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Edible 'Wild' Plants of Southeastern Ohio

Identification, Ecology, Preparation and Uses

By Rebecca Mullaney and Dr. Harvey Ballard

This webpage hosts information on the frequently encountered wild or naturalized exotic plants growing in southeastern Ohio and, particularly, in the region around Athens and Ohio University. Only plants that are really "edible" and mostly palatable for human consumption are treated here; plants for strictly medicinal preparations are not. The area harbors a great diversity of plant species useful for human food. Many species boast more than one edible part and more than one season at which these can be gathered and prepared.

This project was stimulated by Rebecca Mullany, a senior Honors Tutorial student under Professor John Mitchell’s advisorship. Mullany took an "Edible Wild Plants" course developed by Dr. Harvey Ballard with Mullany ‘s help and participation, with the objective of identifying and preparing a wide range of plant species and plant products available in the area for food.

A Story with a Moral, and Disclaimers

Dr. Harvey Ballard became a student of plant taxonomy early in his teenage years because of mistaken plant identification. He and a 14-year old buddy had been avidly reading Euell Gibbons books on foraging for edible wild plants and were eager to try cattail rhizomes. They bicycled to a small sedge meadow bordering a nearby lake and pulled up several stalks to get at the rhizomes, then wielded their official Boy Scout knives to prepare the strips of reputedly crunchy goodness right at the lake edge. They didn’t encounter the outer "peel" they should have but waved that observation away as literary exaggeration by edible wild plant experts. After washing the rhizome pieces in the lake, they popped bunches of them into their mouths and swallowed them greedily. For the next hour they vomited their guts out in bewilderment, and for the rest of the day and part of another they savored the flavor burning pepper and old boat motor oil. Later, Ballard discovered they had sampled wild iris (Iris virginica), which is mildly toxic and definitely not very scrumptious, instead of cattails. They both have green sword-shaped leaves and grow in swampy or marshy places. Despite strenuous encouragement from his parents to go into medicine or accounting and spare his life, Ballard decided to learn how to identify plants with a higher degree of accuracy by studying taxonomy in a more rigorous fashion. Eventually he enjoyed many (properly identified) edible wild plant products without stomach distress or the lingering taste of peppery motor oil.

These resources are not intended to substitute for adequate plant taxonomy training beforehand or advisorship by a professional or "functionally" professional taxonomist, to enable you to identify a plant species with certainty. Each plant you gather must be identified with absolute certainty to species (or to genus where similar species are used in the same manner). Guessing the identity of a plant prior to preparation for food may be AT LEAST discomforting later (if the product is only revolting in taste) and AT WORST may be seriously damaging or even FATAL to you. Perhaps most people growing up in our part of the world are able to identify dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), pines (Pinus spp.), oaks (Quercus spp.), roses (Rosa spp.), apples (Malus or Pyrus spp.) and maples (Acer spp.), and can therefore immediately make a start on gathering and fixing edible wild plants. But it’s worth noting that distinguishing species or species groups even in the oaks is useful knowledge: acorns in the white oak group are generally sweet and do not need leaching to remove tannins before use, whereas acorns in the red/black oak group are bitter and will require leaching first.

Many folks may believe they can positively identify wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), but can they positively distinguish it from several "look-alikes" such as the escaped parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) that grows in dry upland fields but whose foliage is irritating to some, causing dermatitis akin to poison ivy, or from poison hemlock (Cicuta maculata) that grows in swamps and other wet sites and whose foliage or rootstock are deadly? A mistake in the first case might only be uncomfortable; a mistake in the second case is irreparable.

In addition, the seasonal schedule and listing of edible wild plants for southeastern Ohio is based on published scientific literature concerning the distribution and habitats of these plant species, literature on preparation of edible plants published by preeminent experts on edible plants, and in many cases on direct personal experience with these species and preparations and consumption of products from them. Different products from some plants will have various degrees of palatability to a particular person, although we have only included plant species and products that most or all foraging naturalist (and our own personal experience) have shown are truly palatable or tasty to at least some folks. If one recipe or a particular part of a plant doesn’t grab you, try a different recipe or a different part of the plant before you give up on it completely. Especially for fruits and nuts, a myriad of recipes for pastries and breads and pies abound; a search in the public library or your cookbooks will reveal many recipes that could be successfully adapted for a particular edible wild plant product.

You must also observe seasons at which particular plant parts may be safely harvested, details of preparation for these parts (especially for certain "vegetables" used as potherbs), and which part is used. For pokeberry, a.k.a. "poke sallet" (Phytolacca americana), only young shoots a few inches tall in the early spring are edible; afterward, when the shoots begin to toughen, they are inedible and mildly toxic, and the rest of the plant at other times of the year cannot be used. Two or more changes of water are important in cooking them to make them mild enough in taste for the average person. In another instance, may apple (Podophyllum peltatum) fruits are very tasty when fully ripe, golden-yellow and soft to the touch but are at least capable of producing diarrhea and may be more toxic when immature, as are the foliage and rhizome.