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!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The ethics and safety of foraging

I would like to go over some important points for anyone who may participate in my tours or who is interested in learning to forage on their own. I apologize for being so long winded, but I do hope you will carefully read and consider all this information before beginning this journey with me, so I can spend more time covering the fun stuff on the tour and less time nagging you. 

First, I want you to be aware of my qualifications.  I have none.  I am not an herbalist, a botanist or a horticulturalist.  I am a high school dropout with a GED and a life long passion for wilderness survival.  I am self educated in the areas that interest me and I have a tendency to become obsessed with things that I find interesting, which helps me to learn more quickly, I believe.  I will be honest with you concerning the depth of my knowledge and experience, whether I have personally used a plant, or just read about them, or if I cannot yet be 100% certain on a plant's identity.  I am teaching because I believe I have learned enough valuable information to be worth passing along to others who may know less, but there are many real experts out there that have a lot more wisdom to share than me, and I'd encourage you to seek out as many as possible.

So, why is identification of useful plants a worthwhile skill to learn and develop? The first thing that comes to many people's minds is wilderness survival, and it is a good reason. Anyone could find themselves in a situation they were not prepared for and it is good to know what is growing around you that you may be able to eat or use to treat your injuries.

For those with a prepper mindset, knowledge of useful plants plays a very valuable roll in emergency preparedness. In the religious community to which I belong, we are counseled to have a one year supply of food and water as well as a 72 hour portable survival supply kit for each family member. This is usually more than sufficient to cover most unforeseen circumstances like natural disaster, unemployment, things along that line, but if we were to face a permanent change in our way of life, if there were no longer grocery stores, hospitals and modern conveniences, how valuable would it be to have extensive knowledge about the bounty of nutritionally dense food and powerful medicine that the Creator has placed on the earth for our use?

Gardening is a very useful skill for these reasons too, but personally, I don't seem to have much of a talent for it. I am grateful that the plants we cover in these tours are what most people consider "weeds" and "invasives", because it means that they are plentiful, and they will grow with very little, if any effort or encouragement on the part of humans.

For me, though, the biggest reason to make foraging a regular part of my family's life was financial. I had already made all the changes to our food budget that I could possible think of, buying in bulk, cooking from scratch, canning and freezing, shopping around etc, and still found I needed to cut back more to make ends meet. I knew it was time to buckle down and turn my lifelong interest in wilderness survival into something that would be a blessing to my family. I'm very lucky to live in a place so rich with plant life to learn from, and in a time when I have access to such a wealth of information almost instantly.


Most foragers I know are environmentalists, it's natural to want to care for and preserve something you love so passionately. It's important to always harvest in a sustainable way, the plants we harvest from are plentiful and weedy and we never strip an area bare, always leave enough behind that it can reproduce next season. Where possible, take the parts of the plant that you will be using and leave the root system and enough foliage that the plant will still be able to photosynthesize, if the root is what you are after, harvest no more than one plant for every three that are growing in the area. Make a point of spreading seeds in areas they will likely grow. Never harvest plants that are rare or endangered.

Some people think that foraging is destructive by nature, I strongly disagree with this. If you forage in the way described above, you are behaving like a natural forager, no different from the birds and squirrels. Most edible plants have developed certain evolutionary traits that give them a symbiotic relationship with natural foragers. In fact, they are dependent on them to pollinate and spread their seeds.

Obviously, if you want to harvest from land that does not belong to you, it's only right to obtain permission from the property owner first. Most people will be happy to let you remove what they consider to be weeds from their lawns as long as they understand what it is you are asking.


Foraging is safer than most people think it is. Certainly safer, when done correctly than most of the food that is mass marketed (and government regulated) these days. However, everyone who considers eating something that grew in the wild should be very aware of dangers posed by poisonous plants, as well as environmental contaminates. What you harvest and where you harvest it is crucially important, as well as knowing the proper method of preparation for the specific plant you wish to consume. Some edibles are poisonous if not properly cooked, others are deadly when not completely ripe.

Plants get nourishment from the air and the soil, they also soak up toxins from these sources as well.  A cattail growing in a wetland where raw sewage is dumped, has filtered all of that nasty stuff through it's cells, and contains the same toxins as the water in which it grows, likely in much greater concentration.  I've observed drainage ditches on suburban roadsides to be rich in a diversity of edible plants.  I think this is likely because when it rains, all of the water from everyone's yards gets washed into the ditches, along with all of the seeds from all of the weeds in everyone's yards, and unfortunately, all of the residue from all of the chemicals they use to maintain their useless patch of decapitated greenery.  It is better to avoid foraging in areas like these, as well as along busy streets where plants are frequently exposed to car exhaust, although they are still excellent for observation and education, and there is no reason you can't collect seeds or plants from this area and introduce them into healthier environments.  It's also not a bad idea, whether you are actively foraging or not, to include supportive supplements in your diet.  Probiotics, either in the form of vitamins or naturally fermented foods to support your digestive system, and a diuretic, like dandelion or yellow dock tincture to detoxify the whole system and support healthy liver function.

Proper plant identification means every individual characteristic of a plant matches that plant's description in at least three credible sources (not Wikipedia). That means the roots, the stalks, the leaves, the flowers, the stamens and petals, the seeds, everything. If it's a 99.9% match, it's not a match and it's not the plant you want it to be. It could be a close relative, it could be a weird hybrid or mutation, but do not put it in your mouth until you are 100% sure of it's identity. If you poison yourself, you give us all a bad name, especially those of us trying to teach this skill. Identification also means knowing the habitats, seasons and growing patterns of the plant you want to identify. If a plant you are looking at is known to grow only in the tropics, and you live in the arctic circle, chances are you are mistaken about it's identity. Same goes for a plant you spot on a dry, sunny hillside that is only known to grow in wetlands and swamps. Also, if a plant is known to flower in the fall and you see it in midwinter, you may want to reconsider your assessment. Some plants can change dramatically in appearance throughout the year, and watching a plant through it's whole growing cycle is an excellent way to make certain of it's identity. There's no good reason to be in a hurry, good things do come to those who wait.

Acquiring a base knowledge of botany and learning how to identify plant families can be an invaluable tool for the forager. For instance all members of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family, the mint (Lamiaceae) family, and the mallow (Malvaceae) family are edible, with varying degrees of palatability and digestibility. So if you know how to identify the family, you can theoretically experiment safely with plants that you are unable to identify down to the species. There are members of the mint and mustard families that I know of, however that can cause severe digestive upset, which could be deadly in a survival situation. There is also a possibility with anything new you consume that you could have a sensitivity or an allergy that you were not previously aware of, so it's always good advice to start small and wait an see.

Knowing families can also help you to know what plants to avoid. I've decided to steer clear of all plants in the carrot (Apiaceae) family until I have a decade or so more foraging experience under my belt, as toxic members of this family can be extremely hard to identify and in many cases, contain powerful neurotoxins that spell certain death when consumed even in extremely small quantities. So although wild carrot, or queen Anne's lace, is prolific in this area and easy to distinguish from it's closest look alike, poison hemlock, and this botanical family is highly valuable to mankind for it's contributions of valuable herbs and spices and vegetables, for my own experimentation, I am not yet willing to take the risk. I will be learning as much as possible along the way, just not using these plants yet. Similar statements could also be made about the nightshade (solanceae) family, which includes many common garden vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes, as well as wild edibles, but has been used for thousands of years to poison kings and dignitaries.

Finally, I want to make a note about herbal medicine.  It should never be assumed that because a medicine is derived strictly from plants that it is weaker, safer, or less effective than a manufactured pharmaceutical, neither are they necessarily free from side effects.  Our Creator has blessed us with everything we need to treat and cure all manner of afflictions and keep our bodies healthy, if we know how to use it.  the properties contained in these plants are very powerful and effective, and are in fact, what modern medicine is made from.  It is always good to consult with a trained and experienced herbalist before using any herbal medication.  Many plants that have powerful toxic properties also have powerful medicinal properties and should only be administered by a professional, others are likely perfectly safe and can be prepared and administered at home without worry, but as with food, I think it's a good idea to start with small doses and wait and see.

I also want to let you know, that you are very capable of becoming a master forager, no matter what you think of your natural weaknesses, or capacity to learn, understand, or memorize.  The human brain has an amazing pattern recognition feature that kicks in naturally when it realizes what you are trying to do.  We are pre-programmed to survive off the fruits of the land, and that primitive instinct has not left us, even though modern society has tried to force it out of us.  Keep at it, develop a healthy obsession, and use it when you got it, and I promise it will come.  This is how our ancestors lived, and they only survived to pass their genes along to us because they were good at it, we have that power within us as well.

Lastly, here are a few of my very favorite sources for information on plant identification and information for beginners: and

There are also a number of groups on Facebook where you can connect with hundreds of experts from all over the world and get advice and direction in your journey.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Memorial weekend tour at pony pasture

Sorry it's taken so long to update on this.  I'm better at keeping up my Facebook page.  I wanted to let everyone know how the first tour went, and what it may mean for future tours.
Covering the basics at the beginning of the tour.  Those are my kids by the log, trying to decide if they are brave enough to touch the "stinging metal".

The turn out was around a dozen adults and lots of kids of all ages.  We covered around 20 useful plants as well as two lovely specimens of poison hemlock.
Describing characteristics of our native wood nettle

What were we looking at here?  Garlic mustard, I think.
The tour was concluded at exactly an hour and a half after we started, and there was more lecturing than walking, we really only covered the area around the parking lot.
Here's a good shot of the group.  Couldn't ask for better people to spend time with!

I think it was a great time, and I look forward to leading more tours in the future!  Please contact me if you'd like to set something up. 
I had to consult my notes from time to time, Dave caught me.  I'll get better.

Note: next time I will try to get pictures of each plant we cover, so I can give a brief description of them here on the blog.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pony Pasture Foraging Tour

I will be leading my first official wild food tour on Saturday, May 26th at 3:00pm at pony pasture rapids in the James river park system. We will meet in the parking lot at 7200 Riverside Dr. Richmond VA 23225. (From Forest hill and Hathaway rd, follow the brown park system signs for pony pasture rapids until you come to a large parking area.) There will be no fee for this tour, as I am still learning myself.

On this tour I will discuss reasons for foraging including survival, culinary exploration, frugality and sustainability. I will teach you how to identify and use common weeds you would find in your yard or garden like wood sorrel, plantain, garlic mustard, ground ivy, clover and more as well as some sought after wild plants like lambs quarters and stinging nettle. I will go over food uses and medicinal uses for all plants as well as any other purpose they may serve.

If you are interested in participating in this tour, please RSVP to if I have many RSVPs, I may split the group into two different tour times. Please feel free to pass this along to anyone you think may be interested.

Long pants and shoes with socks are recommended, as is proper protection from sun and bugs. Please bring water for yourself and family, and heavy duty gardening gloves if you have them.