,

what is cool about them,

how they're memorable

and can be eaten.

And as one of my teachers once

said, and I'll demonstrate with

twine here, he held up a piece

of twine that I had made,

actually I was teaching twine

for him, and he held it up and

said, because he was Cherokee,

and he said this thread

of culture is passed down

through generations.

His family were potters.

And it's so easily cut

that in one generation

we'll lose the talent

or lose the skill

of how to make twine

out of wild plants,

which ones to eat and

that sort of thing.

All that lore, all that

knowledge is lost in a

single generation if

that thread is cut.

So I leave that image with you,

just to think about the things

you know, the skills you know,

and how they are kept

alive through time

because you've kept them alive

and you've passed them on.

If you will, send me stories at


And I think you for coming,

and I know you're

all looking forward

for the green season coming

and we'll have a great time

this year out in

the woods and fields.


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