Bo Brown, the founder and director of First Earth, guided two Edible Hikes through Millstream Gardens on June 3.
The outing was organized by the Ozark Regional Library and it was Brown's first time leading a class in Madison or Iron County. Brown said he was excited to see what grows in the indigenous outcrops of the area because it is quite different from the limestone/dolomite geology in the southwest part of the state.
"I haven't spent much time in the St. Francois Mountains, but I'd expect to see many of the same plants we have in southwest Missouri," Brown said. "Our earliest fruits are ripening, such as wild strawberry, serviceberry, dewberry, mulberry, and gooseberry.
"We're a bit past the peak of wild salad greens, but I'd expect to see several of the European disturbed-ground invaders most people call "weeds" around the parking areas and openings."
Brown said these plants have names such as lamb's quarters, curly dock, broad-leaved plantain, and oxeye daisy and were brought in by the Europeans because they valued them for their useful qualities. He said between plants brought in and the natives, nearly every habitat year round will produce something you can nibble on.
During the hike, the group collected 24 different species of wild plants to create a salad.
"It was awesome," Brown said. "I did two hikes, back to back, and both of them filled up the same day.
"We collected a bunch stuff and made a big salad and they had a chance to have a sample between the two hikes."
When asked what he loves about foraging, Brown said there are so many things to love but mainly it is the connection with nature he feels when he eats foraged wild foods.
"The way modern humans live now is just an eye blink of time we've been on the planet, and most of human existence was spent foraging and hunting, with a campfire being the functional center of our social life," Brown said. "I believe we have a cultural memory of those times, being immersed in nature, collecting food, making tools and eating around a campfire just feels right. It feels like home."
Brown said he also loves to see the community aspect when people make friends with other interested folks and spend time together learning and preparing their foraged harvests.
"As for teaching, I think that is what we are supposed to do with what we know," Brown said. "My native mentor, Jim Fire Eagle, had a saying 'knowledge is incomplete till it is passed on.' There is nothing more exciting than seeing someone light up when they learn something useful about a plant they've known all their life as a detestable weed."
Brown said he especially loves to see younger folk get the "bug" and dive into learning about the magic of food from nature.
"I like to see people get familiar with their local plants, and see their excitement of going home to put the knowledge to use," Brown said. "I always touch on the safety and ethical concerns of collecting wild plants for consumption. There are many resources available to learn the plants, but many do not cover these most important aspects."
Brown said, there are ways to forage and ways not to forage. He said, as an educator, he wants to provide the best information possible before his students go out on their own to engage in what could be a destructive, or even personally dangerous activity if not done properly.
"From a survival viewpoint, one of our most valuable skills is to have the knowledge to feed one's self from nature," Brown said. "Catastrophic weather, attacks such as 9/11, and our recent pandemic are all events that have caused breakdowns in the food supply chain."
Brown said knowing wild foods can provide assurance that you and your family will stay fed during such events.
"From a gastronomic view, it is very exciting to experiment with the different flavors of wild plants, flavors you cannot buy in a store," Brown said. "My foraged spring salads will contain 20 to 28 species of plants. Each bite can be a different flavor combination."
Brown said many big name chefs are becoming aware of the flavors in wild plants and are incorporating them into their creations.
"Foraging can be anything from going to your yard to collect a few items for a salad, to feeding yourself on a camping trip, to a complete high-cuisine multi-course layout of all foraged items," Brown said. "It is a skill you can use on a weekly, if not daily basis. Like any learned skill, the more you spend learning it, the more useful it becomes."
When asked what he hopes the hikers took away from the experience, Brown said he hopes they are excited to use the knowledge but also appreciate nature.
"Foremost, I always like for people to leave my programs with a new appreciation for the commonplace and unnoticed natural beauty around us," Brown said. "The most they know about nature in general, the more they are invested to practice good stewardship of our natural resources."
Brown has a foraging book of his own, "Foraging the Ozarks," which is available for purchase.
"'Foraging the Ozarks' stands out by including over 115 species, specific to the Ozarks," Brown said. "Many are little-known plants not covered in other guides, along with commonly-used wild edibles found in most other sources. It has great color photos, botanical-level descriptions, and collection/preparation tips."
Brown said being a foodie in his own home, he includes lots of foodie-level recipes and even a couple of cocktail recipes. To purchase "Foraging the Ozarks" and/or to learn more about Brown visit FirstEarth.org
Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-783-3366 or at firstname.lastname@example.org