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Foraging and Wild Food Adventures

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Ozark Regional Library hosted Bo Brown, field biologist and author of Foraging the Ozarks, and Rachel West, chef and educator, at Millstream Gardens, June 9 for an edible hike entitled "Foraging and Wild Food Adventures."

The event was so successful that both Brown and West each had three full groups throughout the morning and afternoon. Brown was kind enough to sit down and talk about how the day went.

"Everything went great," Brown said. "The walks were structured differently this year, with the goal of allowing more participants. Instead of last year’s two walks, we did three walks of shorter duration, and Rachel Elizabeth did two programs for kids on things to do with wild plants."

Brown said, the term “hike” doesn’t accurately describe what goes on since the groups stopped every few feet as they discovered a new species. He said, he would describe it more as an edible plant “mosey.”

"In most walks, it takes an hour and a half to go a hundred yards, because there are so many food plants to cover," Brown said. "There were a few changes since last year, mainly the growth and abundance of invasive species such as wintercreeper vine (Euonymus fortunii) and winged burning bush (Euonymus elata). Rachel and I did find a gorgeous wildflower I don’t see often on our scouting walk, Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica). It was in a weedy spot along the river, but we found a small copperhead nearby and decided not to bring folks in to look at it."

Brown said, he was more surprised about what species they did not find.

"It amazes me as to how the species diversity changes from year to year at any given location, but there were several species that we found last year that I didn’t see this year like native sweet Cicely, aka aniseroot, Osmorhiza longistylus," Brown said. "These changes are more than likely the result of natural growth cycles and weather conditions, but some may be due to climate change and by being crowded out by non-native disturbed ground colonizers."

Brown said, the groups did find all the common plants like plantain, wood sorrel, peppergrass, smartweed, and other disturbed ground colonizers he would expect to see, and a few good edible natives. He said some plants such as one of the pawpaws was bearing young fruits, but unfortunately the grounds maintenance folks had sprayed herbicides on them and they were not safe to eat. 

During the "mosey" Brown not only covered the edible plants, but he also made sure everyone understood the dangers. 

"A couple of the most important toxic plants to know are in the carrot family and are among the most toxic plants found in the country - poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta maculata)," Brown said. "Many sources advise to avoid anything in the carrot family, at least until familiarity of all physical characteristics the family and related species is well established. Poison Hemlock can be separated from wild carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace) by purple spots on the stems of adult plants and the lack of hairs on the stem. Wild carrot always has a carrot smell, poison hemlock has a disagreeable odor. Water Hemlock is a bit trickier because unlike poison hemlock, the smell is similar to an edible carrot or parsnip, but stronger. Ingestion of small amounts of either plant can be fatal, especially if the root is eaten."

Brown said, hemlock is historically known from the execution of the philosopher Socrates. He said, the toxic coniine alkaloids in poison hemlock affect nerve impulse to the muscles, fatality is usually a result of respiratory failure.

Images and information about both edible and poisonous plants in the area can be found in Brown's book titled, "Foraging the Ozarks." Brown's book is currently one of the most request at the Ozark Regional Library branches. 

Toward the end of his book, Brown discusses the topic of industrial food vs. wild food, which is something he has been talking about for nearly a decade.

"Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, and consumed or used a hundred or more species of plants throughout any given year," Brown said. "In order to have more control over their food supply, some tribes shifted to agriculture, and the number of plant species consumed was considerably reduced as many species didn’t do well with cultivation outside their normal habitat."

Brown said, during the selection process cultivated species were chosen for desirable traits such as larger, sweeter or milder strains, larger fruits or seeds, foods that were more tender and easier to chew, or strains that were easier to process such as wheat and other cereal grains. 

"These selective pressures created crop foods that were easier to grow in abundance, but those foods were comparatively lacking in the important health benefits of wild foods such as high nutrient density and vitamin content," Brown said. "These cultivated foods also had fewer medicinal bitter compounds such as anthocyanins, polyphenols, and other antioxidants and phytonutrients. These compounds are known to help prevent cancer, provide better immune system health, and aid in body regulation functions."

Brown said, this dramatic departure from the diets of other nearby hunter-gatherer tribes was so prominent that the skeletal remains provided evidence that that degenerative disorders, diseases, and tooth decay got more prevalent, and individuals began to even lose height.

"We have since corrected for most of these nutritional shortcomings by the sheer abundance of food, but it is evidence that a varied, natural diet is healthier than one that relies on easy-to-obtain starch calories and fat meats such as modern livestock," Brown said. "Today just three high-carbohydrate plants, wheat, rice, and corn, provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life. Not that you can’t eat a modern diet and still be healthy, but foraging is a way to make up for some of these deficiencies."

Brown said, in a recent foraging walk, they discovered 31 species of wild plants in one salad, those species were represented by 18 plant families. He said, about two-thirds of those plant families have no domestic counterpart that can be purchased in grocery stores.

"There is so much more variety and flavor in wild foods that it’s becoming commonplace for high-end chefs to seek out these wild species for use in their creations," Brown said. 

"Foraging the Ozarks" is just one book in a series of foraging books that foucs on individual states or bioregions. After Brown's success, Falcon Guides, America’s largest outdoor recreation guide publishing company, asked him to write another title.

Brown said, after some research he noticed the prairies and grasslands were the only region not fully covered. He says, he hopes to fill that niche with Foraging Central Grasslands.

"Tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies are considered to be endangered due to habitat loss mostly from farming, so it will be heavily weighted toward conservation of the more sensitive prairie species while still covering introduced and common plants found in human-altered habitats," Brown said.

As Brown works on his next book and continues the hunt for edible plants and education, the community will have to make due with checking out his book at the library, until his next visit. 

Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Democrat News. She can be reached at vkemper@democratnewsonline.com

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