Friday, August 9, 2013

Farewell to the river city

We have received some major blessings recently, blessings that promise to change our lives drastically and make longtime dreams come true for our family. They will require sacrifices, however, and one of those sacrifices I've not wanted to face, is we will be leaving Richmond and don't know when we will be back.

I moved here knowing that this was to be a temporary stop on our life's journey, but I can't believe how much this city and the people in it have changed me, and how much I've come to love it here.  I know I'm leaving a better person than I was when I arrived, and so much richer in friends, family and life experience!  I also have twice as many kids as I came with!

Anyway, what does this mean for River city wild foods?  I have decided to keep this blog and my Facebook page active, I will use it whenever I am in town or to connect you with people or information you may need in my absence.  I will, however be doing most of my posting here, rebranding as vagabond wild foods (I know, there's nothing there yet, but there will be). Please follow me as I travel, learning how to use all the wild delights of the diverse ecosystems this country has to offer!  I will be studying like crazy, attending all the classes I can with all the amazing foraging experts I've met online, and hopefully, doing a lot of writing about what I've learned and experienced. 

Since I started teaching I've felt a drive to inspire my students to replace me. I feel like every city needs a Wildman Steve Brill.  So I leave you in the capable hands of Maw-Maw Kelli, and I hope that more of you will feel called to educate on this vital and fun topic. However, I realized the other day as I was wishing there was an active mycology club nearby, I can leave you with something even better. With the help of all you passionate phytophiles, I hope to use these last few months to start an active wildcrafting club, not just for finding and harvesting wild food, but to get together to share knowledge and experience in the field all things wildcrafting and survival. Food, medicine, primitive skills, basket weaving, trapping. So here is the Facebook group, anyone can create and share an event at a time that works for them and you can join in any events that meet your fancy. 

We will be hitting the road to live full time in an motorhome October first, with our first destination being in southern Maryland. So for a while we may be close enough to get together for some events, but just in case, I would encourage you to get with me soon about land surveys or any other service you would like to take advantage of.

I would like to leave you with one final thought. As of the finalizing of this post, river city wild foods has a Facebook following of 238, a significant presence in our relatively small metropolitan area. I have been featured in local media twice and once in a national news segment. Because I have not attached my name to the brand, it does have the potential to be transferred to another individual or even to become an urban wild crafting school of sorts. If you have the kind of passion for this sort of thing that I do and you think you may like to make a business of it, please contact me. We can get together for a hike and if our philosophies are a good match, I will gladly turn over this little baby of mine to you.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Making beautyberry jelly

So, I was driving on my way to an errand and sort of lamenting the cold dreary day and the bare trees. Although this wonderful part of the world has many useful plants all year round, I miss the bounty and constant thrill of discovery that spring and summer have to offer.

J. Callicarpa, What a lovely sight on an icky early winter day!

When I reached my destination, I turned a corner and spotted this as part of the landscaping. This is a plant I've read about and longed to meet, but never had the pleasure.  When I finished my errand, I came back to this spot and quickly harvested a baby wipes container full(the only thing I had in the car)in the cold and wet and very public place by stripping whole branches into it while passersby stared and smirked. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is famous for it's jelly, the berries are reportedly tasteless out of hand but once cooked and sweetened, offer an exquisite flavor.

The plant I found however, was Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica). After thoroughly searching, I found a few reports of this berry being eaten as a trail nibble, but no accounts of jelly being made from it. I really wanted to make jelly, so I studied as much as I could about this plant as I laboriously separated the tiny berries from the calyxes and leaves. At one point My seven year old daughter walked into the kitchen and gasped, "Those are beautiful!"  They are aptly named!
J. Callicarpa leaves and berries

I came to the conclusion that the berries were certainly not deadly, likely not toxic, but possibly not edible. So I decided to carefully test it out. The berries were quite sweet and tasty out of hand. I dehydrated the leaves in my oven overnight, which filled the house with a dizzying perfume. I will use them in the spring to make a natural, effective insect repellent.
Sorted berries, Pictures do not do that color justice!
I loosely followed the recipe given by Green Deane for beautyberry jelly. I used two parts water to one part berries and boiled until the water was slightly colored and the berries were more or less drained of their color. I then strained through a sieve and again through a coffee filter to get rid of all debris. To the liquid, of which i had a little over two cups, I added about two tablespoons of lemon juice, which turned the almost gray liquid a vivid fushia, and three tablespoons of pectin. I boiled it according to the directions on the pectin jar and added about a cup of sugar. I brought it back to a rolling boil and stirred it for two minutes.
Yummy pink goodness

The resulting jelly I stored in a pint jar with the warning label as seen. My daughter is a jelly addict and would have been instantly attracted to that beautiful color. I wanted the adults to test it first. I ate about three tablespoons on the sourdough rolls I was baking that day. I also had my husband sample it and after 48 hours without any ill effect, I'm officially declaring for all the Internet to see that Japanese beautyberry berries are edible and tasty and make great jelly. So there!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

NBC 12 Interview

Jennifer Warnick of NBC 12's more bang for your buck recently interviewed me about backyard foraging.  Here is a link to the segment.

MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK: Foraging for food in your back yard

Friday, July 6, 2012

James river parks systems policies on foraging and herbicide use

I have contacted four different parks systems in my area to get information on their restrictions regarding plant removal and their use of herbicides, and the only one who has gotten back to me has been Ralph White of the James river parks system.

I wanted to let you all know what he said so you can be safe out there and choose your foraging spots judiciously.  So, here is What Mr white told me in our email conversation:

"The park does use herbicides.  The predominant chemical is glyphosate (Round Up), but other more persistent types are also used.  In either case, the impact is the same for you:  collecting of plants is strictly forbidden.  You may not forage in the JRPS
    To note have such a regulation would open the park to the kind of wholesale plant theft that we had when the park first opened.  It has take us decades to re-introduce species.  You may eat berries and fruit and nuts while you are in the park, but not collect bags full to take out.  And obviously you may not dig up any plants whatsoever. There is a rather stiff fine for doing so:  $250."
I then followed up, asking where exactly he used the herbicide and whether it was safe, in his opinion to eat pawpaws off the trees.  This was his response:
"We have been using a small amount of Round-Up to control poison ivy along our trails.  On Belle Isle, I used some to  address vegetation growing in the Prison Cemetery area; I don't think we got around to doing the trail edges yet.  This herbicide was used near and along the stonework of the main canal feature at Pump House Park and  along some of the trails near the parking lot at Pony Pasture Rapids Park.
    This herbicide  photo-degrades 50% in the first 24 hours and has  no easily detectable residue after 5 days.  It is labeled as being safe for pet and human contact after 20 minutes, ie, when it has dried.
    We use very little herbicide in the JRPS and that which we do use is considered to be the least impactful. We do occasionally use a very small amount of more persistent chemicals under the guardrails and fence posts along Riverside Drive.  For both time and money reasons, we did not do so this year.
    I think it is safe to eat Pawpaws collected along the shoreline and islands of the JRPS."
In speaking about this issue with other foragers around the country, I have heard it mentioned that a blue dye is often added to herbicide, and therefore the absence of blue coloring means it's safe to collect there.  I have never personally seen this, even after I have seen workers out spraying, but I do find it a generally good rule of thumb to avoid any areas where plants look unwell.  Along the  roads near my house, they have sprayed this year with something that has killed everything and turned all the plants an orangish brown dead color.  Why they think that looks better than the weeds is beyond me.  Anyway, the safest course of action is always to harvest in places where you have permission from the land owner and are aware of their practices.

If I receive a response from Chesterfield county, city of Richmond, or the state parks systems, I will update you on those also.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tour with Slow Food RVA

I'm happy to announce that I will be leading a tour on July 21st at 3pm on Belle Isle organized by Slow Food RVA.  All the details can be found on the event page here.  I will be serving some wild food goodies at the start of this tour, lambs quarters spanakopita, blackberry thumbprint cookies, and sumacade.  There is a charge for this tour, tickets can be purchased through the events page.

As with all my tours, I'd like to remind you to dress appropriately for the heat, the bugs, and the poison ivy.  Please closely supervise young children and bring lots of water for you and your family.  The policy of the James River Parks System is that plant removal is strictly prohibited, but you are allowed to snack on nuts, fruits and berries while in the parks.  However, if you choose to do this, you should be advised that the parks system uses very aggressive herbicides in maintaining their trails.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

June 2012 Meadowbrook apartments tour

We had a small group for the tour Saturday, but I thought it was perfect anyhow.

I'd like to post some information and resources on the plants we covered.

We started with one of my very favorite invasives, kudzu (Pueraria lobata):  the vine that swallowed the south.  Just about every part of this plant is useful and nutritious as a food source for people and livestock.  The dried stems are great for basket weaving.  Kudzu has also been used to treat alcholism.
Pueraria lobata's distinctively shaped compound leaves of three.
Pueraria lobata covering all other growth.

Even though there are not yet any nuts visible on the tree, I did point out the beech tree (Fagus sylvatica), since it is so plentiful in this area and recognizable.
Fagus sylvatica

Next, we covered the medicinal properties of English ivy (Hedera helix). A plant that I've used with great success to treat my family's bronchial problems related to illness and seasonal allergies.
Hedera helix

We talked some about poison ivy (toxicodendron radicans) as well, something all Virginians should know how to recognize and avoid.
toxicodendron radicans

Next we saw some broad leaf plantain (Plantago Major), a technically edible plants that I love for it's usefulness as a topical anti-inflammatory, as well as a mild laxative.  later in the tour we also took note of the long leaf plantain (Plantago Minor), which is identical in use and properties.

Plantago Major(top) Plantago Minor (bottom)

My six-year-old always insists on teaching this part of the tour, as yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) is her favorite plant.  I can never get her to eat anything green inside the house, but whenever she's outside, she can be seen munching away on a handful of wood sorrel.
Oxalis stricta
We talked about the lovely day lily (Hemerocallis fulva) a visual delight as well as a reported culinary delight in this part of the country at this time of year.
Hemerocallis fulva

I pointed out the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which I believe is an important source of medicine for preppers to know.
Ailanthus altissima
Of course we covered poke weed (Phytolacca americana), the blow fish of the plant world.  A highly regarded pot herb that sustained generations, and deadly poison if harvested or prepared incorrectly.

Phytolacca americana

Phytolacca americana

 I pointed out the poisonous horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) that seems to be everywhere this year.  It's spiny enough to keep most people away from the greens, but in late summer to fall, it will have some nice looking berries that may be tempting to children.
Solanum carolinense
Solanum carolinense

We saw burdock (Arctium species) which has a large tap root that can be eaten, or tinctured to use as an effective blood purifier.  The leaves are also useful as a treatment for bruises and burns.
My kids pointed out the indian strawberry (Potentilla indica), a tasteless, but edible cousin of the wild strawberry.
Potentilla indica
I did offer the tour participants a snack from this nice little black berry (rubus spp.) bramble, but my kids were snatching them up pretty quick.  They already knew where it was because it's their back yard, so they kept running ahead to pick the ripe ones.
rubus spp.

I used the poor man's pepper grass (lepidium Virginicum) to demonstrate characteristics of the mustard family.

lepidium Virginicum

We sampled the little sheep sorrel (Rumex hastatulus) leaves growing along our path.  It's pleasant sour taste got good reviews, and I've found it useful for lowering fevers in my toddler. 
Rumex hastatulus pretty little basal leaves remind me of a fleur-de-lis.
We talked about mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and it's destructive properties in your garden, and helpful properties in your medicine cabinet.  It's also used as food in some parts of the world, but should be used with caution in all applications because of it's potential hallucinogenic properties.
Artemisia vulgaris The white underside of the leaves, along with the wonderful comfrey-like smell, cinches it's identity for me every time.

Next is curly dock (Rumex crispus), a plant that offers up tasty leaves, plentiful edible seeds, and a medicinal taproot.
Rumex crispus

 We stopped to smell the lovely wild spearmint (Mentha spicata) that has recently volunteered.

Mentha spicata
We sampled everyone's favorite wild green, lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album).

Chenopodium album
I pointed out a stand of queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) or wild carrot, and went over the dangers of this family.  Foragers or would-be foragers are most commonly poisoned when misidentifying this plant.  They say it is easy to distinguish it from it's closest look a like, poison hemlock by the coarsely hairy stem, and the single red flower in the center of the white umbrella, as well as the absence of identifying characteristics of the hemlock plant, such as the purple splotches on the stem.  It's interesting to note, though that among this little stand of flowers in my back yard, not one of them has the little red flower, although all other traits match, and later in the day I saw a patch on the side of the road that had the red flower, but was lacking the hairy stem.  Just another reason I choose to avoid members of the Apiaceae family until I have a lot more experience.  The possibility for confusion is too real and too risky.  The poisonous members of this family are among the most powerful neurotoxins on earth, and the wild edible members, from what I hear, are unimpressive as food.

Daucus carota

The spiderwort (Tradescantia) was closed up for the day by the time we got to it, but it was still recognizable and we talked about this wonderful plant's culinary possibilities.  

Tradescantia, as it looked when I scouted the route in the morning.

Tradescantia, as it looked when the tour group got there.

We munched on some tasty feild garlic (Allium oleraceum) seeds along the way and talked about the healing properties of this wonderful member of the alium family.

Allium oleraceum seeds, poking out of the surrounding greenery.
I pointed out our back yard grape vine, which I believe is a river grape (Vitis riparia), and the nearby green briar (Smilax) vine which offers a tasty salad green in it's young leaves and tendrils. 
Vitis riparia


There are more wild edibles to be found on this property, but this is all we had time for.  You can see why I love living here, and why I will probably lead another tour here in the future.  You may have many of these wonderful plants growing in your own back yard too, so get out there and discover!

I hope you find some of these links helpful, I also want to give a recommendation to those with smart phones.  Wildman Steve Brill's app is the most transportable and easy to use field guide for beginning foragers.  I highly recommend it!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Meadowbrook Apartments Foraging Tour

I will be leading a wild plants tour of the common grounds of the meadowbrook apartments on Saturday, June 23rd at 3pm.  This tour will also be offered for free to anyone who wants to participate, but a $5-$10 donation would be appreciated.  Please RSVP, so I know how many people to expect.  You can do this on my Facebook page, either for river city wild foods, or the event page, or email me at

We will meet at the entrance of the apartments at Cogbill rd and Whetstone rd (whetstone does not have a street sign, but does have big brick signs that say "Meadowbrook Apartments").  The tour should take about an hour and a half to two hours and we will conclude at the playground.  As always, kids of all ages are welcome, but must be closely supervised because we will be covering toxic plants.  Parking is available for nonresidents, just make sure the spot is not numbered, or blocking anyone's way, and please be courteous to residents as we will, at times, be near people's back doors.

Some of the plants we will cover in this tour will be:  blackberry, wild mint, lambs quarters, poke weed, wild grapes, spider wort, beechnut, plantain, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, field garlic,  common mallow, curly dock, kudzu, tree of heaven, burdock, poor man's pepper, and others.

Please read over my post, the ethics and safety of foraging to get familiar with the ground rules before participating.  Thank you, and I hope to see you Saturday!